Acts 13:38
There is much confusion with many Christians as to what is meant by forgiveness, and as to what it embraces. How many thousands repeat every week that they believe in " the forgiveness of sins," but could give but very vague answers as to what they understand by it. For instance, if an undoubted Christian were asked whether he believed in the forgiveness of sins, he would doubtless answer, " Certainly "; and if he were asked whether he was a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, he would again say, " Certainly." Then ask him if his sins are all forgiven, when he will, perhaps, at once draw back from the " certainly " to the " hope it may be so." From this we see that many a Christian believes in the forgiveness of sins only abstractly: that God forgives some people's sins, and he has a hope that his sins may be forgiven. Again, ask him when he hopes to be forgiven, and he will perhaps answer on his deathbed, or it may be at the day of judgment. All, alas, is vague.
Now in the scripture there are various aspects of forgiveness. Let us then first notice that God forgives the sinner, the natural man. The gospel preached to the unconverted includes forgiveness. " Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins." (Acts 13:3838Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: (Acts 13:38).)
Then to those who had received the gospel the apostle does not hesitate to say that in Christ Jesus "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." (Eph. 1:77In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; (Ephesians 1:7).) Why, then, should any Christian hesitate to say that God has forgiven his sins? It is the common heritage of all believers. " I write unto you, little children," says the apostle," because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake." (1 John 2:1212I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake. (1 John 2:12).)
It might have been God's plan to have forgiven us our sins, and to have given us eternal life, but to have hidden it from us, if He had seen that such would have been safer• for us. But He has done the very reverse; He not only gives forgiveness and eternal life, but would have its recipients know it and enjoy it. " These things have I written unto you.... that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God." (1 John 5:1818We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not. (1 John 5:18), as it should read.)
So that no one is a Christian unless his sins are forgiven, and he has eternal life, though, alas! as we know, many do not fully credit such grace as this and thus do not live in the full enjoyment of it. But let all remember that forgiveness is a present thing, as also is condemnation: " He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God " (John 3:1818He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)), though the day of grace still runs on, and such an one may yet believe, and be saved.
Some, however, will give a sigh, and say, What of the future: must we not all be judged in a future day? God has taken pains to meet all such fears of his weak ones. Listen to the words of our Lord: " Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation [judgment]: but is passed from death unto life." (John 5:2424Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24).)
Therefore the Christian will not come into judgment. Indeed, how can he be judged for sins that have all been forgiven? The One on the throne will be the same blessed One that died on the cross to put those sins away. As each Christian dies he goes at once to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:88We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8)), and certainly has no sin upon him for which he will have to be judged, though he will be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ.
Still with many a question arises, What if I sin after I have been forgiven? This introduces our second point, that God forgives His children. Let this not be confounded with being forgiven when unconverted. When Christ died on the cross for our sins, all our sins were future; but He foresaw them and died for them all. Still there is a vast difference in the sins before conversion and after conversion; the latter are worse, because contrary to the new nature, and against increased light and known love, and surely need as much expiation as the former. But they are not on the conscience in the same way that sins were before conversion. Christ has done a work, that the worshipper once purged should have no more conscience of sins. (Heb. 10:22For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. (Hebrews 10:2).) If anyone sins after conversion, he would surely have a consciousness of his sin, and God has made provision for its being forgiven, and for communion being restored. " If we [Christians] say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,.... My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." (1 John 1 s—ii. 1.)
Here we find that we have to confess our sins, and God assures us that they shall be forgiven. Notice that it does not here say that God is merciful: surely He is ever that, but here it is the Father, and He is " faithful and just"—faithful and just to give us the forgiveness already purchased for us by the death of Christ. Notice, too, that we have an Advocate with the Father to restore the communion of the Christian when he fails. This is not for the unbeliever: for such Christ is the Mediator between God and man, There is still a third aspect of forgiveness, namely the church forgives when a Christian is repentant after having failed so far as to bring upon him the discipline of the assembly, and it may be, has been " put away." The authority to bind and loose on earth was first given to Peter (Matt. 16:1919And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19)); then to the disciples generally. (Chap, xviii. 1, 18.) The same is differently expressed in John 20:2323Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:23): " Whose so ever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose so ever sins ye retain they are retained." The word here translated " remit" (αφίημι) is translated "forgive " in the Authorized Version nearly forty times, so that we have the question of forgiveness fairly before us. Now at Corinth we have exactly a case in point. A " wicked person " was excommunicated, but on his repentance the apostle urged the assembly at Corinth to forgive the man (2 Cor. 2:7-107So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. 8Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. 9For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. 10To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; (2 Corinthians 2:7‑10)), and to which the apostle would add his forgiveness. It is " ye forgive "—ye the assembly and not an individual, except in the case of the apostle. Now, doubtless, this forgiveness may be declared by one person, but clearly it should be the carrying out of the judgment of the assembly.
