God’s Way of Dealing with Sin vs. Our Way
[The following is an article of mine published at the Crossway blog. It is an adaptation from my new book, A Dozen Things God did with Your Son (and three things he’ll never do).]
God’s Way of Dealing with Sin vs. Our Way
Consider for a moment how we “deal” with others. We keep fresh in our minds their injustices toward us. We nurture the memory of their faults and failings. We never let them forget what they did and we often make sure others are mindful of it as well. We seek every opportunity, often secretly and surreptitiously, to make them pay for their transgressions. We hold it in our hearts and over their heads and persuade ourselves that it’s only fair that they be treated this way.
1. God “Does Not Deal with Us According to Our Sins”
Our good and gracious God, on the other hand, “does not deal with us according to our sins” (Ps. 103:10). Our sins do not constitute the rule or standard or plumb line according to which God makes his decisions on how to treat us. He does not recall or bring to the fore or publicly announce our history of hatred and lust and blasphemy and greed and pride before he formulates his plan for our life or before responding to something we’ve just said or done.
When we interact one with another, all too often we let our response be guided or dictated by past infractions. It may have been a betrayal, perhaps in the form of baseless gossip where they slandered you in order to advance their own cause. Or maybe they failed to come through on something they promised you could always count on. Or someone may have broken your confidence and passed along information that they assured you they would never share. You may have been the victim of some injustice or abuse. In many cases, it turns out to be that a close friend whom you were certain would never leave you suddenly abandons you for reasons that have no basis.
I could go on and on about the ways in which we sin against each other. Some of the ways are more serious and severe than others, but they all hurt to one degree or another. And the memory of these offenses lingers in our hearts and later fuels and gives shape to how we treat that person. We “deal” with them on the basis of these painful experiences. We respond to them in kind, having convinced ourselves that this is what justice would require.
The point of the psalmist is that this is precisely what God will never do. In responding to us this way, God is not ignoring our faults and failures. He is not winking at sin or pretending that it never happened. And it certainly isn’t because he is more loving than just. As we’ll see shortly, his guarantee that he will never “deal” with us according to our sins is rooted in something so profound and glorious that we often find it more than a little difficult to believe.
2. God Does Not “Repay Us According to Our Iniquities”
Better still is the second statement in Psalm 103:10, that God does not “repay us according to our iniquities.” It’s certainly not because our iniquities do not deserve repayment. They are deep and many and heinous and are deserving of the most severe, indeed, eternal judgment. But those who “fear him” (Ps. 103:11) need never fear that he will exact payment or demand suffering or insist, according to the rigors of his law and unyielding holiness, that we endure the penal consequences of violating his will and ways.
Most of us, sad to confess, have developed all sorts of devious ways of repaying those who have hurt us. We might choose simply to ignore the offender, treating them as if they are now unimportant to us or, worse still, dangerous and to be avoided. We pay back those who intentionally sinned against us by withholding forgiveness and making sure that others are fully aware of everything they’ve done. A clever bumper sticker says it well: “Don’t get mad. Get even!” Revenge has become something of a pastime in our culture, a relational hobby of sorts.
But not with God. I’ve been in almost daily dialogue via email with a young man I’ve never met who lives in perpetual, incessant fear that God is going to pull the rug out from under his salvation. He is possessed of what can only be described as an overly sensitive conscience. Assurance of salvation, if he ever experiences it at all, is grounded in his ability to consistently avoid sin in all its many forms. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that any decision on his part to live in unrepentant disobedience is of no consequence. I’ve told him on numerous occasions that willful, unrepentant, defiant disobedience is often an indication that one’s purported profession of faith in Christ is spurious and superficial. But his life is dominated by an obsessive concern that one day God will “repay” him for all his failures and that all hope of salvation will be lost. His compulsive introspective approach to Christian living has undermined his ability to look away from himself to the righteousness of Jesus as his only hope. I have directed him to Psalm 103:8–14 and other related texts, but to no avail, at least at the time of my writing this.
3. God “Counts No Iniquity” against His Children
Similarly, I have directed his attention to David’s wonderful declaration that we need never fear that God will impute to us or count against us the many sins we have committed (Ps. 32:2). What is the meaning behind such words as “count” or “reckon” or “impute”? The idea is that God is not keeping a written record of our transgressions to make use of them as grounds for our condemnation. He will never bring into the courtroom a ledger in which is recorded the many spiritual debts we have failed to pay or the moral offenses we have committed, all with a view to securing a guilty verdict from the Judge.
