For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)Merciful.—Literally, propitious. On the kindred word “make propitiation,” see Hebrews 2:17.
To their unrighteousness.—Rather, to their unrighteousnesses, and their sins will I remember no more. The words “and their iniquities” are omitted by the best authorities. Here is given the third and chief promise: the characteristic of the new covenant is the full pardon of sin.
Of this new covenant, “ordained” on the three promises of an inward revelation, universal knowledge of God, and free pardon of sin, Jesus is the Mediator. How this is to be understood the writer himself will teach, for all these promises are present (virtually or formally) in the last portion of his argument (Hebrews 10:14-18). In part they belong to the new covenant from the beginning. The pardon is spoken of not as a gift to individuals, but rather as from the first a characteristic of the covenant (Hebrews 9:26; Hebrews 10:18). The first promise is seen in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the teaching represented by the Sermon on the Mount, in which inward principles of life take the place of many an outward rule. The second waits for full accomplishment, but is seen in the abolition of distinctions between nation and nation, and the common influence of the Holy Spirit.
This subject has presented difficulties, because it has been forgotten that this Scripture speaks of no sudden change in man’s relation to God. The essential promises of the new covenant were not unknown under the old. “Thy law is within my heart” is the saying of one Psalmist; “Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin,” of another. But in regard to the nation there was failure. The rites of the Law did not lead to the perception of spiritual truths; ordinances which were intended to teach the divine intolerance of sin became mere ceremonies; external sanctions did not preserve the nation in true obedience to God’s law. To all, the former covenant (like the first Tabernacle, Hebrews 9:9) was a parable, explained only when the new covenant (which was in truth before the old, Galatians 3:17) was “ordained.”
FORGIVENESS THE FUNDAMENTAL BLESSING
Hebrews 8:12WE have been considering, in successive sermons, the great promises preceding my text, which are the articles of the New Covenant. We reach the last of theme in this discourse. It is last in order of enumeration because it is first in order of fulfilment. The foundation is dug down to and discovered last, because the stones of it were laid first. The introductory ‘for’ in my text shows that the fulfilment of all the preceding great promises depends upon and follows the fulfilment of this, the greatest of them. Forgiveness is the keystone of the arch. Strike it out, and the whole tumbles’ into ruin. Forgiveness is the first gift to be received from the great cornucopiae of blessings which the gospel brings for men. The writer is tracing the stream upwards, and therefore he comes last to that which first gushes out from the divine heart. All these previous promises of delight in the law of the Lord, mutual possession between God and His people, knowledge of God which is based upon love, are consequences of this final article, ‘I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their iniquities will I remember no more.’
I. So, then, we remark, first, that forgiveness deals with man’s deepest need.
It is fundamental, because it grapples with the true evil of humanity, which is not sorrow, but is sin. All men have ‘come short of the glory of God,’ and that fact, the fact of universal sinfulness, is the gravest fact of man’s condition; for it affects his whole nature, and it disturbs and perverts all his relations to God. And so, if men would rightly diagnose the disease of humanity, they must recognise something far deeper than skin-deep symptoms, and discover that it is sin which is the source of all human misery and sorrow. To deal with humanity and to forget or ignore the true source of all the misery in the world - namely, the fact that we ‘have all sinned and come short of the glory of God’ - is absurd. ‘Miserable comforters are ye all,’ if pottering over the patient, you apply ointment to pimples when he is dying of cancer. I know, of course, that a great deal may be done, and that a great deal is to-day being done, to diminish the sum of human wretchedness; and I am not the man to say one word that shall seem to under-estimate or pour cold water upon any of these various schemes of improvement - philanthropic, social, economic, or political; but I do humbly venture to say that any of them, and all of them put together, if they do not grapple with this fact of man’s sin, are dealing with the surface and leaving the centre untouched. Sin does not come only from ignorance, and therefore it cannot be swept away by knowledge. It does not come only from environment, and therefore it cannot be taken out of human history by improvement of circumstances. It does not come from poverty, and therefore economical changes will not annihilate it. The root of it lies far deeper than any of these things. The power which is to make humanity blessed must dig down to the root and grasp that, and tear it up, and eject it from the heart of man before society can be thoroughly healed. Now, what does Christianity do with this central part of human experience? My text tells us partly, and only partly, ‘I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.’ Of course, the divine oblivion is a strong metaphor for the treatment of man’s sins as non-existent. It is the same figure, in a somewhat different application, as is found in the great promise, ‘I will cast their sins behind My back into the depths of the sea.’ It is the same metaphor as is suggested in a somewhat different application, by the other saying, ‘Blessed is the man whoso sin is covered.’ And the fact that underlies the metaphors of forgetfulness or burying in the ocean depths, or covering over so as to-be invisible, is just this, that God’s love flows out to the sinful man, unhindered by the fact of his transgression.
