Heinrich Heine, a famous nineteenth-century German poet, allegedly spoke these last words: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job.” Whether or not this man died in faith is debatable, but if we simply isolate these words from their context, we end up with a phrase that could summarize how much of modern Western culture thinks about the Creator. Vast numbers of people today believe that it is God’s duty to forgive — that He is obligated to pardon people no matter what they have done. Though people may fall far short of what they know to be right, they think the Almighty must forgive them, even if they never seek absolution.
Of course, we know our Father in heaven is abundant in mercy and eager to forgive the repentant (Luke 15:11–32). Yet we also know that God is not obligated to forgive anyone, especially if it would violate His righteousness, thereby trivializing sin. He will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy and show compassion to whomever He wills (Rom. 9:14–18). The only way He forgives without violating His holy character is in having “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). God will forgive only those who trust in His promises — those who rely wholly upon Jesus, who was condemned for sinners so that they might receive the blessing of forgiveness.
We need forgiveness not merely because we have sinned against others; rather, we need forgiveness because we have failed to reflect the image of God, having fallen far short of the glory He intended for us (Rom. 3:23). Our Creator demanded that His old covenant people be holy just as He is holy — set apart from all uncleanness and pure in character (Lev. 19:1–2). Ultimately, this call is given to all, Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 17:22–34), and especially to the church (Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:13–16).
The demand could not be higher — everyone is to be as holy as God is holy; our predicament could not be greater — sinners cannot possibly be this holy; and the Father’s answer could not be more gracious — His Son died in our place to satisfy His wrath, making Him able to forgive without forsaking His own righteousness. May we always recognize our failure to be holy as God is holy, our inability to obligate our Creator to forgive us, and the great mercy He has shown us in His Son, Christ Jesus.
We are often tempted to trivialize God’s demand for holiness and instead look to somebody or something other than God as the standard by which we measure ourselves. Remember, though, that the Lord has pronounced judgment on His image bearers for failing to reflect His holiness. Thanks be to God, He has provided a way to escape this wrath by confessing our failures and turning to the One who sacrificed Himself for our salvation.