God's Forgiveness Part 3: Getting a Grip on the Problem and its Solution
The Working Thesis
“Forgiveness of sins” is essentially a technical term: it is only used one way in the Scriptures. As far as this dispensation is concerned, this term denotes a privilege given to a believer in Christ, whereby all past sins are released and let go at the moment of regeneration, providing immediate fellowship with God, and whereby all future sins can be released and let go through confession, providing continued or renewed fellowship with God. Forgiveness furthermore removes the righteous retribution of God related to sin. There is no sense in which the Scriptural doctrine of “the forgiveness of sins” provides a forgiveness of all future, uncommitted sin. Christians do not possess an eternal forgiveness of all their sins (past, present, and future) at the moment of regeneration (or any other time). Frankly, it is not necessary and the Bible nowhere teaches it. Forgiveness is a temporal act yielding fellowship privilege in the present; it is not an eternal consideration, nor is our final destiny dependent upon it. The basis on which a Christian is eternally secure is not the forgiveness of sins, but the possession of eternal life (more on this later).
The Uncritical Distinction Between Temporal and Eternal Forgiveness
Some may say, “Well, forgiveness has two aspects, temporal and eternal. There is a familial aspect and a judicial one. Although a person is forgiven eternally, in Christ, he still needs to be forgiven temporally, as a member of God’s family.” First, as we have noted already in a previous installment, this understanding spawns a very odd thought, indeed: namely, that a person can be God-forgiven and God-unforgiven of the same sin at the very same time. However you dice this concept up, it is, frankly, contrary to reason. How were we ever satisfied with such an understanding? This inconsistent view has often been supported (I, myself, being included) by seeing one aspect of it as being “in Christ” and the other as temporal and familial: the so-called “positional” versus “experiential” model. I am not disparaging the model, just maintaining that the forgiveness of sins cannot share it. Dispensational believers do use this model legitimately with the doctrines of sanctification and justification.
You know why we need two views of “sanctification” and two of “justification”, don’t you? Precisely because clarification is necessary when two distinguishable (and yet in some ways similar or related) doctrines, using the same language and vocabulary choices, create confusion. In some contexts, sanctification and justification are used in absolute senses, speaking of a perfect possession or state of being, referring to a “positional” truth which is ours by virtue of our identification with Christ in spiritual baptism. Other times they are used in progressive and/or temporal senses, describing our present experience of being conformed to Christ and our vindication before men. Therefore, to be true to the Scripture, systematic theology has had to craft a distinction between those elements of Christian truth that are experiential and positional. Fair enough.
Yet, as we shall discover, this is not the case with the forgiveness of sins! A careful study of the passages on forgiveness does not necessitate the need to develop distinguishing language and nuance in order to harmonize two different aspects of it (namely a familial and a judicial). Never, in any context nor in any passage will we find it necessary to posit an eternal forgiveness. No passage in the whole Bible necessarily teaches an eternal forgiveness. As a matter of fact, it can be shown conclusively that the idea of such is completely untenable within the purview of the Scriptures. We shall bear these statements out in the following articles.
Why Has This Doctrine Been Lost?
Attack on the Sufficiency of the Cross
After spending some time studying this topic, it eluded me as to the reason why Christianity as a whole has so miserably failed and neglected to find the true sense of this doctrine. But I now have some ideas. Since the time shortly after the Apostolic Age, Satan has perpetrated a deception that has had untold consequences. An area of concentrated attack by Satan has been against the sufficiency of the Cross. The idea has been subtly planted that the eternal issue between God and man is sin and therefore, the need to be eternally forgiven, when, in fact, Jesus Christ through His death on the cross completely removed sin as a barrier between God and man. How does this present a masterful ploy on his part? Satan wishes to take mankind’s focus off of the sufficiency of the Cross and point it inward. When this happens people become pre-occupied with their sin, guilt, and the need for constant forgiveness, whether as a means of assurance or eternal salvation itself.
