Who can forgive sins but God alone?
The synoptic gospels all record an event in the early public ministry of Christ that would, in many ways, define His ministry. Matthew, the tax collector, had just been called to be a follower of Christ. He immediately hosted a dinner, inviting his friends (many of whom were tax-collectors and other obvious sinners) so that they, too, might meet the Saviour.
Self-righteousness and the unbeliever
There were also some less obvious sinners there: the Pharisees. Demonstrating their usual level of grace, humility, insight, and cheerfulness, they demanded, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Mt. 9:11). The response of the Lord Jesus was as devastating as it was simple: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:12f). First, He logically shredded their complaint by pointing out that it was as foolish as saying, “What is that doctor doing with those sick people? Doesn’t he know they’re sick?!” Then, He theologically refuted their argument by quoting the Old Testament.
The Lord’s example of a doctor is, of course, perfectly appropriate. It illustrates the folly of self-righteousness by pointing out that only those who know they are sick go to a doctor for help. The one way to ensure a treatment doesn’t work is to forego it; and why undergo treatment for a disease you don’t believe you have? So the Pharisees turned their backs on the only cure for their terminal illness because they refused to admit they were sick. To the extent that they perceived their sin at all, they were confident—self-confident—that they had dealt with it themselves.
The irony is that, theologically, the Pharisees understood that only God could deal with sin. When the Lord Jesus pronounced the paralytic’s sins forgiven (Lk. 5:20), they recognized that He was claiming deity, and so they insisted that He was blaspheming because, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Lk. 5:21). Yet, on a personal and practical level, the Pharisees were convinced that they could deal with sin themselves. “For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).
Alas, this self-righteousness isn’t limited to the Pharisees. History is full of sinners who, too arrogant and stubborn to admit they needed a Saviour, rejected the love of God right to the bitter, dark, eternal end. It is deadly vanity. Spurgeon wrote, “Rely on self! Let night rely on her darkness to find a light; let emptiness rely on its insufficiency to find its fulness; let death rely on the worms to give it immortality; let hell rely upon its fire to make it into heaven—such trusts as these would be equally strong with those of the sinner who relies upon himself for salvation.”
The Lord Jesus reserved his strongest criticisms for the self-righteous; partly because self-righteousness is an insult to the person and work of Christ, but also because self-righteousness accomplishes an evil that not even the devil can achieve on his own: it prevents the sinner from being saved.
Self-righteousness and the Old Testament believer
But even though the interpretation and primary application of this passage are for unbelievers, isn’t there a vital lesson here for Christians, as well? Selfrighteousness doesn’t become helpful (or attractive) the moment someone gets saved.
In his great exposition of the gospel, Paul quotes David to show that the Christian message is completely consistent with the Old Testament (cf. Rom. 4:6-8 and Ps. 32:1f). But when we consider the context of David’s words, we see that David was speaking of his sin as a believer. David is describing his inner life in the months following his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah. Yet the Holy Spirit uses that experience to express a principle concerning sin in general, not the sin solely of believers or unbelievers.
At the time of writing Psalm 32, David was rejoicing in the forgiveness of sin. “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (vv. 1f). But, before this blessed state, David had endured months of suffering and anguish, all because he was too proud to admit his sin and turn to the Lord in brokenness. “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer” (vv. 3f).
What changed? How did David move from misery to joy? The answer is simple: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (v. 5). His pride and self-righteousness smothered all ability for him to enjoy the Lord and the blessings of salvation. He hadn’t lost his salvation, but he had certainly lost the joy of his salvation. Crushed, he realized that denying his sin was not the answer. Nor was any religious rite. “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:16f). Turning to the Lord in humility and acknowledging his sin and guilt, David found restoration through the limitless grace of God.
Self-righteousness and the New Testament believer
The New Testament makes precisely this same point with reference to the way sin is dealt with in a Christian’s life. John, writing to believers, says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). This isn’t a careless blurring of the saved and the lost. Rather, it is a recognition that the Scriptures present an overarching principle: only God can deal with sin. Practically, this happens when a person humbly admits his sin without excuse, dispenses with any notion that he can deal with that sin himself, and turns to the Lord in faith, recognizing that He, and He alone, can cleanse from sin. This is how an unbeliever’s sin is judicially forgiven for salvation, and this is how a believer’s sin is parentally forgiven for the enjoyment of salvation.
How, then, do we behave when we have sinned? Do we downplay our sin? Do we ignore it and hope it will be forgotten? Do we excuse it (“Everyone’s doing it!”) or justify it (“Well, you don’t know what he did to me first!”)? If we choose to do so, we will discover the hard way what David has already warned us about: self-righteousness and unconfessed sin will sap our life, destroy our joy, and poison our souls. Also, it eventually makes us a pariah in the assembly and among our (ex-) friends, because it turns out that self-righteousness isn’t any more fetching in us that it was in the Pharisees. Instead, let us learn to humbly admit and confess our sins—without excuse!— the moment we’re conscious of them.
Christians, of all people, should understand the horrible cost of sin—the death of the Son of God—and our utter inability to save ourselves—“ for if righteousness come by the Law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21). We should never forget that we are the sinners that Jesus came to call.