STUDY ELEVEN: FORGIVENESS - Part 2
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
C. WHAT IS THE EXTENT OF FORGIVENESS?
Various misunderstandings surround the concept of forgiveness – Many Christians believe things like:
- Only pre-conversion sins are forgiven
- Any post-conversion sin is not forgiven until it is individually confessed
- Forgiveness means the eradication of sin from the human ‘heart’
- If you are sick or suffering there must be some hidden sin in your life
- If a person sins after conversion they are lost
As a result of some of these misunderstandings of the scope or meaning of forgiveness, other areas of truth have been corrupted and the assurance of salvation significantly undermined or even denied, and many Christians live with an almost permanent burden of the guilt of their sin. In addition, ‘sin’ is by some, reduced to mean only deliberate sins, and various methods of restoring or gaining forgiveness are proposed.
Because of these prevalent concepts it is necessary to look at the extent of the forgiveness that the believer has in Christ.
C.1 The believer possesses unlimited and unchanging forgiveness in Christ
In Ephesians 1:7-8 and Colossians 1:14 we learn that we ‘have forgiveness’ in Jesus Christ.
There are three important facts about forgiveness embedded in these verses.
- Forgiveness is something that we have – something that God has already granted to us. It is not something that has to be replenished or renewed because we have lost it. We have it – present tense. It is the present, permanent possession of all who belong to Jesus.
- Forgiveness is not something that happens in us, but something that we have in Christ. It does not therefore refer to some change in our nature or attitude, but to something that we have been granted only because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is in him, not in us.
- This forgiveness is ‘in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding’. This immediately rules out any variance or disruption of forgiveness due to our personal sin or sins. The forgiveness is ours, in Christ, not because of anything we have done or are; nor is it meted out relative to anything we have done, do, or are; it is ours in Christ, solely because of God’s grace, and solely according to God’s grace. It is measured by God’s grace, not by our merit or worthiness; it is limited only by God’s grace, never by our having confessed specific individual sins, nor by our having lived without sinning. In addition, God’s grace is unlimited: note that Paul wrote that God’s grace – the grace which is the measure of our forgiveness – has ‘been lavished on us’ – lavished – more than adequate, superabundant to meet our needs, more than enough to sustain the forgiveness God has given us in Christ.
There is no possibility of our sin being beyond the extent of the forgiveness we have in Christ, for, Paul states, not only did God lavish this grace upon us, but he did so with all understanding and wisdom – God knew, and God knows, the full extent of our sin and wickedness; he knew and understood all of these sins when Jesus bore them to the cross. They are all forgiven – pre-conversion sins and post-conversion sins, yesterday’s sins and tomorrow’s sins – because God already knew them all, including sins that we do not even recognise as sins.
C.2 All sins are permanently forgiven through the death of Christ
Paul stated in Colossians 2:13-14 that God ‘forgave all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross’. What can we learn from this to overturn erroneous perceptions about forgiveness?
- Paul states that ‘all our sins’ are forgiven, and, as we saw above, the word used here means ‘graced over’. This ‘all’ does not leave any sins out. It is senseless to refer this to pre-conversion sins only, because at the time of the death of Christ on the cross none of our sins existed in time and space. All of our sins were still in the future, but as the text states, all that stood against us – everything for which God’s laws could accuse us – was nailed to the cross.
- In the flow of the text, and looking at the tense of the Greek verbs, we understand:  God made you alive in Christ [Aorist Tense – a once for all action in the past],  having forgiven all your sins [Aorist Tense – a once for all action in the past]. This forgiveness is based on the cross of Christ where God  cancelled [Aorist tense – a once for all action in the past] all that stood against us, and  took it away [Perfect tense – a completed action in the past, with the results of the action still in effect – so that it is still taken away], by  having nailed them to the cross [Aorist tense – once for all action in the past].
There is nothing here that allows us to make our present forgiveness dependent on our present sinlessness, or to indicate that only pre-conversion sins are forgiven, or to indicate that forgiveness is temporary, only lasting until we sin again and then having somehow to be renewed or re-established. In fact the tense of the verbs solidly affirms that completeness, the once-for-allness, the ‘finishedness’, of the forgiveness we have in Christ. There is certainly nothing here to indicate that forgiveness means the removal of sin from the heart of the forgiven person. The obvious association of forgiveness with the removal of legal accusations puts forgiveness in the same objective category as justification/righteousness, and not at all in the subjective category of eradication of personal sin.