If Christian people, and doubters about Christian truth, would understand the depth and loftiness of the Christian idea of forgiveness, there would be less difficulty felt about it. For pardon is not the same thing as the removal of the consequences of wrongdoing. It is so in regard of the mere outward judicial: procedure of nations, but it is not so in the family. A father often pardons, and says that he does so before he punishes, and it is the same with God. The true notion and essence of forgiveness, as the Bible conceives it, is not the putting aside of consequences, but the flow of the Father’s heart to the erring child.
Sin is a great black dam, built up across the stream, but the flood of love from God’s heart rises over it, and pours across it, and buries it beneath the victorious, full waters of the ‘river of God.’ Here is a world wrapped in mist, and high above the mist the unbroken sunshine of the divine love pours down upon the upper layer, and thins and thins and thins it until it disappears, and the full sunshine floods the rejoicing world, and the ragged fragments of the mist melt into the blue. ‘I have blotted out as a cloud thy sins and as a thick cloud thy transgressions,’ The outward consequences of forgiven sin may have to be reaped. If a man has lived a sensuous life, no. repentance, no forgiveness, will prevent the drunkard’s hand from trembling, or cure the corrugations of his liver. If a man has sinned, no divine forgiveness will ever take the memory of his transgressions, nor their effects, out of his character. But the divine forgiveness may so modify the effects as that, instead of past sin being a source of torment or a tyrant which compels to future similar transgressions, pardoned sin will become a source of lowly self-distrust, and may even tend to increase in goodness and righteousness. When bees cannot remove some corruption out of the hive they cover it over with wax, and then it is harmless, and they can build upon it honey-bearing cells. Thus it is possible that, by pardon, the consequences which must be reaped may be turned into occasions for good.
But the act of the divine forgiveness does annihilate the deepest and the most serious consequences of my sin; for hell is separation from God, the sense of discord and alienation between Him and me; and all these are swept away.
So here is the foundation blessing, which meets man’s deepest need. And be sure of this, that any system which cannot grapple with that need will never avail for the necessities of a sinful world. Unless our new evangelists can come to us with as clear an utterance as this of my text, they will work their enchantments in vain; and the world will be the old, sad, miserable world, after all that they can do.
II. This forgiveness is attained through Christ, and through Him only.
I have tried to show in former sermons, that the whole of these promises of what our writer calls ‘the New Covenant,’ are, as our Lord Himself said, sealed ‘in His blood.’ And that is especially true in reference to this promise of forgiveness. It is in Christ Jesus, and in Christ Jesus alone, that that pardon which my text speaks of is secured to men.
I need not dwell upon the Scriptural statements to this effect, but I desire to emphasize this thought, that the Christian teaching of forgiveness is based upon the conception of Christ’s work and especially of Christ’s death, as being the atonement for the world’s sin. It is because, and only because, ‘He bore our sins in His own body on the tree,’ that the full-toned gospel proclamation can be rung out to men, that God ‘remembers their transgressions no more.’ Unless that foundation be firmly laid in the New Testament conception of the meaning and power of the death of Christ, I know not where there is a basis for the proclamation to man of divine forgiveness.
