Reality Check: Forgiveness
I was once teaching Sunday School, using the Teacher's Lesson that accompanies a denominational teaching guide. In it, the author of the Sunday School lesson guide stated and explained why we must confess each sin and then receive forgiveness for it. But a couple of weeks later he reached another passage of Scripture and in his teaching guide for it he contradicted his own words by saying that we are fully forgiven. And the problem is that such contradiction is rampant because we have attempted for years to build a theology on one verse (I John 1:9) and when you interpret to get that verse in a way that makes fit into the "confess for forgiveness theology" it contradicts other passage of Scripture.
But I did the same thing myself for years. I taught what I had been taught, but it really bothered me that I could teach one thing that contradicted something else because I knew that the Bible is consistent. It will never contradict itself and neither should we when we teach it!!
So let's look at what the Bible really says about our forgiveness. Once we get to truth, there will be no more contradiction. Every verse of all 66 books will fit together perfectly like a puzzle and we won't have to force a single puzzle piece into a place where it doesn't fit.
Let's first look closely at the verse that most people use to teach that repeated confession of sin"s" is required of Christians in order for them to receive forgiveness for them, one by one.
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
I John 1:9 (NKJV)
In interpreting Scripture, it's always important to determine to whom the writing is addressed and what was going on in the day it was written. In this passage, John was dealing with a group of people who believed that they could work their way into righteousness by doing the right things. The message of their belief system was that they could live a life without sin and therefore earn salvation. John was calling them liars and pointing out that they must confess (admit) that they are sinners, receive Christ, and then "walk" (live) in Him. Once they confessed, they would be forgiven.
John was addressing unbelievers who must confess in order to be saved. In verses 8 and 10 that surround this verse, John refers to their claims to be without sin and he calls them liars. If someone never confesses (admits) that they are sinners, then they cannot experience salvation. That's the point John is making.
But in the next chapter, John begins addressing Christians. In I John 2:12 John writes, "Your sins HAVE BEEN forgiven." Now think about this reasoning logically. If John had been addressing believers in chapter one when he was talking about the requirement of confession in order to receive forgiveness, then he would have been contradicting himself to say that their sins had already been forgiven in chapter two.
The sentence structure of I John 1:9 implies that the forgiveness that follows confession of sin as prescribed in the verse, is a one-time package deal. ALL of a person's sin is forgiven at the point of their confession.
How many times have you heard that you can come to Jesus just like you are, get saved, and from then on you have to confess your sins so that you can stay forgiven? Well, if that's true then we have a problem. Are you completely forgiven or not? Was the sacrifice of Christ enough or not?
What if you somehow miss a sin and fail to confess it? Praise God, we are already forgiven so it's not a problem. Our forgiveness is not based on whether we confess or not. If it was, then it would be based on our works - something we have to do. Our forgiveness is based entirely on the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If that wasn't enough, we're in serious trouble.
I am going to tell you something that may seem radical. Personally, I have stopped asking God to forgive me for my sins. I don't do that arrogantly. I do it in all humility. I do it because I don't want to ever appear as if I believe the death of Christ was not enough for my forgiveness or that I can do anything to add to what Christ did on the cross on my behalf. The Holy Spirit's conviction makes me fully aware of my sin, according to John 16:8, but that same verse states that the Holy Spirit has just as important a job in also convicting me of my righteousness and forgiveness. So when the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin, my response is to thank God for the forgiveness that is already mine. When the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin, I still confess (agree with God about) my sin. But I do so because if I don't agree with Him that something is a sin, I will never turn away from it and it will eventually destroy something beautiful in my life.
For some reason, Christians have a hard time getting over the perceived need to ask forgiveness for individual sins and they often want to continue doing so. When they hear my teaching they often ask, "Can I continue to confess my sin and ask for forgiveness for them?" Sure, you can, but you should do so with the full realization that it's not a requirement for forgiveness.
"Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin."
Hebrews 10:18 (NKJV)
This verse is the confirmation that Christ's death and our acceptance of His work on the cross is enough to purchase our forgiveness forever. There is no longer an offering that has to be made for our sin. The price has been paid in full for us. Once we are forgiven, we are truly forgiven. It is FINAL. The death of Christ is SUFFICIENT. His sacrifice applied to my life is ENOUGH. How could I ever think that I need to add anything to what God has already said is enough?
Remember that God is all wise. Don't you think He knew what the death of Jesus would accomplish? Do you think He would have let Jesus go through all that He endured on the cross if His death was not going to be sufficient enough to forgive you forever? It is enough!!! No matter what you've done and no matter what you will ever do.
