Below is an excerpt from a lesson in the Creating Art from Theology small group study.
John 3 tells us that God loves the world in such a way that he gave his Son (v.16) so that whoever believes in him (v. 16) and therefore obeys (v. 36) will have eternal life. Conversely, those who do not obey will remain under God’s wrath (v. 36). So we see again, there is love for some because God is love and simultaneously, there is wrath for others because God is holy, righteous, and just.
This excerpt follows the question, “How can God’s saving love exist with God’s wrath?” In this excerpt we are told that God’s wrath remains on some people. That is, God does not forgive some people. We see this idea throughout Scripture. Consider Naham’s Oracle of Nineveh:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord;
The Lord is avenging and wrathful.
The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries,
And He reserves wrath for His enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. Naham 1:2-3a
In light of that, here’s a slightly different question: If God doesn’t forgive some people, why should we? Here’s some reasons I thought of. I’m sure there are more, and I would be happy to hear yours.
We are commanded to forgive.
In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus, “how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” Commenting on Jesus’ answer, Australian New Testament scholar, Leon Morris wrote that seventy times seven …
is a way of saying that for Jesus’ followers forgiveness is to be unlimited. For them forgiveness is a way of life. Bearing in mind what they have been forgiven, they cannot withhold forgiveness from any who sin against them.
Only God is righteous.
While it is true that people are often quick to blame God with various evils, he has never sinned (for he has never violated his own righteous character or standards) but has only been sinned against. Therefore, he is the only one with a rational and just basis for withholding forgiveness, so ultimately vengeance belongs to God alone (Romans 12:19). Because only God is perfectly righteous in his excellent moral character, in his moral standard, and in his moral actions, he alone is qualified to judge, condemn and sentence those who have acted immorally – those who fail to reflect God’s moral character and act against his moral standard.
All offenses are primarily against God.
The person who sins is the person who fails to glorify God’s moral character. Right? (Romans 3:23) When we do not act rightly according to God’s standard and so do not acknowledge or reflect God’s righteous character, we fail to show who God really is – we sin against God.
God’s word tells us how we should treat people. Disregard of these imperatives goes against God’s moral standard and demonstrates opposition to God (also known as hatred of God). Disobedience demonstrates the belief that God cannot be trusted, that his opinion is not worthwhile, and that his character is flawed. Conversely, people who love God obey him and their obedience glorifies him because it shows him as one worthy to be loved and trusted enough to be obeyed.
Therefore, any outrage we feel at wrongdoing should finally be in light of our love for God and the harm that the wrongdoing brought to his glory (not ours). And because God is long-suffering and slow to anger, we are called to be that way too (Matthew 5:48).
God has forgiven us.
God forgives those who repent and put their faith in him. Forgiven people are the only ones who have a compelling reason to forgive. The flip side is unforgiving people are not forgiven (Matthew 6:15). In the model prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts (trespasses, sins) as we also have forgiven our debtors (those who have trespassed or sinned against us). On this subject, theologian, John Stott, writes …
Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offenses of others, it proves that we have minimized our own.
As a side note, Stott explains that our forgiveness of others does not earn us the right to be forgiven but rather that “God forgives only the penitent and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit.”
Extending Forgiveness Points People to God.
People who are not forgiven have no basis for forgiveness. If you have only been in eye-for-eye relationships, it’s kind of hard to conceive of forgiveness. But if a forgiven person extends forgiveness to another, then that receiving person has an opportunity to experience something that speaks of God’s nature. She can experience something of God’s character and of his glory.
Justice has already been served on the cross or will be served at the last judgment.
Horrible atrocities have happened throughout history and continue to happen everyday. Slavery, theft, murder, slander, abandonment, torture, rape, gossip, and many other evils continue to happen every hour. People desire justice as they should but are prone to withhold forgiveness until justice has been served. They do not consider that on the cross God has already punished the sins of those who belong to Christ (those who are “in Christ”) when he released his just wrath toward our sin onto Christ or that, for those who are not “in Christ,” God’s final and totally just punishment awaits them.
We were God’s enemies but now we have peace with God.
