“[Christ] in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).
A businessman near St. Louis recently received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and was rejoicing in the knowledge of sins forgiven. Lately, however, he has become conscious of sin creeping back into his Christian life. Haunting fears of an angry God keep torturing his tender conscience as he wonders if God still accepts him.
A suburban housewife has a husband who is an alcoholic. Early this morning, he came home drunk with a major dent in the family car. He is sorry but she knows, if she forgives him, he will just do it again.
An 83 year old woman near Kansas City sits alone in a large, empty house. Years ago, her family hurt her very deeply. At one time she wanted to forgive but they have never acknowledged that the offense ever took place. “How could they have done such a thing,” she asks. Now she awaits death and deliverance from the bitterness and disillusionment that binds her.
The above examples are more than just hypothetical. There are countless similar cases being lived out every day in homes and churches throughout our land. Does Christianity have the answer? It depends on what “Christian” you ask. One of the most misunderstood doctrines in the Word of God is the issue of the forgiveness of sins. I am convinced that two of the most difficult things to teach a Christian is (1) his sins have been completely and eternally forgiven and (2) this forgiveness should now be extended to others.
Why all the difference of opinion on a subject so foundational to the Christian life? As with so many themes in the Bible, the failure to “rightly divide the Word of truth” has led sincere believers in Christ to inconsistent positions on forgiveness. They say, “Thank God that He has forgiven me all my sins but….” Then they begin to list conditions which they believe they must meet if God is to accept them.
FORGIVENESS UNDER GRACE
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles and the revealer of the mysteries of God to the Church which is His Body, gives only one condition—belief in his gospel. According to the above Scripture from Ephesians 1:7, the forgiveness of sins is intimately linked with our redemption which in turn is based upon Christ’s sacrificial blood and the riches of His grace. Also, notice carefully that forgiveness (as with all our spiritual blessings) is past tense for the believer in Christ. We have redemption…the forgiveness of sins.
For those who need further confirmation of this wonderful news, please consider prayerfully these additional examples from Paul’s epistles:
“And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
“In Whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14).
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Col. 2:13).
“Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:13).
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, `Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin'” (Rom. 4:5-8).
“Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Jesus Christ] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38,39).
The above verses represent the teaching on forgiveness for the present dispensation of the grace of God (Eph. 3:1-9). The instructed grace believer knows that man is by nature dead in trespasses and sins and as such cannot merit a place in heaven with God (Eph. 2:1,8,9). The love of God has provided forgiveness for fallen man through the blood of His Son. Faith in Jesus Christ is the responsibility which a Sovereign God has placed upon man in response to His love. “Christ died for our sins… and rose again” is the gospel which Paul received from the glorified Lord Jesus and preached wherever he went (I Cor. 15:1-4). The Holy Spirit of God then takes the believing sinner and supernaturally baptizes him into Christ, thus establishing an eternal union (I Cor. 12:13). This has been testified to by the revelation that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ because the Holy Spirit has sealed us until the day of redemption (His coming) (Rom. 8:31-39; Eph. 1:13,14; 4:30).
The knowledge of these scriptural facts give the believer great peace and joy unspeakable. But as is the case with so many Bible subjects, those who want to homogenize the Word of God go to forgiveness teachings given to Israel for a past dispensation and arbitrarily transplant them into the present dispensation of Grace. The result is fear, doubt, and a lack of boldness in our prayer life.
FORGIVENESS UNDER THE LAW
At this point, it may be beneficial to contrast forgiveness under the law of Moses.
“If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chron. 7:14).
What an oft quoted verse used by sincere preachers wishing to see our country restored to moral and spiritual greatness! Indeed there is wise counsel here for believers of all ages. Spirit-led humility, prayer, seeking God’s face and turning from sin should produce a tremendous revival in the Church today. But take a closer look at the verse. “My people which are called by My name” refers to Israel under the law—not the Church under grace. The land to be healed is not America but Palestine. Now note the conditional nature of this forgiveness. “If My people shall…then will I forgive.” This “if-then” syndrome so characteristic of the covenant of the law brings us all the way back to Exodus 19:5. “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine.”
This system of conditional blessing is stated repeatedly throughout the Old Testament books of Exodus-Malachi. If Israel obeyed God’s covenant (the law), God would bless them. If they disobeyed, God would curse them (Deut. 28). This is not how God deals with believers today. We have already been blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3,7). This includes the forgiveness of sins.
