Subject Six: the Forgiveness of Sins

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Questions by E. D. Kinkead; answers by H. P. Barker.
In order to introduce the subject, consider a verse of Scripture: “In whom 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)). This passage shows very clearly that there were some who could say, and who were encouraged by the Apostle Paul to say, “We have the forgiveness of our sins.”
No doubt a good many are accustomed to repeat, Sunday after Sunday, the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” By the grace of God some of us can go further and say, “I believe in the forgiveness of my own sins.” Can you say that? If not, please pay close attention to the matter we are about to consider.
Must a Sinner Lay All His Sins on Jesus Before He Can Be Forgiven?
Not one of us could remember all our sins. As we review our past lives, no doubt there are some sins that stand out, the memory of which will stay with us to our last hour on earth. But multitudes of our sins, little sins as men would style them, have been forgotten. Yet each one of them calls for atonement—each one must be answered for. Christ’s work is sufficient to answer for them all, but if, before we could get the benefit of that work, we had to bring our sins and lay them on Jesus, we should be in a sorry state indeed. The thought of the forgotten sins would be forever haunting us. “What shall we do about them?” would be the question that would rob us of our peace.
But there is another reason why we could never lay all our sins on Jesus, and that is because Jesus is in glory today. Do you think He can take sins on Him where He is? Nothing that defiles shall ever enter there. How, then, can a sinner cast his polluting sins on Jesus, the exalted and glory-crowned Lord? Impossible!
The time for sin-bearing was when He was on the cross. And consider this: If your sins were not laid on Jesus then, they never will be. Now it is certain that you could not have laid your sins on Him at Calvary. You had no existence then. The truth is that God laid the sins of all who believe on Jesus. “The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
What Must a Sinner Do to Show That He Is Worthy to Be Forgiven?
A sinner could never do anything to show himself worthy of forgiveness. The ground on which God forgives sinners is not their worthiness or anything that they can do or be. It is altogether for Christ’s sake and on account of what He has done. You will see this very clearly stated in Ephesians 4:3232And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32): “God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” So also in 1 John 2:1212I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake. (1 John 2:12): “Your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.”
Suppose that a poor man is presented with a check by some kind person and told to present it for payment at the Colonial Bank. As he heads in that direction, he begins to have certain misgivings as to whether he will receive the money or not. His clothes are so threadbare, his poverty so evident, his name so unknown! Summoning up courage, however, he steps up to the counter and hands in the check. The clerk takes it and looks at — what? The man’s ragged appearance? No, he looks at the signature on the check. It is that of one of the bank’s best customers. Because of that name the clerk hands the money without a question to the bearer.
So it is with the sinner when he approaches God through the Lord Jesus Christ. God does not take the sinner’s worthiness or unworthiness into account. It makes no difference whether the applicant for blessing bears a good character for honesty and respectability, or whether he be known as a depraved outcast. He may have his name inscribed on the membership roll of a fashionable church, or it may be written on the conviction list of the police court. God does not make any difference in His treatment of the returning sinner because of things of that sort. What He looks at is the name which the sinner brings as his only plea. If that name be the precious name of Jesus, there is no blessing too great for God to bestow on the one who seeks it. He will instantly forgive the sins of a lifetime for the sake of that name.
When a Sinner Trusts in Christ, Are All His Sins Forgiven, or Only His Past Sins?
I suppose it is only natural for people to divide their sins into past, present and future, but it is certain that God does not so divide them. He sees our life from its earliest moment to our last hour on earth, spread out before Him. Our sins, too — those forgotten long ago and those not yet committed—He sees as one whole, a series of black deeds and words and thoughts.
More: He not only sees our sins thus, as one whole, but He saw them thus at the cross. All our sins were future then, but God saw them all and laid them on Christ. If there is a single sin that you have ever committed, or may yet commit, which was not laid on Christ, that sin must remain unatoned for forever, and there can be no heaven for you. Thank God, the believer has reason to know that every sin of his life was borne by his Saviour at Calvary and that, as a necessary consequence, every sin of his life, from cradle to coffin, was blotted out when he trusted in Christ. As a child of God he may sin and will need forgiveness as such from his Father. But never again will he have to approach God as one who needs forgiveness as a guilty criminal under the sentence of eternal doom.
