God Can Forgive Anything Except…
“I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins; return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.”—Isaiah 44:22
Isaiah is always known by every Bible student as the evangelical prophet. That is not only because of what he had to say about the coming of the Lord Jesus, but because running right through this prophecy there is the Gospel of the grace of God which it is our delight to preach and to know. Over and over again it stands out so clearly, and perhaps nowhere more so than in this verse which is our text. If I was to ask you why it is that some of you listen to this service today, I would perhaps receive many different answers. Some maybe are puzzled regarding the future and want guidance. Others are facing tremendous problems and feeling desperately weak and need strength.
There might be a multitude of reasons why you are here in God’s presence, but let me say that the greatest need of every one of our lives first of all is forgiveness. First, that we might meet with God on the question of sin and have His forgiving mercy in our hearts, for it is out of this that there begins to flow all the other things of which we are so consciously in need. Some would say that forgiveness is impossible because of God’s law being so unchangeable. Some would say that forgiveness is inevitable because God is a God of love. The Bible says that forgiveness is a miracle which only God Himself could accomplish and I want to speak about the forgiving mercy of God in our lives. We will fasten upon this verse entirely, and I want to take from it some thoughts which I trust may help us as we seek to understand God’s goodness and His forgiving grace.
First of all, we see that sin has some basic definite characteristics. There are two words used here which, if I understand the Bible meaning of them, I come to comprehend something of what sin really is. “Thy transgressions” is the first word meaning “rebellion,” the rising up of my rebellious will against the law, but not merely against the law but against the God Who gave the law. When you think about it, it makes all the difference whether you consider sin from this angle solely on the surface, so that when you and I do something that is wrong we say, “Well, I know this is wrong” and leave it at that; or whether we get beneath the surface and go right down to the depths and there we recognize that the worst part of it all is that I—little puny, insignificant I—am lifting up my pride, my will, against God Who made me and saying to Him, “Did I hear You say to me, Thou shalt not? Well, my answer to You is, I will. Or did I hear You say to me, Thou shalt? Then my answer to You is, I will not.” This is transgression. Understanding it from that aspect, it doesn’t make much difference whether we call sin small or big; it eliminates that distinction altogether, for this verse tells me (and the whole Bible reveals the truth) that sin is basically rebellion against an omnipotent and almighty God.
The second word is “thy sin,” and the meaning of the Hebrew word used here is “missing the mark,” a failure to attain a purpose, like an arrow not being quite on target. The same idea is conveyed in Romans 3. “For there is no difference, for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”—come short of what? The glory of God, and what is this? The writer to the Hebrews says of our Lord that He is the express image of His Person, the brightness of His glory, the outshining of the glory of God. Just as the light that comes down from the sun is the same nature as the sun itself, so the Lord Jesus is the outshining, the revealing of the glory of God. If you are honest and brave enough to put your life alongside the life of the One Who is the glory of God, Jesus Himself, you will never again argue with the fact of sin. You will acknowledge that you have come short of Him.
Here then sin has essential characteristics. This is how the Bible defines it. In the first place it is rebellion, and in the second place it is a missing of the mark; and the one, of course, comes from the other. Rebellion is the root of it; and because I have rebelled against God then, as the outcome of it, my life misses the mark, it falls short of God’s purpose. Do you recognize these in your life, and are you willing to acknowledge them in the presence of God, that you have been rebellious, and that your life does come short of the glory of God?
This verse implies further that sin leaves a permanent record: “I have blotted out…” That simple statement suggests a book, a record, if you like. It has been my habit for many years to keep a personal diary. Maybe you do the same. I have kept them now for some twenty-five years or more, and I can look back over those years and know exactly where I was and what I was doing on any particular day in any particular year. That may seem to you to be of little advantage, but it’s interesting. When you get to a particular time of life you begin doing that kind of thing, I suppose—you look back. I am quite sure, however, that if your diary is like mine, you don’t put some of the unpleasant things in it. You recall the things you like to remember, the things that were pleasant; but there were some things that were very unpleasant, and you don’t record them. There were some things you said to others or did to others which were unkind or ungracious, where you sinned grievously, but you haven’t put these things down in the diary. No, it’s only a fragmentary record.
