Does God Harbor Unforgiveness?

The return of the prodigal son

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

[Reposted from February 2012, with minor edits]

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

What does God’s forgiveness look like?  We tend to think of God’s forgiveness much as we think of our own forgiveness…which leads to misconceptions of God’s nature.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines forgive as “stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw or mistake.”

This is a good definition of forgive as we generally understand and use the term in everyday language.  But what happens when we try to apply the same definition to God’s forgiveness?

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins…

So, what about prior to our confession?  If forgiveness is to stop feeling angry or resentful, does that mean prior to our confession God’s position toward us is one of anger and resentment?

Sermons on the topic of unconfessed sin often lead us to believe God is angry and resentful toward us so long as we have any unconfessed sin in our lives.  Thinking of God’s forgiveness in these terms leads toward a perception of God as a harsh taskmaster looking for any excuse to punish us.  Yet the overwhelming evidence of scripture indicates God’s position toward us is one of incredible love and grace.

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:8-10)

The Apostle Paul describes God as looking for opportunity to demonstrate His love toward us, even when we are breaking His laws and allied with His enemy.  God is not looking for an excuse to punish us.  Yes, God’s wrath will judge the kingdom of darkness.  However, God’s position toward us is one of working to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness before it is destroyed…much as Lot and his family were rescued before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So, if God is not harboring unforgiveness toward us, awaiting our confession of sin, then what does God’s forgiveness look like?

In every instance of the word forgiveness in the King James Version of the New Testament, the Greek word translated as forgiveness is aphesis.  The primary definition of aphesis as provided by Blue Letter Bible’s Greek lexicon is “release from bondage or imprisonment.”  This use of the word aphesis is seen twice in Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus read Isaiah’s description of the coming Messiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
(emphasis added)

Release and set free are both translations of the Greek word aphesis, the same word that is elsewhere translated as forgiveness, when used in reference to sin.  Bear in mind, Jesus declared that He is the fulfillment of this passage in Isaiah.  He came for the purpose of setting captives free.

What captives did Jesus come to free?  He came to free mankind from the kingdom of darkness!  He came to redeem us from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness and to deliver us from our addiction to sin.

Jesus came to give us aphesis (deliverance) from sin.  When the Bible speaks of God forgiving our sins it means He will deliver us from sin.  God is not harboring anger and resentment toward us until we confess our sins.  Rather, He is actively working on our behalf to draw us close to Himself so we can be delivered from our addiction to sin.

Knowing this, when we become aware of sin in our lives we should run to Him for help rather than avoiding Him in guilt and fear.  He has made himself available to us as our healer rather than our punisher.

As the author of Hebrews said, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Do you, like me, sometimes avoid God’s presence when you should be running to Him for healing?

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Graceful, Wellspring ]


10 thoughts on “Does God Harbor Unforgiveness?

  1. I would not say that I run away from God – rather, I’m sometimes too tired, and too ill, to care about the details. I’ve done my best – I still sin. But there it is, and I can’t do more.

    This did make me think, though – I have the feeling that a lot of people use the sinners’ prayer and the “I’m not perfect – just forgiven” bumper sticker as something of a license to steal. They carry on in sin, but since they’re covered in the Blood, it’s OK. They lead happy worldly lives under a whitewash of piety

    I wonder is this is not a whole lot of self-delusion about what Christ really said. Could it be that when He said we’d be carrying our own cross – that the burden and pain would be a constant struggle against sin for the rest of our lives, and that it would hurt? Many commentators want to turn “our cross” into a perceived persecution of Christians in the US at this time, but I am beginning to think it’s far deeper than that.

    The persecution comes from within.

    • Andrew, I am so thankful that His grace covers those times we are simply too tired or too ill to deal wih the details…and we can be confident that His grace is sufficient.

      You do make an interesting distinction in regard to the “easy grace” philosophy of simply continuing to sin, so grace may abound. Paul addressed the folly of this approach in Romans 6.

      Tursting His grace to cover our weakness is not the same thing as simply not caring about relationship with Him.

      Thank you for sharing this perspective!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly that while we are in our sin God is searching for us, loving us, and working to redeem us. However, God really does have wrath against sin and in his holiness he can bear the sin in us. I don’t think an appropriate fear of the Lord is bad for anyone, especially me.

    • “However, God really does have wrath against sin…”

      Wrath against sin, yes, and the kingdom of darkness will be judged with all its inhabitants.

      But for His children, for those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, for those who trust in His righteousness and the work He accomplished on the cross, there is no judgment…because Jesus already paid the price on our behalf.

      “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

      A prompting of the Holy Spirit to recognize and confess sin? Absolutely! A longing for a closer walk with God? Yes!

      Condemnation? Only from Satan “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10) who has already been defeated. God does not condemn those who are in Christ.

      Blessings to you, Helene!

  3. Dear Joseph
    This I one of my most favorite parts of the Bible. We often don’t realize what Paul meant by, “we shall be saved by His life”. It is so simple, actually, but unless our Lord opens our eyes to see, we will be as blind as bats! Jesus paid the ransom price with His blood and saves us from our sins from the one moment to the next with His Life. Maj. Ian Thomas calls it in His book, The Mystery Of Godliness, the saving life of Christ. For a long time I laboured under the lie that Pappa gives me grace to do His will, until I realized that He actually gives me Jesus to live in me, through me and as me (Col. 1:27). He has provided all we need to present us as a spotless bride to His son. We drink the blood for redemption and then we eat the bread (His life) unto sanctification. It was such freedom the day when I realized that faith is nothing more and nothing less that receiving everything from His Hand.
    Blessings XX

    • Yes, His life lived out through me…Christ in me, the hope of glory! (Col 1:27)

      Thank you, Mia, for that exhortation!

      Blessings to you!

  4. I was just discussing this very thing at my small group last night. I think we’re almost always harder on ourselves–extending less grace to ourselves and others–than God does. Thanks for this indepth exegesis into God’s character and heart

    • “I think we’re almost always harder on ourselves–extending less grace to ourselves and others–than God does.”

      Yes, I think so, too, Beth.

      I also believe that our perception of God’s forgiveness influences our own forgiveness. If we perceive God as harboring anger and resentment toward us until we come begging forgiveness, then we are likely to behave in the same manner toward others.

      Thank you, my friend!

  5. Hi Joe,
    another thought provoking post! Like Andrew, I often find myself so tired it doesn’t occur to me to run to God for renewal and healing. I am like a toddler “I’ll do it myself” though not consciously making that decision.
    At other times, though, I am in awe of the extent of His forgiveness. Mighty and powerful is His grace.

    • I always love your perspective, Denise!

      Yes, His grace is, indeed, mighty and powerful…and He scoops us up and loves like the toddlers we often behave as… 🙂

      Thank you!

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