Peace with God is not a description of an obscure serene feeling. It means, if we put our faith in God – if we believe him and consequently act accordingly, we are no longer objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:1-10). In fact, we are far from God’s wrath for we are already seated together with Christ in the heavenly places. Why? So that in the ages to come God can show the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us who are in Christ Jesus. From this perspective our wrath towards someone else looks pretty ridiculous.
Our sin warrants eternal punishment.
In a PBS documentary, The Power of Forgiveness, a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, remembered a time when he heard fellow prisoners asking God to forgive them and wondered who would forgive God. He said he couldn’t conceive of a the “immensity of such a crime that warranted such a punishment.” But from God’s perspective, sin against an eternally good God warrants eternal punishment since God’s eternality means he is forever offended. And it warrants extreme punishment since God is extremely holy (an understatement). All we have to do is look at Christ on the cross to see what punishment God thinks our sin deserves. The wonder is not that there was a Holocaust, but rather the wonder is that any of us are spared from such a thing. I say this out of humility not harshness.
We want mercy.
Professor Wiesel composed a prayer asking the God of mercy to have no mercy on these souls of the murderers of these Jewish children. He firmly believes that “some persons do not deserve forgiveness.” He said he was highly criticized for this prayer, but I think he is right only I would go further and say, “No one deserves forgiveness.” We are quick to beg God’s mercy for our sin while simultaneously wanting justice for others’ sin against us, and we often never stop to consider the absurdity of our requests.
God is good and we are not.
The Lord is good,
A stronghold in the day of trouble,
And He knows those who take refuge in Him. Micah 1:7
Good describes God. Any goodness we have is contaminated by sin. If our outrage against sin committed against us is proportional to our perceived goodness (and this is usually the case) then comparing our goodness to God’s should help diminish our outrage especially when we consider God’s outrage against our sin against him in light of his goodness.
We don’t war against flesh and blood.
Actually we do, but behind the flesh and blood is the spirit world (Ephesians 6:12). When this is considered, we are able to understand and perhaps even have compassion on the one doing the evil deed to us.
Jesus died so that we could be forgiven.
Our ability to be reconciled to God, required Jesus’ death since reconciliation requires the removal of our hostility toward God and of God’s hostility toward us. The only way for a right relationship between God and us to be restored is for this hostility to be destroyed and for our hostile minds to be changed and evil deeds to be atoned for (Colossians 1:21-22).
This hostility between us and God is destroyed when sin is removed. For those who put their faith in Christ, sin was removed when it was put on Christ (when God counted our sin as Christ’s sin). Sin was removed when God’s wrath toward our sin was absorbed by Christ. Sin was removed when the penalty for our crimes against God were fully paid on the cross. (Christ’ resurrection assures us that the penalty was fully paid and accepted by God.)
In God’s courtroom, if we have put our faith in Christ, our sin belongs to Christ, and he has already willingly accepted our punishment for it. Conversely, Christ’s righteousness (all that he did right according to God’s character and standard) belongs to us. We are clean. We are accepted. We are forgiven vertically. We can forgive horizontally.
Morris, L., The Gospel According to Matthew, (Pillar New Testament Commentary), Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1992, p. 472
Considering that God’s sovereignty and power stands behind all early events, it is understandable on one level that people could blame God with evil. However it would never make sense to blame a holy God with sin or evil since holiness implies God’s “internal law by which God’s will and all other attributes are expressed as pure and perfect and God is revealed as splendid, majestic, beautiful, glorious ….” [Creating Art from Theology] In order to sin or intend evil God would have to go against his own holy character. If he were even able to do that, which he absolutely cannot because his will is guided by his holiness, he would no longer be a God who is holy. He would no longer be God.
By “put their faith in him,” I mean those who believe Jesus is God’s son and that he lived a life that agreed with God’s righteous character and standards (everything he did was right according to God). I mean those who believe that they cannot earn salvation by doing what is right but who stand righteous before God only because they know their righteousness depends on their acceptance of the free offer of Christ’s righteousness to them. I mean those who believe God. I mean those who live like they believe God.
Stott, John. R.W., The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978, pp. 149-150.