“I have blotted out…” says this text, but this suggests to me a record of a different kind, a writing that is totally different from my fragmentary story of life because the plain fact is this (and the Bible teaches it) that each one of us is writing a daily biography. We are writing it in invisible ink, but in indelible ink also. We read it now vaguely, indistinctly, and this diary which we are writing is being filled for future reference in heaven. It is our own hand that is writing it, and it is God’s knowledge, understanding, and omniscience that is recording it. We write it day by day, moment by moment, indelibly, invisibly, by the life we live day by day.
It is a very solemn thing, but nothing you or I do ever dies; it lives! Everything I do, every thought, every action, becomes part of me, and of my life. It doesn’t die but it lives on. Our lives bear the imprint, God writes it carefully down, and one day you and I will be complete in His presence. Do you say that’s very fanciful?
I would remind you of Revelation 20:12, where a dramatic scene is brought before us. There John is given a vision into the future and he says: “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened.” “Stand before God,” what a solemn word that is! You see, right now, today, you may stand physically and mentally, but spiritually you may , colloquially speaking, be flat out on your back. You may stand now in the physical and the mental but be dead spiritually. But one day the dead shall stand, the body merely decayed into dust and ashes, but the spirit going right on until it is called into the immediate presence of God, “and the dead, small and great, stand before God.” The books are opened and the dead are judged out of the book according to their works. When a man faces that indictment, it will be impossible for him to disown his own handwriting. It will be the infallible, complete, absolute, final record in truth without any possible miscarried justice, without any possible half-truth but all the facts and all the story. Sin leaves a permanent record. We may try to hide it, escape it, forget it, explain it, excuse it, run away from it, change our location, go to another circumstance, to another land, to another area, to another city, to try and start all over again, but sin is indelible. It may be written in invisible ink but the record is there, kept for future reference. “I have blotted out…”
The verse suggests also that sin has a darkening power. “I have blotted out as a thick cloud,” and that reveals darkness between the soul and God. I am sure you have been out many times on a lovely sunny day in the country and you have been enjoying the sunshine and warmth and everything about it, but suddenly before the day was over the clouds began to gather, and a dark cloud came and blotted out the sun. What happened? Well, the birds stopped singing, the flowers began to close up, and there was a strange eerie sort of silence as everything became dark. Sin does that. It shuts out the glory. “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you…” Isaiah 59:2, 3.
It is just impossible for a man or a woman who is in rebellion to God ever to have fellowship with Him or even to see His face while they stay like that. Every evil, every sin blots out from our vision the face of God. Whether a man’s sin be from that ugly swamp of impurity, or whether it be the more refined but equally ugly areas of self-righteousness, all blots out the face of God. Sin has devastatingly darkening power. Sin has a way of darkening the soul, and separating it from the way of life. If that is true now, it is even more true in eternity. You remember the parable the Lord Jesus told as He spoke about our accountability to God. He dealt with one man who had buried his talent whom He called an unprofitable servant, and said of him that he should be cast into outer darkness.
If you desire any further evidence of it, you have only to think with me of a place called Calvary where God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself; but at that moment as He was doing it, and as the sin of all the human race was imputed to Him, He cried that day: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” He cried out of an impenetrable darkness, for through three hours of that noonday there was an utter darkness, and the sun hid its face as He bore our sins.
Sin has a darkening effect. I believe many of you know about that. Perhaps some of you are not Christians, and God is unreal to you as you never get through to Him. Of course not! You may be a Christian and you know the Lord, but somehow things have got between you and Jesus and there is a dark cloud between you and God. That can happen at any time to all of us. There is nothing more certain to hide the face of God than the fact of sin from which we refuse to break.
Sin leaves a permanent record; it has a devastating and darkening power; but the verse suggests that sin can be removed: “I have blotted out…” and that suggests the erasing of the record altogether. “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud…” and that suggests the removal of the darkness. The two things that sin does are dealt with: the record is erased and the cloud which hides God from us has been swept away. Yes, here is the promise of a tremendous possibility.
