There are many people who believe in God, and who think that as long as they sincerely apologize to Him for what they have done wrong, He will surely forgive them.
These people’s assessment of their lives is in many ways correct. They rightly believe that there is a God to whom they are accountable. They are also right to acknowledge that everyone does things which offend God, i.e., that they commit what Christians refer to as sins. And they rightly understand too that committing sins makes a person liable to receive punishment from God after death.
A serious mistake
Where these people go seriously wrong, however, is in thinking that all they need to do to have their sins forgiven is to apologize to God.
In fact, this is a huge mistake. If someone merely believes in God, confesses their sins to Him and asks Him for forgiveness, He will not forgive them. Or, at the very least, it is so unlikely that He will forgive them, that for practical purposes the possibility can be ignored.
God not forgiving those who ask for forgiveness
There is a way for people to be forgiven, and I will turn to that in a moment. But first, I want to say a few words about God’s not forgiving those who simply ask Him for forgiveness.
To begin with, it is important to recognize clearly that for God to forgive anyone would be an exceptional thing. Deeply ingrained within us all is a sense that justice is a good thing. We feel it is right that an action that is morally wrong deserves to be followed by punishment, i.e., suffering of some sort, as a consequence of that action. Punishment follows naturally on from wrongdoing.
So, for God not to punish people for their sins would at the very least be exceptional and a special measure. We would more naturally expect Him to administer justice by punishing us for what we do wrong.
Second, it is reasonable to think that committing a sin is an extremely serious matter. It involves acting outside the created order of almighty God. In effect, it means tearing up His blueprints for how humans should behave and making different ones to replace them. And we could easily imagine that going against the infinite God in this way is infinitely serious.
The enormous seriousness of sin and the fact that God is just should therefore not lead us to expect Him to forgive us simply because we apologize to Him. For people to assume that He will forgive them if they say that they are sorry is really quite presumptuous.
However, the good news of the Christian message is that God, in His love, has made a way for people to be forgiven. Crucially, though, this is a very specific way, and it involves more than us merely apologizing to God for what we have done wrong.
The escape route from punishment that God has devised specifically involves having faith in Jesus Christ as the person who saves us. We need to believe that Jesus, the God-Man, by His death on the cross for our sins and His following resurrection, somehow made a way for us to be forgiven. And we need to hold out our hand to Him, so to speak, to personally receive the benefits of what He accomplished.
It is true that we also need to turn away from our sins and apologize to God for what we have done wrong. But that is not enough in itself. We need to have faith in Christ too.
There are good reasons for thinking that those, including the unborn, who die before they are old enough to be morally accountable for their actions, are a special case in this respect. Similarly, there are reasons to believe that people who are never able to be morally accountable because of severe mental disability are a special case. I am not saying that people in these categories will experience God’s punishment because they never have faith in Christ.
I will admit too that I think it is possible that extremely rarely God may forgive people’s sins without faith in Christ. But even if this is ever possible, it would be so rare that for practical purposes we can ignore this possibility. For all intents and purposes, people need faith in Jesus to receive forgiveness of their sins.
The importance of knowing what God does
I don’t pretend to know why God has arranged things so that people must specifically have faith in Christ to be forgiven. I, for one, might have expected that a basic faith in God would be enough.
Nevertheless, we finite humans should not expect to be able to understand much about an infinite God, and I think it is probably beyond the ability of human understanding to figure out why God requires faith in Christ specifically. What is key, however, is to know that God does certain things, whether or not we can understand why.
The good news of the Christian message is that there is a way for sinners to be forgiven. But that way involves faith in Jesus Christ and personally accepting the benefits of what He accomplished on the cross.