Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:13-14)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

God's Forgiveness Part 2: A Working Thesis

The 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.

Category Error

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

Monday, July 04, 2011

God's Forgiveness Part 1: Introduction

An Introduction to the Current Study of God’s Forgiveness of Sins in the New Testament

The Method of the Study
Throughout my 8 years of undergraduate studies at a Bible College (it took me 8 years of part time school to get a BA in Biblical Studies) I was introduced to many helpful methodical approaches to studying the Bible. One approach that I have found useful in my own study is the observation, extrapolation, and application method. You start out with a text of Scripture and write down as many observations concerning it as you can, without making any inferences or interpretations of the text. One is to simply make declarative statements concerning the data in the text itself. Next, based on the wealth of information contained in those observations, one would make inferences and extrapolations, but only as far as the text could legitimately allow. This second step is basic interpretation. In class, we were not allowed to make any inference that couldn’t be supported from the text at hand. We did this in order to stay “in bounds” with the text. If there was not enough information within the text itself for a particular pronouncement, we were not allowed to make it.

Certainly, as all students of the Bible know, all the information concerning issues present in a particular text may not be present in the text being considered. So in order to grow in understanding of the issues, the other texts would need to be studied in the same way, with the observations and extrapolations. The information gleaned from all the relevant texts could be used to make greater extrapolations and interpretations, and thus the issue could be considered using all the relevent biblical data and legitimate conclusions could be made – and at the same time the rules of the study prevent improper use of the text, the inclusion of secondary assumptions not found in the text, and erroneous interpretation (and by extension improper application).

The Dangers of Imprecise Observation and Interpretation
This type of exercise is very helpful when studying any issue. I used this very same process to come to the conclusions that I did concerning God’s forgiveness of sins in the New Testament. I have found, as in my study of forgiveness of sins, that I and others have been guilty of making inferences that can't legitimately be supported by reasoned observation and extrapolation and then asserting them as biblical fact. Futhermore, I note that I and others have fallen into the error of "implicit faith," by which we have, without the application of focused study or critical thinking, regarded and taught as truth a wide range of tenets springing from various theological traditions, and not from our own personal study.

We must be on guard about this! Too often I find that we go too far in our theological pronouncements, going beyond what may be legitimately extrapolated from the scriptural data. We must commit ourselves anew to stay "in bounds" with care and precision, going back to the relevant texts, determining to receive nothing more from the text than what can legitimately be ascertained from it. This point, in my estimation, cannot be overemphasized! The imprecise handling of the biblical texts can have a snowballing effect, as illegitimate inferences can be used to make more, which then in turn can be used to make greater ones and so on.

Reader, is it possible that you have not been careful enough with the handling of Scripture? To admit so, as I do, can be humbling, indeed. Some authors, I have read, have been very obstinate to confess their shortcomings, because they have been “published” and their pride and reputation are on the line. One of the many things that I have admired about Zane Hodges is that he continued to test his beliefs against a proper consideration of the Scriptures. Zane’s prayerful and methodical approach to the study of Scripture produced clarity, modifications, and even changes in his beliefs, and he was not afraid to announce them. Fidelity to the Scriptures is far more important than any other consideration. I hope that you will judge this true as well, no matter where you eventually will be in relation to this current study of God’s forgiveness of sins in the New Testament.

A Preliminary Consideration

Many people in my family have expressed frustration when purchasing a birthday or Christmas gift for me. Beside the consistent suggestion of books, I have had a hard time determining material things or services that I want. Last October I got on a scale and found that I was the heaviest that I had ever been in my life. This had quite an impact on me. I needed to get focused on the temporal body that God was using in His service! At Costco, I saw that they had a 2 year membership to 24 Hour Fitness for only $12.50 a month. It was rather expensive, I think like $299, but it was something I could actually find useful besides books, so I suggested it. I knew that there was no budget for such a high priced gift, so I did not even consider it a possiblity – I just threw it into the mix. To my surprise, I did receive the gift for Christmas last year. My wife and my inlaws both contributed in order to purchase the membership (I would like to note for my readers that since this time I have lost more than 25 pounds).