C.3 What about 1John 1:9?
Those who teach that only confessed sins are forgiven point to 1John 1:9 which states that ‘if we confess our sins’ God ‘will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’. On the basis of this verse it is also taught that Christians should make it a practice to ‘confess their sins’ – that it, verbally identify their sins, in an itemized list, to God. In addition, it is taught that unless this confession is practiced these sins are not forgiven.
There are a number of problems with this interpretation of this verse.
- There does not seem to be anywhere in Scripture that an individual believer actually does this. There are examples of national repentance and confession in which lists of sins are made, but not of individual lists of sins. When we check David out, not even he identifies his individual sins, he simply admitted his sinfulness [Psalm 51]; so too did the tax-collector in the temple [Luke 18]. We are told that people came to John the Baptist ‘confessing their sins’, and that the people of Ephesus confessed their deeds, but in both of these there is a different Greek word to the one used in 1John 1:9; in addition, this was a public response to a message publicly calling people to ‘repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near’ [Matt 3:2]. In other words, this was a crisis response to the call to repent, not a daily listing of sins. Acts 19:18 also refers to a public acknowledgment in a specific crisis/repentance situation.
- The word translated ‘confess’ in 1John 1:9 is the word ‘homologeo’ which occurs in the New Testament 23 times. It means ‘to acknowledge’ or, literally, ‘to speak the same thing about’. It is the word Paul used when he said that those who ‘confess’ that Jesus is Lord, will be saved. It is the word Jesus used when he said that he will ‘acknowledge’ before the Father, those who ‘acknowledge’ him before men. It certainly does not mean to identify one by one, and it is used only here in 1John 1:9 in relation to sin. Thus the person who ‘confesses’ their sins, is one who ‘acknowledges’ or ‘says the same’ as God says about sin - this person acknowledges that he/she is a sinner who sins. That is what David did in Psalm 51 and that is what the tax-collector did in Luke 18. It is only such a person – a person acknowledging that he/she is a sinner, and casting themselves therefore on the mercy of God, who can be saved.
- This is supported by the two verses on either side of 1John 1:9. In verse 8 we find people who refuse to acknowledge that there is any sin in them. John states ‘the truth is not in us’ if we demonstrate such a refusal, and we are deceiving ourselves. In verse 10, we find people who claim they have not sinned: if we say this, John says, we are actually calling God a liar and his word is not in us. Both of these two refusals to acknowledge sin are categorized as the opposite of God’s truth. The person who knows the truth knows that he/she is a sinner who continues to sin. Verse 9 teaches us that it is only this person, who knows this truth and therefore acknowledges this truth, to whom God’s gift of forgiveness is granted.
- This forgiveness of sins that is granted in verse 9 is further described as cleansing ‘from all unrighteousness’. Immediately we are removed from the picture of an individual person listing his sins every day in order to be forgiven those sins and to regain acquittal. John is speaking here rather of the reality of the salvation that comes to all who acknowledge their sin and cast themselves on the mercy of God, trusting in the righteousness of Christ and not in their own supposed righteousness. We have already seen that ‘righteousness’ is legal acquittal. Unrighteousness is the opposite – it is legal guilt. The gift of righteousness – justification – the declaration of acquittal - is granted once for all when we believe in Christ. It is not dependent on our repetitious ‘confession of sins’. It is not something that has to be re-applied to us every time we sin and ‘confess’; rather it is a gift freely given in Christ at the point of our conversion.
C.4 What is the significance of forgiveness as ‘cleansing’? [see also B.2 above]
The use of the terms ‘cleansing’ or ‘blotting out’ or ‘washing’ or ‘purifying’ us or our ‘hearts’ of sin is just one more visual image used in the Bible to communicate the meaning of forgiveness. As we have seen above there are many images used to convey the idea of forgiveness. If we look at the other images we see that many of them are focused on one thought: that when sin is forgiven it is in some way removed – it is in the depths of the sea, it is as far as the east is from the west, it is behind God’s back, it is washed away. There are two images that help us to see that this removal is not a subjective removal from us but a removal from God’s sight: our sin is said to be ‘covered’ and God is said to ‘hide his face from’ our sins. Our sin still exists, but something occurs in forgiveness by which God no longer takes it into account, something by which it no longer comes between us and him, something by which he, by his own will, chooses not to look at it.