The Cross is Deficient in Roman Catholic Theology
Look at the Roman Catholic Church, for instance. They agonize over their need for forgiveness through rigorous acts of penance, and dread the thought of perishing in an unforgiven state. Why? Because sin and forgiveness, in their minds, is the eternal issue between mankind and God. The power of the cross has been greatly (if not completely!) diminished. It is not a sufficient answer to the eternal question of sin in the Catholic estimation.
The Cross is Deficient in Reformed Theology
But does it have an effect on Evangelicalism? Well it has in Reformed thinking, no? If forgiveness of sins is the eternal issue between God and man (as they suppose), and Christ’s death had as its purpose the removal of sin (which it did), then they deduce that Christ could not have possibly died for those who are unelect, because they are going to hell and will never be forgiven. There is no way to get around this logic. If these two premises are correct, then the conclusion must follow. If the unelect are going to hell because of their sins, then Christ couldn’t have died for them; conversely, if Christ died for them, they wouldn’t be going to hell! They do have a powerful argument, by the way! Christ’s death did something. It didn’t just have a potential to do something. If Christ died to take away sin, that is what He did! But not for the unelect, so they reason. Thus in their theology, the cross of Christ is, in a very real sense, deficient: it had absolutely no effect on the greatest majority of people (the reprobate). Satan has done a work here.
The Cross is Deficient in non-Reformed Theology
But what of the non-Reformed Christians? Have their been consequences of believing that sin is the issue between God and man in this group as well? The unfortunate answer is yes, there has. Satan’s attack has led to the confusing, irrational, and weak manner in which the message of life has been delivered. Well intentioned, but erroneous non-Reformed people say, “Christ died as payment for your sins” with one side of their mouth, yet on describing the consequences of unbelief, say with the other side, “If you don’t believe in Jesus you will pay for your sins.” The one being evangelized might rightfully ask, “How would it be that I would have to pay for my sins if Christ, nevertheless, did? Is that not a double-payment?” Ouch! This is precisely the indictment that our Reformed brothers charge us with, and, quite frankly, we have been short on satisfying answers.
“Oh”, one of us might respond, “Christ only ‘potentially’ died for everyone’s sins. It is ‘sufficient’ for the sins of the world but only ‘efficient’ to those who believe.” Here, it will have to be admitted, if we are honest with ourselves, that Jesus Christ’s death did not actually “do” something, but only “potentially” did something. Again, a subversion of the sufficiency of the Cross. There is an innate deficiency and weakness it it: it had absolutely no immediate and actuated effect, in and of itself, on mankind. Lets be honest here, folks. The statement that “Jesus died for your sins” cannot be true unless it is further qualified by the statement, “if you believe in Him.” Such a concession ought to astound and shock those of us who are offended at the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Why? The results are essentially the same: people who go to hell do so because Christ did not effectually die for their sins.
Long enough have we remained faithful to two contradictory notions, namely, 1) Christ died for the sins of the world, and 2) unbelievers will pay for their sins in hell. It is high time that we finally get this doctrine right and present it clearly. The Reformed folks would not be able to resist our arguments, and we could preach the gospel without any of our own dissonance. What power there is in the unqualified message that, “Jesus paid it all!” Friends, sin has been taken out of the way. It is no longer a barrier between God and man in regards to one’s eternal destiny. So complete was Christ’s death that God no longer imputes sin to man. God has been completely propitiated and satisfied by the death of His Son. This is a message that can be confidently and whole-heartedly asserted!
What is Forgiveness?
I do not believe that we, as Christians, have given this issue enough thought. The problem is that we have considered it to be a basic principle to the Christian faith, and glossed over its significance, having taken it for granted that we possess a sufficient grasp of it. But here is a challenge. Could you give a well-orbed and Scripturally sound definition or description of it? I am afraid that I couldn’t have before I recently began the study of this doctrine. In order to answer this question, it will be necessary to examine the different relationships that the sins of mankind have with God.
The Cross of Christ
As we have noted in previous installments of this series, the Cross of Christ was a single act that provided a variety of distinguishable benefits. Two of them that have been discussed in a greater degree in these articles have been justification, and of course, the forgiveness of sins. Recognizing the different benefits of Christ’s death will go far in answering the question at hand.
The sins of mankind have two distinct relationships to God:
1) It breaks His law.