But this doesn’t mean that God never “counts” or “records” anything at all. In yet another psalm, David finds solace in the fact that God has “kept count” of his “tossings” or wanderings. “Put my tears in your bottle,” he prays. “Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56:8). David wants there to be a permanent record of his sufferings and lamenting. In other words, David “imagines the existence of record books at the heavenly court analogous to those at an earthly court and asks God to make sure that these include ‘my lamentations,’ more literally the visible shaking or tossing that were the outward expression of anguish.”1 David does not envision his “tears” as establishing some form of merit or credit with God, but “they appeal to God’s compassion and therefore push God to take action against the attackers.”2
So, yes, God does count certain aspects of our experience. He does indeed keep a record and often appeals to such when he turns to act on our behalf. But it is a record of our suffering, our tears, and our lamentation. He has promised never to keep record of our sins. The latter, praise God, are erased or blotted out from his book.
It’s entirely possible that some reading this will draw the wrong conclusion. They will conclude that I’m saying our sins have no effect in any sense of the term on our relationship with God. They will assume that what I’m suggesting is that we can continue to live in complete joy and peace and intimacy with the Lord no matter what we do or fail to do. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Once again, we have to keep fresh in our thinking the difference between our eternal union with God and our experiential communion with him. When the psalmist boldly declares that God does not “deal” with us according to our sin and will never “repay” us according to our iniquities and declines to “count” or impute our sins to us, he is talking about our eternal union. In that relationship with God, we stand secure and safe because of his commitment to preserve and protect us. But when it comes to our daily, experiential capacity to enjoy the truth of our eternal union and to relish the peace that surpasses all understanding and to feel the joy in our hearts of being a child of God, repeated and unrepentant sin most assuredly does come into play. It clouds our minds and hinders our hearts from feeling God’s affection for us. We cannot presume that God will hear our prayers while we cling tenaciously to some sinful or addictive habit. So, yes, there is damage done to our sensible enjoyment of all that God is for us in Jesus. But when it comes to our salvation and eternal relationship with the Lord, we can rejoice in knowing that Psalm 103:8–14 is ever and always true.
How God Has Dealt with Our Sin
Now, here’s the question: Why does God not deal with us according to our sins? Why does he not repay us according to our iniquities? Why does he not count or reckon our sins against us? In other words, on what grounds does he take such magnanimous and marvelous action? Does he simply wave his hand of mercy and dismiss our guilt? Does he merely shrug off our rebellion and unbelief and hostility as if they were nothing and of no consequence? Does he ignore the dictates of his holiness when he forgives us? Does he pretend that justice matters little or that love trumps righteousness?
Clearly, the answer is no! The reason God does not deal with us according to our sins is because he has dealt with Jesus in accordance with what our sins require! The reason why God does not repay us according to our iniquities is because he has repaid his Son in accordance with what holiness demands—in perfect harmony, I must add, with the will and voluntary love of the Son himself!
David wrote these words of hope and life in Psalm 103 from within the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system. He could confidently speak of such grace and kindness because he personally knew of the Day of Atonement, of the blood sacrifice, of the scapegoat onto whose head his sins were symbolically placed and transferred (see Lev. 16).
In our case, on this side of the cross that forever and finally fulfills these old covenant types and symbols, we can confidently rest in the freedom of forgiveness because God has “put forward [Christ Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom. 3:25). God did not willy-nilly cast aside our sins as if they did not matter. Rather, he “laid on him [the Son, our Savior] the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). God did not casually ignore the dictates of his holy and righteous character. Rather, he “pierced” Jesus “for our transgressions” and “crushed” him “for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5).
This, and this alone, is why we can sing and celebrate that God does not and never will “deal with us according to our sins” or “repay us according to our iniquities.” The measure of God’s “steadfast love” (Ps. 103:11) is the depth of the sacrifice he endured in giving up his only Son to suffer in our stead (see Rom. 8:32).
1. John Goldingay, Psalms, Volume 2: Psalms 42–89 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 187.
2. Goldingay, Psalms, Volume 2, 187.