The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty…” Ex 34:6-7
This verse puzzled me for a while. How does God forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin, and yet at the same time NOT clear the guilty?
If a man owes you $100, but can’t repay, and you forgive him the debt; have you not cleared him? And would it not be correct, if someone asked you if this man owed you $100, for you to say ‘no,’ since the debt has been cleared? Then how is it that God can forgive, but yet not clear the guilty?
The answer is that he does not clear the guilty, but rather allows the transfer of guilt.
God ALWAYS punishes the guilty. But thanks be to God, He, in His amazing grace, has made a way for our guilt to be transferred to Another!
In the Old Testament, God provided a way to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. The word ‘atone’ means ‘to cover.’ The idea being that these sins are blotted out, as if a vial of ink was poured onto a page on which the charges of the crimes were written, removing the possibility of those crimes being held against them. Those words were covered by the ink. In the same way, atonement provides a covering of sin.
God talks about this in the book of Ezekiel:
But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely life; he shall not die. NONE OF THE TRANSGRESSIONS WHICH HE HAS COMMITTED SHALL BE REMEMBERED AGAINST HIM; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. – Eze 18:21-22
Notice that the sins of a wicked man will be remembered no more when he turns from his sins and keeps God’s statutes. He’s forgiven not just when he turns from his sin, and not just when he keeps God’s statutes. It has to be both. And in God’s statues (the Old Testament; we’ll talk about the new soon), God lays out requirements for what must be done in order for sin to be atoned for (or covered).
One of those requirements was that every year in biblical Israel, there was to be important day kept, called the Day of Atonement. On this day, the priest would bring two young goats. One goat would be offered up as a sacrifice to provide atonement (or a covering) for their sins. On the other goat the high priest would lay his hands and confess the sins of the people, ‘putting them on the head of the goat,’ and then send it away into the wilderness.
The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat into the wilderness. – Lev 16:22
When the priest laid his hands upon the goat, he transferred all the sins of the people onto the goat. The goat became the bearer of their sins, and thus the bearer of their guilt. These sins were carried off into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
So, the people of Israel were forgiven of their sins because the goats provided a covering and bore away their guilt. God judged the goats instead of judging the people!
That goat (the one that was let loose in the wilderness), is called a scapegoat. I don’t know if you are familiar with the term ‘scapegoat,’ but it is a term that describes a person who is given the blame, or taking the punishment, for what others have done. This is exactly what this goat did.
I experienced being a scapegoat in 5th grade. While sitting together as a class, a girl next to me broke wind. If there is one thing that you don’t want to do in school, it is to break wind, especially if you are a girl. Looking for a way of escape, the girl immediately pointed to me and exclaimed, “Eww!” Nobody was going to believe that the cute little girl next to me was the guilty one. I was blamed, and the ridicule fell on me. I was the scapegoat, and the girl next to me got off scot-free.
A scapegoat bears the guilt of the guilty. God, in His mercy, provided these goats as a temporary way for the people of Israel to be forgiven. But the bible says that it is not possible for the blood of goats to take away sins (Heb 10:4). Therefore God provided a better sacrifice – that of His Son.
Those two goats typify Jesus (i.e. they were a shadow of what was to come). Jesus was both the offering for our sin, and the one who bore the guilt of our sin.
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has made to light upon Him the guilt and iniquity of us all. – Isa 53:6 AMP
When you shall make His soul an offering for sin… Isa 53:10
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. – Isa 53:11
The word ‘iniquity’ carries not just the idea of sin, but of the guilt of sin. Jesus took upon Himself our guilt, and carried it away! Our guilt was transferred to Him!
So that brings us back to our original question: What does it mean to be righteous. The answer is simple: Being righteous means that you do everything right.
Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? How can we be righteous, who have already done so many wrong things? Well, without God, it would be impossible. But God is so gracious, He takes everything we’ve ever done wrong and places it upon Jesus. Jesus carried it away never to be seen again. He was judged by God in place of us. Now, for as many as will receive Him by faith, we are counted as righteous because of what Jesus has done (Rom 4:22-25). God looks back at our record and sees that it has been erased. Every evil thing that we have ever done is gone. Because of Christ we now stand righteous before Him!
God forgives the sin, but He doesn’t clear the guilty. Instead He punished the guilty once and for all in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ!
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God – 1 Pet 3:18
Now that Jesus has cleansed us from all sin, He calls us to walk as He did (1 Jn 2:6), in holiness and righteousness. We are to put away the old person we used to be, and now to put on the new person that was created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph 4:22-24). We ought not sin anymore, because he who sins is of the devil (1 Jn 3:8), and we ought not thing ourselves saved if we continue in sin (1 Jn 3:7). But if we do fall into sin, thanks be to God that we can confess our sin, and He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9)! And being cleansed from all unrighteousness, of necessity, leaves us as righteous once again!
It’s a great feeling to know that you can now stand before God with the confidence that there is absolutely nothing that comes between you and Him. We have been so perfectly cleansed that God Himself now invites us into the most holiest place – His very presence. In days gone by, only the high priest was allow to enter, and that only once a year – because of his uncleanness. By now, being cleansed so completely by the blood of Jesus, we can BOLDLY enter into the very throne room of God (Heb 10:19). We can make petitions in the name of Jesus Christ Himself. We can enjoy His presence and His fellowship. God is so good!