How can a just God forgive sins?

If the accused man is clearly guilty of a crime and the judge fails to convict and sentence him, there will be uproar, and rightly so.  For the judge to free a guilty man would be a manifest injustice.  There would be appeals and the competence of the judge would be questioned.  A fundamental principle for judges is that the verdict must be according to the evidence.  This is a sound biblical principle (Proverbs 17:15).

The gospel message, however, seems to contradict that principle and tell us that God does what is unjust.  Consider these two things:

            The Bible frequently tells us that God is just/righteous.  Abraham asks, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).  When the Lord shows his glory to Moses, one of his perfections is ‘he does not leave the guilty unpunished’ (Exodus 34:7).

            At the same time the Bible says in Romans 8:1 ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.  Jesus was able to say to a paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5) and to the terrorist on the cross beside him, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).  God is a God who forgives guilty sinners.

The two sides of the problem are brought together in one verseRomans 3:26, which tells us that God is ‘just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’.  God is a perfectly just Judge and one who declares guilty sinners to be not guilty.  Surely this compromises his justice?  How can he let those who deserve punishment go free?

The solution centres on the person and work of Christ.  The only sinners whom God justifies are ‘those who have faith in Jesus’.  It is what Jesus has done that allows God to forgive sins whilst still being a just Judge.  Note v24 ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’.  As v25 puts it, he is a ‘sacrifice of atonement (or ‘propitiation’)’.  If God ignored our sin, he would be an unjust Judge.  We deserve his wrath because we have broken his holy law (v23).  The demands of that law must be met if we are to be saved.  If we do not do it, someone must do it in our place.

Central to our understanding of the work of Christ is the idea of substitution.  The gospel message is that Christ has taken the place of all those who will ever put their trust in him.  At the cross he has taken the punishment that their sins deserve – ‘God made him who had no sin to be sine for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The whole burden of sin and guilt has been taken by the Son of God.  So great is God’s love for sinners that he has provided the means of satisfying his own justice.  So great is Christ’s love for us that he has done all that is needed for our salvation (Ephesians 1:7).

God is a just Judge – the demands of his broken law are met by the Son as our Substitute, who lived a sinless life and in death took his people’s punishment.

God is also a Saviour – because of what Christ has done, he forgives our sin and counts Christ’s righteousness as ours (Romans 3:22).  We receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness.

1 Kings 8:54-66 Blessing and dedication

It is vital that we worship God individually and in families, but God’s people also need times of corporate worship, in congregations and in wider assemblies.  These can be occasions of great encouragement.  There is much we can learn from an occasion like the dedication of the temple despite differences from our New Testament context.  We turn now to consider 1 Kings 8:54-66 Blessing and dedication.

1. Blessing the people

So far Solomon has been engaged in intercession with the Lord (v54) – now the service continues, but in a new direction.  ‘He stood and blessed the whole assembly of Israel’ (v55).  The focus is still on the Lord, looking back and also forward to the future:

            (i). Rest.  This is a rich aspect of God’s redemptive plan, as seen in the covenant promise to David (2 Samuel 7:11).  God has given ‘rest’ (v56), ultimately fulfilled in the saving work of Christ – ‘I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).

            (ii). Presence.  ‘May the Lord our God be with us’ (v57).  This is richly realised in the ministry of the Son incarnate – ‘Never will I leave you’ (Hebrews 13:5).

            (iii). Obedience.  God’s people have the responsibility of making the covenant response of obedience – v55 – the evidence of our love for God (1 John 5:3).

            (iv). Support.  Solomon is conscious of the constant need for God’s provision (v59).  They will receive ‘according to each day’s need’ – as requested in Matthew 6:11.

            (v). Witness.  There is a big vision not confined to Israel – ‘all the peoples of the earth’ (v60).  Unbelievers will see what the Lord is like from observing his people.  In the NT Christ is ‘the light of the world’ (John 9:5), as are his people (Matthew 5:14).

2. Dedicating the temple

            (i). Sacrifice.  Central to the dedication is the offering of abundant sacrifices – v63.  Each kind of sacrifice has a significance.  There are ‘fellowship offerings’ (a meal together, sharing in spiritual things), ‘burnt offerings’ (tokens of total dedication to the Lord) and ‘grain offerings’ (bloodless tokens of thanksgiving).  Christ has fulfilled all of these offerings, enabling fellowship, complete dedication and thanksgiving.  These are all to be reproduced in his people by his grace.

            (ii). Joy.  A mark of the lives of his people is joy.  This is evident at the dedication of the temple as the people observe a double festival (v65) – the Feast of Dedication followed by the Feast of Tabernacles.  Note ‘they went home joyful and glad in heart for all the good things the Lord had done’.  There is a place for sorrow in the believer’s life, especially over sin, but the dominant note is joy.  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4).  As knowledge of God grows, so does our joy in him.

