As followers of Jesus, it doesn’t matter much what the Old Testament writers thought about sin and forgiveness. We take our cue from Jesus who has the clearest insight into the Father. And it is his words and actions in the gospels that guide our understanding of Jesus’ approach to sin and forgiveness.
Actually, we find that Jesus doesn’t say much about sin and sinners, which is a tremendous contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament Pharisees, and to the emphasis on ‘sin’ and ‘sinners’ among many believers today. Jesus is not so much interested in petty definitions of sin and how to solve it but in people having richer lives.
Jesus is about people—not rules. He relieves us of our burdens of guilt and alienation rather than judging us. Let’s look at highlights of Jesus’ words and actions regarding sin and forgiveness.Jesus Demonstrates His Response to Sin
Many of Jesus’ comments on sin and sinners are action-related. For example, in Mark 2 Jesus heals a paralyzed man; but before he heals him he says, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’
Notice that Jesus does not specify the man’s sins, nor does he ask him to repent or to accept him into his heart. He just forgives him. This action angers the Pharisees who ask who can forgive sins except God.
In the same chapter, the Pharisees confront Jesus for violating their religious rules about eating with ‘sinners’. They ask his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But Jesus, himself, responds:
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
To the Pharisees ‘sinners’ were those who didn’t observe their legalistic requirements, and Jesus was breaking religious rules himself by eating with them. But Jesus isn’t concerned with their accusation. The Pharisees were masters of judgmentalism and exclusion, whereas Jesus was the master of acceptance and inclusion.
Jesus calls sinners; the Pharisees push them away.
Luke 7 describes a similar case in which a Pharisee objects to his allowing a woman to anoint his feet with tears and perfume, saying ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.’
Jesus answers the Pharisee (who was hosting the banquet) with a story. Then he turns to the woman and says,
Your sins are forgiven.
She hadn’t asked for forgiveness. Jesus didn’t lecture her about her sins. He just forgave her.
Go and Sin No More
John shares two stories that bring additional perspective to Jesus’ attitude toward sinners. In chapter 5, Jesus encounters a man who was an invalid for 38 years; so he told him to pick up his mat and walk—which he did. However, Jesus caught up with him later and said,
See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.
This reminds me of the famous story of the adulterous woman in John 8. You know the story: knowing how Jesus felt about ‘sinners’, the Pharisees set a trap for him by planning to stone her to death and ask Jesus if he approves:
In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Jesus doesn’t answer their question but confronts them with a test of his own, and they left without stoning her. After they were gone, Jesus tells her:
“Neither do I condemn you…Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In both cases Jesus warns them not to continue sinning. Is this a threat that if they sin again he will reject them? Many believers assume this, but I don’t think so. I think that Jesus, knowing the damage of self-destructive behavior, warns them of those natural consequences. ‘Go and sin no more’ is not a threat but gentle warning to not be self-destructive because it leads to negative consequences.
Jesus Talks with His Disciples about Sin
The Pharisees thought they had all the answers on sin, and Jesus’ own disciples wanted answers too. The entire chapter of John 9 concerns a man who was born blind. The disciples ask,
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus replies that his being born blind was not caused by sin; then he responded with his usual compassion and healed him. But the Pharisees got hold of the man who was healed and interrogated and insulted him for most of the chapter. At the end of the chapter Jesus states:
“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Jesus was gentle and accepting with sinners but often opposed those self-righteous religious leaders who claimed sinlessness while condemning common ‘sinners’. The Pharisees loved to pray in public, but Jesus told his disciples in Mark 11,
When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer of Matthew 6. We should pray, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ He goes on to say,
If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
I don’t think Jesus makes the point that the Father is harsh about forgiving sin, rather he emphasizes the importance of our forgiving others so that our own forgiveness is effective. Peter was beginning to understand this in Matthew 18 when he asked for a bit of clarification:
Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?
You know the answer: 70 times 7 (490). This doesn’t mean that at offense #491 we can withhold forgiveness; Jesus is saying there is no end to forgiveness. We should forgive freely even as the Father (and Jesus) forgive freely. We learn from these passages that sin has to do, not with religious rules, but with self-destructive behavior and our offenses toward each other.
Finally we discover Jesus’ response to offenses against him.
Jesus’ Ultimate Word on Forgiveness
Luke 23 describes how Jesus was captured, mistreated, and sentenced to death. Luke says,
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him…Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Who could be worse sinners than those involved at every level leading to Jesus’ death? And yet, Jesus responds to their atrocity by asking the Father to forgive them.
This is always Jesus’ response to sin—to forgive. Let us do the same.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?