Is It Right for Anyone to Pray for the Forgiveness of His Sins?
I understand your question to be, not was it ever right, but is it right now for anyone to pray for forgiveness?
Someone has said that Scripture is as eloquent in what it omits as in what it reveals. We certainly must number among its omissions any direction to pray for forgiveness since Christ’s work of atonement was accomplished. We find many references which show that the forgiveness of sins was enjoyed as a known thing by the early Christians and that provision was made in the case of Christians who sinned, but we search in vain for any exhortation to pray for this great blessing.
How can we pray for a thing that we already have? Would not such a prayer be the prayer of unbelief ? If we as Christians sin, forgiveness is assured to us if we confess our sins, not if we pray for forgiveness. There is a great difference between confessing our sins and praying for forgiveness. This will be considered later.
With regard to unsaved sinners, the case is, of course, different. But even such are never told to pray for forgiveness. God is revealed as the One who offers it to all freely through Christ (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)), and sinners are exhorted to receive it.
In saying that none are told to pray for forgiveness, I do not forget that the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” but that was before the work of atonement was accomplished. Those to whom that prayer was taught were not in the position into which we, who live since that mighty work was done, have been brought. Though privileged to be the companions of the Lord Jesus on earth, they were in the position of Old Testament believers until He died and rose again and the Holy Spirit came down to take up His abode here. Since that time, none are taught to pray in the way that was right and proper before.
Do We Need to Be Forgiven More Than Once?
By “we” I suppose you mean believers. Yes, we do need forgiveness as often as we sin. We have already seen that the forgiveness of sins which accompanies salvation (see Luke 1:7777To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, (Luke 1:77)) is received once for all. It is a blessing which is always ours. But if we, the children of God, sin, our communion with Him is interrupted, and forgiveness, leading to the restoration of that communion, is needed. And God, our Father, is so ready to grant that forgiveness! If we are exhorted to forgive an offending brother until seventy times seven, we may be sure that He will never tire of forgiving us unto seventy thousand times seven.
Will Not the Fact of God Being so Ready to Forgive Encourage Carelessness As to Sin?
Rightly understood, it should have the very opposite effect. A verse in Psalm 130 supplies an answer to this question: “There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared.” Notice those words: “That Thou mayest be feared.” The forgiving grace with which the contrite confession of the erring one is always met produces in the soul of the forgiven one such a sense of God’s goodness and also such a sense of the seriousness of sin that he fears again to grieve such a loving, patient, gracious One. Such fear is not the fear that has torment. It is a godly, wholesome fear of sin. No doubt a fear of punishment often acts as a restraint on men. But how much better when a fear of sin is produced! And this is the result of the forgiving grace of our God. It makes one delight to walk in His fear and seek to please Him in word and work.
What Should Christians Do When They Sin?
That question can be answered in the very words of Scripture: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:99If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)).
Notice, it does not say, “If we ask for forgiveness.” It is easy to say, “O God, please forgive me for Jesus’ sake,” but to confess one’s sin is a far deeper thing. It means that we are to pour out the story of our sin in God’s ear — to say, “O my God and Father, I have dishonored Thee by telling a lie,” or, “O my God and Father, I have given way to my wicked temper again.” Whatever the particular sin may be, we have to confess it in true self-judgment. Following on this, we receive God’s free forgiveness.
And here let me give a word of counsel to my dear young fellow-believers. Keep short accounts with God. Do not leave the sins of the day to be included in a general confession at night, but as soon as you find yourself overtaken with a fault, confess it. If you are in a place where you cannot get alone and kneel down, just lift up your heart and say silently, “Father, I have sinned; I have done such and such a thing.” Forgiveness is the assured result.