Of course, my text itself does show that the very common misrepresentation of the New Testament evangelical teaching about this matter is a misrepresentation. It is often objected to that teaching that it alleges that Christ’s sacrifice effected a change in the divine heart and disposition, and made God love men whom He did not love before. The mighty ‘I will’ of my text makes no specific reference to Christ’s death, and rather implies what is the true relation between the love of God and the death of Jesus Christ, that God’s love was the originating cause, of which Christ’s death was the redeeming effect. ‘He so loved the world that He gave His... Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should... have eternal life.’ And no wise evangelical teacher ever has asserted, or does assert, anything else than that the mission of Jesus Christ is the consequence, and not the cause, of the Father’s love to sinful men.
But that being kept distinctly in view, I suppose I need not remind you how, like the strand that runs through the cables of the Royal Navy, the red thread of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the whole world runs through the whole of the New Testament. It it fashionable nowadays to say that no theory of the atonement is needed in order that men should receive the benefit Christ’s work. That is partially true, in so far as that no human conceptions will exhaust the fulness of that great work, nor can penetrate to all its depths. But it is not true, as I humbly take it, inasmuch as if a man is to get the forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ, he must have this theory, that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’ And that is the teaching of the whole New Testament.
I need not remind you how all Paul’s writing is saturated with it, but I may remind you that to people who were very lynx-eyed critics of him and of his teaching, he said, about that very statement that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures - ‘whether it were they or I, so we preach.’ And his appeal to the consensus and unanimity of the apostles is amply vindicated by the documents that still remain. We are told that there are types of teaching in the New Testament. There are, and very beautifully they vary, and very harmoniously they blend. But there are no diversities in regard to this matter. If Paul says, ‘In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of our sins,’ Peter says, ‘He bare our sins in His own body on the tree’; and John says, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world.’ And if, as I believe, the Book of the Revelation is his, the vision that John saw in the heavens was the vision of ‘a Lamb as it had been slain’; and the song which he heard rising from immortal lips was of praise unto Him that ‘hath loosed us from our sins by His own blood.’
‘So they preached.’ God grant that it may be true of all of us; ‘so we Believe.’ For; Brethren, this clear, certain statement of the gospel of forgiveness through Jesus Christ is the characteristic glory of the whole revelation. Without it, apart from Him and His Cross, I do not know how the hope of forgiveness can be more than dim and doubtful I know not how any man that has once felt the grip of evil on his inclinations, and the responsibility and guilt which he has drawn down upon his head by his transgressions, can find a firm footing for his assurance of pardon, apart from the Cross of Jesus Christ. Without that, the divine forgiveness is but a peradventure, sometimes a hope, sometimes an illusion. The men that
reject Christianity for the most part proclaim the gospel of despair.
‘Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap,’ in such a sense as to annihilate the possibility of pardon. But in Christ we understand that we may reap these fruits, and yet be pardoned. ‘Thou wast a God that forgavest them, and tookest vengeance of their inventions.’ Forgiveness apart from Christ stands, as it seems to me, in no intelligible relation to the divine character. And, apart from Christ, forgiveness is apt to dwindle down, and to be degraded into mere lazy tolerance of evil, and to make God a good-natured, indifferent Sovereign, who does not so very much mind whether His subjects do His will or not.
But when we can say, ‘He died for my sins,’ then we can see that the divine righteousness and the divine love are but two names for one thing, and forgiveness lifts us into a region of higher purity. Christianity alone teaches the loftiest ideal of human righteousness, the loftiest conception of the divine character, the absolute inflexibility of the divine law and withal full, free pardon. It stands alone in the sombre aspect under which it contemplates humanity, and the bound less hope of its possibilities which it entertains. It stands alone in that forgiveness is the means to higher holiness; and in that, pardoning, it heals, and whispers ‘Go thy way; sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee.’ Therefore is it a gospel; therefore is it the New Covenant in His blood.
III. Lastly, this forgiveness is fundamental to all other Christian blessings.
As I have said, the very structure of our text shows that that was the writer’s idea. There can be no ‘delight in the law of the Lord,’ which is the first of the articles of the New Covenant, until there is the taking away of the sin which deepens aversion to God’s law, and until the Lawgiver has become beloved for the sake of His received forgiveness. Then we shall delight in the law when we love the lips that proclaim it, because before they issued commandments they decreed absolution, and declared ‘Neither do I condemn thee.’