This must not be confounded with eternal forgiveness of sins: it is administrative forgiveness on earth. It would be sad, indeed, if the church of God had no power to expel a wicked person; and equally sad if it had no power to restore such a one on his repentance. But the assembly has this power, and is bound to exercise it, and has the assurance that if rightly exercised it is ratified in heaven. In heaven the person is held to be cast out of the assembly on earth, not that he may be finally lost, but that he may repent and be restored, " that the Spirit may he saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." (1 Cor. 5:55To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 5:5).)
It is well known how this forgiveness, under the name of " absolution " has been misapplied. It is clear from scripture that unless what the church does is ratified in heaven it is worthless—is nothing but a solemn mockery leading souls to perdition. It is not eternal forgiveness, and it is not forgiving unbelievers: it is discipline in the assembly, and that alone. Notwithstanding the abuse of it by some, it is a scriptural doctrine, and should not be given up. The parable of the wheat and the tares is often quoted by others as proving that both good and bad should be tolerated in the church until the end. But in Matt, xiii. 24 this is said to be like the kingdom of heaven, which by careful comparison will be seen to be not the same as the church. In the same chapter indeed we are told that " the field is the world" (ver. 38). In an assembly the injunction is very plain, " Put away from among yourselves that wicked person." (1 Cor. 5:1313But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. (1 Corinthians 5:13).)
It is true, alas! that real discipline is very difficult in the professing church, because of its being so much divided. A person put out at one church or chapel can easily get admittance into another. There are so many so-called churches that are independent of each other, that a person's antecedents would seldom be known. Indeed, being aware of this, a guilty one, as soon as he knows his sin has been found out, quietly leaves, wanders about for a time, and then finds shelter elsewhere. Many a Christian sees this as a serious evil. How is it that it does not open his eyes to see the sin of schism, and the making of churches so called. Were the church one as formed by Christ, discipline could have been carried out, and a wicked person be put outside. It is man's arrangements that frustrate order in the church.
To complete the range of forgiveness there is still a fourth point—forgiving one another. The prayer our Lord taught his disciples shows that we are to forgive those who trespass against us if we hope to be forgiven; other passages forbid our enforcing our rights where we ought to forgive, and if we cherish an unforgiving spirit we need not expect the forgiveness of our heavenly Father. (Matt. 6:14, 1514For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14‑15).) This is altogether distinct from eternal forgiveness, and God knows how to discipline us if we are hard and unforgiving with those who have offended or are indebted to us. There is the government of God with His children as well as His grace.
But some think the gospel has altered the character of governing and punishing the world. Take, for instance, capital punishment. How often it has been urged that this should give place to imprisonment. But God's law is inflexible—a command enacted long before the law was given to Moses: " Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." (Gen. 9:66Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:6).) This is God's demand, as due to Himself for the destruction of one made in His image. And there is nothing in the New Testament to set this aside. Indeed, it is confirmed by the magistrate bearing the sword. (Rom. 13:44For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Romans 13:4).)
In conclusion, we have seen that the Christian has been forgiven his sins, or he is not a Christian at all: he is being forgiven, as a child of God, if he sins, and confesses his sin. He is subject to the discipline of the church if he does wrong; but on repentance it has power administratively to forgive him. And if he is a recipient of all this, he must cherish a forgiving spirit to others, even as he is being forgiven by his merciful Father in heaven. May we that have God's own thoughts about forgiveness, both in His boundless mercy, and in His ordering and governing His church and His saints individually, ever remember to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God, with eternal forgiveness.