WORTHY OF THE KINGDOM

by Thomas W. Finley


Chapter 8-3 (contd.)

THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS

Christ’s judgment of the saints at His Bema will be according to their works. Good deeds will receive a positive reward, whereas bad deeds will receive a negative reward. Some may perhaps object to the possibility of negative reward on the ground that Christ’s death on the cross was the place where all sins were judged by God.

Once a person accepts Christ as his Savior, his substitute to die in his stead for sin (Rom. 5:8; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18), should that person then have to suffer in any way for his sin? To answer questions of this type requires us to be balanced and to accept all of the Biblical truth. One of the important subjects in the Scripture that will help us balance out our views concerning God’s dealing with the sins of the believer is the matter of forgiveness.

Two Greek words are predominately used in the New Testament both for God’s forgiveness of man and for man’s forgiveness of man. One verb is aphiemi and the other verb is charizomai. Aphiemi fundamentally means "to send forth, send away" and is used in the New Testament of remitting or forgiving debts or sins.[1] Charizomai most commonly in the New Testament means "to pardon, to graciously remit a person’s sin."[2] Some preachers like to use the term "to release" as an equivalent.

As believers in Christ, God has forgiven us, released us from the just penalty due for our sins. What is that penalty? The penalty for man’s sins is spiritual death, eternal separation from God ("the wages of sin is death"; Rom.6:23). The Bible assures us that those who believe in Christ will not suffer the judgment of eternal death, but through Christ have passed out of death into life (Jn. 5:24; 3:16). We shall never come under this penalty of eternal spiritual death because Christ suffered death in our stead (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18). This forgiveness has its basis in the blood of Christ (His death on the cross). "In Him we have redemption, through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace" (Eph. 1:7).

We should rightly stress that there is an "eternal forgiveness" that all believers in Christ possess. Such eternal forgiveness is ours by virtue of our union with Christ. This is "positional truth", as it shows what we possess due to our position in Christ. This truth assures us that all of our sins have already been forgiven in Christ (Eph. 1:7; Col. 2:13). We are never in danger of losing this eternal forgiveness.

However, there is more than one type of forgiveness in the New Testament. Watchman Nee describes four types of forgiveness in Love One Another. He calls them eternal forgiveness, borrowed forgiveness, communional (fellowship) forgiveness and governmental forgiveness.[3] Nee defines "borrowed forgiveness" as the forgiveness that the church acknowledges and grants in accordance with the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20:22-23). The term fellowship forgiveness will be covered below. Governmental forgiveness deals with God’s administration upon our lives and circumstances, and may include His chastening of us after we have confessed our sin. We will discuss this forgiveness more below.

The Bible clearly shows us that even though the forgiven sinner is released from the eternal penalty for sin, this does not mean that he cannot suffer some temporal, lesser penalties for sins he commits after being born again. Let’s look at some examples from Scripture.

Ananias and Sapphira were part of the community of faith. When they lied about the sale price of their land, God killed them for this sin, and, as a result, "great fear came upon the whole church" (Acts 5:11). In Corinth, believers were judged by God with sickness and death because they were improperly relating to the body of Christ and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-32). The Bible warns us that God disciplines us and scourges His wayward sons (Heb. 12:5-11). We have also seen from many Scriptures how, at Christ’s Judgment Seat, believers will suffer in the next age due to disobedience and unfaithfulness in this lifetime. Thus, we can conclude that God’s forgiveness in redemption (our eternal forgiveness) does not preclude Him from inflicting temporal penalties (prior to the arrival of eternity after the millennium) upon believers for disobedience. In eternity, there will be no more discipline upon believers.

One must see the distinction between those truths that speak of our position in Christ and those that speak of our experience under God’s government. Otherwise, we will be confused about forgiveness. A great Plymouth Brethren writer, C. H. Mackintosh, had this to say to someone who wrote to him about passages that dealt with God’s governmental hand:

These, and numberless other Scriptures in the Old Testament, as well as many similar passages in the New Testament, unfold to us the deeply important subject of God’s moral government. Now, to be merely a subject of God’s government is one thing; to be a subject of His unchangeable grace is another. We should never confound them. To elaborate this point, and to refer to the various passages which illustrate and enforce it, would demand a volume: we would here only add our full persuasion that no one can understand the Word of God who does not accurately distinguish between man under government and man under grace. In the one case he is looked at as walking down here, in the place of responsibility and danger; in the other, he is looked at as associated with Christ above, in the place of inalienable privilege and eternal security.[4]

The verses below demonstrate that there is a type of post-regenerational forgiveness that is conditional (if the believer confesses, or if the believer forgives those who offend him, then forgiveness is granted to him by God).