Forgiveness precedes the second of these covenant blessings - viz., mutual possession between God and His people. For so long as there remains unforgiven sin in a man’s heart, it comes like a film of atmospheric air or grains of dust between two polished metal plates, forbidding their adhesion; and only when it is taken away will they come together and abide united. It lies at the foundation of, and must precede, all that true knowledge of God, which is the third of the articles of the covenant, and is a consequence of love and communion. ‘For how can two walk together except they be agreed?’ Until my sin is taken from me the eyes of my soul are dim; and I know not God in deep reciprocal possession and continual love. And so with all other of the blessings and the hopes which Christian men are entitled to cherish by reason of this covenant of God’s changeless love.
I need not dwell upon them, but I would leave with you these thoughts. A Christianity which does not begin with the proclamation of forgiveness is impotent. Again, a Christianity which does not base forgiveness on Christ’s sacrifice is also impotent. The history of the Church shows that preachers and teachers and churches that do not know what to say when a poor soul comes to them and asks, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ are of no use, or next to none The man in whom there are devils says to such maimed representations of the gospel, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?’ and leaps upon them, and overcomes them. The whole experience of the past demonstrates that. And so one laments the vagueness and the faltering in proclaiming this truth so common in this day. Brethren, I, for my part, believe that the only type of Christianity which will win men’s hearts is that modeled on the pattern of the New Testament teaching, which begins with the fact of sin, and, having dealt with that, then goes on to bestow all other blessings.
But do not forget another thing, that a Christianity which does not build holiness, delight in God’s law, conscious possession of Him and possession by Him, and deep, blessed knowledge of Him, on forgiveness, is wofully imperfect. And that is the Christianity of a great many of us. Here is the first round of the ladder: ‘I will remember their iniquities no more.’ Put your foot upon that and then begin to ascend; and do not stop till you have reached the top, whence His face looks down, and whence you can step on to the stable standing-ground beside His very throne. Begin with forgiveness, and all these blessings: shall be added unto you, if you keep the covenant of your God.Hebrews 10:28); marked every offence with strictness, and employed the language of mercy much less frequently than that of justice. It was a system where law and justice reigned; not where mercy was the crowning and prevalent attribute. It was true that it contemplated pardon, and made arrangements for it; but it is still true that this is much more prominent in the new dispensation than in the old. It is there the leading idea. It is what separates it from all other systems. The entire arrangement is one for the pardon of sin in a manner consistent with the claims of law and justice, and it bestows the benefit of forgiveness in the most ample and perfect manner on all who are interested in the plan. In fact, the uniqueness by which the gospel is distinguished from all other systems, ancient and modern, philosophic and moral, pagan and deistical, is that it is a system making provision for the forgiveness of sin, and actually bestowing pardon on the guilty. This is the center, the crown, the glory of the new dispensation. God is merciful to the unrighteousness of people and their sins are remembered no more.
Will I remember no more - This is evidently spoken after the manner of men, and in accordance with human apprehension. It cannot mean literally that God forgets that people are sinners, but it means that he treats them as if this were forgotten. Their sins are not charged upon them, and they are no more punished than if they had passed entirely out of the recollection. God treats them with just as much kindness, and regards them with as sincere affection, as if their sins ceased wholly to be remembered, or which is the same thing, as if they had never sinned.
I will be merciful—Greek, "propitious"; the Hebrew, "salach," is always used of God only in relation to men.
and their iniquities—not found in Vulgate, Syriac, Coptic, and one oldest Greek manuscript; but most oldest manuscripts have the words (compare Heb 10:17).
remember no more—Contrast the law, Heb 10:3.For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness: this for states the cause of all the former acts promised in the gospel covenant, as regenerating, illuminating, adopting, and God’s gracious removing all sins that might hinder the communication of these and all other good to his covenanted ones; God, in and by the administration of this covenant, ratified by his blood, propitiating him, will of his free mercy pardon, blot out, and take away, Hebrews 2:17, and thereby free them from the guilt, power, and punishment of their original and actual unrighteousness; implying his reconciliation to, and free acceptance of, their persons in Jesus Christ, on whose account it is he dealeth so graciously with them in all things, Isaiah 55:7-9 1Jo 4:9.
