How can God forgive me? This is a crucial question raised in the movie Unplanned, the true story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who left the abortion industry after witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion.
It’s the right question to ask. If God is a just judge and the very standard of perfect morality, how can He possibly not condemn someone who has committed egregious moral crimes? This is a common objection to Christianity: “So you’re telling me that if [insert name of evil person here] accepted Christ at the end of his life, God would just forgive him, and he would go to Heaven?” This idea is repulsive to us because it seems to pervert justice, and a God who perverts justice is no God at all. The objection is a powerful challenge for anyone who has a sense of the goodness and rightness of justice.
Whenever I hear this objection, it’s usually applied to someone else out there, but the truth is, the question applies to every single one of us: How can God forgive me? The only reason we focus this objection on other people out there is that we don’t have an accurate sense of the deadly seriousness of our own sins. No one wants to face the truth of that.
But Abby Johnson gets it. When the guilt she bears for playing a part in the deaths of 20,000 unborn children begins to crush her, and her husband assures her God will forgive her if she asks Him, she can only respond with an anguished “How can He?” His answer: “Because He’s God.”
But the real answer is so much better.
God’s forgiveness is not merely a matter of His will. It’s not merely an expression of His power or His authority. It’s not a decision to temporarily suspend His justice because “being God” gives Him the right to sweep evil away unpunished. It’s so much more beautiful, and solid, and unshakable than that.
Here’s the truth: God doesn’t simply command guilt to flee. If our guilt were still lurking out there unresolved somewhere, how could we ever be certain it wouldn’t find its way back to us?
No, God’s forgiveness isn’t grounded in His power, given in spite of His justice. It’s grounded in His satisfied justice. He doesn’t deny the goodness of His justice in order to offer grace. He acts out of the fullness of His nature, expressing both His perfect justice and His glorious grace on the cross:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-26)
God didn’t just dismiss the guilt of those who trust in Jesus with a wave of His hand; Jesus fulfilled justice on our behalf by serving as the sacrifice - the payment - for our sins. Our moral crimes were nailed to the cross - to Jesus, who took them to His grave, putting an end to our guilt once and for all, and then rose again, giving us His life and righteousness once and for all:
When you were dead in your transgressions...He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)
We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10:10)
What this means for us is astounding. No matter who we are, there is no need for us to hide from God or man. There is no one on earth who has sinned beyond hope of forgiveness. In fact, Paul says God saved him - a former “blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” - in order to prove to everyone that anyone can be forgiven in Christ:
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:15-16)
Because of the cross, a woman who played a role in killing 20,000 babies can say her crimes have been paid for in full. Her guilt isn’t hidden away; it’s fully recognized and covered. As Christ said on the cross, “It is finished.” And by seeing her forgiveness, we see that the value of Christ’s sacrifice will cover anything we’ve done. We don’t have to try to convince ourselves our sins are smaller than they seem in order to lessen our feelings of guilt. We can boldly face the truth of whatever we’ve done because we know the gospel is bigger than anything we have ever done. Anything.
God doesn’t forgive those who trust in Christ “because He’s God.” He forgives because He has grounded His forgiveness in the solid rock of completed justice. He is both just and the justifier. Our guilt is finished; grace is here.