From the perspective of someone who has experienced a personal injustice, the purpose of forgiving the offender is reestablishing the relationship. When God forgives us, he removes the barrier our sin erected between us, demonstrating that he wants us to refresh our friendship. The same is true of human relationships, such as those between marriage partners or members of a community.
It’s not that there are no consequences for doing wrong. In ancient Israel, a sacrificed animal represented the forfeiture of the sinner’s life; then the sinner was forgiven. In civic cases, the criminal had to pay a fine before forgiveness occurred. Today, we may have to face the consequences of our foolishness, but Jesus gave himself on the cross for us “to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good.” (Titus 2:14).
From our perspective as someone who repents of wrongdoing—whether toward God or another human being—a restored relationship is one of the benefits we experience. Restoration is a public and practical benefit that looks and feels good. It’s why we feel such a sense of relief when we have been forgiven, a feeling of “Whew!”
But there is a practical, private reason to seek forgiveness as well. The private result of being forgiven is a clean conscience. In ancient Israel, the sacrifices were sufficient to restore fellowship, but could not “perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Hebrews 9:9). Now, however, things have changed. Initially, when we submit to the Lord’s command to align ourselves to him through baptism—that is when we take to ourselves the sign of Jesus’ sacrificial death and his resurrection—this submission is an “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).
As a result, “because our hearts have been sprinkled clean from the consciousness of evil, we should draw near to the throne of grace with a true heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22; 4:16). When our consciences become clean, when that little voice in our heads stops screaming, “Shame on you!”, we can enter in the presence of God eagerly and expectantly. We no longer need to hide from him as Adam and Eve did.
But until we experience the resurrection, we will continue to live as people who must struggle to remain faithful in times of trial. These times are not uncommon. God even provides ways to succeed (1 Corinthians 10:13). Unfortunately, we don’t always take advantage of “the way of escape.” Instead of continuing to follow Jesus in the obedience of faith, we “transgress,” we step out of line. When we do, we hear that voice again. But God has also provided a way to silence it, a way back into fellowship and back to having a clean conscience. “If we confess our sins, the faithful and righteous God will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Just as being a recipient of God’s sustaining grace does not give us a license to sin freely, being a recipient of God’s forgiveness does not give us a license to wallow in guilt. We insult him if we do. When God restores us to the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51:12), he expects us not to hang on to the guilt he forgave. He wiped our slate clean; we have no business picking up the chalk again.