And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more; all the breaches of God’s law by commissions or omissions, whatever they may be for number or for aggravation, he will always through Christ save his covenanted ones from them all, Matthew 1:21 Romans 3:21-26. All of these shall not only be for the present blotted out, but his mercy will be so great and certain through Christ, that he will neither punish them for them, nor charge them to them; he will abundantly pardon, and for ever take them away, so as if they be sought for they shall not be found, Hebrews 10:3,14 Isa 43:25 Micah 7:18,19. And when he forgets their sins, he will have their persons in everlasting remembrance, Psalm 112:6.
And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more; by which are meant all kind of sin, original and actual; sins before and after conversion; every sin but that against the Holy Ghost, and that God's covenant people are never guilty of; these God remembers no more; he casts them behind his back, and into the depths of the sea, so that when they are sought for, they shall not be found; God will never charge them with them, or punish them for them: this is another phrase to express the forgiveness of sins, and distinguishes the new covenant from the old one, or the former dispensation; in which, though there were many typical sacrifices, and a typical removal of sin, yet there was a remembrance of it every year.For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)Hebrews 8:12. The inner ground of this communion with God and this knowledge of Him.
ὅτι] not: “that” (Michaelis, ad Peirc.), but: for.
ἵλεως ἔσομαι ταῖς ἀδικίαις αὐτῶν] I will be gracious (אֶסֶלֵח) to their unrighteousnesses, i.e. will forgive and forget the same.
ἀδικίαι] in the plural, in the N. T. only here, but of frequent occurrence with the LXX. Designation of the alienation from God in its single outbreaks and forms of manifestation.
καὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν καὶ τῶν ἀνομιῶν αὐτῶν] LXX. merely: καὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν, in accordance with the Hebrew: וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר־עו̇ד.Hebrews 8:12. ὅτι ἵλεως ἔσομαι ταῖς ἀδικίαις αὐτῶν … “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and their sins will I remember no more.” This third better promise is united to the former by ὅτι, showing that the forgiveness of sins or God’s grace is fundamental to any possible renewal and maintenance of covenant.12. I will be merciful to their unrighteousness] Comp. Romans 11:27. The third promise of the New Covenant is the forgiveness of sins, with a fulness and reality which could not be achieved by the sacrifices of the Old Covenant (see Hebrews 2:15, Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 9:12, Hebrews 10:1-2; Hebrews 10:4; Hebrews 10:22). Under the Old Covenant there had been a deep feeling of the nullity of sacrifices in themselves, which led to an almost startling disparagement of the sacrificial system (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:6; Psalm 50:8-10; Psalm 51:16; Micah 6:6-7; Isaiah 1:11; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-22, &c.)Hebrews 8:12. Ὅτι, because) The forgiveness of sins, the root of all benefits and of all knowledge of the Lord.—ταῖς ἀδικίαις αὐτῶν, to their unrighteousnesses) The abstract for the concrete: sin is abolished; sinners obtain grace or favour.—καὶ τῶν ἀνομιῶν αὐτῶν, and their iniquities) This is not found in the Hebrew nor in the LXX.; but the apostle adds it for the sake of giving to the discourse greater weight; ch. Hebrews 10:17 : comp. ibid. Hebrews 8:8; Hebrews 8:5.—οὐ μὴ μνησθῶ ἔτι, I will remember no more) Comp. Hebrews 10:3.
Only here and Matthew 16:22, see note.
Unrighteousnesses. The only occurrence of the word in the plural. For ἀδικία see on 2 Peter 2:13.
Their sins and their iniquities (τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν)
Will I remember no more (οὐ μὴ μνησθῷ ἔτι)
Lit. I will by no means remember any more.
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