Votaire, the 18th century French skeptic has said that "God forgives because it is His business." It is hard to look at Jesus dying on the cross and think that forgiveness is a business with an attractive return on investment. Instead, I think that God forgives because He loves. And love is willing to pick up the tab. For forgiveness to happen, someone must pay a price.
Perhaps you've never considered it, but every sin or transgression or offense involves a cost for the party offended. Picture society incurring the cost of some risk when I drive over the speed limit. It's easier to picture the cost of property damage when I commit an act of vandalism. It is a different sort of cost, but I feel it deeply when someone gossips about me or betrays my trust. There is the cost of a life when murder is committed. Whether a minor offense in a personal relationship, or monumental social injustice, someone is left with a bill to pay whenever there is some act of offense.
When an offender is released from jail, it is common to say that "their debt to society has been paid." They worked off their tab, so to speak, by serving time (at even greater cost to society - but that is a different matter for a different time!).
Make no mistake, someone picks up the cost where there has been a transgression or offense. Retailers pass along the cost of stolen merchandise. Sometimes I may "grant forgiveness" for an offense against me by paying from my reservoir of indifference. It feels deceptively like there was no cost. Then I find the cost of an offense against me is too big - bigger than my indifference, I can no longer pay from that shallow store. I can't pay the price for forgiving another without the needed resources at hand.
At the cross, we see Jesus paying the price for all of the sin of all of the world across all of history. That is an unfathomably large debt. The Sinless One takes the punishment for the sin of others. It is precisely because He is the Sinless One, that His punishment can substitute for all that sin. The infinite God can pay such a debt. And only the infinite God has the resources for a debt of that enormity.
So Jesus takes the cost upon Himself. Remember though, what Paul said about the cross: "For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) Take note of the order of things there. First, we are sinners - the source of offense. Then, Jesus gives His life for us. Only then are we set free to new life.
Let me put this directly: Jesus does not forgive people after we repent of our sin and change our ways. In the economy of grace, the forgiveness of God comes first. It makes our repentance possible, and not the other way around. Performance-based religion always sees repentance as the action that leads to our forgiveness. That is something other than the Gospel, even if one tacks a Bible verse to it. Sadly, there is no repentance that could be sufficient for the forgiveness that we need. We simply do not have, nor can we produce the resources to pay the cost incurred by our sin against an infinite, Holy God.
But thanks be to God, at the cross, the cost of our sin has been covered by One Who has the resources. And now set free, we can step forward to a different life. With the cost of our sin paid, we are now free to turn from our sin and towards new life.
Lord Jesus - draw my heart to Your cross, that place where You Yourself chose to pay the price for what I could not.
Open my eyes to see the pride and confusion that lets me think that my sincerity or best efforts or knowledge or heritage could be enough to make You owe me forgiveness like a wage that I work for. Save me from the exhaustion of living like I could ever earn Your favor by working harder or better or longer.
Thank you for the Gospel of Grace, that puts my heart to rest. Help me to receive and trust what You have given and accomplished. Let me see at the cross You willingly paid the cost for my forgiveness.
Then let me live life from that new freedom. For I only ask what He is giving, Amen.
A Prayer of Gratitude
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