The topic of forgiveness with God is often misunderstood due to different aspects of forgiveness in the Bible. This article is designed to help believers understand some basic aspects and details of forgiveness with God.
Firstly, let us understand the term “forgiveness.” Several Greek words are used in the New Testament for forgiveness. The basic meaning of these words is “release." Being released from a debt is sometimes used as an equivalent of forgiveness (Matt. 6:12; 18:27, 32, 35). Our problem with God is our sins, and when forgiveness of sins is granted then we are graciously released by God from the offense of our sin against Him and His holiness.
One basic approach to understanding forgiveness is to see that the Bible speaks of forgiveness in two primary aspects or categories. The first category can be called “eternal forgiveness.” This forgiveness from God involves a judicial forgiveness, a release from the eternal penalty for sin. God’s penalty for sin is death, spiritual death, meaning eternal separation from God (Rom. 6:23). Eternal forgiveness is granted by God to the believer upon his belief in Christ, since Christ’s death on the cross paid the penalty for all of our sins in God’s eyes (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18). When a person trusts in Christ, that payment made for our sins is credited to that person, and the person is declared righteous in God’s sight (Rom. 4:5-8). The Bible assures us that those who have believed in Christ will not suffer the judgment of eternal death, but through belief in Christ have passed out of death into life (Jn. 5:24; 3:16).
Eternal forgiveness, therefore, deals with the eternal consequences of sin and is forgiveness that is related to our position “in Christ.” Every believer, according to Scripture, is “in Christ,” meaning he is brought into a union with Christ and partakes of all of the benefits of this union. One of the great benefits we have as believers who are “in Christ” is eternal forgiveness through the grace of God: “In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7). The Bible assures us that judicially all of our sins were forgiven when we were raised in union with Christ (Col. 2:13-14). Eternal forgiveness is one of the benefits we share under the New Covenant with God (Matt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; Heb. 8:12). We are never in danger of losing our eternal forgiveness as it is given to us by God’s grace based upon Christ’s work for us, not anything we do (Eph. 1:7; 2:8, 9). Even if we sin after we believe this forgiveness is kept effective for us through the intercession of Christ as our Advocate (1 Jn. 2:1, 2). As our Advocate, Christ acts as our representative before God the Father. He takes care of our legal case before God, interceding for us based upon the effective work of Himself as our propitiation, a sacrifice that takes away wrath against sin (1 Jn. 2:1, 2; Heb. 7:25). Note that in 1 John 2:1 Christ's advocacy for us with the Father is not based upon our confession of sins. Rather, Christ intercedes for us as our Advocate every time we sin, whether or not there is confession, in order to maintain our eternally righteous position with God. Our confession of sins is related to the other major category of forgiveness – fellowship forgiveness.
Another category of forgiveness may be termed “fellowship forgiveness.” This category deals with our fellowship, our communion in spirit with God, not our eternal relationship with Him as His sons and daughters. God is our Father, and we can never lose that life relationship with Him. But, as with an earthly father, there can be a disruption in fellowship between a father and a disobedient child. The parent/child relationship of the father to the child never changes, but the harmony between the two persons can change.
When we look at the well known verse (1 Jn. 1:9) calling for us to confess our sins in order to experience forgiveness, we will note that the entire context has to do with our fellowship with God. Our fellowship, including our sense of God’s nearness and presence, is interrupted by sin, which displeases God our Father. To restore our fellowship with God we need to obey the instruction of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The Greek word translated “confess” literally means to “speak the same thing.” When God convicts us of sin, He points out something specific in our life, telling us that it is sin. We then must confess, that is agree with Him, that the thing pointed out is indeed sin. We thus condemn it as sin. Surely such an agreement includes the idea of repentance from the sin. Any “confession” that does not carry with it our intention to turn away from our sin is not a true confession. “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Prov. 28:13). When God forgives us under fellowship forgiveness, He releases us from the alienation between Himself and us caused by our sin.
