A God Who Is “Ready to Forgive”
“MY OWN errors have passed over my head,” wrote the psalmist David. “Like a heavy load they are too heavy for me. I have grown numb and become crushed to an extreme degree.” (Psalm 38:4, 8) David knew how heavy the burden of a guilty conscience could be. But he found comfort for his troubled heart. He understood that while Jehovah hates sin, He does not hate the sinner if that one is truly repentant and rejects his sinful course. With full faith in Jehovah’s willingness to extend mercy to repentant ones, David said: “You, O Jehovah, are . . . ready to forgive.”—Psalm 86:5.
2 When we sin, we too may carry the crushing burden of a pained conscience. This feeling of remorse is healthy. It can move us to take positive steps to correct our mistakes. There is, however, a danger of becoming overwhelmed by guilt. Our self-condemning heart might insist that Jehovah will not forgive us, no matter how repentant we are. If we become “swallowed up” by guilt, Satan may try to get us to give up, to feel that Jehovah views us as worthless, unfit to serve him.—2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
3 Is that how Jehovah views matters? Not at all! Forgiveness is a facet of Jehovah’s great love. In his Word, he assures us that when we manifest genuine, heartfelt repentance, he is willing to forgive. (Proverbs 28:13) Lest Jehovah’s forgiveness ever seem unattainable to us, let us examine why and how he forgives.
Why Jehovah Is “Ready to Forgive”
4 Jehovah is aware of our limitations. “He himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust,” says Psalm 103:14. He does not forget that we are creatures of dust, having frailties, or weaknesses, as a result of imperfection. The expression that he knows “the formation of us” reminds us that the Bible likens Jehovah to a potter and us to the clay vessels he forms.* (Jeremiah 18:2-6) The Great Potter tempers his dealings with us according to the frailty of our sinful nature and the way we respond or fail to respond to his guidance.
5 Jehovah understands how powerful sin is. His Word describes sin as a potent force that has man in its deadly grip. Just how strong is sin’s hold? In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul explains: We are “under sin,” as soldiers are under their commander (Romans 3:9); sin has “ruled” over mankind like a king (Romans 5:21); it “resides,” or is “dwelling,” within us (Romans 7:17, 20); its “law” is continually at work in us, in effect trying to control our course. (Romans 7:23, 25) What a powerful hold sin has on our fallen flesh!—Romans 7:21, 24.
6 Hence, Jehovah knows that perfect obedience is not possible for us, no matter how earnestly we may yearn to give it to him. He lovingly assures us that when we seek his mercy with a contrite heart, he will extend forgiveness. Psalm 51:17 says: “The sacrifices to God are a broken spirit; a heart broken and crushed, O God, you will not despise.” Jehovah will never reject, or turn away, a heart that is “broken and crushed” by the burden of guilt.
7 Does this mean, though, that we can presume on God’s mercy, using our sinful nature as an excuse to sin? Certainly not! Jehovah is not guided by mere sentiment. His mercy has limits. He will by no means forgive those who hardheartedly practice willful sin, not showing any repentance. (Hebrews 10:26) On the other hand, when he sees a contrite heart, he is ready to forgive. Let us now consider some of the expressive language used in the Bible to describe this marvelous facet of Jehovah’s love.
How Completely Does Jehovah Forgive?
8 A repentant David said: “My sin I finally confessed to you, and my error I did not cover. . . . And you yourself pardoned the error of my sins.” (Psalm 32:5) The term “pardoned” translates a Hebrew word that basically means “lift up” or “carry.” Its use here signifies to take away “guilt, iniquity, transgression.” So Jehovah, in effect, lifted up David’s sins and carried them away. This no doubt eased the feelings of guilt that David had been carrying. (Psalm 32:3) We too can have full confidence in the God who carries away the sins of those who seek his forgiveness on the basis of their faith in Jesus’ ransom sacrifice.—Matthew 20:28.
9 David used another vivid expression to describe Jehovah’s forgiveness: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Italics ours; Psalm 103:12, The Amplified Bible) How far is east from west? In a sense, east is always at the utmost distance imaginable from west; the two points can never meet. One scholar notes that this expression means “as far as possible; as far as we can imagine.” David’s inspired words tell us that when Jehovah forgives, he puts our sins as far away from us as we can imagine.
10 Have you ever tried to remove a stain from a light-colored garment? Perhaps despite your best efforts, the stain remained visible. Notice how Jehovah describes his capacity for forgiveness: “Though the sins of you people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow; though they should be red like crimson cloth, they will become even like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) The word “scarlet” denotes a bright red color.* “Crimson” was one of the deep colors of dyed material. (Nahum 2:3) We can never through our own efforts remove the stain of sin. But Jehovah can take sins that are like scarlet and crimson and make them white like snow or undyed wool. When Jehovah forgives our sins, we need not feel that we bear the stain of such sins for the rest of our life.
