Friday, February 5, 2010

Thoughts on Forgiveness

I've been having another discussion over on Neptunus Lex, this one dealing with the nature of salvation and forgiveness. This is interesting, as it comes close on the heels of my having recently finished a book by Andrew Farley titled The Naked Gospel which profoundly challenged my thinking on the matter.

I won't go into all the issues the book talks about, but the one that caught my attention was his section called "Cheating on Jesus" that deals with the subject of forgiveness.

The issue at stake here – and it is a major one – is whether or not we are saved by grace, by keeping the law, or by some curious mix of the two. If it is by grace, then we must confront what it means to be truly forgiven by God.

Under the old covenant (Abraham, Noah, Moses - up until Jesus’ death) righteousness was obtained through keeping the Law. If one sinned, the shedding of blood in the form of animal sacrifice was required to bring about atonement, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). This had to be done continually. They believed that being Jewish (God’s chosen people) was what made them part of God’s family, and that keeping the Law was what *kept* them in His family. If you didn’t keep the law, you were outside the faith.

With Jesus’ death, his shed blood provided the perfect sacrifice for all of humanity – there was now a means by which I could be made right with God, if only I avail myself of the grace (gratia) that He has freely (gratis) provided. This offering on our behalf was a “once for all” proposition – Hebrews 9:25-26 tells us, “Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” A few verses later we are told that “Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those that eagerly await him.

The message of the cross is that my past, present and future sins have already been forgiven when I put my faith in Christ. That’s it. There’s no more forgiveness that’s going to be poured out – the full measure was already given 2000+ years ago. Do you still ask God to forgive you when you fall short or fail from time to time? If so, why? What good does your asking do when the act has already been done? It’s like me asking my wife to marry me each evening before we go to bed – my continual asking doesn’t change our marital status one whit. You’re either forgiven – and live in a continual state of forgiveness as a believer – or you’re not. No middle ground that I can see. Attempting to add some works-based efforts on our part only serves to return us to bondage under the law.

So let me ask you this: If you're a Christian, and you commit a sin, what is your standing before God? If you die before you confess that sin, where do you go? I don't believe that my sin (as a believer) separates me from God or breaks my fellowship with Him. If the Spirit lives in me - if I am supernaturally fused with him in my soul - how can I be separated from what is now part of myself? This does not mean that I am free to sin - Paul makes that quite clear several times - but the struggle between my godly nature and my flesh has no bearing on my salvation.

According to Dr. Doug Moo, “genuine faith…always and inevitably produces evidence of its existence in a life of righteous living.” This is what James is talking about when he writes of the necessity of works as a natural result of one’s faith. Yet even though this is (or should be) the natural process of regeneration that follows true conversion, it is not in itself a necessity for salvation. Recall the criminal who was crucified on the cross next to Jesus – where were his “good works?” He had faith, and that was enough. To add works as a requirement for salvation is to return to the Law that governed the Israelites under Moses – and we have been set free from that law through the shed blood of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I don’t understand why people ask for forgiveness. I do; I did it for years. Confession is one thing; in confessing, we essentially agree with God that we are sinners and that we still do wrong things. But usually this is followed by asking for forgiveness, which makes sense in human relationships where a rift has been torn, fellowship has been broken, and forgiveness is necessary to repair/restore the relationship.

With regards to us and God, I don’t believe that last step is necessary, at least from His point of view. Oh, we may still do it, and I don’t think it bothers him that we do – but I think it would be a mistake to think that our asking for forgiveness suddenly brings down this rain of grace, as though God were holding it back until we asked for it.

The danger is that over time, we get into this pattern of confession/asking for forgiveness, and think that it’s the only way that we can get our slate “wiped clean” with God. We take what may be an understandable (yet wholly unnecessary) practice and elevate it to a necessity – to the point where we feel as though we’re not forgiven unless we’ve asked God for forgiveness. Now that quaint little habit begins growing into a millstone around our necks, and we preach to others that they should keep “short accounts” with God – as though He’s up there tracking our every sin and tallying it up on a celestial scorecard.

What I’m proposing isn’t really all that radical – it’s what Paul & the writer of Hebrews preached nearly two millenia ago:

Salvation by faith.

Forgiveness from God.

Freedom in Christ.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” -Ephesians 2:8-9


Joel Walkley said...

A couple of things jump out at me as I read your post.

"Under the old covenant (Abraham, Noah, Moses - up until Jesus’ death) righteousness was obtained through keeping the Law" - I would disagree with this statement. The covenant of works includes Adam and Eve - they had to follow the law to remain righteous. However, once they sinned; all other covenants with God were covenants of Grace. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by grace, not because they deserved it.

I would also question your soteriology about the forgiveness of future sins. Sounds a bit like a carte blanche theology of forgiveness, whereas 1 John is clear that we must continually confess our sins.

"I don't believe that my sin (as a believer) separates me from God or breaks my fellowship with Him." Then what is sin? Does it only hurt yourself?

I know its difficult to find every nuance of a discussion on a blog post, so I do welcome some more dialog on these questions, if you are up for it.

Greg Marquez said...

Well let me off just a couple thoughts on the subject.

John indicates that we are only able to access this forgiveness so long as we are walking in the light.
1 John 1:7 (NIIV) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
It is only as we are walking in the light that we can continually access the forgiveness already provided for us by the blood of Jesus.

You quote "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…" You opt for the modern translations which have it as "have been" or "were" saved, i.e. past tense. KJV has "are" saved as do most of the Greek manuscripts, i.e. present tense. Perhaps being saved is not a one time event but a continual thing in which we must walk by faith.