To take just one image of ‘cleansing’ or ‘washing’ and to make it mean a literal thing like the actual removal of sin from my ‘heart’ or ‘soul’, is to deviate from sound Bible interpretation principles. The ‘washing’ of forgiveness, like all of the other images, signifies the removal of sin as a barrier between us and God. Thus the Bible tells us things like:
‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you’ [John 15:3]
‘But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’ [1 Cor 6:11]
‘To him who loves us and has freed [= washed in the Greek] us from our sins by his blood …’ [Rev 1:5]
‘… they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ [Rev 7:14]
A further problem with the idea that forgiveness means the removal of sin from my heart is that no sooner has a person been ‘forgiven’ than it is quite obvious that they still sin – they still have doubts, and so commit the sin of unbelief; they still think sinful thoughts; they still do not love God with ‘all their heart, mind, soul, and strength’, they still do not love their neighbour as much as they love themselves, they still find it more or less automatic not to love the enemy, and so on. Sin is very definitely still there. It is simply not true to say that sin is washed out of our hearts. Or, if it is true, it is very, very temporary and therefore worthless.
So what is ‘washed’ away when we are forgiven? Our legal guilt for our sins is removed. It has been taken by Jesus Christ. The sin-barrier between us and God is taken away [symbolised in the ripping of the temple curtain from top to bottom at the moment Jesus died]; the record of or sins is wiped off our slate [figuratively speaking]; our debit balance is wiped off. And, according to the letter to the Hebrews, our guilt is washed away. God no longer holds us guilty, and because of that, we can enter his presence confidently, with a clear conscience, with full assurance, not because we are sinless, but because of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, by which God counts us perfect, and beyond which there is no more sacrifice for sin needed. [See Hebrews 9:1 to 10:23]
D. SOME THINGS THAT PEOPLE SAY THAT AFFECT OUR IDEA OF FORGIVENESS OF SINS
Task #1: An exercise in discernment
There are several quotes below that flow out from an inadequate understanding of forgiveness, and/or and equally inadequate understanding of sin. Discuss each of these quotes, underlining sections that seem to be unbiblical. In the spaces below each quote or set of quotes write comments about the problems identified. Include reference to the distortion of forgiveness either stated or inferred by these writers.
Some quotes from John Wesley: Plain Account of Christian Perfection:
‘The best of men still need Christ, in His priestly office, to atone for their omissions, their shortcomings (as some not improperly speak), their mistakes in judgment and practice, and their defects of various kinds, for these are all deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need an atonement. Yet that they are not properly sins, we apprehend, may appear from the words of St. Paul: "He that loveth hath fulfilled the law; for love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. xiii 10). Now, mistakes and whatever infirmities necessarily flow from the corruptible state of the body are no way contrary to love nor therefore, in the Scripture sense, sin.’
‘Even one that is perfected in love may mistake with regard to another person, and may think him, in a particular case, to be more or less faulty than he really is; and hence he may speak to him with more or less severity than the truth requires. And in this sense (though that be not the primary meaning of St. James), "in many things we offend all." This therefore is no proof at all that the person so speaking is not perfect.’
‘ … Pure love reigning alone in the heart and life, this is the whole of scriptural perfection.
Q. When may a person judge himself to have attained this?
A. When, after having been fully convinced of inbred sin, by a far deeper and clearer conviction than that he experienced before justification, and after having experienced a gradual mortification of it, he experiences a total death to sin, and an entire renewal in the love and image of God, so as to rejoice evermore, to pray without ceasing, and in everything to give thanks. Not that "to feel all love and no sin" is a sufficient proof. Several have experienced this for a time, before their souls were fully renewed. None therefore ought to believe that the work is done, till there is added the testimony of the Spirit witnessing his entire sanctification as clearly as his justification.’ [Sourced from http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/wesley/8317/8317c.htm]
Canons from the Council of Trent:
FOURTEENTH SESSION, CANONS CONCERNING THE MOST HOLY SACRAMENT OF PENANCE: "If anyone denies that sacramental confession was instituted by divine law or is necessary to salvation; or says that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Catholic Church has always observed from the beginning and still observes, is at variance with the institution and command of Christ and is a human contrivance, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA" (Canons Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance, Canon 7).
