God does not forgive sin.
At least, not in the way that we so casually fling the word about. Living in a Muslim country has taught me that the Evangelical Christian church has more in common with Islam than we ought to be comfortable with-particularly in the way that we use the word “forgive”. Islamic doctrine teaches that at the end of a Muslim’s life, Allah weighs his good and bad deeds on a scale and then makes an arbitrary decision as to whether or not to “forgive” that particular individual. For Allah to “forgive” a Muslim means that he has decided to let the offense go. He’s sliding sin under the cosmic rug-deciding that it’s okay, and he’s not going to do anything about it. If a Muslim is “forgiven”, sin quietly slips away and simply goes unpunished.
When we talk about God forgiving sin, we’re often implying that He does much the same thing. But a holy, just God can’t do that. A God that is both perfectly holy and perfectly just cannot tolerate sin and must punish it. And the Bible details exactly how sin must be punished: by death. Not a physical death-but an eternal separation from God [better known as hell].
Crushed under the damning weight of sin, desperate people like you and I find ourselves gently drawn to the only place we have to go: the cross.
When God “forgives” sinners like me, He is not simply choosing to ignore the sin-He’s pouring every ounce of His wrath towards my sin into Jesus, who stands in the gap between me and the holy God that has to met out the just punishment for my cosmic treason. That is how I am forgiven. My forgiveness was costly. It was horrific and bloody-an innocent man that had already been beaten beyond recognition was nailed to a couple planks of wood to die an unimaginable death in my stead. Nothing was swept under the rug. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the wrath of God on my behalf-and there it was finished.
The cross is the picture of God’s absolute rage against sin-and His relentless love and mercy towards sinners. In sending Jesus to earth to live the perfect life that we could not, and take the punishment for our sin on our behalves, God spoke. God spoke, and what He said is that He loves us and we don’t have to be the way we are. We need no longer be enslaved to the sin that whispers to us every morning when we wake up. We are more sinful and wretched than we ever dared to imagine-but we are more loved than we ever dared hope. We have been ransomed from sin and death-bought back at unfathomable expense. That’s the cross. And when we say that God forgives sin-the cross is what we’re talking about.