2) It personally offends Him.
This is the double-whammie! Luckily for us, Christ’s death addressed both of these issues.
The Justification of Life: Romans 5:18
God is the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25). There has never been nor will ever be a judge like the Lord God. He is completely impartial, unquestionably fair, and perfectly just in every verdict that issues from His bench. In the light of this, it stands to reason that God cannot allow the sins of mankind to remain unjudged. These sins have broken His law, and law breaking has penal consequences! Enter in the the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus lived in perfect obedience to God’s law, fulfilling it, and thus qualifying Him to be our Savior, a sinless Substitute. He then willingly took the penalty for the sins of the world upon Himself, meeting every righteous demand of our Just God with respect to judgment against the universal violations of His Holy law. Because of this demand being satisfied, God does not impute sin to mankind (2 Cor 5:19).
Every judicial demand of God has been satisfied! Therefore, we may reasonably state that no one goes to hell for being convicted of transgressing God’s laws. Hell is not the just penalty for being found guilty of violating the law of God. You see, Jesus paid that penalty, and did so for the whole world.
Why then do people go to hell? We won’t get into great detail about this here. For a concise and well-written treatise, turn your attention here to an article written by Zane Hodges, What do We Mean by Propitiation? Does it Only Count if We Believe?.
The Reason Why People Go to Hell
The short answer to the reason why people go to hell is this: they simply are not prepared for it! To be sure, mankind is not condemned to hell on the basis of their sins. Christ was condemned on our behalf and paid the penalty in full. But we must make this important observation: standing free of the just penalties of transgressing His law does not automatically confer upon an individual, or mankind as a whole, the right or privilege of living with Him!
The Illustration of the 100 Parking Tickets
Shouldn’t this stand to reason? Let’s say that I was in front of the Court because of 100 parking violations. Let us further state that, for the express reason that I could not afford it, my mom footed the money to pay the fines. So, there I stand, before the judge, free of the penalties associated with my transgression of the law by virtue of my blessed mother, who satisfied my obligations to the court through her gracious generosity. Now imagine that I ask the judge, “Hey, when do I get to move into your house?” This, of course, is down-right silly, but, nevertheless, fully illustrates my point. I cannot live with the judge precisely because I am not prepared with a right or privilege to do so.
Christ’s death on the cross took sin out of the way as the eternal barrier between God and man. He fully satisfied the demands of a Just and Holy God in reference to sin. You might well now be asking, “So why, then, isn’t everyone saved?” Because Christ did not die with the intent and purpose to effectually save the whole world. Christ’s intent was more limited than that. He died to remove the only barrier between God and man: sin as a judicial issue before God.
The Illustration of the Impassable Wall
Imagine I lived next door to you, and a wall separated your property from mine. Now imagine the wall was 1000 miles high, and circled the entire earth. I cannot go to you, if I want, and you can’t come to me, if you want. This illustration represents the situation between God and man prior to Christ’s death. Mankind, because of his sin, was prevented from being with God. God, because of His justice, was prevented from accepting mankind.
Now suppose that by some invention of mechanical technology the wall separating me from you and vice-versa was completely removed. You could now imagine that I would not automatically begin living in your house! Nor does the fact that the barrier is removed necessitate you to allow or cause me to live at your house. Even though the wall is gone, I would not have the necessary preparations to live in your house: the right and/or privilege.
The Preparations For Life with God
A person who is not prepared to live with God is necessarily prevented from doing so. How is a person prepared to live with God? In a word, a person must have life. He must have God’s kind of life, eternal life. How does the possession of eternal life prepare a man to live with God?
1) He is now able to live forever (unregenerate man is not)
2) Eternal life can only come through being born into God’s family, through new birth. The new birth places us in God’s family, giving us the right to live with Him.
3) New birth comes as a free gift of God’s grace received through purposeful faith in Jesus Christ. The free offer of the gift of eternal life gives us the privilege to be born into His family.
4) One is able to have the perfect moral standing required to live with God, because a benefit of eternal life is the justification that automatically results from it. Through the act of faith that brought about “new life” came justification springing from it.