FOURTEENTH SESSION, CANONS CONCERNING THE MOST HOLY SACRAMENT OF PENANCE: "If anyone says that the confession of all sins as it is observed in the Church is impossible and is a human tradition to be abolished by pious people; or that each and all of the faithful of Christ or either sex are not bound thereto once a year in accordance with the constitution of the great Lateran Council, and that for this reason the faithful of Christ are to be persuaded not to confess during Lent, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA" (Canons Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance, Canon 8).
Charles Finney: Lectures on Systematic Theology: excerpts from Lecture 15:
(2.) If we are forgiven while voluntarily withholding a part of that which would constitute full obedience, are we not forgiven sin of which we do not repent, and forgiven while in the act of committing the sin for which we are forgiven?
The theory in question is that Christians never, at any time, in this world, yield a full obedience to the divine law; that they always withhold a part of their hearts from the Lord, and yet, while in the very act of committing this abominable sin of voluntarily defrauding God and their neighbour, God accepts their persons and their services, fully forgives and justifies them. What is this, but pardoning present and pertinacious rebellion! Receiving to favour a God-defrauding wretch! Forgiving a sin unrepented of and detestably persevered in? Yes, this must be, if it be true that Christians are justified without present full obedience. That surely must be a doctrine of devils, that represents God as receiving to favour a rebel who has one hand filled with weapons against his throne.
(5.) But have we a right to ask forgiveness while we persevere in the sin of withholding a part of our heart from him?
God has no right to forgive us, and we have no right to desire him to forgive us, while we keep back any part of the condition of forgiveness. While we persist in defrauding God and our neighbour, we cannot profess penitence and ask forgiveness without gross hypocrisy. And shall God forgive us while we cannot, without hypocrisy, even profess repentance? To ask for pardon, while we do not repent and cease from sin, is a gross insult to God. [http://www.gospeltruth.net/1851Sys_Theo/st15.htm]
Evelyn Christenson: What Happens When Women Pray?
‘Do you wonder why your prayers aren’t answered? .. here is the first [reason]: sin (or sins) in your life. Even little sins can muddy up our communication system. We try to get through to God and there’s something in the way. It may be an attitude, a spoken word. God wants these things cleared up. He doesn’t want anything between Him and us. If there is, it’s our fault, not His, when His ears are closed to our prayers.’ [p26,27]
SD Gordon, in Quiet Talks on Prayer, states:
‘Sin hinders prayer. In Isaiah’s first chapter God Himself speaking says, “When you stretch out your hands” – the way they prayed standing with outstretched hands – “I will shut My eyes; when you make many prayers, I will shut My ears.” [Isaiah 1:15] Why? What’s the difficulty? These outstretched hands are soiled! They are actually holding their sin-soiled hands up into God’s face and He is compelled to look at the thing most hateful to Him. In the fifty-ninth chapter of this same book [Isaiah 59:1-3], God Himself is talking again. Listen “Behold! The Lord’s hand is not shortened: His ear is not heavy.” There is no trouble on the up side. God is all right. “But” listen with both your ears – “your iniquities . . . your sins . . . your hands . . . your fingers . . . your lips . . . your tongue . . . “ the slime of sin is oozing over everything! Turn back to that sixty-sixth Psalm [Psalm 66:18] – “if I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me.” How much more if the sin of the heart get into the hands or the life! And the fact to put down plainly in blackest ink once for all is this – sin hinders prayer. There is nothing surprising about this. That we can think the reverse is the surprising thing. Prayer is transacting business with God. Sin is breaking with God.’ [p68-69]
[Before you agree with SD Gordon, check out the context of the Isaiah passages; they are written to people whose ‘sin’ was that they had forsaken God and were worshipping idols. They were not even true believers. Then read Psalm 66:18 in its context, and check out the meaning of the word which the KJV quoted by Gordon translates ‘regard’. The NIV attempts to convey the meaning of the word by using ‘cherished’. What the Psalmist is talking about is a dichotomy between making an outward and verbal expression of praise to God [13-17] when all the time the heart that sees nothing wrong with sin, indeed it looks at its sin and is glad about it. Such is the nature of hypocrisy or false faith, and has nothing to do with the true believer who acknowledges the wrongness of his sin and is constantly aware of his present need of the continuing mercy and forgiveness of God. We must here ask the very important question: is there ever a time when we do not have sin in our hearts? If we answer ‘yes’ then we are stating that at that moment we can stand in the presence of God in our own name, and apart from Christ, and be accepted.]