Matthew 21:33-46 The Parable of the Tenants

The earthly ministry of Jesus is moving rapidly towards a climax of apparent defeat and actual glorious triumph.  He has entered Jerusalem (v1-11), he has cleared the temple in a dramatic demonstration of his messianic authority (v12-16), he has clashed with the religious leaders (v23-27).  In this explosive situation Jesus tells a parable which we will now consider: Matthew 21:33-44 The parable of the tenants.

1. The planting of the vineyard

Verse 33 depicts a common situation at that time – much land was owned by foreign absentee landowners and let to tenants in return for a portion of the produce.  That explains the sending of servants, a scene Jesus’ hearers would be familiar with.  Drawing on Isaiah 5, the vineyard was often used as a symbol of Israel, the people of God, planted by his grace (Psalm 80:8).  The care lavished on the vineyard by the owner is stressed (v33).  Attention is focussed mainly on the tenants, left in charge to ensure that a good crop was produced.  The immediate targets are ‘the chief priests and Pharisees’ (v45).

2. The rebellion of the tenants

Verse 34 ‘When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants’ in order to collect what is due.  They receive an unexpected reception – ‘beat one, killed another’ (v35).  They rebel against the owner.  He is remarkably longsuffering, beyond what any human owner would tolerate.  The owner clearly is God and the ‘servants’ are his prophets.  The ministry of the prophets was chiefly to make Israel aware of its covenant responsibilities to the Lord.  The religious leaders, in particular, should have set a godly example of covenant obedience.  The patience of God is great, but sinners often presume upon it and refuse to respond.

3. The rejection of the son

The supreme evidence of the owner’s kindness is sending his son (v37).  The depths of human sin are shown in the tenants’ response (v38-39).  Here is a vivid description of the plotting of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus is God’s final word to all men.  In him God himself is present – ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the father’ (John 14:9).  The very people who should have welcomed him in fact hated him (John 1:11), resulting in his crucifixion.  This apparent defeat was in fact embraced in the plan of God: ‘he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…’ (Matthew 16:21).  The freely chosen evil of the leaders was used by a sovereign God.

4. The triumph of the owner

The tenants made a fatal miscalculation.  The owner is able to respond in righteous wrath – he will bring the wretches to a wretched end’ (v41), fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in AD70.  God’s purpose is not frustrated – the kingdom is given to those he calls to salvation, the ‘holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9).  This flows from the saving work of the Son, the rejected stone of Psalm 118:22-23.  By his death he opened the kingdom to a multitude – ‘marvellous in our eyes’.  There is a final note of warning as to the danger of rejecting him (v44).

1 Kings 8:22-53 No God like the Lord

Our prayers are often dull and lifeless.  We may perhaps be praying for perfectly proper things, yet the prayers never really touch our hearts.  To encourage ourselves in prayer we can turn to some of the great prayers recorded in Scripture, uttered by the enabling of the Lord.  One fine example is the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple.  We turn now to consider 1 Kings 8:22-53 No God like the Lord.

1. The God who fulfils

The prayer is about the glory of God and Solomon’s requests are meaningful only because of the kind of God he is.  Our prayers must always focus on the Lord.  At the heart of the prayer is the fact that God is incomparable – ‘there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below’ (v23).  He alone is God everywhere in his creation.  In prayer we need a view of God that is as big as he is.  ‘To whom then will you compare God?’ (Isaiah 40:18).  The contrast is often drawn in the OT between idols who can do nothing and the Lord who acts.  In this case, ‘you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way’ (v23).  The Lord is the God who fulfils his covenant.  In particular, he fulfils his covenant promises to David (2 Samuel 7) as Solomon notes in v24.  He looks also to the future regarding the promise of a son of David always on the throne – a promise fulfilled in King Jesus – ‘For all the promises of God find their Yes in him’ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

2. The God who hears

Solomon ponders the transcendence of the Lord (v27), knowing he cannot be confined to a building, but must also consider the immanence of the Lord.  He is near to his people and on that basis Solomon prays ‘give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy’ (v28).  God hears and answers his people’s prayers.  Solomon considers various occasions when a plea for mercy will be needed (v31-45) – the need for justice, various calamities.  These are in fact covenant curses upon a disobedient people (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28) and so are calls for repentance (v24).  They may pray in expectation that God will forgive since he is committed to his people in covenant.  When we sin we can and must cry for mercy to the God who hears, claiming the promise of 1 John 1:7.  There is good news in v41-43 regarding the foreigner who hears of the Lord and prays to the Lord and is answered ‘so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you’.  It is a big vision for the spread of the knowledge of the Lord.

3. The God who restores

Solomon envisages the worst case in v46ff where Israel’s sin leads to exile in ‘the land of their conquerors’ (v47).  Even at the lowest point there is hope – if they repent and plead with the Lord (v47) he will forgive them because they are still ‘your people and your inheritance’ (v51).  It is by grace that the covenant Lord forgives.  That is our hope when we sin and backslide grievously – ‘with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption’ (Psalm 130:7).