I think it necessary to make a sharp delineation here between the believer and the non-believer. God freely forgives sin once and forever when any person comes to believe God. “For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but come to life everlasting (John 3:16). Believing God is always followed by recognition of sin, of need, and of repentance. But that same person, not believing, is condemned because he rejects the plan of God for his rescue—the only plan which is available to him. “But he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Thus, we have unforgiven sin, but only because of a man’s refusal to believe.
How is it that a gracious God should refuse to forgive sin? The proper answer is that he has not refused to forgive sin, but has granted all forgiveness because he poured out his justice on the Son, that all who believe might be freely forgiven. I think what most people think, when they bother thinking about the deep things of the soul at all, is that forgiveness is sort of a benign overlooking on the part of God, who weighs your sin most lightly and will fudge the scales a bit in your favor if you need it. Of course that is the opposite of what is really happening, and ought to remind us of our solemn duty to proclaim both the death and resurrection of the Lord.
The question is not as many people feel: why should God keep me out of his heaven? Rather the question is: How can a just and holy God possibly allow you into his heaven? It is precisely to address the latter question that God performed his judgment—upon himself—coming to the cross, and giving himself freely to the world, that “whosoever” might believe. Justice was served that mercy might follow, but there can be no mercy for those who walk away from the freely given gift of God. Hence, we are left with many people with unforgiven sin. What can a holy and just God do that he has not already done? Giving his own life that we might live was giving his all, and having given his all, there remains nothing left to be done. Nothing.
Recently a woman in our church testified of her coming to the Lord, but being stopped for a time by a silly notion in her head that she would face God on her own, rather than go to him for forgiveness. I think all our silly notions about getting past the judgment of God on our own must wither when we see the absolute standard of holiness; none of us could match that standard for a single hour, let alone a lifetime. He poured his judgment upon his Son, that he might also pour his mercy in unmeasured amounts for those who receive him. Facing God on our own merit will always have only one result: we fall under judgment, for there is no forgiveness for sin if we will not receive that which is so freely offered.
How many people do we know with unforgiven sin? If you are like me, probably lots. Forgiven sin is the greatest gift to mankind, and it comes through the greatest giver, Jesus the Messiah. Unforgiven sin is something that no one should face death and judgment with, and I wonder how many of us live and walk and talk to our family and friends with unforgiven sin and never bother to tell them of their need. I think it is because we so seriously undervalue the gift that we have been given.
The gospel has been defined as one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. But it is far more than that. We are now children of the king, and will one day rule with Christ on this very earth. How is it that so many of us forget that we were but beggars? All we want to remember now is that we are kids of the king, and forgetting our low estate, we disdain to even speak to others about the source of our bread. The Bible says, how shall they hear without a preacher? Yet, we ourselves have become hopelessly fat and lazy on the riches of Christ, and find it too tedious of a job to tell others about Christ.
Thankfully, there are many Christians seeking to tell others where to get bread. Not long ago I read again Chafer’s excellent book, True Evangelism. He states eloquently that the biggest need for successful evangelism begins with prayer. “It is true, however, that intercessory prayer is the first and most important service. As has been stated, the divine order is to talk to God about men, until the door is definitely open to talk to men about God.”1
The church today stands in sharp need of revival, and that must begin with prayer. Prayer for the lost ought to be at the center of our focus. We no longer seem to have that focus, the kind of focus that swept America in the 1970s that caused Time magazine to declare 1974 the year of the evangelical. I was saved in 1972, and consider myself part of that movement. Yet, even I need to be reminded of that great time, and recently I was reminded when reading a biography of Keith Green written by his wife, Melody Green. She describes a scene where, as a new believer, Keith goes to a friend and tells him about finding Jesus. The friend starts to reject the message, but Keith is so overwhelmed by his friend’s utter need, he bursts into tears. The tears make the difference and persuade the friend of the way to Christ.
Have you or I been so concerned for our lost friends that we have told them in tears about Christ? Have we done our job in praying for an utterly lost world? I thank my God that my pastor seems to carry these prayers and concerns with him even to Starbucks (where apparently he goes quite often), and his evangelical message is quite bold, and often received well. Others in the church are like that—they seem to carry Jesus with them wherever they go. Would that we were all like that—for the truth is that we are either forever lost or forever saved when we pass from this world. We are either forgiven or unforgiven, and perhaps we need to reflect more on what that means.
Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of Charlie Peace, a convicted murderer on his way to his hanging. The preacher who accompanied him on his last walk was uttering words about the awfulness of hell. Turning to the preacher, Charlie Peace said, “if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!"2
I submit that if we really reflect on forgiveness, and know our high estate, and also the low estate of our father, our mother, our children, or our neighbors who do not know that forgiveness, we would go more eagerly to those bloody knees. I fear our message has been blunted by our unbelief, and a blunt message who shall hear? Revival is called revival because we become newly awakened to old but timeless truths. The world plods onward to its destruction, but some may yet be rescued, if we but pray and sharpen our hunger and thirst, to see men as God sees them. Shouldn’t we, who were but beggars ourselves not so long ago, be busy talking to other beggars? Both revival and evangelism ought to start with prayer. With you. With me.
1. Chafer, Lewis Sperry (2011-10-21). True Evangelism (Kindle Locations 934-937). Primedia eLaunch. Kindle Edition.
2. Ravenhill, Leonard (2004-08-01). Why Revival Tarries (Kindle Locations 334-337). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.