Sin is guilt. Guilt is obligation to pay. Sin involves us in the obligation to suffer the extreme penalty, the wrath of God. And this wrath of God is eternal. For God is eternal life. Man, created as adapted to God’s service and communion, can experience peace and happiness only in fellowship with the Most High. The love of God, my love of God and God’s love of me, is for me eternal life and joy. Sin deprives us of this happiness. It places us in the state of guilt. And God, Who maintains Himself and will not suffer evil to go unpunished, cannot enter with man into covenant fellowship unless the penalty of the eternal wrath of Jehovah has been paid. The sinner must experience in the way of eternal death, the suffering of the Lord’s eternal indignation, that he has separated himself from the sole Fount of life. Besides, no sinner can escape this divine penalty. In this essay we would briefly point out that the forgiveness of sin, that Jehovah will not impute iniquity to us, will not hold us responsible for our transgressions, is exclusively divine.
The forgiveness of sin is impossible by man for a threefold reason. Firstly, man cannot pay the extreme penalty. This point needs little comment. The punishment of sin is an eternal death, a bottomless abyss, consisting of the eternal wrath of the Lord. It lies in the very nature of the case that the creature, who will bear the endless wrath of God in hell, because of the eternal character of this penalty, can never make amends for an evil once committed. Our service of Jehovah is an obligation. God is God and we are the work of His hands. Therefore it is our duty to love the Lord with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Our service of God is never meritorious. We can never do anything “extra” before God, cannot work “overtime” in His service. Even if we should serve Him all the moments of our life, without ever transgressing against His law, we would still be unprofitable servants. We will then have merely done our duty. From this we conclude that man can never make amends for an evil once committed. Presuppose, if you can, a “Nathaniel” who sinned against the Lord during the first moments of his life. Should he serve God perfectly all the rest of his days, he, in that service of the Lord, would merely be doing that which is his duty. And the one sin that he committed will remain unpaid. This, in the second place, renders it impossible for any man to effect the forgiveness of sin. Thirdly, man can never satisfy the requirement of God’s righteousness by which atonement is alone possible. This requirement is obedience. God must be acknowledged as God also in the suffering of His wrath. The murderer, who curses God when he pays with his life in the electric chair, has paid the penalty as far as our civil law is concerned. Before God, however, such payment for sin committed has no atoning value. God’s wrath must be borne in obedience. It must be voluntary, an act of the will. Man must love God. He must realize that the very righteousness of God is “at stake”, that God would cease to be God were iniquity to be unpunished. Hence, the sinner must love God even in hell. He must bear His fearful indignation, in love, as an act of the will. Besides, it lies in the very nature of the case that if any act of man, also when he suffers for his sin, is to be pleasing in the Lord’s sight, it must be performed for God’s sake, in harmony with His righteousness. This requirement no mortal can fulfil. Not only are we unable to pay the extreme penalty because it is eternal; not only is it impossible to make amends for an evil once committed; but, even eternally, we will never be able to decrease our debt before God. We are children, not of obedience, but of disobedience. Even eternally man, who will bear the burden of God’s wrath, will never be able to carry it away—spiritual obedience will never characterize his suffering. Because of this threefold reason the forgiveness of sins lies beyond all human possibility. Nevertheless, all three requisites must be met if God is to blot out our transgression.
The forgiveness of our sins is divine. It is possible only by God. We must never confess forgiveness with forgetfulness. That God forgives sins does not mean that He simply will not impute them unto us. The Lord never cancels debt. In this sense He does not cast our debt into a sea of “eternal forgetfulness.” He never grants such “pardon.” Never does any sin remain unpunished. That Jehovah forgives, blots out sin means nothing less than that He actually carries our guilt away. And this is possible only by God for a two-fold reason. Firstly, as the personal Son of God our Lord could suffer for our guilt. Guilt is imputed to the person. Represented by Adam before God, we are all judicially in him and guilty before the Lord. Adam’s guilt is our guilt. Therefore it is impossible for a mortal to die for another inasmuch as he must die for Himself. Jesus, as the personal Son of God, was Himself innocent. He could therefore assume the guilt of another. Secondly, as the everlasting Jehovah our Savior was able to satisfy fully the righteousness of God and carry away the infinite burden of His wrath.