So we see that the one condition required on our part for eternal forgiveness is our initial belief in Christ for salvation (Acts 10:43; 13:38-39), whereas the condition required for fellowship forgiveness in 1 Jn. 1:9 is our ongoing confession of specific sins we commit after we become a believer. We do not confess our sins to “stay saved”, but to restore harmony in our relationship with God.
There is yet another Biblical condition for receiving fellowship forgiveness from God. This condition has to do with our willingness to forgive the offenses of others towards us. A key passage comes from the Lord’s teaching on prayer: “’And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors...For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’” (Matt. 6:12, 14, 15). Our forgiveness of the offenses of others takes place in two ways. Firstly, we must deal with the offense in prayer to God alone: “’And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your trespasses’” (Mk. 11:25). Note that the verse does not say “forgive him”, but just “forgive” (meaning “release”). What are we to “release”? The verse uses the phrase “if you have anything against anyone.” This tells us we are holding onto something, some supposed “right” or desire to “get even”, to inflict some penalty upon the offender. In our prayer to God we are to release that desire to punish or get even with the one who wronged us. We must let go of this desire, giving the prerogative of justice to God, who alone possesses that right. After all, the Scripture tells us: “Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Note that in Mark 11:25 there is no condition required to be fulfilled by the offender before our “release” to God is granted. In Mark 11:25 the release is solely between the one offended and God.
The second way we are to forgive the offenses of others concerns our willingness to release them from our alienation towards them, caused by the offense, when they come to us in repentance, seeking our forgiveness. “Take heed to yourselves! If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Lk. 17:3). Here we note a condition related to our forgiveness towards the offender. The offender must repent before we can release him from our feeling of alienation towards him. It is difficult to have harmonious fellowship with someone who has seriously offended us if they do not repent of their offense and ask our forgiveness. We must deal with the offenses of others in these two ways of forgiveness, or else our fellowship with God will be hindered. If we hold onto offenses, being unwilling to release them in these ways, we may continue to carry out a religious routine, but the fresh presence of the Lord and our deep, intimate knowledge of His Spirit will no doubt be diminished. Our fellowship with God will be damaged, and our prayers may well not be answered since we are disobedient to God in this matter (Ps. 66:18; 1 Pet. 3:12). The Holy Spirit of God is grieved when we do not let Him put away from us our bitterness, anger and malice towards others, being unwilling to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:30-32).
Temporal penalties for sins
Besides restoration of intimate fellowship with God, there is another incentive for us to seek fellowship forgiveness from God. Any believer who continues in unrepentant sin invites God’s chastisement upon Him (1 Cor. 11:30-32; Heb. 12:3-12; 1 Jn. 5:16-17). During our lifetime God is training us to be proper sons, bringing forth righteousness in our lives. That training can include penalties of a temporary nature, not eternal. We must always distinguish between two different categories of God’s dealing with believers. According to the believer’s eternal position in Christ, all guilt of sin is resolved by the payment of Christ’s death on the cross and the believer is absolutely secure in Christ through God’s grace. In this eternal position, he is in no danger whatsoever. But, God also deals with His children in another realm, the realm of experience and time. In this realm His children are under His moral government in time, as well as His training for maturity. In this latter realm of God’s moral government in time, the believer is accountable for his actions and there can be consequences for his sins. There can be natural consequences of sin, such as a thief being put in jail, or God can also bring in consequences for our sins, sometimes even after confession (note the penalties upon David – 2 Sam. 12:10-15). Confession can restore fellowship with God, but may not remove all temporal penalties. God has the prerogative to chasten a wayward child for his sin, or even to inflict the penalty of death for his sin (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:18-32; Heb. 12:3-13; 1 Jn. 5:16-17). Therefore, the believer should live soberly, with a proper fear of offending God by his sin. Any sin should be repented of and confessed immediately, so that fellowship forgiveness may be granted and possible penalties due to lack of repentance might be avoided.
