God's Forgiveness Part 2: A Working Thesis
In the last two installments of this series I made the announcement that I have come to a new conclusion on forgiveness, namely, that there is no sense in the Bible, anywhere, in which somone is forgiven of their future sins. Forgiveness is always a temporal, personal matter, where sin is “let go” for a purpose of repairing a relationship, and is granted with reference to sin already committed. When a believer in this dispensation receives the absolutely free gift of eternal life, a number of other blessings follow, an example being the “forgiveness of sins”. At this moment of initial salvation, every transgression and sin carried out, up to that point, is forgiven. Furthermore, the newly regenerate one, in light of the redemption provided through Christ’s death, is given the privilege, right, and opportunity to have any and all future sins forgiven simply through confession to the Father.
The Significance of the Forgiveness of Sins
In the dispensations past, men and women did not share in all of the superlative blessings that have been afforded to those living in the economy of Grace through the cross of Jesus Christ. The indwelling ministry and gifts of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament period provide a stark contrast to anything available to the saints of all prior dispensations. Forgiveness of sins, on the other hand, is not something new to God’s people, in fact it is a blessing that runs throughout the entire Bible. Yet we must be made pefectly clear on this: the process through which individuals are forgiven has greatly changed between the Old and New Testaments due to Christ’s once and for all death for sin.
The Mosaic Law, for instance, had laws and ordinances regulating every aspect of life in Israel. A large portion of revelation within it concerned Israel’s relationship to God. Available within the Law was the provision for forgiveness, which was contained in many and varied offerings of sacrifice, the procedures for which being prescribed by God. The shedding of blood through animal sacrifice provided an atonement through which basis forgiveness could be given. The forgiveness granted was for sins already committed and for the purpose of temporal harmony and fellowship with God.
The New Testament heralds the shed blood of the cross of Christ and attempts to plumb the deep implications of it. Whereas in the Old Testament, the sacrifices were temporary, the death of Christ (the God-Man) was of infinite value. One of the many benefits of Christ’s death is that Jesus, Himself, stands in the presence of the Father as the ever present propitiation for our sins (1 Jn 2:2). Whenever a saint in this dispensation is in need of forgiveness in order to repair or continue temporal fellowship with God, he does not have to shed the blood of an animal. Jesus Christ has made the once-for-all sacrifice (Heb 7:27). The believer’s only need is to confess His sins to God because through the advocacy of the Son, whose presence forever reminds the Father of His perfect satisfaction in regards to sin, God is faithful to forgive and still remains righteous while doing so.
So in summary, the Old Testament saints had to continually offer their imperfect sacrifices so that sin may be covered. The Father looked upon those present offerings and could bestow forgiveness. Different is what the case is in the New Testament. Christ offered the perfect sacrifice, never to have to die again. The Father looks presently upon Jesus Christ, who offered Himself in the past, and grants forgiveness on that basis. The forgiveness sought in both of these situations is for sins already committed.
I am not relating to you things that you probably do not already know; I want to inform you that I am well aware at this point. But have you really thought through this material enough? It is quite apparant to me, that even though there are major distinctions between the Old and New Testaments with regard to how forgiveness of sins was obtained, there remains a consistent thread throughout the whole Bible: the forgiveness of sins is for saints within the sphere of time for the purpose of temporal fellowship with God. No matter where it is found within the Bible, forgiveness is an “in time” (temporal) benefit that does not extend beyond the present. It is the method through which the believer remains or returns to fellowship with his Creator (or with regard to initial salvation, forgiveness initiates fellowship), and it is a personal issue with God, not judicial.
Forgiveness is not an eternal consideration with God.
One of the problems (among many) that Free Grace advocates have with Lordship Salvation proponents is the way they import the idea of eternal salvation indiscriminately into a wide variety of passages. Whether it is in the areas of discipleship or temporal deliverances and consequences, they seem to read the bible disposed to understand almost everything with regards to the eternal. They have eternity on the brain!
But do we? Have we, in our passionate emphasis on soteriology, mistakingly supposed the forgiveness of sins to refer to and guarantee our eternal standing with God? Where did we get this from? (I do have some ideas I will share later). Is this a tradition that has been handed down to us and not arrived at through precise, hermeneutical care? In this series I will attempt to show that this is not a doctrine taught anywhere in the Bible.
