Robert H. Boll (1875-1956)

How does God forgive sins? Most of us no doubt think we could answer that at once. We see no difficulty. We think God forgives like we forgive–just as you forgive your child that has been, disobedient, or your fellowman who has wronged you. So, we naturally think that God’s forgiveness is like that. But that is far, far from being the truth in the case–and we may well be glad that it isn’t.

      In the first place the wonder is that God forgives at all. If we knew Him as He is in holiness and absolute justice, and if we had anything like an adequate understanding of the meaning and enormity of sin, forgiveness of sins would seem a tremendous and impossible thing. Nature never forgives anything. Law operates inexorably without consideration of persons or circumstances. Can God do otherwise? “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” There can be no “special pleading” in His court of justice, no juggling of values, no calling of black, white, or bittersweet. All things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. Yet the old Book in which God is revealed tells us that He is a forgiving God. To Moses in the Mount, He proclaimed His Name–“Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth; keeping lovingkindness for thousands; forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin. . ..” [1] (Ex. 34:6, 7.) And, again, the prophet exclaims as if in great wonder, “Who is a God like you who pardons iniquity and passes over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage?” (Micah 7:18). And the psalmist says, “You, Lord are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness unto all them who call upon you.” (Ps. 86:5.) Our God, therefore, is a forgiving God. Of course, there are circumstances and conditions when God cannot forgive. He cannot forgive those who do not repent. He cannot forgive where there is no realization and acknowledgement of sin. Nor could He bestow His pardon and forgiveness upon those who do not want it; nor upon any that try to obtain it on the ground of excuses and false pretense. But when it is so that He can forgive, how does He forgive? This is the question which we have before us. Let us answer it in the light of God’s word.


  1. When God forgives, He forgives fully and entirely, without reservation, wholeheartedly and completely. The sins that He forgives are blotted out. Every trace and vestige of sin is wiped out. They are remembered no more forever. As far as the East is from the West, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. There is nothing scant, nothing miserly or grudging, nothing partial or reluctant in God’s forgiveness. If it is so that He can forgive at all, He will forgive all. If it is so He cannot forgive everything He will not forgive anything. In all His [2] ways he is plain open and shut. If He washes you at all He will not leave you spotted or streaked–He will wash you white as snow, nay whiter than the snow. With Him is plenteous redemption, and He abundantly pardons.

      This is one of those wonderful gospel-facts that people find utterly difficult to believe. We know so well our human standards of forgiveness that we cannot give God credit for His whole-hearted pardon. Many professed Christians have a deep doubt in their hearts on this point. They somehow feel as if God were harboring a secret grudge against them for some of the evil things they have done, and that He is just biding His time to get even with them. So did Joseph’s brothers feel who had sold their brother into Egypt–even after Joseph had assured them of his full forgiveness for the great wrong, they had done to him, and for seventeen years had shown them nothing but pure love and kindness. We are so small of heart and soul, and it seems we must for ever gauge God by our own little measure. Who can and will believe in God’s glad and full forgiveness? To him God will show the abundance of His great mercy. And this is fundamental to the new life in Christ, so that from then on, we may love Him joyfully from the heart, as only a forgiven soul can do.  


  1. In the second place, God’s forgiveness is absolutely free. It cannot be bought, it cannot be acquired by our works and efforts, it cannot [3] be merited. We cannot earn it or pay for it in any way–and we must not attempt to do so. For if you should pay for it (or think to do so) in part, you would have to pay for all. For this again is God’s plain open-or-shut way of doing business. He will not mingle works with grace. “If it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise, grace is no more grace.” His forgiveness must be received as a free gift, or not at all. We are “justified freely by grace,” He tells us, “Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This word “freely” means “unearned, free, as a gift.” “In him we have . . . the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (Eph. 1:7.) As someone has well said–There are only two kinds that come to God for salvation: those that say, “Something in my hands I bring,” and those who say, “Nothing in my hands I bring.” To the former the door is closed; but to the latter He gives the abundance of His grace.