Thus a man is prepared for co-habitation with God when he possesses the means of living with Him (the eternality of everlasting life), the right to live with Him (being born into His family), the privilege of living with Him (accepting His invitation to receive the free gift of eternal life), and the required moral standing (justification).
...through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. ...so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:18)
Through Christ’s sacrifice, because the barrier of sin has been removed, God is free to give life to whomever He desires. In the counsel of His will, He decided to give eternal life as a free gift to all who receive it by faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. When one believes in Jesus, he receives God’s life and the righteousness, being afforded by Christ’s obedience, that comes with that life. Christ’s completed and fulfilled righteousness, demonstrated in His obedience, became the basis by which God can impute to us the righteousness that results from receiving eternal life by faith. Faith is accounted as righteousness because it is through faith that one receives eternal life, the life of God, which includes His moral likeness, i.e. perfect righteousness.
Men and women are prepared for living with God forever by receiving the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus, period. There is no other needed element. Because of this fact, eternal life is the priority in Jesus’ evangelism, and should be ours too! It is in eternal life that all things necessary for life with God are given to us freely. Jesus preached eternal life, and so did Paul... and so should we! And of course, since forgiveness of sins is a temporal blessing, it ought not to be the focal point of our evangelism. Eternity with God does not depend upon the forgiveness of sins, but on life! As a side, chew on this: in the Old Testament, it was possible for an Israelite to be forgiven of his sins, yet not be regenerate, and thus on his way to hell. In the ministry of Jesus, it was possible for someone to have their sins forgiven by His authoritative pronouncement, and yet not be regenerate... more on these later.
So, through Christ’s death on the Cross, God is now free to unconditionally accept sinners who had broken His Holy Law, and could remain just while justifying those who believe in His Son, because the judicial penalty due universal sin was paid for. The problem of man’s violations of God’s law has now been addressed.
Sin Personally Offends God
As has been noted, all the legal demands placed upon mankind in regard to its universal violations of God’s Law has been completely satisfied in the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. But there is now the issue of God’s personal offense taken at the the sins of mankind.
Illustration of the Lawnmower
Imagine that I borrowed my neighbor’s ride-on John Deere lawnmower. During the course of my usage of it, I ran over a rock, destroying the blade, and in the commotion, I sank it in my swimming pool. When I confronted my neighbor with the news, he was shocked and dismayed. He stated that it was a brand new mower, and that I would have to pay for a new one. Well, the lawnmower wasn’t new, and I was well aware of the fact. I told him I would repair the lawnmower, but I wasn’t going to buy a new one. Later in the week I received a summons to small claims court. In the process of the trial, it was found that the lawnmower was not new, and further stipulated that I needed to pay for all the repairs of the machine, totalling $479.00. After paying the bailiff, all the legal demands put on me with regard to my neighbor were now satisfied. But one small thing: my neighbor was still torqued at me... He has been personally offended. You can imagine how this attitude of his could damage our personal relationship. Although he has been renumerated for the repairs of his lawnmower, he still bears the weight of holding this matter against me. What is needed at this point is something that will repair the relationship. What is needed is forgiveness.
Sin offends God in a personal way. When a person sins it creates an estrangement between him and God; it creates a rift, so to speak. Communication is disrupted. Sharing, so integral in a strong, personal relationship, is broken. Forgiveness overcomes the rift, re-instates communication, repairs fellowship, and removes the estrangement caused by sin.
What is the consequence of not being forgiven for sins? --> wrath!
