God’s Understanding of Sin and Forgiveness

Part XII of the Forgiving and Reconciling Series

We concluded our last post by noting that people don’t go to hell because God is waiting to forgive them until they repent.  When we think that’s the case, we misunderstand not only how God understands forgiveness, but how he understands sin as well.

So let’s take some time to look at both of these. When we do, Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3 make a lot more sense. We’ll see that Jesus’ words here are perfectly consistent with his words and his actions on the cross, where he forgave his enemies even before they repented, and, in so doing, enabled their repentance.

To begin, let’s remind ourselves of something we talked about earlier in our study:

God’s judgment + God’s mercy = God’s forgiveness

Now, to understand that equation correctly, we need to remember that God’s judgment is something much greater than a verdict. God is judge not only in the law court sense of innocent-guilty but also (and even more so) in the Old Testament sense of the Judges of Israel. He is the true Judge of Israel, in fact! He does much more than determine guilt and innocence; he sets right what sin, death, and evil have corrupted and destroyed.

That’s what we’re getting at when we say that God is righteous.  It doesn’t just mean that he does what is right, but that he is setting right what has gone very, very wrong in our lives and in the world.

Jesus himself contrasts these two ideas of judging—judging as rendering a verdict and judging as setting things right—several times in the Gospel of John, like in John 12:47 when he says:

“If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”

In the Gospel of John, there are a lot of places like this where one word is used in two very different ways. Like in John 3, where the phrase “born again” also means “born from above,” or in John 11:50,where the high priest Caiaphas says, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” What he says is absolutely true, but he has no idea how true!

Same thing here in John 12:47 (except Jesus knows exactly what he’s saying):

“If anyone hears my words and does not do them, I do not judge him.”

Does that mean the one who ignores Jesus is neither guilty nor innocent?  Can we just walk away from Jesus and the Gospel message freely and suffer no consequences?

Of course not—exactly the opposite is true. The one who hears Jesus’ words and ignores them is condemned.

So why does Jesus say that he does not judge such a man? “Because,” says Jesus, “I have come to do more than to render a verdict about that man. I have come to save him.” Or, he could have said, “I have not come to judge/condemn the man; instead, I have come to judge/save the man.”

The NIV captures this nicely in John 3:16-21:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

The Father sent Jesus into the world to judge/save it not judge/condemn it.


Because the world and those in it already stand condemned!  As Jesus explains, their condemnation is obvious: “people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” This is why they reject his offer of freedom and refuse to repent; they “will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

And this takes us right to that key truth:

God’s judgment + God’s mercy = God’s forgiveness

People don’t go to hell because God doesn’t forgive them. They go to hell because they reject God’s offer of forgiveness. They reject God’s judgment – his coming to set things right – in their lives and in the world.

This is why we should welcome God’s judgment!  When we receive his judgment, instead of defending ourselves or denying what we’ve done wrong, we receive his mercy. We don’t earn it; instead, we come to embody it.  His forgiveness transforms us into a new creation.  It’s all his doing, so that none of us can boast. Our part in it is simply to present ourselves.  We do the opposite of what Adam and Eve did in Genesis 3:8, which is to hide from God.

The one who hears Jesus’ words but does not do them, however, is not judged/saved by Jesus.  He remains enslaved to sin. He rejects the truth that only Jesus can set him free and set his life and the world right.

This is the exact discussion Jesus has in John 8, with people who ultimately reject him because they do not see that they are in bondage and thus they will not invite him to judge/save them:

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Sum it up and say:

Forgiveness is release from bondage by Christ, who makes it possible for the sin-slave to be set free because he himself bears the slave’s sin. When we understand this, we can see why God’s forgiveness must precede our repentance: a slave to sin can only carry out sin’s command.

Repentance means making a fundamental turn in life – renouncing evil and receiving Christ. Only Christ can make that possible through his bearing all sin. Or, to put it a bit differently, it’s not our repentance that makes Christ’s forgiveness possible. It’s his forgiveness that makes our repentance possible.

Tragically, though, many will respond by insisting, “We have never been slaves of anyone…”

Now, how does all this forgiving and reconciling business relate to our forgiveness of those who sin against us?

Tune into the next post to find out!

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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10 Responses to God’s Understanding of Sin and Forgiveness

  1. Jeffery Jack says:

    Hi Eric,
    I have been listening to and reading your lessons on forgiveness and studying forgiveness in the scriptures. In John 12:47 you state that “I do not judge” means “setting things right.” This makes sense and to me it makes much more sense that other explanations I have heard, but when I look at the Greek words, I do not see anywhere the meaning of “setting things right.” Can you clarify on this idea of “setting things right” being a type of judging. Any other scripture references would be appreciated.
    Kind regards,

    • EFoley says:

      Good to hear from you, Jack, and thanks for your thoughtful question and search. My overarching thought in reply would be that the idea of God’s righteousness and judgment as setting things right–a well-attested Old Testament theme–is not in opposition to the idea of judgment as rendering a verdict, which is the way we’re used to using the word in our Western legal tradition. The problem is not that the latter is wrong but rather that it is incomplete and potentially misleading, which is something Jesus addresses in the gospel of John when he talks about him coming into the world not to judge while also saying that those who reject him have been judged already. God’s purpose is not simply to render a verdict but to accomplish his eternal purpose. Jesus does not come to pronounce guilt but also to bear it and, through bearing it, to open the door to the restored relationship with God that is eternal life. God’s judgment, therefore, does more than to recognize that all have sinned and fallen short of his glory; it also provides the means for his glory to be magnified and for us to be set right. So, Jack, I would encourage a reading that sees judgment and righteousness as including but extending well beyond our Western legal tradition. The concepts, going back to the early pages of the Old Testament, reveal the amazing truth that God’s unerring judgment is inseparable from his goodness and mercy, for all who believe and respond to his invitation.

      • Jeff says:

        Thanks so much for the clarification.
        Blessings in Christ,

      • EFoley says:

        And thanks for forgiving me for calling you Jack, Jeff! So sorry!

      • Jeff says:

        No worries. 2 first names can be a bit confusing : )

      • EFoley says:

        Well, you set me right very gently! Thanks, Jeff. I’ll make sure to get your name correct the next time you post, so do keep in touch!

      • Jeff says:

        I definately will post again. I have been really blessed by the diagram and lessons on the works of mercy and the works of piety. I have only gone through the audio series on forgiveness so far. Today, I was able to share what i have learned about forgiveness with about 30-40 international students. Hopefully, there will be some more visitors to dotheword.org.
        Is it ok to use the diagram and other images when sharing with others? (Stuff like powerpoint or short videos).

        In Christ,

      • EFoley says:

        Great to hear about the international students, Jeff. As regards seeking permissions to use the .W and Whole Life Offering materials, the person to make the request to would be our Pastor Tim Dillmuth, at [email protected]. I’ll ask him to get in contact with you.

      • Jeff says:

        Thanks so much I will try and get in touch with him.

        In Christ,

  2. tdillmuth says:

    Hi Jeff – Send me an e-mail at [email protected] and I’ll fill you in on some of the details.

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