Three Ways to View Forgiveness of Sin: Which Way is Yours?
1. The first way is Nietzsche's way--denial of the existence of the moral world. He declared the strong person to be the one who can inflict great pain, hear the cries of the victims, and not be moved. Hitler loved Nietzsche's ideas and preached them to his generals seeking to persuade them to mercilessly annihilate the Russians, knowingly in violation of the war crimes treaties. A few self-identified atheists have told me that the moral world is unreal and forgiveness is only an emotional reaction. Two of them have had the courage to say that rape is never wrong because it is non-existent. One atheist has been repeatedly unwilling answer the question about rape's wrongness.
2. The second way is to see sin as individual moral failures and therefore evaluate and deal with them one by one. What does this look like? Each time a person sins against you, you decide to forgive or not forgive the person for that failure. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you hold grudges, sometimes you don't. It is common to wait to forgive until the offender requests it. It is also common to think that the offender needs to have some sorrow or repentance for forgiveness to not be taken advantage of. In this way of thinking, God sees, evaluates, counts, and deals with your sins one by one. Since Jesus died for all your sins, all your sins are individually laid on Jesus and therefore you are forgiven for each and every one that he carries for you. Sometimes one can think that those in heaven are those whose individual sins have been laid on Jesus and those in hell are those whose individual sins were not carried by Jesus. Sometimes this thinking can lead to doubts related to sins where one has not asked forgiveness out of neglect or pride.
3. The third way is to see sin as dishonor of God's goodness, of His perfect moral law. "God is well-pleased for righteousness' sake to exalt His law and make it glorious." -Isaiah 42:21 Thinking this way focuses understanding of sin and forgiveness on God's glory in His goodness, and perfect law as the only standard of judgment. Relations with God and other people here are thought of in terms of honoring perfect law: goodness, perfect love, and obedience as all or nothing. Since every person is born with the desire to exalt self over perfect law, and the heart is the source of all actions, then the law has already been dishonored at birth by every human alive. In the Bible and the human conscience it is written that goodness can only be honored by complete freedom from unmet moral obligations. This is accomplished either by perfect obedience to law or by total freedom from obligation to law. There is no other option because, as James declares, "He who keeps the whole law and offends in one point only is guilty of all." In this view evaluation of the moral failures of self and others is done in light of how to honor perfect law. Thus one finds that only one human action honors perfect law, and that is the appeal to the righteousness of Christ in His substitutionary death for sinners. When one is mistreated one sees Christ as the only hope for the violator, who is either 1) totally freed from rejection and condemnation in being identified with Christ in His death for helpless sinners, or 2) fully subject to God's righteous reaction against sin. Thinking this way frees one from the need to decide about forgiveness because one realizes that only God can forgive and that has already been settled at the cross. Moral failure is seen as caused by forgetfulness of or disregard for the meaning of the cross. Christ's death is not seen as payment for individual sins but rather as the establishment of the honor of the law. All men are law-breakers and Christ the divine law-keeper died the death that all men deserve. Death has been conquered and life in goodness above law offered freely to all. The mind is now free to focus sharply on the distinction between motivation from thankfulness for love received versus seeking a reward. Since perfection is always the standard, progressive obedience has no meaning. In this way of thinking sins are not forgiven but rather the person is forgiven, which means that the person is viewed through identity: either as under the authority of law or under the authority of grace. God has already taken care of the honor of the law and thus all saints are free to focus on boldly declaring that honor without having to keep score for self and others. Confession is now freely and primarily about perfect law established by Christ rather than about individual failures by humans. Confession of individual moral failures is now free from the pressure of imperfect manageable standards and can be done joyfully in full honesty in view of the finished work of Christ.
As you may suspect, I have chosen #3. Can it really be this good? Let's celebrate and invite everyone to the cross.