Imagine for a moment that I went in with my gift certificate, was signed up, and given a membership good for 2 complete years from that point on, giving me unlimited access and use of their entire facility (not so hard to imagine since this is the case). Yet what if I were to return for my second visit to find that I must actually pay a fee everytime I entered the gym? I think that you would agree that I ought to be rightly perplexed! Rationally, logically, and reasonably, how could I be financially responsible to the gym for each visit if my 2 year membership accorded me unlimited entry and use of the facility by virtue of its contract? Of course this is an absurdity; it is utterly and obviously senseless and illogical, contrary to reason and all common sense. But this is the type of situation that I am asked to believe is the case with God and His forgiveness of sins!

We are told by most evangelicals, often in the context of evangelism, that when we believe in Christ that we are forgiven for all our sins – past, present, and future. Yet, in the context of Christian living, we are told that we must be forgiven by God for all of our future sins, lest we remain unforgiven and out of fellowship with God. May I propose that this, too, is absurd (illogical, and contrary to reason)? How is it that we are responsible to God to be forgiven for every future sin if we have have already been forgiven of every future sin? This is like being asked to pay a fee upon each future visit to a gym when in fact each future visit has been paid for by purchasing and successfully applying for a membership. This is literally against all reason.

I recollect the first time that my mind was presented with this apparant affront to logic. It immediately was recognized as such. In light of the dissonance that such tension created, I asked a more mature Christian about how these considerations could be compatible. The answer was such, that in my immature Christian experience, I was able to compartmentalize this information, regarding both to be true, even in the light of a weakly attested harmonization. Yet now, in light of my growth in the grace and knowlege of our Lord Jesus Christ, such attempts at harmony do not satisfy my critical thinking processes. I thus am comfortable saying now that we are presented with two contradictory notions. Both cannot be true at the same time. Logically speaking, there are only 3 choices: the first is right while the other is wrong, the other is right while the first is wrong, or they are both wrong. It is impossible to be God fogiven of one sin and God unforgiven of the same sin at the same time.

Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark
In the 1940s a theological controversy came to being within the Reformed tradition. Essentially, one side (Van Til) believed that there were true propositions in the Bible that are contradictory to human logic which can never be harmonized, because God is incomprehensible and man can never know all the same truth as God can for God does not operate in the sphere of logic. The other side (Clark), stated that the truth may only appear that way, and either we must search the Bible for more information that will facilitate harmony, or realize that we will not be able to know the information this side of eternity – but they should both be considered as true, and able to be harmonized, logically understood, when more information is introduced. Examples of such Reformed “truths” that were at the heart of the controversy where “sovereignty and responsiblity,” and “the sincere offer of the gospel”.

In such a controversy, I would side with Gordon Clark. But I don’t leave it there. If there are two doctrinal pronouncements that contradict each other, my first reaction would be to test each one individually, to see if its articulation, based upon a methodical study of Scripture, must be modified or changed. I would posit that either one or both were in error before deciding that there is not enough information. In the process of systematizing my doctrinal thoughts, I have not found two sets of doctrinal pronouncements that are actually to be held in tension and/or paradox, but have found enough information, or have been persuaded to modify or change a position, in order for all held Christian beliefs to be in harmony with one another.

In the issue at hand, God’s forgiveness of sins, I have used these principles in coming to new held beliefs. During the course of my Christian journey, I have heard a large range of teachings and positions. One, in particular, is interesting to note here. I can’t remember which Christian group teaches this, but they were struck by the apparant contradiction of the necessity to be forgiven of what has already been forgiven, and have come to the opposite conclusion that I have. They teach that since one is forgiven of all their sins, past and future, there is no need to confess one’s sins for forgiveness, and so they consider 1 John 1:9 as an eternal salvation text, conditioning eternal forgiveness of sins on confession. I believe that they have discarded the wrong doctrine, but I note them because they were impressed as I am over the contradictory nature of the current articulations concerning God’s forgiveness of sins.

A Plea
In the following article(s) I will be reviewing the pertinent texts concerning God’s forgiveness of sins in the New Testament. I invite you to join with me in this study, to test and challenge your convictions in this area. Even if you do not come to the same conclusions as I do, you can guard against “implicit faith,” having confirmed your beliefs with a precise and methodical study of the Scriptures.

Your Free Grace Host,
Antonio G. da Rosa