(Note: this piece was originally written and published as a devotional column in my town's local newspaper)
I recently had a conversation with someone who was vexed with a common question: “Can God forgive what I’ve done?” We’re all familiar with the feelings of guilt, confusion, and regret that often accompany a question like that. Even if we’re not really aware of what it is that God asks of our behavior, we can readily understand what it feels like to fall short of society’s expectations of us, or our family’s expectations, or—perhaps most commonly of all—our own expectations of ourselves. And if we are falling short of our own goals for how we ought to behave, then how must our behavior compare to God’s standards?
The Bible is very clear about these questions: its answers are bluntly honest, but, at the same time, wildly and surprisingly joyful. On the one hand, our sense of guilt tends to be accurate. While there is a sense in which guilt can be an unhealthy emotion, it is sometimes also a very honest emotion. We feel guilty because we have something to feel guilty about. There’s a problem with our behavior. We know it, and God certainly knows it. The Bible declares that “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We fall below the standards that God has set for human behavior; standards that are in place not to limit us or keep us from having fun, but rather to ensure that we can grow in faith, love, goodness, and, ultimately, joy. And the sad fact is that we all fall short of that. I, and all Christians, and everybody else in the world, are all in the same boat in that regard: I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and I desperately need his grace as much as anyone else. But even though we’re all together in that, it still leaves us with the hard truth that we have indeed fallen short, and nothing we can do on our own can set it right.
Thankfully, our failures and shortcomings are not the end of the story. If that were all there was to it, then the message of God would be “bad news” of a particularly cruel sort. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news! (In fact, that’s what the word “gospel” literally means). The Bible teaches that God, out of an infinite abundance of love for us, made a way to do what we could not do on our own. He sent his own Son Jesus Christ to take all of our failings upon himself. By dying on the cross, he accepted the cost of our sins—being cut off from God, the source of all life—so that we could go free. In him we have forgiveness of all of our sins, even the ones that we imagine God might never be able to forgive. The truth is, he can and will forgive all your sins—all, without exception—if you come in faith to Jesus and accept his offer of salvation. There’s nothing you have to do to earn this gift; it is freely given, simply because God loves you more than you can possibly imagine. If you set your trust in God’s gift of grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection, you will be forgiven. And if that’s not enough, it gets even better: not only do you get a clean slate; you also get to experience the love of God as you enter relationship with him, your Creator and Lord; and he will empower you with grace to learn how to live beyond your sins. But the bottom line is this: Can God forgive me for what I’ve done? Oh, yes, he can, and will, and wants to. Simply come to him. As an old hymn-writer once put it in describing the measure of God’s forgiveness:
Your goodness and your truth to me, to every soul, abound:
A vast, unfathomable sea, where all our sins are drowned.
Its streams the whole creation reach, so plenteous is the store;
Enough for all, enough for each, enough forevermore!