There is an unusual epitaph on a large headstone in a cemetery outside of New York City. The name of the person in the grave is not on the headstone. There is no mention of when the person was born or when he died. Nor does it indicate anything about the person’s being a beloved mother, father, husband, wife, brother, sister, son, or daughter. Just one word stretches across the headstone: Forgiven. Clearly the most significant fact of this individual’s life was the peace he or she knew as a result of God’s forgiveness.
Henry Ward Beecher, a popular nineteenth-century American preacher, said,
Let me saw off a branch from one of the trees that is now budding in my garden, and all summer long there will be an ugly scar where the gash has been made; but by next autumn it will be perfectly covered over by the growing; and by the following autumn it will be hidden out of sight; and in four or five years there will be but a slight scar to show where it has been; and in ten or twenty years you would never suspect that there had been an amputation. Trees know how to overgrow their injuries, and hide them: and love does not wait so long as trees do (Cited in Encyclopedia of 2585 Illustrations [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.], 260).
The Apostle Peter said that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), and one of the most important ways it does that is by forgiveness.
The most essential, blessed, and yet most costly thing God ever did was to provide man the forgiveness of sin. It is most essential because it keeps us from hell and gives us joy in this life. It is most blessed because it introduces us into an eternal fellowship with God. And it is most costly because the Son of God gave up His life so that we might live.
John R.W. Stott, in his book Confess Your Sins, quotes the head of a large British mental home: “I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of forgiveness” ([Waco, Texas: Word, 1974], 73). Deliverance from guilt by real forgiveness is man’s deepest spiritual need. Apart from it, he can’t enter into a relationship with God that produces peace and hope. He is holy and His “eyes are too pure to approve evil, and [He] canst not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13). “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts,” says Isaiah (6:3). Holy God cannot possibly entertain a relationship with unholy men unless there is forgiveness of sin.
That’s why our Lord makes it the next topic in His pattern for prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Verses 14–15 serve as a footnote: “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
SIN IS THE PROBLEM
Forgiveness of sin is the greatest need of the human heart because sin has a twofold effect: it promises to damn men forever while at the same time robbing them of the fullness of life by burdening the conscience with unrelenting guilt. Ultimately sin separates man from God, thus it is unquestionably the principal enemy and greatest problem of man.
The Apostle Paul captured the impact of sin when he quoted several Old Testament passages in his letter to Christians in Rome: “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12; cf. Pss. 14:1–3; 53:1–4). He then concludes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
John F. MacArthur Jr., Alone with God, MacArthur Study Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1995), 97–99.
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