11 In a moving song of gratitude that Hezekiah composed after he was spared from a deadly sickness, he said to Jehovah: “You have thrown behind your back all my sins.” (Isaiah 38:17) Jehovah is here portrayed as taking the sins of a repentant wrongdoer and throwing them behind Him where He neither sees them nor takes notice of them anymore. According to one source, the idea conveyed may be expressed: “You have made [my sins] as if they had not happened.” Is that not reassuring?
12 In a promise of restoration, the prophet Micah expressed his conviction that Jehovah would forgive his repentant people: “Who is a God like you, . . . passing over transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? . . . And you will throw into the depths of the sea all their sins.” (Micah 7:18, 19) Imagine what those words meant to those living in Bible times. Was there any chance of retrieving something that had been hurled “into the depths of the sea”? Micah’s words thus indicate that when Jehovah forgives, he removes our sins permanently.
13 Jesus drew on the relationship between creditors and debtors to illustrate Jehovah’s forgiveness. Jesus urged us to pray: “Forgive us our debts.” (Matthew 6:12) Jesus thus likened sins to debts. (Luke 11:4) When we sin, we become “debtors” to Jehovah. Regarding the meaning of the Greek verb translated “forgive,” one reference work says: “To let go, give up, a debt, by not demanding it.” In a sense, when Jehovah forgives, he cancels the debt that would otherwise be charged against our account. Repentant sinners can thus take comfort. Jehovah will never demand payment for a debt he has canceled!—Psalm 32:1, 2.
14 Jehovah’s forgiveness is further described at Acts 3:19: “Repent, therefore, and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out.” That last phrase translates a Greek verb that can mean “to wipe out, . . . cancel or destroy.” According to some scholars, the image expressed is that of erasing handwriting. How was this possible? The ink commonly used in ancient times was made of a mixture that included carbon, gum, and water. Soon after working with such ink, a person could take a wet sponge and wipe the writing away. Therein is a beautiful picture of Jehovah’s mercy. When he forgives our sins, it is as though he takes a sponge and wipes them away.
15 When we reflect on these varied word pictures, is it not clear that Jehovah wants us to know that he is truly ready to forgive our sins as long as he finds us sincerely repentant? We need not fear that he will hold such sins against us in the future. This is shown by something else that the Bible reveals about Jehovah’s great mercy: When he forgives, he forgets.
“Their Sin I Shall Remember No More”
16 Jehovah promised regarding those in the new covenant: “I shall forgive their error, and their sin I shall remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34) Does this mean that when Jehovah forgives he is unable to recall sins anymore? That could hardly be the case. The Bible tells us of the sins of many individuals whom Jehovah forgave, including David. (2 Samuel 11:1-17; 12:13) Jehovah is obviously still aware of the errors they committed. The record of their sins, as well as that of their repentance and forgiveness by God, has been preserved for our benefit. (Romans 15:4) What, then, does the Bible mean when it says that Jehovah does not “remember” the sins of those whom he forgives?
17 The Hebrew verb rendered “I shall remember” implies more than simply to recall the past. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes that it includes “the additional implication of taking appropriate action.” So in this sense, to “remember” sin involves taking action against sinners. (Hosea 9:9) But when God says “their sin I shall remember no more,” he is assuring us that once he forgives repentant sinners, he will not at some future time act against them because of those sins. (Ezekiel 18:21, 22) Jehovah thus forgets in the sense that he does not bring our sins up again and again in order to accuse or punish us over and over. Is it not comforting to know that our God forgives and forgets?
What About the Consequences?
18 Does Jehovah’s readiness to forgive mean that a repentant sinner is exempted from all consequences of his wrong course? Not at all. We cannot sin with impunity. Paul wrote: “Whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) We may face certain consequences of our actions. This does not mean that after extending forgiveness Jehovah causes adversity to befall us. When troubles arise, a Christian should not feel, ‘Perhaps Jehovah is punishing me for past sins.’ (James 1:13) On the other hand, Jehovah does not shield us from all the effects of our wrong actions. Divorce, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, loss of trust or respect—all of these may be the sad, unavoidable consequences of sin. Recall that even after forgiving David for his sins in connection with Bath-sheba and Uriah, Jehovah did not protect David from the disastrous consequences that followed.—2 Samuel 12:9-12.