E. IMPLICATIONS OF FORGIVENESS
E.1 Sin can never again separate us from God
This is a very simple, but exceedingly important, implication of forgiveness: that our sin and our sins can never again cut us off from God. This is the whole point of forgiveness – that God has ripped away the sin-barrier, once-for-all. This permanence and eternal effectiveness of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is one of the key concepts in the letter to the Hebrews, which tells us that:
- Jesus Christ is the source of eternal salvation [5:9]
- He obtained eternal redemption [9:12]
- In the new covenant established by Christ we receive an eternal inheritance [9:15]
- Christ appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself [9:26]
- Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people [9:28]
This permanence is also stressed by Paul in Romans 8 where he declares with great force the impossibility of anything, including any accusation or charge that is raised against us, ever being able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. We will be looking further at the permanence and indestructibility of the Christian’s relationship to God in Christ when we study the salvation concepts of reconciliation, redemption and sanctification.
E. 2 We are expected to pass forgiveness on
We will not study this here, as it falls under the category of ‘Christian life’ not the category of ‘salvation’. It is, however, assumed by the Bible, and commanded by the Bible, that those who know the forgiveness of God will pass it on. The one who is forgiven will forgive. If this practical forgiveness is not practised then the Bible indicates that God’s gift of forgiveness has not been received. This is a serious perspective.
Task #2: For further study:
Check out these Scriptures:
Matthew 18:21-35; 6:12-15:
These are the images God gives us to ensure we understand the great thing he does when he forgives us. Rather than make us think that with a forgiveness like this it doesn’t matter if we sin, this forgiveness is so overwhelming, so unexpected, so undeserved, so absolute, so costly to our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, that we should stand in awe, amazed, overwhelmed at this great love, at this great sacrifice, at this amazing God who would do such a thing for us.
Task #3: Read Psalm 130.
Allow its revelation of the depth of your sinfulness, the rightness of God’s judgment, the power of God’s mercy, and the assurance of your salvation, to impact you. Record your personal response to this Psalm after each comment below.
Verse 1: ‘Out of the depths’ – out of the pit of sin and sinfulness, and the accompanying guilt and despair – I cry to you. Here is a sinner crying out to the only One who can help him.
Verse 2: He knows that God is a God of mercy – and it is for this mercy that he cries to God. Only sinners need mercy. He knows that there is no place here for any claim to personal merit, he comes totally aware of his sin, and, in crying for mercy, also totally conscious of the wrongness of his sin
Verse 3: Here he recognizes both his sins and the rightness of God’s judgment and God’s justice: if God were to keep a record of sins, no one would stand.
Verse 4: But he says, ‘with you there is forgiveness’ – this ‘forgiveness’ is the opposite of ‘keeping a record of sins’. This man knows the deep meaning of forgiveness – that although he, in himself, is by his sins disqualified from standing in the presence of God, yet God does not keep a record of those sins – God, rather, forgives sins. This is what his mercy does. Thus the Psalmist is confident that, despite his sins [he calls out from the ‘depths’, remember] he can stand before God, because God, in his mercy, provides forgiveness.
Verse 4: ‘Therefore you are feared.’ Rather than forgiveness generating a lax attitude to God with an accompanying lax attitude to God’s standards, he says ‘therefore’ –that is because there is forgiveness with God, ‘you are feared.’ He stands in reverent, dumbfounded awe in the presence of such a God and such a forgiveness.
Verses 5-6: He ‘waits’ for the Lord. He puts his ‘hope’ in his word. These are parallel thoughts. This waiting for the Lord is parallel to hoping in the word of the Lord. It is quiet, confident assurance. He is confident that forgiveness replaces judgment, even more certainly than morning replaces night. This is his hope, this is his trust.
Verse 7: He exhorts the whole nation of Israel to similarly put their hope in the Lord – because with the Lord is unfailing love and with the Lord is full redemption. Notice the two adjectives – ‘unfailing’ and ‘full’.
Verse 8: Redemption is an action of God himself – and it relates to ‘all’ sins.
Personal check: consider your reaction to the message of forgiveness. If it makes you think that it is okay to sin, and you can now go and live how you please, then you have not begun to understand it and should think seriously about the genuineness of your claim to believe in Jesus Christ. If it fills you with overwhelming gratitude and praise, and makes you want to commit your self to serve and obey the Lord Jesus Christ then truly you have heard what the Bible teaches.