Our Temporal Lives in Relation to God are of Great Importance to Him
The way we presently live in this world, in our relationship with God, is of great interest to Him. An impartial reading of the Old and New Testaments for the purpose of discerning the degree to which God is concerned with how one lives in the here-and-now in relation to Himself may surprise some of you. Certainly God has made provision for our eternal well-being, but it may not follow in your minds that He has precisely and especially done the same for our temporal life as well.
Maybe you think that I am going too far with my conclusions concerning your possible estimate of God’s consideration of our “in time” relationship to Him. Fair enough. Allow me the opportunity to access it through a series of questions. Have you ever considered that there are divisable blessings found within the salvation package we received upon believing in Christ for eternal life? Are these blessings clearly differentiated in your understanding, or do they overlap so much as to tend to blur the lines between them? Is “forgiveness of sins” just another way of describing “justification”? Do you realize that there are benefits provided for the believer that solely relate to our relationship to God now, able to be distinguished from those which are eternal? Wouldn’t it make sense that there would be? Let these questions sink in for a moment.
As a side, we have all heard Covenant Theologians blast Dispensationalists for advocating two methods of salvation and I have read the same charge in reverse (See Ryrie’s Dispensationalism, pgs 192-93 for both cases). Could these misunderstandings stem from confusing “forgiveness” with “regeneration”? People have often looked at the sacrificial system which was a basis for forgiveness in the Old Testament and erroneously supposed that in some way it was a means through which God eternally saved individuals of Israel. People have always possesed eternal life through faith alone (Jn 3:3-8; c.f. 3:16), but it is evident from the study of the Bible that forgiveness is conditioned on works (see Lev 4 and ff for OT saints, and c.f. Mt 6:14-15 w/ 1 Jn 1:9 for NT saints), both being certainly based upon sacrifice.
As we have already noted in this article, Christ’s death has many benefits that the New Testament explores. I believe that we will spend eternity learning (and experiencing!) of all the blessings that have and will ever yet be showered upon us through the merits of the cross and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Eternal participation in the Kingdom of God, regeneration and eternal life, justification, resurrection, “the forgiveness of sins”, the ministries of the Holy Spirit, the prospect of riches in the ages to come, redemption, opportunity for co-heirship with Christ, the cleansing blood of Jesus as we walk in the light and other provisions for temporal fellowship with God... these are but a partial list of blessings established upon the foundation of the cross of Christ.
An act of charity may have many distinguishable benefits which can include a diversity of provisions each with their unique intents, senses, and purposes. One may think immediately of a last will produced to administer the property and resources of the recently deceased. Today’s legal environment can be utilized to manage one’s “estate” in a very detailed way. Trusts can be set up in a variety of manners, items and funds bequethed with stipulations and conditions, and property divided with specific intents, all with varying objectives. Such is precisely the case concerning the magnanimous deed performed by Jesus Christ on the cross. Resulting from it comes the manifold blessings contained only fractionally in the catalogue of the preceding paragraph.
Herein lies the relationship between these blessings: they all flow from the infinite value and merits of the cross of Christ. Since we should regard this statement as true, we shouldn’t be surprised to see distinguishable benefits, stemming from the death of the Son of God, being presented together in the text of Scripture, where authors like to heap blessing upon blessing! Yet it should not be automatically assumed by the wise interpreter that since the Biblical writers integrate these doctrines in their writings and sermons that they affirm equations between them, or consider them anything but able to be differentiated.
I have taken 3 classes in hermeneutics, two at the undergraduate level and one at the graduate. I have also taught the same class at the Associate’s degree level for a Bible College, called Equip Bible Institute. One of my professor’s, Dr. Garland Shinn, taught me a principle of interpretation based upon the doctrine of inscripturation. God gave man a wide range of vocabulary through which to articulate the glories and wonders of God. The writers of Scripture wrote “not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual [words]” (1 Cor 2:13; c.f 2 Tim 3:16 & 2 Pet 1:20-21). Dr. Shinn used to drive home the point that the Holy Spirit used precision in guiding the writers of Scripture in their word choices. Why did they use one word over another? Here he sums up my point, “Similarity is not identity. Distinguish between two things that are similar. Words and concepts are only identical if they are affirmed to be” (Dr. Garland H. Shinn, Practical Biblical Hermeneutics, Class Notes, 1997, emphasis his). Unless Scripture affirms two things to be identical, we may not.