How does God forgive our sins? Eternally the Lord knew a people in Christ Jesus in sovereign love. Eternally Jehovah Himself willed to be the Head of that people whom He would lead through sin and death into glory. This Headship of Christ is the sovereign basis for His suffering and death. Christ died upon Calvary because God’s righteousness demanded His death. And God’s righteousness demanded His death because the body is represented in its Head and the Head is held responsible for the body. In eternity it was Jehovah Himself, in the second person of the Trinity, Who bore Zion’s eternal guilt, paid for all our sins, and merited for us everlasting life. This divine forgiveness is also realized in time. It is Jehovah Himself Who descends into the likeness of our human nature. He took upon Himself our flesh and blood, Himself without sin, yet assuming our guilty relation to the law of God. Particularly upon the cross He bore our guilt away. Throughout His entire sojourn among us His face was directed to Golgotha. All things led to the cross. There the hour of God’s wrath struck. Upon Calvary He descended into the fearful depths of the eternal wrath of God. And He bore the wrath of God alone. “I, even I, blot out your transgressions,” saith the Lord. Because of this all His disciples must forsake Him. There is none among the children of Zion who can render aid to Jerusalem’s Deliverer. He alone can bear our guilt. He alone must bear our guilt. And He alone does bear our guilt. Moreover, He bears the wrath of God in perfect obedience. Although His human nature is filled with terror in the garden of Gethsemane, recoils from the fearful way it must tread, even desires, humanly, another way of salvation than the way of His death, yet His human terror never causes Him to rebel against the will of God. And when in the garden the terror of Calvary grips His soul, Jesus struggles, not to revolt against His God, but to submit Himself to the will of Jehovah and experience peace in His terror-stricken soul. And when finally He is nailed to the cross, Christ suffers the wrath of God, consciously, willingly, even unto the eternal end. Jehovah Himself, in the likeness of sinful flesh, by His own blood, writes “Paid” behind our iniquities.
This is not all. Even as it is God alone who forgives us our sins, from eternity and upon the cross, so it is God alone Who forgives sin in the consciousness of the believer. For it surely is not true that God does “His part” on the cross but that the rest is left to man. My faith is not my hand reaching out to God, my part in the work of salvation in distinction from God’s part; to the contrary it is the gift of God which He sovereignly bestows upon His people. And when He irresistibly draws His people out of darkness into light He leads them unto the foot of the cross. He causes us to see our utter hopelessness by nature, that we cannot carry away our guilt but, to the contrary, increase it. He causes us to confess our sin and hopelessness, to take refuge to the cross of Golgotha. He sanctifies that cross to my heart and grants me the assurance that Christ died also for me because God knew also me in everlasting love. And thus we confess: “Thou, Lord, canst only forgive sin, and didst forgive my sin, by Thyself, upon the accursed tree of Calvary.”
This divine forgiveness of sins, in harmony with God’s righteousness, is the only possibility for our salvation. Sin must be atoned. God’s justice must be satisfied. The Lord cannot enter into a relation of friendship with man except upon the basis of perfect righteousness. And shall the sinner again be received into favor with God His sins must be fully paid. However, this divine forgiveness, realized for God’s people by Immanuel, is also the foundation of our salvation. Having satisfied for all our sins and merited eternal life, Christ thereby made our salvation sure. Having been redeemed by righteousness Zion must and shall be saved to the uttermost. None can possibly perish. But also, only they will be saved. The doctrine of particular atonement, which is the only possible atonement, renders every other conception impossible. It condemns the common theory of today, expressed in the First Point of Kalamazoo, 1924, that God is desirous of the salvation of others than the elect.
Finally, that God alone forgives sin, that He alone accomplished this forgiveness, is “for His own sake” according to the prophet Isaiah. He alone redeemed His people in order that His Name alone should receive glory. Therefore Jehovah willed the deep way of sin, misery, and death. Therefore Jehovah sovereignly willed that we should become involved in a guilt which we would never be able to bear away, that man would plunge into a night of death and misery out of which he could impossibly deliver himself. And therefore God is the sole Deliverer. He alone bears the wrath of God, pays the penalty, merits eternal life. In order that all flesh may forever be silent, and that even eternally the children of Zion may sing the praises of their God who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.