The Church: A Forgiven and Forgiving People

When you grasp something of the holiness of God, you come to realize that you can stand before him only as a forgiven people. In Exodus 34:4–7 God reveals to Moses and to you that forgiveness is part of his character. If you, the church, are God’s forgiven people, then you must also be a forgiving people.

Listen to the name of the Lord! You cannot see the face of God and live. In Exodus 34 Moses had just experienced the holy justice of God, his righteous anger against his people. The Lord is a God who is infinitely just. He does not tolerate or overlook disobedience. God holds you accountable for your sin. You cannot escape judgment. That justice of God can be frightening, yet it is comforting. God will not allow the wickedness and rebellion of the world to go unchallenged. And for you, if he has already punished your sins in the person of his Son, he will not, he cannot, still hold you liable. Moses had stepped between God and Israel to serve as a mediator, offering that his name be blotted out of God’s book if he would have mercy on his people. But only the greater Mediator could give his life for his people. Moses asked to see God. But you cannot see God’s face and live. God is a Spirit, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman. The perfection and glory of God precludes anything sinful or imperfect in his presence. He is perfectly holy. Nothing sinful can stand in his presence.

The Lord is merciful, gracious, and forgiving. The Lord did proclaim his name to Moses. The proclamation of the name reveals the character, the nature of the person. Your God is the Lord. That name means “I am,” Exodus 3:13,14. God is who he is. He is not defined by anything or anyone else. Yet his very name reflects his covenantal faithfulness. He is the God who has redeemed his people and has entered into covenant with them. He is the God who graciously sends his Presence with his people, even after the idolatry of the golden calf. “That peculiar sight which Moses had of God (Exodus 34), was a gospel sight, a sight of God as ‘gracious,’ etc., and yet it is called his ‘back parts,’ that is but low and mean in comparison to his excellencies and perfections.” (John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, p. 112). As God he is beyond any limitation. He is perfect in all that he is. Although you can never know God exhaustively, you can know him truly. he Lord cannot speak his name to Moses without describing his compassion and graciousness. He is overflowing in love and faithfulness. That character of God is evident as he reveals himself to Moses, the leader of God’s rebellious people. That character is evident as Jesus graciously violates the mores of his culture and asks the Samaritan woman for a drink—and then guides the conversation to confront her with her sin and her need of a Savior.

Know that you are God’s forgiven people in Christ. That grace comes to its richest expression in the presence of the God-man, the Messiah, the One who is God’s Presence. In him you have, not just a temporary glimpse of God’s character, but the full revelation of the depth of the love of your God. “[God’s] full glory would accessible tot he Mediator Christ but could not be seen by anyone in this sinful life. The Mediator would see that glory, but Moses was only a shadow of the true Mediator. . . . Christ is now our Mediator, and in heaven he beholds God’s face. What is there that he cannot do for us?” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 1, p. 308).

Forgive in the name of the Lord. Live as a forgiven community. Every morning and evening sacrifice offered in the Tabernacle and later the Temple, graphically reminded God’s people that they were a forgiven people. Notice how Peter emphasizes that the church in the New Testament is God’s forgiven people. You once stood outside God’s favor and love. By nature you are an enemy of God. Hosea not only had a son named Lo-Ammi (not my people), he also had a daughter named Lo-Ruhamah (no mercy), but their names were later reversed. In order to understand what it is to be the people of God, you have to recognize your sin, your inability. Whether or not you use the term, you have to recognize the idea of total depravity–even if it is expressed simply in the cry of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Your position is all due to God’s undeserved favor. The initiative in the titles of 1 Peter 2:9 is all God’s. The credit and glory belong to him as well. The mercy you receive is yours in Christ.

Forgive, because you have been forgiven. Peter came to Jesus in Matthew 18:21 recognizing that as a forgiven person he had a responsibility to forgive. He thought he was doing well by suggesting seven times. But Jesus response essentially is, don’t count the times! He went on to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant. Note how Jesus drives home his point in Matthew 18:35. You must forgive—because you have been forgiven. A heart that refuses to forgive is one that stands outside being a recipient of God’s grace. Harboring bitterness eats you up. Jesus is pointing you to the character of God, revealed in himself! He is a God who has forgiven you more than you ever realize. How can you not forgive? But what of the tenderhearted Christian who asks himself, “I find it so difficult to forgive. Am I really forgiven?” Remember that God’s forgiveness of you is not grounded in what you do, even in forgiving. It is grounded in God’s mercy in Christ. In him, he forgives even your failures to forgive! Even Paul struggled with finding himself unable to do the things that he wanted to do. Keep turning to Christ each day.

Live as a forgiven and forgiving people—because you have seen the face of God in Christ Jesus. Moses, who had experienced God forgiving Israel in response to his prayer of intercession asked to see the glory of God (was he showing a Peter-like naivete?). Have you wished you could have stood there with Moses that day? Well, you have experienced something better. You have seen the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. What Moses could not see, you have experienced if you trust in Christ! “The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 120). Have you been forgiven? That is a crucial question for you, not just for today, but for all eternity. It is only God’s forgiven people who inherit his kingdom, who dwell in the new heavens and earth.

Why did the Word become flesh? Why did God become man? So that you, his people, his church, could, as his forgiven people, see his face in Christ. How can you not forgive?

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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