What Does Our Forgiveness, As Children of God, Depend on?
On the advocacy of the Lord Jesus. Of course, His atoning work on the cross is the basis of all our blessing and is the ground on which our eternal forgiveness is secured. But He who died there is alive again. No longer as the Sin-bearer, but as the Advocate for His people, He lives in glory.
As soon as a believer sins, he becomes an object of special concern to his blessed Advocate. As a result, he is led to judge himself for his sin and go to his Father in humble confession. As a further result, forgiveness is granted, and he is cleansed from all unrighteousness.
How full of gratitude we should be for the services of our Advocate! He is as much for us in glory today as He was when suffering as our Substitute at Calvary, and He maintains us in all the permanent effectiveness of His wondrous work of atonement. In Him, the Father always sees a ground on which He can forgive us, and when we confess our sins, He is faithful and just towards Christ in forgiving them.
Is the “Cleansing From All Unrighteousness” the Same As the Forgiveness of Our Sins?
I think it is something more. A child is told by his father not to go out and play in the yard. In spite of the prohibition, he does go out and falls down in the mud, covering himself and his clothes with dirt. That child now stands in need of two things. He needs forgiveness because he is disobedient, and he needs cleansing because he is dirty.
If he is truly sorry for his disobedience and confesses it, his father forgives him at once. But the cleansing process takes longer. It needs the application of soap and water.
Now, it is just the same with the believer. When he sins, he is not only disobedient, but defiled. On confession he is at once forgiven, but before his communion with God can be fully restored, he must be cleansed from the defilement he has contracted. This, too, is a result of the advocacy of Christ.
How Is This Cleansing Brought About?
“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy Word.” The Word of God is that which has cleansing power for the believer. Bear in mind that we are not now speaking of that cleansing which, as guilty sinners, we get when we come to Christ. At that time we were cleansed in a very different way, even by the precious blood of Christ. But as believers we need the continuous washing, not of blood, but of “water by the word” (Eph. 5:2626That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, (Ephesians 5:26)).
Some precious portion of God’s Word is applied in power to the soul, and once again we can look up with joy into the face of our Father. It is not that we doubted Him; we knew all the while that He is our Father and that in confessing our sin we had received His forgiveness. But, still, there was an uneasy feeling — a feeling of distance. The application of the Word removes that, and communion is fully restored.
How Is It That so Many of God’s Dear People Live Without the Assurance of Their Being Forgiven Forever?
I suppose it is because they do not see that all their sins were laid on Jesus and that God is too righteous ever to charge them with the sins with which He charged their Substitute. And they do not in simple faith rest on such precious statements of God’s Word as those that we have already mentioned, such as, “God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
It seems to be ingrained into the minds of many that their forgiveness is in some way connected with their worthiness, and finding themselves full of unworthiness, they hesitate to rank themselves with the forgiven and saved. To all such, the blessed words of Jesus are full of assurance: “Thy sins are forgiven ... .Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 5048And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. (Luke 7:48)
50And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace. (Luke 7:50)
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If Jesus Died for All and Bore the Sins of All, Must It Not Follow That All Must Be Forgiven and Saved?
In saying that Jesus “died for all,” we are using the very words of the Bible (see 2 Cor. 5:1515And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. (2 Corinthians 5:15)). But if we say He bore the sins of all, we are overstepping the bounds of Scripture.
It is a blessed truth that Jesus died for all. He died to open the way to heaven for “whosoever will.” His death has provided a platform from which God may righteously call to all men in grace and offer salvation to all.
But we cannot say to just everyone we meet, “Christ bore your sins on the cross.” Those whose sins Christ bore will never have to bear them themselves. But many will have to bear their own sins forever in hell.
The truth is that while Christ paid an infinite price, enough and to spare for all, He was only the Substitute of those who believe. We can say that He “[bore] our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:2424Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)).
It is indeed a necessary result of Christ’s having borne our sins that we are forgiven and saved, but this applies only to those who believe.
May God grant that all who read this may believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and receive the remission of their sins!