The Lord God…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty– Exodus 34:6-7
We are here informed of two attributes of God which seem to be completely contradictory. On the one hand, he is described as forgiving. No matter what the transgression, no matter how dark the sin, no matter how filthy the past, the Lord God is forgiving.
On the other hand, however, we are to understand that God is holy; he will by no means clear the guilty. Sin will not be swept under the rug; lawbreakers will not go unpunished. God is good and God is just, and so God will hold each one accountable for his or her wrong actions.
How then can both be true? Is God merciful, or is God holy? Is God forgiving, or is God just?
This is no mere academic question, because this is exactly the struggle we face each time we feel convicted of our sin and we seek repentance and forgiveness. We feel unworthy to ask for forgiveness, knowing that God is good and just. And yet this is how we want him to be; we would not want a capricious or unfair or wicked ruler over the universe who would let evil deeds go unpunished.
The answer to this terrible tension is found in the marvelous and reconciling work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Believers in Jesus Christ are forgiven their sins because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for their sins, when he died in their place.
At the cross, God both forgave sin and refused to clear the guilty. Because Jesus took our sins upon himself, God punished our sins in Christ. Believer, you are forgiven, and your God is still holy.