Friday, December 28, 2018

The Equation of Infinite Forgiveness


There is a mathematical way to think about the love of God. Because His forgiveness is infinite, there is no way to subtract from it and make it less than what it was. In other words, it does not run out or have limits. It is a simple equation, but one that is not always easy for us to grasp. If we can do so, though, it can be a great inducement to faith for new believers and long-time Christians alike. 

If you are a Christian, chances are good that you have spoken to others about your faith (or at least I certainly hope you have, since we are all mandated to do so; Matt. 28:19). And if you have spoken to others about the gospel, then chances are also pretty good that you have been asked a “How can God forgive xyz” question. Maybe it was meant as a trap: “Are you really saying God would even forgive Hitler?” Perhaps it was more of a statement of resignation and hopelessness: “God could never forgive me for hurting my family like that.” Or maybe, hopefully, it was someone reaching out for the lifeline you had thrown them: “Will God really forgive me for all I’ve done?”

There are a variety of ways to ask this type of question, and just as many appropriate answers. Most of the time, it is going to require proper attention and sensitivity. In other words, for your response to be heard, you need to have established a relationship. That means I am not going to offer anything definitive here. I am not even really going to be presenting an all-encompassing principle that will always be worth mentioning. It is just one side to the equation when dealing with the problem of forgiveness. My hope is that it will prove to be a helpful one.

The Equation

Ok, that’s a little punny, but I didn’t even do all of it on purpose. It just fits naturally into this topic. I am no mathematician, but I was recently contemplating the infinity of God. No, not that I could comprehend it, simply the fact that it is. For God, there are no limits. He knows all things, is in all places, exists at all times, and possesses all power. In fact, even stating it that way is limiting. God knows beyond the knowable because He knows Himself. He transcends time and space, and He does not merely possess power. He is power. There is no way to exhaust expressions for the greatness of God.

That has important implications for forgiveness, and the math is simple.

∞ – (all sin) = ∞

It can be easy to forget because we are limited, and mostly limited to our own experience. The idea of limitless grace is something we cannot quite grasp and it can therefore be hard to accept. However, it really is this straightforward.

Because Jesus Christ is God, He was able to offer an infinite sacrifice that provides infinite forgiveness (Heb. 7:27). And infinity cannot be reduced. You cannot actually subtract from it and thereby make it less than it was before. It still goes on and on forever. It simply swallows up whatever it is being compared to.

This is where people tend to get tripped up when they ask the question at the start of this article. They look at grace as a ledger book. Every time people sin, they spend part of what is allotted to them. Then eventually, like a checking account, they run out and start a negative balance. They determine that, at some point, there is not enough left (whether for themselves or for someone else). But that is because they are evaluating the situation on the basis of what they can fathom, rather than on the basis of who God has shown Himself to be. We imagine there has to be an end somewhere. With God, there is not.

Unconditional vs. Unlimited

Of course, there is another easy misconception to the other side we also need to avoid. Some people believe that, since God’s forgiveness is infinite, it will be infinitely applied to everyone. That is the basic idea behind universalism. In the end, everyone will be forgiven because God’s love is unconditional. But that is a subtle inaccuracy. God’s love is not unconditional. It is unlimited. This is a crucial difference.

I’ve made some people very uncomfortable with that claim, and maybe you are feeling that way, too. Please allow me an opportunity to explain it. If God’s love was available without condition, then it would not offer satisfaction to justice. What I mean by that is, it would be God saying He does not care about our choices. It would be impossible for us to decide what we want. Related to that, the difference between right and wrong would not exist if the result is always the same. We would not be free. Of course, freedom does imply the possibility of a good or a bad conclusion, but that is the point. God gives us the opportunity to select between them for ourselves. The selection requires that we meet a condition.

That condition is faith in God’s grace extended through the sacrifice of Jesus. That is what grants us access to unlimited, infinite love. But it is the gate, as Jesus describes Himself (John 10:7, 9). We can step inside or stay outside, but there is a clear dividing line between both sides. If that were not the case, then the crucifixion itself would be meaningless. The payment is unending, but why make it at all if there is no bill? Jesus would have died for literally nothing.

God’s love requires a response, that is the condition of it. Once we respond, however, we receive what cannot run out. That is when infinity comes into play. God’s unlimited love is extended to those who ask for it according to the stipulations under which He offers it.

Individual Application

This is where it gets personal, and provides the response to the questions we are so often asked. What depends on you, me, and everyone else is faith. We have our small part to play. But what depends on God is the actual forgiveness. Did God forgive Hitler? I highly doubt it because Hitler was too much of a narcissist to have requested it. But was it possible? Yes. That is painful to say, but it is true because its truth does not depend upon Hitler. It depends upon God. There is no way to exhaust the price He paid, no way to subtract from infinity.

That is the most extreme example, but that is also why it occasionally needs to be brought up. When we gain the clarity to realize God’s love is about God rather than about how lovable we are (or are not), and that it is possible for this love to pay even the highest price without running out, then we can begin to see how it is possible for us to be forgiven. God will do it if you are willing to accept it. It just requires getting beyond yourself and trusting in Christ as the infinite payment for all the debt of sin you owe.

Lasting Impact

The message here is obviously an evangelical one, but I also hope it is an encouragement to sanctification. This truth is not restricted to those who have yet to receive Christ. It is just as much the ongoing promise to those of us who already have.

Becoming a Christian does not mean flipping a switch and instantly becoming flawless. Any honest Christian will tell you that. And any honest Christian will also tell you that we struggle with God’s forgiveness. We wonder how He can keep putting up with us after we continue to fail. We struggle with it because we consistently forget what we knew when we came to Him in the first place. It isn’t about us, and it isn’t limited.

Once again, there is an error to avoid here. This is not saying we should feel comfortable to go on sinning because we know we are forgiven. Rather, it is an encouragement to walk in the new life God extends to us (Rom. 6:1–4). It is a reason to constantly strive to be better through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not given license, we are given grace. Grace deserves gratitude, and that is how we should live. The point remains, though, that we are forgiven. God does not start us out with a number of chances and wait for us to run out. That would be to deny Himself, which He cannot do (2 Tim. 2:13).

Comfort for All

Either way we look at it, it really is a simple equation. Infinite forgiveness minus all sin is still equal to infinite forgiveness. It does not run out. And if it includes all sin, then it obviously includes my sin. It obviously includes your sin. It is simple, but as I like to say, simple does not always mean easy.

It can be very difficult to gain the eternal perspective on this. God is not limited, but we are. We can lose sight of the truth. We can get lost in terms of thinking how we would act in God’s place, instead of being mindful of how He actually says He will act. That is natural enough. It is not another reason to feel guilty. It is just a reason to lift our eyes up out of our dust and into the glory He has revealed. If you never have, I hope you will for the first time. If it has been a while, I hope this little refresher helps you do so again. Every reminder of it can be a valuable one. You cannot make God’s love less than infinite. Know that and be comforted.

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