"And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12, part of the "Lord’s prayer" taught to the disciples).

"And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions." (Mk. 11:25)

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 Jn. 1:9)

Do these verses mean that if the believer does not fulfill these conditions he then stands under God’s eternal condemnation? No, because these verses are not dealing with our eternal forgiveness, but with other aspects of forgiveness.

Aspects of forgiveness

To understand this conditional forgiveness, we must learn more about forgiveness. A contemporary author, Wendell E. Miller, sees forgiveness somewhat differently than Watchman Nee. Miller views forgiveness only as "judicial" or "fellowship" forgiveness. His insights are helpful, although I believe his thoughts should be complemented by the views of forgiveness outlined by Watchman Nee. In his book entitled, Forgiveness: The Power and the Puzzles, Miller categorizes man’s forgiveness by God into four kinds:

Initial judicial forgiveness -- release from the penalty of sins committed before saving faith and justification -- dependent upon saving faith

Initial fellowship forgiveness -- release from alienation of fellowship caused by sins committed before saving faith and justification -- also dependent upon saving faith

Repetitive judicial forgiveness -- release from the penalty of sins committed after saving faith and justification -- unconditional (dependent only upon the faithfulness of our Advocate, Jesus Christ)

Repetitive fellowship forgiveness -- release from alienation of fellowship by sins committed after justification -- dependent upon our confession of our sins[5]

Admittedly, Scripture does not describe forgiveness with labels such as "judicial" and "fellowship". Yet, the conclusion of many Bible students is that there seems to be one aspect (or category) of forgiveness that deals with the believer’s eternal and positional standing before God and another aspect that seems related to our experience of temporal fellowship with Him.

Wendell Miller sees God’s "judicial forgiveness" of sins as a release from the penalty of sin. This judicial forgiveness is initially granted to the unsaved sinner at the moment of belief. According to Miller, judicial forgiveness is thereafter kept vitally effective for us on a repetitive basis by Jesus Christ as our Advocate and High Priest. Some may disagree with Miller on the repetitive nature of judicial forgiveness, seeing it more as a matter accomplished once for all by the work of the cross, and completely applied to the believer at the moment of initial faith. In any case, I believe Miller sees the eternal aspect, and only views the repetitive nature of judicial forgiveness as the application in time of an eternal reality.

Christ is seen as our Advocate (parakletos, Greek) in First John 2:1: "My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." Miller points out that the only condition here for Christ’s work of advocacy is our sin. As our Advocate, Christ is our legal representative presenting our case before the Father. Whenever we sin, He applies continuing judicial forgiveness for us based upon His work on the cross.

Christ’s function of advocacy for forgiveness in First John is essentially the same as His priestly work in Hebrews where He is the mediator of the New Covenant (Heb. 8:6), which guarantees God’s forgiveness of our sins (Heb. 8:12). In Romans, Christ is also portrayed as the One who maintains our eternal, positional justification by His action of intercession at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:33-34).

How grateful and full of praise we should be to our Lord Jesus for His ministry of intercession on our behalf, keeping our eternal relationship with God the Father secure! Yet, when we sin we do realize that there is a genuine problem in our fellowship with God. In the first chapter of First John, the apostle John emphasizes this experience of fellowship and tells us how sin breaks it: "If we say we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness [sin], we lie and do not practice the truth" (1 Jn. 1:6). Importantly, John goes on to tell us how to restore this broken fellowship: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9).

The importance of confession of sins

God’s forgiveness in 1John 1:9 is termed by Miller as "repetitive fellowship forgiveness." This forgiveness by God is described by Miller as God’s release from "alienation of fellowship." We see, therefore, the importance of a believer’s confession of his sins. The Greek word for confess is homologeo which literally means "to speak the same thing."[6] When God says something we have done is sin, then we need to agree with Him, to speak the same thing. In other words, what God judges as sin in our life, we must agree by also judging it as sin. This certainly means that we are repentant concerning that particular sin. Once we confess, God is faithful to forgive us. Although God’s forgiveness is based solely upon the blood of Christ, this fellowship forgiveness is obtained through our confession.

