There are certain theological words that, despite being common among Christians, are so persistently misunderstood by our non-Christian neighbors that a lot of explanation—and, usually, correction—is necessary. Think of words like “redeem” or “glorify” or “Trinity.” If you don’t go to church, you don’t use those words… unless you’re talking about church people.

But another set of words gets even trickier. These are the words that most people use, but that Christians use differently from the rest of the world. The problem here is that when people hear them, they think they know the meaning, even if their understanding is miles away from the biblical idea. (I’m looking at you, “sin,” “holy,” and “repent.”)

Forgiveness is one of those tricky words. The word seems simple enough, but I’m convinced that most people in our society don’t think of forgiveness in biblical terms, especially in the context of “God forgives me.” Most people tend to combine “forgive” with “excuse” or (even worse) “ignore,” which makes for a nasty mixture.

Psalm 32 gives us a litmus test for true forgiveness, which shows us how distinct it is from all competing ideas. According to the psalmist, those who find forgiveness are changed by it. Once we are truly forgiven, we find that our love for God and our compassion for others begin to grow.

1. Love for God can be seen in 32:11 – the psalmist is glad “in the Lord.” As Jesus said, those who are forgiven much, love much. Our problem is not that we have so little for God to forgive, but that we hide our sin so readily that we don’t realize how much we have been forgiven. But the only way for God to forgive us is to be honest about how messed up we are. God’s forgiveness begins where blame-shifting ends. Only when we own our sin as ours, not justifying it or covering it up, can God begin to deal with it. Cover your sin and God will expose it; expose it, and God will cover it.

No wonder the psalmist expresses his love for God. He knows the shame and terror of having his sin exposed. But he also knows the inexpressible joy of having that sin decisively dealt with. As Charles Spurgeon said, “When we think too lightly of sin, we think too lightly of the Savior. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honor of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.”[1]

The psalmist says that God’s “steadfast love” surrounds him (32:10). This is the source of all true love for God: assurance of the love of God for you produces love for God in you.

2. Compassion for others comes through in 32:8–11. The first seven verses describe the psalmist’s experience of forgiveness, but at verse 8, he turns the corner and begins addressing others. He wants to help people struggling with sin, just as he has been helped.

People who have experienced mercy speak to others with a tenderness and a gentleness that flows from their experience of forgiveness. Is that you?

Do others feel safe in their weakness around you? If you are aware of God’s grace in your life, they will. You won’t rush to judgment, because you remember the judgment that rightly sat over your head. The sign that you have experienced the mercy of God is your mercy toward others.

How vulnerable are you with other believers about your sin? And I don’t mean the acceptable ones, either. “Oh, I struggle with pride.” Thanks for “confessing” about how awesome you are. No, I mean really confessing your struggles and weaknesses. If you’ve experienced the joy of forgiveness, you won’t mind letting people see your faults, because your happiness doesn’t depend on maintaining some illusion that you’re perfect.

Do you receive criticism well? If you’ve had the experience of being deeply forgiven, you won’t mind when others point out your sin. You’re very aware of those sins yourself, and you aren’t trying to cover them up behind a mask of your own goodness. God’s mercy—not your stockpile of goodness—is your hiding place. You’ll even boast about your faults, because that way people can see that there is a hiding place for their souls as well.

What makes forgiveness so life changing isn’t simply that it makes us “guilt-free.” It’s that forgiveness reconciles us to God. The world’s best imitation of forgiveness can only say, “You may go.” But God’s forgiveness says, “Please come near.” The gospel is a message of reconciliation, releasing us from our sin so that we can come close to God, the sole source of all joy, once again.

[1] Spurgeon: A Biography, p. 14 by Dallimore