Nowhere in the text of Scripture is “the forgiveness of sins” affirmed to be equated with justification. Since this is true, we must distinguish between them. The first distinguishing characteristic between these two doctrines is that forgiveness is a personal issue between God and man (or man and man) and justification is a judicial issue. This point is famously illustrated by the late Zane Hodges:
Suppose I go to court on charges of stealing someone’s car. The judge before whom I stand does not concern himself with the issue of forgiveness. As a judge, his only concern is with the question of guilt or innocence. He will either clear me or condemn me.
But suppose it was the judge’s car that I stole? As an individual he can choose to forgive me, or not to forgive me. But whether he does or not, the decision has nothing to do with his role as a judge. It is purely a personal matter between myself and him. [Zane C. Hodges, Harmony with God: A Fresh Look at Repentance, pg 72]
What Zane called this was a “category error” (ibid., pg 70), lumping two diperate doctrines into the same category. He continued, saying, “this is a serious mistake.”
“The Forgiveness of Sins” is stated traditionally to have two senses. One is the familiar sense illustrated throughout this article, being that of a personal issue between God and man. The second sense that this doctrine is stated to have has been termed, “judicial,” “forensic,” or “legal” forgiveness. This sense states that God has decreed the believer in His Son forgiven eternally of all sins, “past, present, and future” as a punctilliar act. Traditionally, this is described as a legal declaration, so similar, in fact, to justification, that the line is blurred between the two, and people actually identify one with the other.
Let it here be noted that there is no need for another legal declaration beside justification! Justification is complete and sufficient on its own to completely clear the believer of every charge of evil, giving him the very righteousness of God. Any sense of forgiveness that claims to be “judicial” is completely superfluous. When the one declared righteous by faith in Christ appears before God, he stands whole, completely cleared before His bar of justice, having God’s very life through regeneration. Furthermore, he is sinless, so forgiveness ceases to be necessary.
These two doctrines were never meant to be confused or blurred! Forgiveness, in no sense, has any legal aspect to it, nor is it ever given as an indulgence, granting forgiveness of future sins. Forgiveness of sins is not equatable with justification. Some have seen a significance of Paul pairing “the forgiveness of sins” with justification in Acts 13:38-39 that deserves closer inspection:
Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.
---(through Jesus)---> one has the “forgiveness of sins” (Greek: dia)
(by Jesus)---> one is justified (Greek: en)
Clearly it is demonstrated that these two doctrines are distinguished! The need for forgiveness of sins, which is a continual must for the believer in this life comes ---( )---> through Jesus. Remember, He is our Advocate, ever standing before the Father as the propitiation of our sins. When we confess our sins, forgiveness comes through Him. Justification, on the other hand, is a one time act received ( )---> by Jesus. Both are blessings found in Christ, but both are to be differentiated.
The Law of Sufficient Reason
By way of conclusion, I wish to mention this law. It essentially states that one must not jump to conclusions, but base all conclusions on adequate grounds. As interpreters of the Bible, we must be cautious about making statements about doctrines of Scripture before being properly informed of the details surrounding them. Reader, has tradition taught you that forgiveness of sins can be “judicial” in the sense of a one time declaration, eternally forgiving all sins “past, present, and future”? Please stay with this study as we examine the biblical texts that concern “the forgiveness of sins” so that we might come to an informed conclusion on this matter. You should “know for yourself” and not rely upon implicit faith in tradition.
Introduction to the Next Installment of the Series
I am going to make a statement right now that I fully intend to prove in the course of this study: forgiveness of sins is clearly taught in the Bible as a temporal and personal issue concerning our “in-time” relationships, mostly in relation to God – and no single passage in the entirety of Scripture clearly teaches some other related sense, i.e. an eternal (or “past, present, and future”) forgiveness.
Thank you for your time in reading this article. Your comments are welcomed and appreciated!
Your Free Grace Theology Host,
Antonio G. da Rosa