The Two Ways that an Offense can be Addressed and Rectified
Retribution and revenge are important parts of the moral universe. Personal debt is accrued when one sins against another. God instituted laws concerning rightful recompense in personal matters so that more that what is legitimate is not returned; see for example Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Retribution removes the offense, not by letting it go, but by exacting a commensurate retaliation that evens it out. Thus we have something like:
OFFENDER HARMS --> VICTIM
VICTIM’s LEGITIMATE RETRIBUTION --> OFFENDER
= REMOVAL or NEGATION of OFFENSE
It is true, at this juncture, that the relationship of the offender to the victim may not be restored. It would all depend upon the relationship to begin with. In my youth, I had a friend that was very close. When there was a personal offense perpetrated by one of us to the other, it would hurt bad. I can remember that he did something to me that I thought was totally disrespectful, and after I beat the tar out of him I felt better, and we never mentioned the event ever again. I exacted my retribution, he, having no choice, experienced it, knowing he deserved it, and our relationship was restored. Now I know that is a base example, but they could, nevertheless be multiplied, because the same thing often happens in marriage: a tit-for-tat. When your spouse does something that hurts us, we often do something in return, and feel better about the original offense; it has been dealt with, made even. In any case, even if the relationship is not restored, the offense has been recitified by negation. There may, indeed, need to be more steps taken if the relationship is to be eventually healed. This is one way that personal offense is dealt with.
Another way, of course, is forgiveness. Forgiveness “lets go” of offenses and the natural and legitimate retributions for them. As with the last option, forgiveness in human relationships does not always net restored relationships. The offending party must apologize, and admit wrongdoing for the connection to be renewed.
In the New Covenant teachings, Christians are to forgive others so that they can be forgiven by God, letting go of the offense and their rightful vengeance, giving it over to God, who takes matters into His own hands. Vengeance is God’s, and He will repay. Letting go of another’s offense and leaving it to God can pave the way for a restored relationship. God’s wrath in this situation can be intrumental in bringing an offender to repentance wherein a relationship can be restored, or, at the very least, it can be a method of God preventing an offender from a repeat offense. Forgiveness looks like this:
OFFENDER HARMS --> VICTIM
VICTIM FORGIVES --> OFFENDER
= REMOVAL (letting go) of OFFENSE
The Basis for ForgivenessThe Basis for Horizontal Forgiveness
Why is it, do you suppose, that true forgiveness is scantly discernable (if at all) in non-Christians? Because forgiveness always has a basis in something. They do not practice forgiveness precisely for the reason that they do not possess anything substantial that provides a sufficient motivation to practice forgiveness and offers an outlet for the natural inclination toward revenge. I do not contend that the un-regenerate can't forgive. I do, nevertheless, declare that there is no lasting basis upon which they can practice forgiveness in their lives.
The basis by which Christians can forgive, of course, is the blessed fact that he has been forgiven on account of Jesus Christ. The Christian has experienced the grace of unconditional forgiveness which cleansed his every sin. In this light, forgiveness can be nurtured. Evidently, God, too, needs a basis in order to forgive.
Certainly God is ready to extend grace, and He does so all the time. It is by God’s grace that the whole human race is not consumed! Notwithstanding, God tires of repeated offenses. Wrath is God’s revenge, His retribution and recompense to the personal offenses against Him by mankind. The depravity of the human race is extensive and great. Without a basis to forgive individual members of the race of Adam, God can’t forgive.
The Basis for Divine Forgiveness
From the beginning, we see that sacrifice was the basis by which God could forgive man, and thus repair a broken relationship, and let go of His wrath. Animal sacrifice was a temporary and limited ministry that atoned for sin. Atonement looks like this:
SINNER OFFENDS -->GOD
SINNER ATONES for OFFENSE -->ANIMAL SACRIFICE
= SATISFACTION in regards to RETRIBUTION
= BASIS on which to “LET GO” of an OFFENSE
This process had to be repeated often, because the sacrifice, as unblesmished and perfect as it had to be, could not provide a covering sufficient for any future offenses. It could only be administered for one’s immediate sins. All future sin had to be atoned for with more sacrifices. The sacrifices did not provide an eternal basis upon which God could forgive men their sins.
Enter in the cross of Christ! Jesus, being the God-Man, had the unique qualifications necessary to be an eternal sacrifice for sins. He was Man so that He could die, and God so that the sacrifice could be of eternal value. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the mount at Calvary provides the basis upon which God can confer upon mankind “the forgiveness of sins”. As has been discussed previously, the forgiveness of sins is a blessing received at the same time as eternal life that erases the debt of retribution, forgives all past sin, and confers upon the believer the privilege of coming before God the Father for forgiveness of any future sins. Christ is our Advocate with the Father. When we sin, we may confess our sins to God and receive forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Jesus stands as a continual reminder that God has been eternally satisfied in regards to the sins of mankind and its personal offense to Him. The resurrected and glorified Jesus is the basis upon which God forgives us. The “forgiveness of sins” is a benefit of the cross that allows Christians to begin, remain in, or renew active participation, sharing, and fellowship with God in the present, temporal realm.