That blurred and stained page of life can be cancelled. The New Testament tells us that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin. We may spend our years as a tale that is told, and what is written is written. The record can be removed as if it had never happened. All of it may be blotted out. Furthermore, the cloud can be swept away, for the sun which shines above it can shine with such force, and the love of God be so powerful, that it penetrates right through to the depths. The clouds can be swept away by the matchless love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. There is a tremendous thought that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin nor the leopard his spots. How impossible it is for that to happen, but the blood of Jesus doesn’t only cleanse the skin, but it changes the heart and goes down to the very depths of our need. That’s the Gospel truth. This is the truth of forgiveness, and unless we know it, we may well be amazed at the absolute wonder that God could ever pardon the sin of a human heart, but He can.
The Bible takes hold of all kinds of human character and failure and puts them into one condition of guilt, of need, of helplessness. It recognizes only two kinds of people in all the universe, the people who have had their sin forgiven and the people who have not; the people who are saved and the people who are lost. In this area there is no neutral ground, and similarly the Bible recognizes only two conditions beyond this life, hell and heaven. There is no neutral ground. The Word of God brings the whole thing into one simple, straightforward situation in which all have sinned and therefore all are guilty. But there is a way of life and salvation by which all may be saved. The matchless grace of God begins right away down at the very depths of our need as He says, “Return unto Me, for I have redeemed thee.” Sin can be removed.
There is one other thing, and perhaps it is the most important of all here. Sin is removed by a miracle. Now our verse has revealed to us some of the characteristics of sin, that it is rebellion, a falling short of God’s purpose and God’s plan. It leaves a record which is one day going to be met before the throne of God unless it is dealt with in life right now. That which we have forgotten God holds to speak to us about one day before the throne. Sin leaves a mark, it darkens the view of God and makes fellowship and communion with God impossible. It kills our prayer and our Bible reading, making all these things meaningless. It does all this, but it can be removed, but the question is, How? My answer is that sin is removed by a miracle of forgiveness.
What a difference it makes to be forgiven! You see, a forgiven man is one who had had his relationships with God altered. No longer does he hide from God, but he is welcomed in His presence as a child of God. He has been forgiven, and this transforms everything. The forgiven man is introduced into a relationship with God which makes all the difference, not only to that relationship, but to every other relationship in life.
I wonder if you have stopped to realize that if you are wrong with God, you are wrong everywhere else. If you are out of touch with God, then you are out of touch with everything and nothing goes right. If you do not have Him, you do not have anything. There is no meaning in anything to you, but the stupendous miracle of forgiveness is expressed best in the words of W. Robinson:
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder sons o’erflow,
Flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine.
What a difference this miracle makes. It changes our relationship with God; it changes our relationships with everyone else.
What obstacles forgiveness overcomes! You see, to forgive a man and yet to uphold the moral law of the universe is a miracle which only God can do. That is something that you can neither do nor understand except you see it at Calvary. As you examine and think about all the sacrifices you can find in the Bible, apart from the fact that they were sacrifices of animals, the sacrifice of the cross was the sacrifice of a man, the God-man. There is this one big difference. All those others were the sacrifices of a guilty conscience, but the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was the redemption of love of God. This was something so entirely different. The cross tells me what He thinks of sin. He condemns it altogether, yet He proclaims free and absolute pardon for every one of us. Forgiven by a miracle, and yet the moral law of God is upheld; forgiven at infinite cost; forgiven so freely. If I want to know what it cost God to forgive my sin, I must look at the cross, and as I measure the cost of forgiveness, then I marvel all the more what it has cost God to set a sinner free. Oh, what obstacles are overcome in the miracle of forgiveness! God has upheld His law, broken through and stooped down to the most sinful degraded life and lifted it up into His very presence. He does so and yet retains His integrity. This is only possible because the sword of God’s justice is buried in the heart of God’s Son.