In relation to the II Chronicles 7:14 passage, we must recognize the difference between interpretation and application. Since all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable, there are truths in this verse which can speak to us today, but only as we apply them in light of the revelation of the mystery given to us through the Apostle Paul (Rom. 16:25; Col. 1:25-27). The verse as it stands with its conditional blessings belongs by interpretation to Israel under the law.
While some have come to acknowledge the difference between the Mosaic and Pauline systems of blessing (including forgiveness), fewer have seen that conditional forgiveness is carried into the non-Pauline writings of the New Testament.1 Consider the following:
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:12,14,15).
“And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matt. 18:34,35).
“And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25,26).
“Forgive and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37c).
“If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, `I repent;’ thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3,4).
Note carefully that forgiveness in the above examples is extended by the heavenly Father only when forgiveness is first extended to others. Likewise the other is forgiven only if he repents. The order is: (1) Offense committed (2) Confrontation and rebuke (3) Repentance of offender (4) Forgiveness extended by victim (5) God’s forgiveness extended. This teaching shows forgiveness in relation to the millennial phase of the kingdom of God on earth according to Prophecy (Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21; Rev. 5:10).
In contrast, Paul’s writings reveal that the believer in Christ today is working from a position of perpetual forgiveness from which he is free to forgive others.
“Forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
“Forgiving one another…even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:13).
This teaching shows forgiveness in relation to the heavenly phase of the kingdom of God according to the Mystery (Rom. 16:25; I Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:4; II Tim. 4:18). As Scofield has so aptly stated, “Under law forgiveness is conditioned upon a like spirit in us; under grace we are forgiven for Christ’s sake, and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven.”
What a difference between law and grace—between conditional and unconditional forgiveness! Both systems are consistent with God’s character and work according to His plan for the ages. But how we should rejoice in being saved members of the Body of Christ during this present dispensation of the grace of God! It shows that while God Himself never changes, His dealings with man do change through the course of history and prophecy.
Some may still object that the forgiveness teachings of Jesus while on earth represent doctrine which was later written to us as members of the present day Church. They further argue that we also should make our forgiveness conditional. This they do because of traditional assumptions and a fear that grace will be abused.
First of all, we agree that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). All of Scripture is equally inspired of God but is profitable only as it is rightly divided (II Tim. 2:15; 3:16). Secondly, let us understand that Jesus’ earthly ministry was only to the Jews according to prophecy (Matt. 10:5,6; 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30; Rom. 15:8). Thirdly, our Lord’s life and teaching did not nullify the covenant of the law given through Moses on Mt. Sinai (Matt. 5:17,18; 8:1-4; 23:1-3; Luke 2:21-24; Gal. 4:4). Jesus lived and worked as a Jew under the law as He was circumcised the eighth day, observed the Jewish feast days, told a healed leper to show himself to the priest and offer the gift (animal sacrifice) that Moses commanded, and charged His disciples to observe and do all which those who sat in Moses’ seat bade them (i.e. the scribes and Pharisees who had this authority and were strict adherents for the letter of the law).
While Jesus’ kingdom teaching did take the law deeper to include the motives of the heart (Matt. 5:22,28,32,34), and certain adjustments were made to accommodate the coming kingdom (Matt. 5:44; 13:52), His teaching was one of confirmation (Rom. 15:8). Any new revelations given by Jesus at this time were only added details confirming the prophesied, millennial phase of the kingdom of God as outlined in the Old Testament. Finally, let us acknowledge that the Apostle Paul is the theologian for the present dispensation of the grace of God. In his writings alone do we find the doctrine, position, walk and destiny of the Church, the Body of Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ conducted a heavenly ministry through Paul, his mouthpiece (I Cor. 14:37; II Cor. 13:3; Gal. 1:11,12; 2:2,9; Eph. 3:1-9). We are the recipients of that ministry today through his epistles. May we never lose sight of where we stand in the program of God. This is crucial for our study of forgiveness as we have shown.
Being properly adjusted to grace teaching is absolutely essential for a joyous and victorious life of faith. How can we love and praise God for something we are not sure He has given us? Likewise, how can we have joy and peace when we fear God may withdraw His gifts? Let us not let unscriptural or undispensational teaching separate us from the enjoyment of sins forgiven and fellowship with the One “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith [faithfulness] of Him” (Eph. 3:12).
