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Understanding God’s forgiveness

Practice / Forgiveness
Many believers carry a shadow of shame that sounds like this, “If a sinful person like me wouldn’t even let myself off for my wrongs, why would a righteous, perfect God forgive me?” When we don’t understand God’s love and forgiveness, we continue to condemn ourselves.

(See Chinese versions: 简体中文明白神的饶恕 繁體中文 > 明白神的饒恕)


Understanding God’s character

When we struggle to overcome sinful patterns, we can start to feel disappointed, ashamed and discouraged. We accuse ourselves of not being good enough and may even feel like giving up on ourselves.

Here are some common misunderstandings about God’s character and His forgiveness.

1. We believe “we get what we deserve” and neglect the meaning of God’s grace

God is a God of grace and mercy – not just of mercy.

Let’s clarify the distinctions between mercy and grace. Mercy is not receiving what (penalty) we deserve. Grace is receiving what (freedom) we do not deserve.

God’s forgiveness is based on both mercy and grace. Once we repent in Jesus’ name, He not only forgives us, He also frees us from future condemnation. God chooses not to keep track of our sins (even though we tend to).

Psalm 103:10-14 ESV  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.

2. We set a (human) limit on God’s love and compassion 

God is limitless and the entire universe cannot hold Him. Similarly, the universe cannot hold His love, faithfulness and compassion for us either. We should not make the mistake of putting God in the confines of our mental “box”.

Exodus 34:6 ESV  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,

3. We think God reacts like we do 

When we haven’t fully understood God’s goodness and benevolent nature, we deduce that He must behave like us. Another grave mistake! We should not draw an image of God based on our own very limited knowledge and understanding. Instead, we should find out what God says about Himself through the Bible.

Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

4. We don’t fully understand Jesus’ powerful work on the cross 

On the cross, Jesus died for all the past, current and future sins of mankind. If His death did not pay for our future sins, all generations after the apostles’ would not have the opportunity to receive salvation through repentance in Jesus’ name. Jesus has already paid the price for our ongoing sins and all we need to do is to ask for His forgiveness. His work on the cross is enough for the mess we unintentionally continue to create.

Hebrews 9:26 ESV  for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

5. We tend to reduce God to a petty judge 

Many of us find it hard to “forgive and forget”, so we tend to see God as a Judge with an endless archive of our “criminal” records.

Incredibly, God clears our “criminal” records and even chooses to forget our sins after we have confessed! He does this because it is in His character to be generous. How we need to emulate our Heavenly Father in this respect.

Isaiah 43:25 ESV  “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Understanding our sinful patterns

1. Our brains need time to learn new godly patterns

The saying that “practice makes perfect” is true for believers who have to learn a new way of thinking, believing and living. No one learns to run well overnight. We may misjudge our steps, trip and fall over.

Whenever we fall into sin, all we need to do is to pick ourselves up, ask for forgiveness and continue running, until we have perfected our faith. It’s important we do not disqualify ourselves from running because God doesn’t do that to us.

Hebrews 12:1 ESV  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

2. We need to exercise grace on ourselves when we stumble 

Just as God asks us not to judge others, we are not to judge ourselves. God also asks us to forgive as He has forgiven us – this includes forgiving ourselves. God says He does not condemn us. Neither should we condemn ourselves. Just as God extends His grace to us, we too need to exercise grace towards ourselves.

Matthew 7:1 ESV  “Judge not, that you be not judged. 

Psalm 34:22 ESV  The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

3. Understanding God’s forgiveness takes deep humility 

Ironic as it may seem, accusing ourselves because our sin is a form of pride. We don’t realise we feel this way because we have been focusing on our own (limited) abilities and not the limitless abilities of God. Admitting to our inability to overcome sin without completely relying on God takes humility.

Matthew 19:26 ESV  But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

4. We shouldn’t allow the accuser to hijack our thoughts

The Holy Spirit will convict us of sin (to choose another way to think or act) but He will never accuse us of being bad, useless and hopeless (to condemn us for who we are).

It is Satan that accuses us of these things day and night, and we should not allow him to hijack our thoughts about ourselves. Satan will keep tempting us to “meditate” on our sinful nature, rather than meditate on God Himself.

Revelation 12:10 ESV  … for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

5. Godly repentance brings deep gratitude

A more appropriate way to respond to our sins is to humbly thank God that His forgiveness is endlessly available. To continue to live in regret is another form of pride. We should not continue to focus on our shortcomings, but rather, we should praise and thank God for His perfect grace. God can turn any wrongdoing into good if we invite Him to.

2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV  For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 

6. Learning to overcome sin builds character

Pure gold is created through intense heat as its impurities melt away. At the end, only the gold remains. Similarly, spiritual beauty and resilience are created when we “walk through fire” and are refined by God. Learning to overcome sin through God’s refining fire is usually not a comfortable journey, but it is a necessary one. Persevering through the process builds our character.

Isaiah 48:10 ESV  Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.

7. Learning to overcome sin makes us worthy teachers 

People who have learnt to overcome sin have great testimonies and lessons to share. They are able to testify to God’s power and love and declare that “with Christ, all things are possible!” Learning to overcome sin offers important lessons we must pass on. Our struggles with sin today can become a great encouragement and teaching opportunity for others tomorrow.

Philippians 3:17 ESV  Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 

8. Accepting God’s unfailing forgiveness helps us love others better 

Knowing that God has forgiven us many times over should humble our hearts and deepen our gratitude for our Father in heaven. This, in turn, should spur us to love others humbly and sincerely, knowing that we are nothing without God’s grace.

Luke 7:47 ESV  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Our example in Peter

The apostle Peter was once acutely ashamed of his own sins. When (Simon) Peter first met Jesus, he wanted to run away from Him as he confessed that he was “a sinful man”. Jesus didn’t allow Peter to hide, but instead invited him to follow Him. Jesus didn’t let Peter’s sins to get in the way of His mercy, grace and great affection for Peter.

Luke 5:8, 10 ESV  But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” … And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

Eventually, Peter became a powerful testimony for Jesus and performed miracles that surpassed our Saviour’s. The sick didn’t need to touch Peter’s clothes to be healed, they just needed to be under his shadow!

Acts 5:15-16 ESV  so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

Let us no underestimate what God can do in our lives. Instead of running away from God because of our sins, we should instead run into His arms to ask for forgiveness. He will lovingly welcome us and celebrate with us.



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