“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
A psychologist conducted a study in which he talked with inmates in a penitentiary. He asked each of them, “Why are you here?” The answers were instructive. One said, “I was framed.” Another said, “They ganged up on me.” The third said, “It was a case of mistaken identity.” And another, “The police had it in for me.” Not one of them admitted he was guilty; they were all innocent—at least in their minds.
We may not have spent time in prison, but have we lived blameless lives? Have we ever done anything that has affected our relationship with God? Have we ever done anything that sentenced us to punishment as happened with these men? Consider again the example mentioned previously of John Newton, whose years in one of the vilest of sins—slave trading—led him to understand how much he needed God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
True freedom comes from God
Following is part of a letter we received from a prisoner in a penitentiary who wrote to express thanks for our Beyond Today magazine: “I found your magazine to be interesting, informative and factual in accordance with the Scriptures. Your articles reflect not only the problems of this age but remind me that God’s plan has never changed and inspires me to live in prison in accordance with His laws and commandments.
“I’m incarcerated because I broke God’s laws by my disobedience. Yes, I also broke man’s laws, but man cannot bring about restoration of the soul or a new life. Only my complete surrender to God’s will has enabled me to become a new man through Christ Jesus. Your magazine keeps me in touch with the real world as it emphasizes the imminent return of the Kingdom of God and His fulfilling grace. This is indeed good news . . . I thank God for your ministry.”
What is it like to come to understand, as this prisoner has, that true freedom and restoration can only come from God, no matter how long of a sentence one might serve in prison? Do we appreciate the good news of God’s soon-coming Kingdom and the reconciliation available for us with Him after breaking His law? Because without this, we’re not only in prison, we’re on spiritual death row. It’s vital that we understand how God’s grace makes possible forgiveness and reconciliation to Him!
Whether we realize it or not, sin has affected our relationship with God and cut us off from Him. What is the solution to our alienation from God? How can we be reconciled to Him? And after reconciliation with Him, what does He expect of us? It’s vital that we understand the answers to these questions from the Scriptures!
Changing from enemies of God to friends
How has sin affected our relationship with God? God’s Word tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Except for Jesus Christ, who was God made flesh, all people have sinned and fallen short. And our sin has affected our relationship with God.
Isaiah 59:1-2 tells us how sin has impacted that relationship: “Behold the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.”
Isaiah’s words are blunt. Our sins are what separate us from God, harming our relationship with Him. Our relationship with God has been damaged immeasurably and needs great repair. God didn’t separate Himself from us, but we alienated ourselves from Him through our sin—which is disobedience to His law (1 John 3:4).
So what is the solution to our separation and alienation from God? What must we do to begin to have a right relationship with Him?
We find the answer in Isaiah 55:6-7: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” This takes clear action on our part. God expects us to turn to Him, to repent, to change, and then He will have mercy on us.
What does it mean to have mercy? The story is told of a mother who approached the French emperor Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed an offense and been judged guilty and that justice demanded his death. “But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother implored, “I plead for mercy.” To this Napoleon replied, “But your son does not deserve mercy.” The woman begged, “It would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask.” “Then,” Napoleon responded, “I will have mercy,” and he spared the woman’s son.
Mercy is not something we deserve. Mercy is mercy. There is a beauty and simplicity to God’s way of dealing with us. Yes, we have been alienated from Him because of our sins, but there is a solution and a way we can become reconciled to Him. God shows undeserved mercy to those who forsake their own ways and return to Him.
Jesus told a story of a young man who made a wrong decision, turned his back on his father and wasted all his father had given him—and of what happened to him as a result. We know it as the parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15.
You may remember how the story turns out. After the young man suffers the painful consequences of rejecting his father’s wisdom and guidance and loses absolutely everything, he realizes he has hit rock bottom. Humbled, humiliated and hurting, he returns to his father, realizing he deserves nothing, not even to be called a son. But to his astonishment, he is welcomed back with open arms and celebration. (Read more about this story in “A Parable Showing the Magnitude of God’s Grace".)
Perhaps you see yourself in the story of the prodigal son, and can appreciate the lesson of the parable—that when we come to our senses and return to God, He will have mercy and pardon us and welcome us to a right relationship with Him. But it doesn’t happen if we don’t turn from our own selfish ways, repent and change, and live according to His ways!
Forgiveness and reconciliation
How can we be reconciled to God? We’ve noted that our sins separate us from our Father in heaven, yet He is willing to have mercy on us if we’re willing to repent and change and return to Him, like the prodigal son. But how is this really possible? How can we be reconciled? After all, Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death . . .”—meaning death is what we have earned because of our sins. Our sins require our death; we’re on death row.
Yet notice the last part of Romans 6:23: “. . . but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Through Christ, God offers a gift to us if we do our part.
Notice also Romans 5: “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 6:9). The apostle Paul tells us that through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, through His giving of His own life and pouring out His own blood to pay the death penalty we deserved, that penalty can be removed.
