Forgiveness: Rightly Dividing Truth

 •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 10
We have seen that there are different ways in which forgiveness is presented to us in the Word of God. As with every subject taken up in Scripture, it is most important that we rightly divide the Word of truth — that is, that we understand the scope of Scripture as God presents it to us. Recently it has come to our attention that some, no doubt with the best of intentions, are perverting Scripture on the subject of forgiveness.
Truth Wrongly Divided
It is being taught that since 1 John 1:99That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (John 1:9) is the only verse in the New Testament that directly mentions confession of sin, it must apply to an unbeliever and not to a believer. It is asserted that there is no such thing as a break in fellowship between the believer and God when the believer sins. The question is asked, “Where, pray tell me, is there a Scripture that declares we can be in and out of fellowship with our great God, depending on our faulty walk?” Then it is said that since the believer has once been cleansed by the blood of Christ and has been called “unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9), he can never lose that fellowship again. It is claimed that such teaching brings believers out of bondage into true liberty.
This perversion of the truth results from failing to see the difference between judicial and restorative forgiveness. To mix the two is not rightly dividing the Word of truth and eventually will bring the believer back into the very bondage out of which he is supposedly being led. It is truly wonderful to realize that the believer, once cleansed from his sins by the blood of Christ, can never be lost again. He is just as fit for heaven as he will ever be, for he is indeed seen as “in Christ.” However, God loves us too much to be satisfied simply with making us fit for heaven and then leaving us to continue in sin in our lives. He wants us to enjoy His company and fellowship, and God cannot have fellowship with sin. Surely He does remind us (through the writings of Paul and others) of our high calling, for all the exhortations of Scripture are based on what we already possess. But then He makes provision for us if we fail, in order that we may be restored to happy fellowship with Him. Thus it is not true to say that a believer cannot be in and out of fellowship with God, for this is exactly what happens when we sin. This false teaching claims, “If John [in his first epistle] was addressing born again believers, they too would be ‘called [by God] unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Cor. 1:9).” Then it is asserted that 1 John 1:99That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (John 1:9) must apply to an unbeliever who needs to confess his sins in order to be saved. However, in 1 John 1:77The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. (John 1:7), John states, “If [or since] we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Thus it is evident that believers are in view, for what the light reveals, the blood cleanses. Those addressed are indeed looked upon as having fellowship, not only with one another, but also “with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (vs. 3).
Confession and Fellowship
The truth of the loss of fellowship with God through sin, and subsequent restoration, does not depend on the presence or absence of the word “confession” in the Word of God. Rather, 1 John 1:99That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (John 1:9) summarizes a truth that is not only in Paul’s writings, but is found throughout the whole of Scripture. Space does not permit us to go into a detailed examination of the various occasions of this, but we see it in the Old Testament particularly in the case of David. When he sinned with Bathsheba, he clearly confesses his sin to God. In Psalm 51:34, he says, “I acknowledge my sin unto Thee.  .  .  .  Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight.” Then his request is, “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation” (Psa. 51:1212Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. (Psalm 51:12)). His salvation was secure, for he had already been judicially pardoned, but he had lost the joy of it through his sin. When the sin was confessed, he experienced restorative forgiveness and again enjoyed happy fellowship with God.
In the New Testament, we see a similar situation in the assembly in Corinth. There they had a man —a brother — who had fallen into serious moral sin. It was serious enough that Paul had to tell them to put him away from among themselves — away from the Lord’s table and away from Christian fellowship. They were not even to keep company or eat with him. Can one pretend — as the false teaching implies—that this man was still enjoying the Lord’s fellowship while he was denied that of his fellow-believers? No, he was in a bad state of soul, and Paul calls him a “wicked person” (1 Cor. 5:13). Only when he had really judged that serious sin in the Lord’s presence did Paul tell the Corinthians to “forgive him, and comfort him” (2 Cor. 2:7). God could act in restorative forgiveness and restore him to happy fellowship, while the assembly was encouraged to act in administrative forgiveness and restore him to happy fellowship with them.
Self-Judgment
Paul further states in 1 Cor. 11:31, “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” This means simply that if we would confess and turn away from the smaller sins in our lives, we would not fall into bigger sins for which the Lord must chasten us. Thus it is not correct to say that Paul and other New Testament writers do not speak of confession of sin, for the word “judge” used here has the same force. We cannot walk with God without self-judgment constantly in our lives.
Followed to its logical conclusion, this false system will lead the believer into bondage, not out of it. Sin on the conscience either brings misery (because of lost fellowship with God) or leads to a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) that is not sensitive to sin as it should be. In both cases fellowship with God is lost, and regrettably many dear believers are living in such a state.
May we be given the grace to see, on the one hand, the fullness of the finished work of Christ, but, on the other hand, the need to engage in self-judgment constantly in order to walk in happy fellowship with God!
W. J. Prost