As I read this chapter of Numbers, it occurred to me that it contained a fabulous example of how God’s forgiveness doesn’t equal salvation. I was just about to write that this was a fabulous example of how God’s forgiveness doesn’t have anything to do with salvation. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. If God wasn’t a forgiving Person, we would have no opportunity for salvation in the first place. So, forgiveness and salvation are linked in that way.
However, I think it has a become a popular notion in Christianity that God’s forgiveness equals salvation. That, somehow, the problem with sin is just that God — in all His holiness — can’t tolerate it and won’t accept us since we are tainted. Thus, the solution becomes about finding a way to get God to forgive us. Enter Jesus, and His death on the cross. Now, Jesus has died for our sins, which frees up the Father to forgive.
I’ve got to be very blunt and say that I don’t agree with that scenario at all. I don’t believe that God has a forgiveness problem. If He did, I don’t think Jesus would have described the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son as having already forgiven the wayward son before he came home (Lk 15:20). Also, why would Jesus have spoken forgiveness for those who were tormenting Him on the cross? They didn’t repent or ask for forgiveness (Lk 23:34).
No, I think the reality is that God forgives us because He is a forgiving Person. Even Satan is forgiven! (Okay, I know this will ruffle a few feathers, but hang with me for a moment.) Invariably, the question will be asked: If the devil is forgiven, why won’t he be saved? And one of the answers is in Numbers 14.
Here, we see the Israelites rebelling... again. Now that they’ve heard about the giants in the land, they’ve had it. They’re angry that they’ve been dragged through the desert only to "fall by the sword." (vs 2) They even say that they’d rather die in the wilderness (a request God is going to eventually say yes to), and they’re ready to appoint a new leader for themselves to take them back to Egypt.
God doesn’t immediately respond. Moses, Aaron, and two of the spies (Caleb and Joshua) fall facedown in front of the people and beg them to rethink what they’re doing. Can’t you hear them? Hey, you morons! Don’t you remember God?! This guy who removed you from the grip of the most powerful king in the world, the guy who split the Red Sea in two... Hello?! They are begging and pleading with the people to calm down and trust God for two seconds, but instead of getting through to them, their pleas fall on deaf ears as the people decide to stone them instead.
And that’s when God comes on the scene. Poor God. You really have to feel for Him. He is just itching to give these people — His people! — this awesome land. But (if you remember yesterday’s blog) He’s also planning to overthrow the people who already live in the land with weirdo tactics, like marching and trumpets. And now, it’s clear that He’s dealing with a group of people who don’t have the slightest inclination whatsoever to listen to Him. If He came to them now and said, "Don’t worry about the giants. When you play this trumpet tune I’m going to show you, the walls will fall down and all the giants will run away," the people would be ready to stone Him.
What is God going to do with these people? They certainly can’t defeat the giants in their own strength. If they try to go into the land now, God might lose the whole nation. At first, it looks like God has come to His wit’s end, as He tells Moses to stand aside: "I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they." (vs 12) Well, Moses rejects that idea out-of-hand. There are bigger things at stake, he says, such as God’s reputation in the world-at-large.
Instead, Moses asks God to "live up to His name" and forgive the people. And this is God’s reply: "I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times — not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it." (vs 20-23)
God had already forgiven the people! He loved them even more than Moses did... of course He had forgiven them! But, to me, the interesting thing is how that forgiveness did not have any dissolving effect on the consequences of the Israelite’s rebellion. Just because God had forgiven them didn’t mean they were magically going to listen to Him. Because of their attitude, God’s forgiveness couldn’t effect any sort of change — they were still in grave danger if they attempted to go into the Promised Land on their own.
And that’s why God decided to grant their wish to die in the wilderness. Forgiven though they were, they would not enter the Promised Land. Their children — whom they were willing to take right back to slavery in Egypt — would inherit the land instead.
What a startling revelation about the relationship between forgiveness and salvation. God is a forgiving Person, and because He loves us so much, He wants to save us all. However, if we are firmly set against Him in our hearts and minds, God’s forgiveness can’t do anything for us. It can’t magically soften our hearts or force us to come back to Him. He has given us freedom, and even though He freely forgives and pardons all the wrongs we do, we often still bear the consequences of our poor choices.
Hopefully, for most of us, the consequences that we bear will be temporary. But I believe that even those (the devil and his followers) who bear the ultimate consequences of sin won’t do so because they’re unforgiven. On the contrary, as God said to Moses in Numbers 14, I have already forgiven them. God’s forgiveness doesn’t override our freedom, and that’s why it doesn’t negate consequences. In the end, we really are free to choose!