Paul continues: “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 6:10-11).
This is something to rejoice about, to glorify God for! Yes, our sins have separated us from God, and we earned the death penalty for those sins. But God will have mercy on us, as the blood of Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us—and we can and should rejoice in that!
Paul explains further in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (NIV): “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
So God is explaining to us, through Paul, that we can be reconciled to Him, having our severed relationship with Him healed. He implores us to be reconciled to Him through Christ’s blood. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to have this reconciliation with the Father. Without it we will die forever because the wages of sin is death. But we are set free from that penalty if we accept Christ’s sacrifice and are reconciled to God.
Forgiveness is possible through God’s grace
Here’s another letter received at our office. This person writes: “I would like to take this God-given opportunity to thank you for your generous hearts in sending me free copies of your booklets. For the past years of my early adult life (I’m 22 years old), I have felt that I lost my direction. I’ve realized that during those times when the road I was taking was dark and I was really in desperation and in unfathomable loneliness, God was curving my path back to His arms and He never left my side.
“I’m really inspired and am continually seeking God, and your magazine and booklets and are one of the ways I am certain that will lead me back to our Father. Again, thank you very much. May you prosper more in order to help millions of believers and unbelievers to nourish their whole being through God’s grace. God bless you always.”
All this is possible through God’s grace. It’s not because of anything we can do to earn it. We’re reconciled to God through the death of Jesus Christ His Son. As John 3:16-17 tells us: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
God sent His Son into the world to pay the penalty for our sins so we could be saved—saved from the death penalty. As we’re told in 1 John 1:7, “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” God frees us from the guilt we incurred through our sins by accepting the voluntary death of Christ in our place as payment of the penalty we deserved. That’s why each of us bears responsibility in the death of Jesus Christ—not any one person alone, not any one group of people, but all of us—for we have all sinned and brought the death penalty on ourselves (Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23).
Redeemed by God
As we read in Isaiah, repentance and returning to God is our starting point for receiving redemption and establishing a lasting relationship with God. “Redeem” and “redemption” are words that appear often in the Bible, and their basic meaning is buying back, securing release or setting free by a payment. And this is exactly what happens for those who genuinely repent and turn to God. They are bought back, released and set free from the death penalty and slavery to sin—redeemed not with money but with the precious blood of Christ’s sacrifice (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Paul describes it this way in Romans 6:16-18 (NIV): “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
Paul’s point is that we are all slaves—it’s just a matter of to whom or to what we are enslaved. Cut off from God, human beings are enslaved to sin, leading to death. But having been redeemed from that slavery through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death, we serve a new Master—God, leading to a life of righteousness and eternal life.
Again, this repentance, redemption and reconciliation are all gifts of God’s grace made possible by Jesus Christ’s shed blood.
Living by every word of God
If we are to be “slaves to righteousness,” as Paul puts it, what does that mean? What does that look like? As we see from Acts 2:38, we are to repent, be baptized and receive the gift of God’s Spirit. We do this in faith, trusting in God and in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as payment for the death penalty we deserved for our sins. Baptism brings forgiveness through the symbolic death and burial of the old self along with our sins and a symbolic resurrection to a new life in Christ (Romans 6:1-11). Through the laying on of hands of a true minister of God we receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit (see Acts 8:14-18).
But once that has happened, then what? Those reconciled to God through faith in Christ’s sacrifice must continue living in faith—that is, in harmony with the instructions and fundamental beliefs expressed in God’s Word. As Jesus Himself said, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4). God expects us to be blameless after accepting Christ’s sacrifice—to live by every word that He speaks.
Some believe that once you accept Christ, it doesn’t matter how you live your life from that point forward—you are then saved and can’t ever lose your salvation, no matter what. This concept is summed up in the popular phrase “Once saved, always saved.” But this is a satanic lie and deception! (See “Can Those God Has Forgiven Reject His Grace?”.)
Read what Paul wrote in Romans 6:1-2, immediately after discussing how we are saved by God’s grace: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”
Paul shows the folly of the reasoning that once we are forgiven of our sins, which required Christ’s sacrificial death in our place, we could continue in these sins. Since we figuratively died with Christ because of our sins, how could we possibly justify continuing in a life of sin? May we continue in sin? “Certainly not!” is Paul’s clear response! (We’ll explore this more in the chapter “Grace and Law: What Does the Bible Say?”)
“Holy and blameless and above reproach”
In spite of what some may teach, we cannot continue a life of breaking God’s commandments and expect His grace to continue for us. Paul discusses more of what it means to be reconciled to God in Colossians 1: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works . . .” (Colossians 1:21). Here again we see, as we read earlier in Isaiah 59:1-2, that our sins—our “wicked works”—alienated us from God and made us enemies to Him.