In Matt. 18:23-35 Jesus tells a story to illustrate our need to forgive others of their offenses towards us. In that story the slave forgiven a great debt by his master did not have similar mercy upon a fellow slave who owed him money. As a result of the slave's unforgiveness towards his fellow slave, the master ordered that the slave should undergo some punishment (verse 34). Then Jesus tells us the lesson of the story: "'So likewise shall My heavenly Father do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart'" (Matt. 18:35). Here Jesus warns us, His believers, that if we do not forgive our brothers who offend us (in the two ways noted above) then we may receive some temporary penalty from God our Father. Such a penalty may occur in our lifetime, or it may be that this particular story points to a possible penalty in the next age, the 1,000 year kingdom age, which follows the Judgment Seat of Christ. Details about penalties in the kingdom age are explained next.
The Judgment Seat of Christ
A full accounting of the lives we have lived as believers will take place when we stand before the Lord Jesus at His Judgment Seat (2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10). This is a judgment only for believers, and only for the lives that they have lived since their conversion to Christ. Our eternal salvation is not determined at this judgment since that has already been settled when we believed. At the moment we believed we passed from death to life, and the judgment concerning eternal death is forever over for us – Hallelujah! (Jn. 5:24). The judgment at the Judgment Seat of Christ will determine our rewards, not our eternal salvation. All rewards are determined by our works (Matt. 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12), whereas our eternal salvation is determined by grace through faith, apart from works (Rom. 4:3-8; Eph. 2:8, 9).
At His Judgment Seat Christ will evaluate many things concerning the lives of His believers, including our words (Matt. 12:36, 37), our motives (1 Cor. 4:5), and all of our doings (2 Cor. 5:10). Of course, our faithfulness as servants of Christ in doing His work will be a matter of this judgment (Lk. 19:1-26; Matt. 25:14-30). Some may feel that our sins, however, will not be brought up at this judgment since Christ died for our sins. However, any sins not repented of will be brought up and figured into that judgment because we believers are still under the realm of the moral government of God covering time and our experience. Thus, the Scripture states (in a passage about believers): “Some men's sins are evident, going before unto judgment; and for others their sins follow after [being exposed at the future judgment]” (1 Tim. 5:24). The Scripture also tells us that in those cases where believers have lived in certain unrepentant sins there will be a severe judgment consisting of not inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:8-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5). The “kingdom” referred to in these verses is not God’s eternal kingdom, but the kingdom of the next age, lasting 1,000 years (just prior to eternity), where Christ openly rules on the earth (Matt. 19:27-29; Rev. 20:4, 6). The reward of being approved for this kingdom consists of a special portion of rich enjoyment of God’s life (eternal life) and ruling with Christ during that age (Matt. 19:27-29; 25:21; Lk. 18:28-30; 19:17; 2 Tim. 2:12). There are other penalties in God’s word besides kingdom exclusion but these are not the subject of this article (see Lk. 12:42-48 as an example). Any penalties for the believer will be over after the kingdom age. In eternity, there will be no sorrow or tears (Rev. 21:4).
How should we deal with our sins now in order to receive God’s fellowship forgiveness and avoid some penalties at the Judgment Seat of Christ? Most importantly, we should seek God and seek His enlightenment upon any sins in our lives (Jn. 3:19-21; Eph. 5:13-14; Ps. 119:105). Then we should repent from and confess any known sins. If we discern sin in our lives and judge it by turning from it and confessing our wrongs to God, then we will not be judged for that sin at the coming Judgment Seat of Christ. “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31). Learning how to live a victorious Christian life, where sin becomes less evident in our lives, is definitely possible, yet requires good Bible instruction as well as time and experience. To live a life totally without sin, however, cannot be realistically expected in this life. So, while we await the coming of the Lord, we should be those who are always ready to seek His fellowship forgiveness.