You may have always thought that your salvation experience only took care of the forgiveness of the sins you had committed up until that point. But in fact, ALL of your sins, past, present, and future, were forgiven at the point of your salvation. How many of your sins did God see on the day He saved you? Did He just see the ones you had already committed? No, He saw every one of them that you would ever commit for the rest of your life and the death of Christ on the cross took care of ALL of them.
In fact, God saw every sin that had been or would ever be committed in all of history, and the death of Christ on the cross was enough to purchase the pardon for all of them. God saw the inherent sin nature of every person throughout history, and the sacrifice of Jesus was enough to offer victory over the sin nature in every life. Once we receive Christ as our Savior and appropriate by faith what He accomplished on the cross, it is all-encompassing and all-powerful for ALWAYS!
Get this...We cannot believe that the forgiving grace of God is sufficient if we believe that anything else is required of us now or will ever be required of us in the future in order to maintain it! It is impossible to believe that it is finished, and believe that it is not finished at the same time!
God's forgiveness would not be sufficient if there was anything I could do to diminish it in the future. He has safeguarded His forgiveness against my failures. When I received His forgiveness it wasn't because of my performance, and God does not base the maintenance of His forgiveness on my performance either.
These truths may have prompted a question in your mind. You may be asking, "Doesn't the Bible say I have to confess each sin and get forgiveness for it individually or I will be held accountable for it when I get to heaven? Won't I be held accountable for all my bad deeds there?"
Here is one of my favorite verses that should answer that question for you.
"As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:12 (NKJV)
God says that He has separated my sins from me as far as the east is from the west. God gives us a beautiful illustration of His long lasting forgiveness in this verse. One day I was sitting at my desk contemplating these verses. I wondered why God said that He had separated our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. I know that He was careful to choose words that paint a clear picture for us, so I wondered why He chose that direction instead of saying that our separation from sin is as far as the north is from the south.
As I thought about that I realized that I could begin traveling from my office and drive south to the South Pole, then begin driving north till I reached the North Pole, then travel south again to my starting point. However, I could also travel around the world millions of time going east, reaching my starting point over and over without ever driving in any direction but east. A powerful truth suddenly hit me like a lightening bolt. Though there is a South Pole and a North Pole, there is no East Pole and no West Pole.
There is no place at which east meets west. And suddenly that verse took on a whole new meaning for me. If God had chosen the words "north from south" then that would mean that there would be some eventual point at which I would meet up with my sins again. But by carefully choosing the words "east from west" God was showing me that there will never be a point in the future where I will meet my sins again.
I won't face my sins again; not in this life and not in the life to come. After fully realizing that fact through an understanding of this verse, everything began to make sense. God's forgiveness is truly forever. And He cared enough about my sense of security that He painted a picture in His creation that will forever assure me of that fact.
"For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more."
Hebrews 8:12 (NKJV)
If God says "no more" do you think He means ". but after a while I'll start remembering again?" If He says, "no more", do you think He is going to list them for you in heaven? It makes me tremble to hear people say, "God will hold us accountable for our sins when we get to heaven."
What kind of life does that give us here? Wouldn't that be a life of constant fear that we will do something that we'll have to pay for in heaven one day? Does that kind of thinking cause us to look forward to heaven?
You may say, "but what about the verses in II Corinthians that speak of the judgment seat of Christ and say that we'll be held accountable for all our deeds on earth, both good and bad?" Remember that you have to interpret the Bible as a whole and this verse, interpreted as many believers interpret it, is one of those that contradicts the basics of the truth of forever forgiveness. But when you get to the truth about this verse it fits perfectly into the beautiful puzzle picture of God's full and forever forgiveness.
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
II Corinthians 5:10 (NKJV)
What can that verse mean if it doesn't mean that we will be held accountable for unconfessed and unforgiven sin when we get to heaven? It's important to understand that the judgment to which this verse is referring is not for the purpose of getting "into" heaven. It's for giving out rewards. Do you realize that there are some things that you do that are not sin, yet they are also not something for which you will be rewarded? For instance, you may think that since you are teaching Sunday School, or giving, or doing some other "good" deed you will be automatically rewarded for it in heaven. But what was your motive? Was it for recognition or to get something out of it?
Teaching Sunday School is not a "bad" deed, but if it is done with the wrong motive, then you've received your reward here on earth. There will be no more reward in heaven. Such activity is wood, hay, and stubble and will not survive the test of fire.