Since this matter of confessing our sins is so important, we need to learn more concerning God’s speaking to us about our sins. Firstly, we should recognize that God’s speaking to us about our sins is based upon His Word. The Bible is the "language" God uses to speak to us. This is why First John 1:10 says: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not is us." This verse means that we may reject the truth of God’s Word as respects our sin. If we do this, we can enter a stage of self-deception (1 Jn. 1:8). Therefore, our real need is to spend time in God’s Word so that we can know the Lord and His truth. Then we will be able to understand His speaking to us in the conviction of sin. Biblical knowledge helps make our conscience properly sensitive to sin (1 Cor. 8:7; Heb. 4:12-13).

God’s conviction of sin is always specific. God speaks to us about a particular sin, and it is that sin that we must confess in order to receive forgiveness and cleansing. Blanket prayers such as "Lord, pardon and forgive us our sins" are of no avail and are unscriptural. We need to be persons in the Word of God and persons truly seeking God’s conviction. Then we will know when we have sinned.

Sometimes our conscience may feel uneasy and yet we simply cannot put our finger on any specific sin. Even when we ask God, we do not get a revelation of the problem. This may be the accusation of Satan, to which we can reply, "Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies" (Rom. 8:33). We can stand on the justification provided by Christ’s blood. Another remedy in such a situation may be to pray as David did, when he prayed: "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults" (Ps. 19:12, NKJV). Such a sincere prayer can help restore our sense of peace with God.

It is important that we understand what is accomplished through confession and what is not. First John 1:9 says that "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Firstly, due to our confession God can release us from the alienation that our sin causes in our fellowship with a holy God. Confession restores the fellowship. Secondly, He cleanses away the stain caused by the defilement of our sin.

Although we may subjectively feel the "stain" of our unrighteous actions, it is God’s view of this stain upon the "garment" (Jude 1:23; Rev. 3:4) of our conduct that is the real concern here. The stain of sin upon us is seen by a holy God and hinders our fellowship with Him. Our action of repentance and confession is our part of the cleansing process, and, once cleansed by God, we can again have true fellowship with Him (2 Cor. 6:16-7:1; Heb. 9:22; 10:22; Jas. 4:8).

There is another benefit of this cleansing, however, that appears to point to Christ’s evaluation of us at His Judgment Seat. When speaking of the coming day of the Lord, Peter admonished the recipients of his letter: "Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God . . . Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless, and blameless . . ."(2 Pet. 3:11, 14). The Greek word here for spotless is aspilos, which is used figuratively in these verses for moral conduct.

When Christ returns and we are summoned to His Bema, how can we be found by Him spotless? Surely, throughout our earthly experience as a believer we have many times had our "garment spotted by the flesh" (Jude 1:23, KJV), when we yielded to the lusts of our flesh. Also, there have been times when we loved the world and indulged ourselves in its pleasures, rather than obeying God’s command "to keep oneself unstained by the world." (Jas. 1:27) How can these spots and stains be washed away? The way to be found spotless by Christ at His coming is to confess our sins now. If we confess our sins, agreeing with God’s condemnation of them, then He will "cleanse us from all unrighteousness."(1 Jn. 1:9)

Later in his first epistle, the apostle John specifically urges us to be cleansed in preparation for the Lord’s appearing: "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies [cleanses] himself, just as He is pure."(1 Jn. 3:2,3) We believe, therefore, that sins which are repented of and confessed now will not be judged with a specific negative judgment at Christ’s Judgment Seat.7 Conversely, if we do not confess our sins now, these sins will be manifested at the Bema and recompensed (1 Tim. 5:24; 2 Cor. 5:10). These ideas will be confirmed when we review some principles from Ezekiel later in this chapter.

From the comments above, we can realize that there is much benefit for us in the confession of our sins. Yet, we must understand that such confession does not resolve all the problems that our sins create for us. God’s governmental action may fall upon us.

Governmental forgiveness

In Love One Another, Watchman Nee gives an illustration of God’s governmental dealing with us. He tells a parable of a young girl who stole food from a kitchen cabinet while her mother was away. When confronted by her mother, the girl confessed her disobedience and asked for forgiveness. The mother grants the forgiveness and kisses the girl. Fellowship is restored. However, due to the disobedience the mother changes her way of doing things. The next time she leaves the house she locks the cabinet. This action on the mother’s part constitutes a change in her way with the girl. Nee explains further:

What is government? Government is a way. God’s government is God’s way, God’s administration. The mother may forgive the girl’s sin and restore their fellowship, but next time she will lock both the cupboard and the kitchen doors when she goes out. In other words, she has changed her way. To restore fellowship is easy, but to restore the way is not so easy. The mother is afraid that her daughter may do it again. She cannot give the daughter full liberty but has to put on some restraints. Her way has changed. Remember, God treats us a similar manner. Communional forgiveness is relatively easy to get. He who sincerely confesses his sin will have his fellowship restored. At the moment he confesses his sin, God restores fellowship with him. It may be that God’s discipline will immediately come upon him; God may not give him as much liberty as he enjoyed before.

