There’s a teaching going around that says that God has only half-forgiven us. If it sounds wacky, that’s because it is. But partial forgiveness is what you have if you think there are things we must do to stay forgiven. Sure, Jesus forgave us at the cross, but to stay forgiven we need to forgive others or keep confessing our sins or do other stuff. The implication is that if we fail to do these things, we fall out of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Three arguments are usually offered in support of this teaching:
(1) Jesus said, “If you forgive others, your heavenly Father will forgive you” (Mt 6:14), thus forgiveness is conditional on what we do
(2) Peter refers to being forgiven from our “past sins” (2 Pet 1:9) implying that our present and future sins are yet to be dealt with
(3) John seems to say that Jesus will only cleanse us from our sins if we confess our sins (1 Jn 1:9) – so if we don’t confess, we don’t get forgiven
Let’s look at each argument in turn.
(1) Jesus said forgiveness was conditional
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer and finished by stressing the need to forgive others if we desire forgiveness ourselves. The Sermon on the Mount is the most eloquent exposition of old covenant law ever preached. Jesus preached it before the cross to people who were living under the law.
Why was Jesus preaching law? Because the Pharisees had watered down the law diluting its power to silence the mouths of self-righteous men. The law was intended to break our pride and reveal our need for a Savior (Gal 3:24). If you think the law easy and do-able, you will not have a true appreciation of your sinful state and you won’t see your need for Jesus.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus announced that he had come to fulfill the law. He then proceeded to preach about the pristine, standard of God’s holy law. That standard is neatly summarized in his appeal to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Now how would you feel if the Sunday preacher said, “you must be perfect”? How would you feel if he said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20)? If your reaction is, “I’m in trouble, I need help,” then you are closer to freedom than any Pharisee then or any religious person now.
The law is holy, righteous and good but it has no power to make you holy, righteous and good. When Jesus says you will be forgiven in proportion to the forgiveness you show to others, he is preaching pure, unadulterated law. What he says is just. It is good. And it condemns you.
The truth is the measure of forgiveness that we need from God is infinitely greater than any forgiveness we could show to others. Thankfully, Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law on our behalf when he went to the cross. In the very act of paying for the world’s sin, he forgave us for our sin! That’s breathtaking. The very condition for forgiveness that Jesus preached on the Mount, he himself satisfied on the cross. Only in Christ do we receive the Father’s forgiveness.
(2) Peter implies that only our past sins are forgiven
When Jesus died on the cross he did not cry out, “it is half-finished.” No. God doesn’t do half-jobs. Everything that needed to be done to satisfy the demands of justice was done by Jesus. His sacrifice was the once and final solution for our sin (Heb 9:26).
It’s a simple truth, yet many people just don’t get it.
Peter writes that the main reason why some Christians don’t mature is that they have forgotten they have been cleansed from their past sins (2 Pet 1:9). Their knowledge of Jesus and what he accomplished is so limited that they are “ineffective and unproductive.” They live power-less lives.
We have been reconciled to God not by dead religious works but by the blood of Jesus. A Christian is literally a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Our sinful life is in our past. Although we may continue to act like sinners in our unrenewed thinking, we are sinners no longer. Hence Peter says, “stop living in the past and grow up.”
What brings forgiveness of sins? Jesus’ blood (Mt 26:28). “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). As Jesus bled and died on the cross, God canceled the law that was against us and “forgave us all our sins” (Col 1:13).
You were forgiven 2,000 years ago. It’s nonsense to say that God hasn’t forgiven our future sins because when he forgave us all our sins were in the future.
(3) John says forgiveness depends on our confession
How do we receive the free gift of forgiveness? Repent and put your trust in Jesus. John writes that if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to purify us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9). Some take this to mean that we are cleansed from sin through our confession. But John makes it clear that it is the “blood of Jesus” – not our confession – that “purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).
And did you notice John said “all sin”? Just in case we missed it, John says it again: Jesus cleanses us from “all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). All means all. All includes past, present and future sin. When you are cleansed by Jesus you are well and truly cleansed!
“The LORD says, ‘Now, let’s settle the matter. You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool.’” (Is 1:18, GNB)
As I have said elsewhere, John is not preaching a doctrine of human confession but a doctrine of divine forgiveness. Like every other writer in the New Testament John goes to great lengths to show that divine forgiveness is a God-thing from start to finish. If we respond to his overtures and confess our sins and acknowledge him as the risen Lord, we are eternally, completely, perfectly forgiven!
When you sin, guess what – you are still forgiven! God’s grace is greater than your sin. Of course you should not sin and when you do you shouldrepent, but rest assured that nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.
Some people try to put limits on God’s forgiveness. They say that he withholds his forgiveness unless we do this, that and the other thing. They say that God forgives in accordance with our behavior or performance. But that is not what the Bible says.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” (Eph 1:7)
Just as you can’t put a limit on the riches of God’s grace, you can’t put a limit on his forgiveness. Now that’s good news!