Continuing in Colossians 1: “. . . yet now He [Jesus Christ] has reconciled [you] in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and blameless and above reproach in His sight . . .” (Colossians 1:22). So again we see the necessity of accepting and having faith in Christ’s sacrifice to have our past sins forgiven, and being reconciled to God through Christ’s death.
And what follows next from this? “. . . If indeed we continue in the faith [that is, in trusting belief in the truth we’ve learned and in the practice that goes with it], grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Colossians 1:23).
Plainly we have to continue in that faith after accepting Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf. We have to continue, not moving away from what we have learned about the hope of the gospel of the Kingdom of God and how we may enter that Kingdom through Jesus Christ. (To learn more about what this means, download or request our free study guides The Gospel of the Kingdom and Why Were You Born?)
Living “soberly, righteously and godly”
It’s vital that all who trust in God remember that we have to live a life of godliness after baptism, as the apostle Paul reminds us. Notice what he wrote in Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”
So does it matter how we live after our sins are forgiven? Absolutely! God looks at how we live; He looks at the works of our life; He looks at how we treat people as He redeems us from our lawless deeds. He expects us to be growing, learning and developing.
Jesus set the bar for us quite high! We see it in Matthew 5:48 (NIV): “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The bar Jesus set is that of our Heavenly Father’s divine nature and character. We are told to become like Him—not like the people around us, but to become like Him. That’s only possible through God the Father and Jesus Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit (see John 14:16-17, John 14:23).
We are expected to become perfect, to put away the sins in our life and grow in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). We have to strive to live a righteous life as we are reconciled with God! We’ll see more about growing and striving toward righteousness later on. (And to learn more about how to become like God through His Holy Spirit, download or request our free study guide Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion.)
Sins covered by Christ’s blood
What sins are covered by Christ’s blood? As noted above, at baptism God forgives our past sins—sins we repented of and stopped practicing. And that forgiveness is total. As King David wrote in Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
As we saw above in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” All of us have sinned and separated ourselves from our Father in heaven, and it’s not until we return to Him, become reconciled and accept Jesus’ sacrifice that things can change for us.
Paul then continues in this passage: “. . . and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus . . .” (Romans 3:24, NIV). Once again we see that this is all possible by and through the blood of Jesus Christ.
Further: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished . . .” (Romans 3:25, NIV). So God in His patience and mercy chose not to punish us for the sins we had previously committed.
“He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, NIV). So we have to believe and have faith that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice will do this for us. He died to pay for our sins and lead us to repentance. He never intended that we misconstrue grace and forgiveness as permission to ignore or disobey the core teachings that God revealed throughout the Scriptures.
Instead He taught, as we’ve already noted, that man must live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We have to live by the Word of God from that point forward!
What if we sin later?
But what happens if we sin after baptism? Can those future sins also be covered by Christ’s blood? We find the answer in 1 John 2: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous . . .” (1 John 2:1). So we are not supposed to sin, as we have seen many times, but if or when we do, Jesus Christ will intercede for us and the Father will continue to accept Christ’s blood as atonement for our sins.
Continuing: “And He Himself is the propitiation [or atoning sacrifice that reconciles us to God] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:2-6).
As we see here, we’re expected to walk as our Savior walked—to live as He lived. He lived a righteous, sinless life, and that’s how we’re expected to live—in obedience to God’s commandments. And if or when we sin, any new sins must then be repented of to continue living a life of godly righteousness.
We are God’s workmanship
So why do we need God’s grace? Nothing we can do can earn us forgiveness and salvation. Forgiveness and salvation are gifts from God. We are saved by His grace, as we see in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Then Paul adds in Ephesians 2:10 : “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them”—or, as the New Revised Standard Version renders the last part, “. . . which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Yes, grace is a gift from God, but we’re still expected to live a life of righteousness after accepting that gift. The Bible is consistent and plain in its teaching that salvation is a gift from God, but even though it is a gift, we are expected to obey God if we are to receive that gift.
Notice what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” It’s not enough to acknowledge God the Father and Christ as Lord—as Master and Ruler—we must actually be under Their rule by obeying!
Certainly forgiveness and salvation are gifts from God. They cannot be earned. As human beings we possess nothing of sufficient value to pay for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation. Yet Jesus bluntly tells us here that unless we surrender our will to God and commit to doing His will, we’ll have no part in His Kingdom. And He tells us elsewhere that unless we repent, we will perish (Luke 13:3, Luke 13:5).
Through repentance we do not earn salvation, but repentance is a prerequisite for receiving that salvation. We have to seek to have our sins forgiven—and that comes by God’s grace. There’s nothing we can do of ourselves to bring this about. Then God expects us to act accordingly to receive that gift.
Putting all of this together, we see that a good way to describe God’s grace is as His freely given, undeserved favor toward us, motivated by His love and concern for us, especially for those of us who accept His invitation to enter into a relationship with Him. Grace encompasses all of the wonderful gifts God so kindly gives to us!