19 Our sins may have additional consequences, especially if others have been hurt by our actions. Consider, for example, the account in Leviticus chapter 6. The Mosaic Law here addresses the situation wherein a person commits a serious wrong by seizing a fellow Israelite’s goods through robbery, extortion, or fraud. The sinner then denies that he is guilty, even being so daring as to swear falsely. It is one person’s word against another’s. Later, however, the offender becomes stricken in conscience and confesses his sin. To gain God’s forgiveness, he has to do three more things: restore what he had taken, pay the victim a fine totaling 20 percent of the value of the stolen items, and provide a ram as a guilt offering. Then, the law says: “The priest must make an atonement for him before Jehovah, and so it must be forgiven him.”—Leviticus 6:1-7.
20 This law was a merciful provision from God. It benefited the victim, whose property was returned and who no doubt felt much relief when the offender finally acknowledged his sin. At the same time, the law benefited the one whose conscience at last moved him to admit his guilt and correct his wrong. Indeed, if he refused to do so, there would be no forgiveness for him from God.
21 Although we are not under the Mosaic Law, that Law gives us insight into Jehovah’s mind, including his thinking on forgiveness. (Colossians 2:13, 14) If others have been hurt by our sins, God is pleased when we do what we can to right the wrong. (Matthew 5:23, 24) This may involve acknowledging our sin, admitting our guilt, and even apologizing to the victim. Then we can appeal to Jehovah on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice and experience the assurance that we have been forgiven by God.—Hebrews 10:21, 22.
22 Like any loving parent, Jehovah may offer forgiveness along with a measure of discipline. (Proverbs 3:11, 12) A repentant Christian may have to relinquish his privilege of serving as an elder, a ministerial servant, or a full-time evangelizer. It may be painful for him to lose for a period of time privileges that were precious to him. Such discipline, however, does not mean that Jehovah has withheld forgiveness. We must remember that discipline from Jehovah is proof of his love for us. Accepting and applying it is in our best interests.—Hebrews 12:5-11.
23 How refreshing to know that our God is “ready to forgive”! Despite the mistakes we may have made, we should never conclude that we are beyond the reach of Jehovah’s mercy. If we truly repent, take steps to right the wrong, and earnestly pray for forgiveness on the basis of Jesus’ shed blood, we can have full confidence that Jehovah will forgive us. (1 John 1:9) Let us imitate his forgiveness in our dealings with one another. After all, if Jehovah, who does not sin, can so lovingly forgive us, should not we sinful humans do our best to forgive one another?
The Hebrew word rendered “the formation of us” is also used concerning the clay vessels formed by a potter.—Isaiah 29:16.
One scholar says that scarlet “was a fast, or fixed colour. Neither dew, nor rain, nor washing, nor long usage, would remove it.”
Questions for Meditation
2 Chronicles 33:1-13 Why did Jehovah forgive Manasseh, and what does this teach us about His mercy?
Luke 15:11-32 What does this parable teach us about Jehovah’s willingness to forgive, and how does that make you feel?
2 Corinthians 7:8-11 What must we do in order to receive divine forgiveness?
1-3. (a) What heavy burden did the psalmist David carry, and how did he find comfort for his troubled heart? (b) When we sin, what burden may we carry as a result, but of what does Jehovah assure us?
4. What does Jehovah remember about our nature, and how does this affect the way he treats us?
5. How does the book of Romans describe sin’s powerful grip?
6, 7. (a) How does Jehovah view those who seek his mercy with a contrite heart? (b) Why should we not presume on God’s mercy?
8. What does Jehovah, in effect, do when he pardons our sins, and what confidence does this give us?
9. How far away from us does Jehovah put our sins?
10. When Jehovah forgives our sins, why should we not feel that we bear the stain of such sins for the rest of our life?
11. In what sense does Jehovah throw our sins behind his back?
12. How does the prophet Micah indicate that when Jehovah forgives, He removes our sins permanently?
13. What is the meaning of Jesus’ words “Forgive us our debts”?
14. The phrase “get your sins blotted out” evokes what mental image?
15. What does Jehovah want us to know about him?
16, 17. When the Bible says that Jehovah forgets our sins, what does it mean, and why do you so answer?
18. Why does forgiveness not mean that a repentant sinner is exempted from all consequences of his wrong course?
19-21. (a) How did the law recorded at Leviticus 6:1-7 benefit both the victim and the offender? (b) If others have been hurt by our sins, Jehovah is pleased when we take what action?
22. What may accompany Jehovah’s forgiveness?
23. Why should we never conclude that we are beyond the reach of Jehovah’s mercy, and why should we imitate his forgiveness?
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“The sins of you people . . . will be made white just like snow”
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Jehovah wants us to know that he is “ready to forgive”