How full is our forgiveness! When God forgives, there are no half measures. When people forgive us, or when we forgive other people, there are often reservations in mind: “I don’t trust that person any more!” There are some delays, you are not sure whether you ought to do it. Perhaps there are even some suspicions, and from time to time you will be reminding the other person of past failure. It is all a bit condescending when we forgive other people. We feel that we are exercising real virtue. You remember the Apostle Peter felt this one time and he asked the Lord, “Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother? Seven times?” “No,” said the Lord Jesus, “four hundred and ninety times.” In other words, don’t stop measuring the limit of your forgiveness. You are to forgive others on the same limitless measure that Christ forgave you. But when we forgive others there are often mental reservations and a failure to forget the past.
When God forgives He doesn’t say, “Return to Me andI will redeem you.” He says, “Return to Me, for I haveredeemed thee.” The very day I come He removes all the burden of the past failure, and immediately He lays upon me the burden of Christian responsibility. He takes one burden off and puts another burden on. The old life with all its weaknesses and sins has suddenly died off although we are very conscious that it is still there. It is amazing that the very moment when I come to God in Jesus Christ, though the previous day I may have denied and rejected Him, proved untrue and unfaithful and blasphemed Him, that very moment of forgiveness is the moment when He offers me a task that angels in heaven would delight to do. Oh, how full is the forgiveness of God! His immediate forgiveness and mercy are followed by the immediate commission to go into all the world to preach the Gospel to every creature, and all the past is buried in the oblivion of God’s forgetfulness.
Further, how free is God’s forgiveness! All we have to do is to take it with the outstretched hand of a receiving faith, and not to wait to be worthy; God takes all the risks in forgiving us in a way that only His love can do. He invites us to take His free forgiveness now. If I long for this with all my heart, that is a sure sign to God that I am ashamed of the past. If I long for His forgiveness and cleansing, that is an evidence in heaven that I yearn to be free of all that has been part of me in the years that have gone, therefore He is at hand with His gift.
You can never deserve God, but you can accept Him. You can never merit God, but you can receive Him. This is the only way that men, whether they live on the “gold coast” or on skid row, can come together, and they will meet God on the same level in the same place, at the foot of the crtoss, equally guilty in the sight of heaven. There they will receive immediately the cleansing power of the blood of Christ and are commissioned to serve the King of kings. That is God’s way of forgiveness. It doesn’t leave our pride a leg to stand on and it brings us right away down at the foot of Calvary. Oh, how free is God’s forgiveness!
Finally, how inclusive is God’s forgiveness. We read in Psalm 103 that He is the One “who forgiveth all thine iniquities.” I need to pause there a moment because it may be that someone is saying to me, “Yes, I go along with you, but I am sure He cannot forgive THAT.” You know whatthatis. It’s the thing you didn’t put in your diary, of which as you go back over the years you are bitterly ashamed, and it has left its mark upon your life and its stain upon your character. It has left an indelible imprint upon your memory and you cannot forget it. “Do you mean to tell me that God can even get down so low as to forgive that?”Yes, I do. He forgiveth allthine iniquities.
Listen to the music of 1 John 1:7, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Then there’s no exception to God’s forgiveness? Yes, there is. Do you mean to tell me there is a question mark as to the limit of God’s forgiving mercy? Yes, just one. It is not the character of my sin, nor the depth of my sin, nor the length of it; it is not the tenacity of its hold upon me, nor the shame and the degradation of it, because God is able to forgive all that. Then where is the exception? If we walk in the light…If we confess our sins…He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Let this burn its way into your heart today: sin to be forgiven must be forsaken.
It would have been easier to put that record down in the diary of your life if, at the time you wrote it, you knew it was being forsaken, but maybe you don’t have to go back so many years to recall it because, though it isn’t written in the book that you have recorded but it is written in heaven, the trouble is it has never been basically forsaken. There is no forgiveness in heaven unless there is a forsaking of sin right now. I tell you, I would not dare enter the presence of God with an unconfessed sin upon my heart and conscience, loading and weighing me down as a guilty soul. What I confess, He will forgive. What He forgives, He will cleanse. Then that vessel of my life that He cleanses, He will fill with His Spirit. What He fills, He will use.