Again, another day may come when God removes His disciplinary hand – and this we call governmental forgiveness. In the case of the mother, this would mean that the day comes when she feels her daughter is now dependable, so she leaves the doors unlocked. This is governmental forgiveness.[8]

Confession does not necessarily remove from us the consequences of our sins. For example, if a Christian commits a crime he may be imprisoned. God is not obligated to miraculously release such a believer from prison just because he confesses his sin. God’s governmental hand will most likely allow such a one to reap what he has sowed (Gal. 6:7) In Love One Another, Watchman Nee describes certain verses as expressly dealing with God’s governmental forgiveness: Matt. 9:2, 5-6; Jas. 5:15 and Matt. 6:14-15; 18:21-35.[9] He indicates that other passages also, however, are related to the matter of God’s governmental dealing (such as the passage in Galatians chapter six noted above).

Consider David’s sin with Bathsheeba. When Nathan the prophet confronted David regarding his sins in this matter (2 Sam. 12:1-13), David was truly repentant and his confession recorded in Psalm 51 is one of the great Bible passages on confession and repentance. Yet, even after David’s confession the Lord spoke through Nathan of a negative penalty that God had determined appropriate for that situation: "Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die’" (2 Sam. 12:13-14). Notice that Nathan assured David that there was forgiveness from God, and, hence, David would not die.

God’s governmental action upon David also included a declaration from God that "’the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’" (2 Sam. 12:10). Additionally, the Lord said that evil would arise from David’s own household and shame him in the sight of all (v. 11-12). This was fulfilled by his son, Absalom. All of these disciplinary actions were God’s governmental hand upon David for his sin, in spite of David’s confession and restoration of fellowship with God.

Finally, it should be noted that although no specific negative judgment should befall us at Christ’s Judgment Seat for confessed sins, we could still experience a loss of positive rewards that potentially could have been gained if we had proven faithful.

Aside from the need of confession in order to receive forgiveness, it is very interesting that God has another requirement in order for us to receive His forgiveness. We must forgive others before God can forgive us. The forgiveness God grants upon our forgiveness of others may be fellowship forgiveness, and also may include governmental forgiveness. Note the following Scriptures:

"Forgive and you will be forgiven." (Lk. 6:37, NKJV)

"And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matt. 6:12)

"And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive; neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions." (Mk. 11:25,26)

In his book, Forgiveness: The Power and the Puzzles, Wendell Miller describes two types of forgiveness that relate to the believer’s forgiveness of others. Here are his summary comments:

Vertical forgiveness -- unconditional release to God through prayer of the offended believer’s supposed right to get even -- release of the penalty that he might want to inflict on the offender

Horizontal forgiveness -- conditional (dependent upon repentance of the offender) release from alienation caused by the offender’s offense

Vertical forgiveness is upward in direction -- man unconditionally (without the necessity of the offender’s repentance) releases to God whatever penalty he might want to inflict, or might erroneously think that he has a right to inflict, on the offender.

Horizontal forgiveness is horizontal in direction -- in response to the offender’s repentance, the offended person grants forgiveness to the offender - releasing him from the alienation caused by his offense...

Fellowship with God is dependent upon the faithful obedience to God’s commands -- practicing both vertical forgiveness and horizontal forgiveness.[10]

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, . 1939. (Reprint ed., Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1968), p. 250. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[2] Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study Dictionary--New Testament. (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1992), p.1468.

[3] Watchman Nee, Love One Another (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1975), pp. 1-23.

[4] C. H. Mackintosh, The Mackintosh Treasury – Miscellaneous Writings by C. H. Mackintosh, (Neptune, N. J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1976), p. 650.

[5] Wendell E. Miller, Forgiveness: The Power and The Puzzles, (Warsaw, In.: ClearBrook Publishers, 1994), p.31.

[6] W. E. Vine, p. 120. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[7] A most enlightening discussion of confession and cleansing can be found in Watchman Nee’s work The Gospel of God, Volume III, pp. 463-485. His discussion here of the Old Testament type of the water of purification made from the ashes of the red heifer is very thought provoking and deep.

[8] Watchman Nee, Love One Another (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1975), pp. 7-8.

[9] Ibid., p. 6.

[10] Miller, pp. 53-54.