My local “safe-for-the-whole-family” Christian radio station recently began a “ministry” campaign in which they printed up and distributed sticky-note pads with the radio station’s information and the name of the campaign. They encouraged their listeners to write messages on the notes and stick them all over town, wherever they go, as a way to encourage, bless, and presumably share the Gospel with their city.
I found one such note at the grocery store, stuck to a cooler shelf containing bags of salad mix. On the note, three words:
“You are forgiven.”
No context. No explanation. Just free absolution, scrawled in blue ink.
I’m sure the person who left the note had the best intentions. Maybe they are a professing believer in Jesus who struggles with internalizing the truth of Romans 8:1, that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Maybe this person decided to share a truth that has been so meaningful to them.
But despite their good intentions, I took the note, crumpled it up, and threw it away, because I was afraid that the mysterious scribbler was actually putting people’s souls at risk.
How can you say that, Dave? you may ask. Our God is a God who forgives! Yes, this is true. But words matter, and so does context.
The problem with the message of that sticky-note was that it was woefully incomplete. It offered false absolution, a cleansing from sin and guilt that is bloodless and without repentance. It gave the reader the false hope of a blank slate, without the truth of how our records are actually expunged. If a person reads that sticky-note, and believes they are at peace with God regardless of their guilt before Him, they would be terribly deceived and in mortal spiritual danger.
Are we absolved by mere divine declaration, an easy dismissal of sin-debt that requires no satisfaction for wrongdoing? Does God forgive everyone freely and shrug off the need for punishment for sin? If this is so, then such a god would not be a just judge. He would be a monster who releases the guilty, who turns a blind eye to the wicked, who blithely passes over the unpunished sins of the transgressor.
That is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is not only loving and gracious, but He is also just and holy and righteous. His anger burns against sin, and He punishes the guilt of sinners. He is the Judge of all the earth, and He will be bring all the misdeeds of men to account. But because He is also rich in mercy, He has made a way for sinners to receive grace–not cheap and easy grace, like the dismissive wave of a royal hand, but costly, bloody grace that requires a holy sacrifice for sins.
Jesus the Christ, the eternal second member of the Trinity, entered into our world and lived as a perfect, righteous man before giving himself over to be tortured and killed in our stead. His death was a blood-sacrifice in our place, taking on the full wrath of God against sin, in order to save sinners. Then, 3 days later, Jesus was raised from the dead, as proof that He is Lord of all and had conquered sin and death, and as a guarantee that all who believe on Him have hope of resurrection to everlasting life.
The death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness, transformation, and hope to all who turn from their sins and believe in Him. In salvation, God transforms our hearts, and we turn from our sins and follow Jesus, trusting in the sacrifice of Christ to cleanse us from all sin. For those who repent of sin and believe in Jesus, there is indeed “free” forgiveness–forgiveness that we can never earn but that came at great cost to Him.
A better message for that sticky-note would be something like this: “Jesus Christ died to save sinners. If you know that you are a sinner before God, you can be forgiven and made new by Jesus. Turn from your sins and believe in Him.”
It may not be a complete conversation (and how can it be, on a 3-inch-square piece of paper?), but it would be an arrow in the right direction.