  1. When God forgives, His forgiveness is based on His judgment upon sin. It is not an easy, good-natured sort of forgiveness, like that soft-hearted leniency which indulgent parents may show toward their children. God’s forgiveness is free, but it is not cheap. It is not such as to make us think lightly of sin, as though it were a small matter and easily passed over. “There is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” It is a terrible forgiveness, made possible to Him and to us at an awful cost. For God cannot do anything unprincipled or unjust. [4] “He that justifies the wicked, and he that condemns the righteous, both of them alike are detestable to the Lord.” (Prov. 17:15.) God is not capable of doing either. How is it then that we read in the Gospel that God “justifies the ungodly”? And how can He be just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus? We hear it said now and then that God couldn’t be just and send a sinner to hell. But that was not God’s problem at all. The question that confronted Him was how He could be just and not send a sinner to hell. How shall God punish sin, yet save the sinner? How shall God vindicate the Law, and yet deliver the man who has violated it? Ah, that was the problem! God solved it in His own way, in perfect righteousness, but at an infinite cost to Himself. He gave His only begotten Son. Him did “God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, . . . that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:25, 26.) There may be many “theories of the Atonement”–we are here concerned with the simple statement of fact only, namely that Jesus Christ, the spotless Son of God, by the will of the Father, assumed our burden and responsibility, took our judgment and condemnation upon Himself, and bore our sins in His own body on the cross. Clearly, He represents us there: and Him who knew no sin (we are told) God made to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21.) It was not that an innocent man was made to suffer in the place of the guilty (as sometimes it has falsely been represented); or that God played off one creature for [5] another–which itself would be a crime and an injustice; but that God took all our guilt and debt upon Himself in the person of his Son. Even more abhorrent is the distorted view advanced by the adversary that God could not be appeased until He had poured His wrath upon someone–which wholly overlooks the fact that this was God’s own great sacrifice, brought for the world of sinners, an all-surrendering love. It has been well pointed out that God’s sacrifice of His Son did more to vindicate law and justice than if He had sent every sinner to hell. Thus, the price of our sins was the precious blood of Jesus Christ. “In him we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins.” (Eph. 1:7.) And “the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7.)


  1. Finally God’s method of forgiveness is redemptive. It is not a mere pardon–it involves deliverance. It does not leave us where we were before–it introduces us into a new life. When the Lord Jesus said to the prostitute, the sinful woman who anointed His feet, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace”–it was not to the old life that she returned. The blood that cleanses us, also sanctifies; and by it we are purchased unto God. “Ye are not your own, for you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Cor. 6:20.)

      This forgiveness, so great, so wonderful, so dearly bought, is freely available to every sinner [6] who desires it and who will come in God’s appointed way. That way is Christ. It is offered to all who have faith in Him. “To Him bear all the prophets witness that through his name, everyone that believes on him shall receive remission of sins.” This includes repentance, for it is written again, “Repent therefore and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out; so that there may come seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19.) And with that goes baptism also, for He says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38.) Those who as Christians have again sinned and failed, are bidden to repent and pray for renewed forgiveness, with the promise that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” (Acts 8:22; 1 John 2:2.) 

      This forgiveness which is today so freely extended to us must be taken in its time. “Working together with him,” says the apostle–“we entreat also that you receive not the grace of God in vain: for he says, At an acceptable time I hearkened unto you, and in a day of salvation did I help you: behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6:1, 2.) The day of grace must have a limit–else how could God judge the world? The hour of free forgiveness is now. When once the Master of the house is risen up and has shut the door it will be in vain to stand [7] outside and knock. There will be a time that will be called “Too late.” Today therefore, if you have heard His voice harden not your heart but turn and come at the Lord’s invitation.

I believe the present moment is the time to save a soul,
Tomorrow’s sun may only rise for death to take its toll.
If you turn your back on Jesus and reject God’s blessed Son,
You judge yourself unworthy of the life that Calv’ry won.” 

R. H. Boll (1875-1956) was the preacher at Portland Ave Church of Christ (1903-1956) and Editor of Word & Work (1916-1956)