Thus the problem of sins’ personal offense to God has been addressed, also, by the Cross of Christ.
Two Benefits Springing from the Same Source for Two Disparate Purposes
The death of Christ has these two distinguishable benefits:
1) It served as the payment for the legal penalty of the universal
violations to God’s Law by mankind. Upon this basis God can confer justification.
2) It propitiated God in respect to the personal offenses against Him by mankind. Upon this basis God can confer the forgiveness of
Finally, we can have a definition: (divine) Forgiveness is the act whereby God
“lets go” of the personal offenses against Him by its object, and thereby
releasing the wrath associated with it. Justification is the accounting of
righteousness which is applied only once with eternal results, while forgiveness
can be applied whenever it is needed, so long as the proper protocol is
observed, confession. Justification is necessitated by the need to be prepared
to live with God forever. Forgiveness exists for the purpose of facilitating the
on-going maintenance of the temporal relationship of man to God. Two blessings
for two different purposes springing from one blessed eternal act!
What Forgiveness Does Not Do
Forgiveness Does Not Take Away Chastening
Forgiveness takes away the legitimate demands of an offended God to the rightful recompense of revenge owed because of a personal offense against Him. It does not, however, take away the chastening of God. Chastening is to be distinguished from righteous retribution in that chastening is not incompatible with forgiveness, while retribution is. Take for instance the example of child-rearing. Often we have forgiven our children of an offense, while at the same time applying an appropriate amount of discipline, serving to correct and instruct. Chastening is not applied for the purpose of retribution and making things even. Our loving discipline seeks to cultivate healthy decision making, and serves as a future warning to poor behavior. Retribution is the expression of God’s anger against the sins of the unrepentant. It certainly could get a person’s attention and point him to the road of repentance, but often it is applied to people whose hearts are greatly hardened. In the case of Christians, it could evidence a major departure from God. In any case, forgiveness does not remove the liability to chastening.
Forgiveness Does Not Take Away the Natural Consequences of Sin
This statement would hardly be contested. By the design of the Creator, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For instance, someone having illegitimate sexual relations with a woman for pleasure and fun, and getting an STD as a result to his tragedy.
Another Benefit of Christ’s Cross that Relates to Forgiveness
When a Christian is walking in fellowship with God, walking in the light of His revelation, in open and honest communion with Him, he will not always be aware of all of his sins, all of which personally offend our God. In this case, the blood of Jesus Christ is continually cleansing the Christian operating in the light. This benefit speaks to the incredible degree of intimacy to which our relationship with God can attain! Furthermore, anytime a Christian confesses the sins that the light has revealed to him, he is not only cleansed of those sins, but of all unrighteousness that he is not aware of.
Conclusion to This Installment
We certainly did put alot of cards on to the table with this article, no? They may not all be lined up correctly for some of you, but all in good time. In the following articles we will be examining every occurence of the words associated with forgiveness in the New Testament.
It remains for the church historians to discern how the uncritical blending of justification and the forgiveness of sins became orthodox doctrine. One thing is for sure, the basis for the loss of the true focus of forgiveness of sins has been the tragic depreciation of Christ’s death on the cross. How this will conclude or where it will end up is unknown. Brothers and sisters, we can’t get this one wrong. The errors concerning the purpose and death of Christ have untold consequences for other related doctrine, for life, and for godliness. Jesus has paid it all so completely that sin has been removed as the impassable barrier that once prevented God from unconditionally accepting man, and preventing man from living and relating to God! And finally, we stress that forgiveness and justification correspond to two separate issues that result on account of man’s sin, which are both, nevertheless, addressed by the infinite benefits of the Cross of Christ.
You must tune in to following articles. There will be some very fascinating looks into various passages, including an in-depth look into the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for tuning in.