FORGIVENESS IN OUR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Here we must falter if our feet are not firmly planted in grace. We are instructed to deal with others in the same way God has dealt with us. Since God has forgiven us all trespasses (past, present, and future), is it reasonable to withhold forgiveness from those who trespass against us? “But I was hurt so deeply,” you say. Have you not wounded the heart of your Heavenly Father by your unforgiving spirit? You can never forgive more than He has forgiven you. God knew beforehand how you would sin against Him, yet He forgave all when you believed the gospel.
For anyone who may be struggling with an unforgiving spirit, I would make these suggestions.
(1) Make sure that you understand and believe the gospel of grace (Rom. 3:19-28). Without the indwelling Holy Spirit and the love He sheds abroad in our hearts, you will not be able to forgive in a way which is acceptable to God (Rom. 5:5).
(2) Recognize that this attitude is emanating from the flesh (the old self) and is sinful (I Thes. 5:15; Rom. 12:17-21).
(3) Do not indulge the flesh but judge it (Rom. 13:8-14).
(4) Consider the depths of sin from which you have been forgiven and what it must have meant to our Lord Jesus to die for us. A certain man always prayed, “Lord, never let me forget what I was before I became a Christian.” As a fallen seed of Adam’s race, your sin against a holy God is infinitely greater than any sin we may commit against each other.
(5) Take account of what your disobedience is doing to your inward soul life. Some people think they are well justified in harboring hard feelings against a person while others support them in their evil speaking. But much more damage is done to the offended party in the form of a darkened soul than could ever be done to the offender.
(6) Forgive the person as an act of the will. This is Christian love in action. Do not wait until you “feel” like forgiving. Forgiveness is first extended, then feeling will eventually follow. Trying to work up warm, tender feelings toward the offender is not necessary to forgiveness and in most cases is artificial.
(7) Pray for the spiritual welfare of the offender. I once heard a preacher say, “It is extremely difficult to remain bitter against someone for whom you consistently pray.” Good advice! God promises a “peace which passes all understanding” as we present all our requests to Him (Phil. 4:6,7). We have the added joy of knowing we are pleasing Him and bringing honor to His name.
(8) Be prepared for the reappearance of a root of bitterness. Many Christians report the return of destructive feelings, especially if the offender remains unrepentant or the offense is repeated. Time and again the old man wishes to raise his ugly head. Repeat the above steps.
(9) Use the situation to allow the Lord to conform you to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:28,29). Shameless sinners are causing pain and suffering to the family of God. What a marvelous opportunity for us to take our Christianity out of the closet and let it shine before men!
So far I have said nothing about changing the offender. If the person is lost, we must pursue prudent means to share the gospel with them. If the person is saved, we must lovingly apply the means which are consistent with Paul’s instructions concerning an erring brother (Gal. 6:1; II Tim. 2:24-26; I Cor. 5; II Cor. 2; Heb. 12:14-15). “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). That is a truth which transcends dispensations and is true for all time.1
If we are allowing our Lord Jesus to love him through us, we will be interested in changing the behavior.
Having said this, we must realize that some people will not change. But we can if we seek to live for Him who died for us and rose again. Forgiveness is not easy, but it is a wonderful occasion for the Spirit of God to change us into His likeness. Remember, God commands us to forgive and His commandments are also His enablements. Our Lord will never ask us to do something that we are unable to do. If God can raise our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and impart life to your dead soul, cannot He also give you victory in this area? “Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it” (I Thes. 5:24). Amen.
- The term New Testament is itself a misnomer since it could not be in force until the death of the testator (Christ). Hebrews 9:16,17.
While outside the space limitations of the present article, the issue of confession of sins for this dispensation has been much discussed, largely because of a misapplication of I John 1:9. Paul does not speak of confession in his epistles, although Luke gives us an inspired account of it in relation to his ministry (Acts 19:18). Many of Paul’s commands cannot be obeyed without self-judgment which would of necessity include a confession of sin (II Cor. 7:1; II Tim. 2:21; I Cor. 5:2; 11:32).
When a Christian sins, we should agree with God’s Word that it is wrong (confess) and forsake the behavior or attitude by putting off the old man and putting on the new man (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:7-10). So we confess our sins, not in order to receive forgiveness, but because we wish to be properly tuned to grace and to thus glorify Him who has forgiven us all trespasses.