In fact, the Greek word used and translated into our English word "bad" in this verse is "phaulos" (*) and it refers to that which is "good for nothing." It describes an activity from which no profit or gain is derived. This word stresses the lack of value that the deed contributes. Basically, the verse is talking about worthless service. It is not the same as the Greek word "poneros" which means malicious, describing what is evil or "bad". If God had wanted us to believe that we would be held accountable for our sins, He would have used "poneros" or other words that would convey that understanding.
The passages in I Corinthians that address the heavenly judgments are speaking of your deeds, both good and those that are "good for nothing" - they are worthless because they were not done under the leadership of God, you did it in your own strength, or you did it with the wrong motive. But these verses do not provide any basis for believing that we will be held accountable for our sins when we get to heaven.
Another question may come to your mind about Jesus' prayer (The Lord's Prayer) in which He says, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." In that passage Jesus seems to be advocating that we need to ask for forgiveness. But we have to remember to whom Jesus was speaking and the situation that was occurring at that point in time. He was speaking to a group of people who had been observing the way hypocrites prayed. Jesus was telling them that the way hypocrites prayed was wrong and He was showing them the humble way that they should pray. However, you must remember that when Jesus taught them to pray, He was teaching them under the Law. He had not yet been crucified and subsequently resurrected, which was the event in history that ushered in the New Covenant. At that time, it was necessary to ask for forgiveness repeatedly. Remember that under the Old Covenant sacrificial system the priests constantly "stood" offering sacrifices (Hebrews 10:11) because the animal sacrifices could not "take away" sin. But according to the verses that follow in chapter 10 of Hebrews, the sacrifice that Jesus offered of Himself, fully and forever accomplished the "taking away" of sin. He "sat" down because He had completed what God sent Him to do. After that day it was no longer necessary to ask for forgiveness repeatedly.
If you use the words of Jesus as recorded in The Lord's Prayer in these verses as a basis for a belief that Christians have to ask for forgiveness repeatedly, then you must also believe the rest of the teaching of this same text. The following verses in that passage (Matthew 6:14-15) go on to explain that in that day, if you refused to forgive others, God would also not forgive you. If one part of this passage is still true for us, then the entire passage has to be. And if so, then our forgiveness would also be conditional based on our continual forgiveness of others. That was part of the same Law under which Jesus was teaching the people of that day.
But we are not under the Law. God's forgiveness is unconditional for Christians. Christ fulfilled all the requirements of the Law and when He purchased our forgiveness it was forever, thus negating our requirements to operate under the Law - including the portion that required us to ask for forgiveness repeatedly.
The Importance Of Believing the Truth About Forgiveness
Why is this such a big deal? As long as Satan can keep us deceived about this one matter, our attention will stay focused on ourselves and what we can do to make up for the sins we commit. We will be consumed with doing whatever we can do to keep God from punishing us for them. The last thing Satan wants you to focus on is the truth that your sins have been REMOVED and WHO removed them, because if you do, a chain reaction will start. You will focus on Christ, realize that He has filled you with His Spirit, depend on Him to live His life through you and produce the right behavior you could never do on your own, and God will be glorified through you.
What I don't understand is why so many church leaders do not teach the glorious truth of God's full and forever forgiveness through Christ. I once heard that a prominant pastor was asked that question and his reply was that if his church members knew they were already forgiven they would "sin like crazy." But I believe just the opposite. I believe that if a Christian ever grasps the awesome wonder of full and forever forgiveness, the last thing they are going to want to do is abuse the gift of forgiveness by sinning. I think that a Christian who is fully aware of the truth of God's forgiveness will be able to focus on Christ instead of sin. And what will that do?
"...the strength of sin is the law" (I Corinthians 15:56b) It may shock you to know that what gives sin its power is not a lack of focusing on sin in an effort to avoid it. In fact, the more we focus on the sin, the more likely we are to fall into it according to this verse. But if we instead focus on the forgiveness of God in its fullness, we will come to realize that the power of sin in our lives has been demolished (Romans 6:14) and we will be able to say NO to it! In fact, we'll look back over the days and weeks of our lives and realize that when we focus on Christ and what He has accomplished, we have given no thought to the besetting sins of our lives.
Praise God for His forgiveness!!! May we cease from watering it down with a theology that's based on tradition and not on God's truth!!
(*) Robertson's Word Pictures of The New Testament, Broadman Press (Southern Baptist Sunday School Board) 1960.