Also under your theory what would you do with a scripture like: 1 John 2:2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

If the only requirement for walking in Jesus forgiveness is that he has provided forgiveness for our sins then is the world forgiven?

Dave Harvey said...

@ Joel:
Ok, I take your point about Adam & Eve - but the first covenant was established with Noah after the flood. And yes, every covenant thereafter had an aspect of grace, for God did not have to make any provision whatsoever.

As for 1 John, it was written to address the Gnostic arguments about the existence of sin. Surely no believer would ever claim to be without sin, right? I agree that we must continually confess our sins - but that is not the same as asking forgiveness for them. By confession, I am agreeing with God that I am still sinful - then I claim the grace that has already been given which erases my sins.

Of course sin hurts God; but that is not the same as being separated from Him. My wife or daughter may do things which hurt me or make me sad, but that doesn't change the status of our relationship.

@ Greg:

Again, you must consider both the context and the intended audience to which 1 John was written. His letter was addressing a form of Gnosticism that had sprung up in some churches and was causing confusion about the true nature of Christianity. If I'm a Christian, then I'm walking in the light. That light may grow brighter or dimmer depending on ME, but the light is still there.

In the Greek manuscripts, the word used for "saved" is σεσῳσμένοι - which in its perfect, passive construction would best be translated "have been saved." The perfect tense makes it a completed action. Even if it were to be translated "are saved," it does not follow that salvation is a continual process.

As for 1 John 2:2, yes, I believe that Jesus *has* provided forgiveness for the whole world - John 3:16 comes to mind - but belief in Christ is necessary to receive such forgiveness.

Dave Harvey said...

@ Joel:
I forgot to address your "carte blanche" thing re. future sins.

Paul enjoins us several times to remember that the grace we receive does not mean that we can/should go on sinning - so it is not a "license" to sin. Repentance for sin is still necessary - 2 Cor. 7:9-11 tells us about "godly sorrow" that leads to repentance, so clearly there is a place for such sorrow and repentance in the life of a Christian.

The question is whether Christ's death was really sufficient for all time - or whether there is still grace that is being held back and awaits our begging for it. To me, the Bible is clear that my initial confession and belief in Christ is all that is necessary for me to partake of the grace that has *already* been made available. Once I've been "grafted into the vine" I continual access to that same grace - it's there without my even having to ask for it.

On a different note, you don't happen to know my buddy Dana Krull, do you? He just recently graduated from Fuller.

Doctor Eric said...

If asking for forgiveness was important enough for Jesus to include it in (what we now call) The Lord's Prayer, I would conclude that it is something we should do on a pretty regular basis!
(No disrespect to Andrew Farley, but Jesus' words recorded in Scripture carry a bit more authority on such subjects, in my estimation.)

Curtis said...

I tried.

Dave Harvey said...

@ Eric-
Farley does address the issue of the Lord's Prayer in his book. I don't have it in front of me at the moment, but I believe his take on it was that Jesus' prayer is a supplication for God to show us mercy to the same degree that we are showing it to others - to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. It's not necessarily a reminder that we need to ask God to forgive us whenever we pray. In any case, Farley also points out that the new covenant did not fully come into effect until after Jesus' death - so different rules were in effect, as it were.

Doctor Eric said...

So we can ignore everything Jesus advised before his death? That's a huge stretch!
I understand the point that Farley was making. I just disagree with it, at least the way it manifests in abandoning what most would consider a vital part of a healthy life in Christ. And so do others on this forum, judging from their comments.
Extra-Scriptural sources are often useful to help us think about ideas in new ways, but be very wary of those that seem at odds with Scripture's teachings, as understood by the vast majority in mainstream Christendom.
But do not despair! If this forum serves the purpose of "iron sharpening iron" as described in Proverbs, then we will all be better for the discourse.

Dave Harvey said...

No, no - it's not a matter of ignoring everything that Jesus said. Remember, in Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." He wasn't saying that the Jews of his day should ignore the Law, but rather that He was the one who was the fulfillment of that Law.

The writer of Hebrews addresses the fact that Jesus fulfilled the law and ushered in the new covenant:

7:12,18: "For where there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law...the former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God."

7:22: "Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant."

7:27: "Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself."

In the early church, some Jews had a hard time with Gentile converts who weren't adhering to Jewish traditions - such as circumcision, diet restrictions, etc. Peter & James spoke to the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) and reminded them of the heavy yoke that the Law had been to the Jews - and that they shouldn't apply it to the Gentiles.

It's hard to express the right balance here - the idea(s) I'm trying to get across is this:

-Jesus' death on the cross provided atonement for all sins for all time (past, present & future).

-When I become a Christian, I confess my sins (not individually, but the fact that I have sinned against him) and receive that forgiveness that has already been purchased through Christ's blood.

-Afterwards, I live in a forgiven state, wedded to Christ with the Spirit indwelling me. This does not give me "license to sin" (Rom. 6:1), but it frees me from the pervasive guilt that can accrue whenever I think that my sin cuts me off from fellowship/relationship with God. Am I "free" to keep on sinning? Well, yes and no. Yes, I can, but obviously this would be a perversion of God's grace and would definitely not be a loving response on my part.

-I still sin, and need to repent of it as often as I do. As II Cor. 7:10 says, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret."

-Can I still ask God for forgiveness? Sure, and I'm quite certain that He doesn't mind if I do. If He were to speak to me at that moment, I can easily hear Him saying something like, "My dear child, of course I forgive you - I've already forgiven you and you never need ask for it again, but as often as you do I will remind you that you are indeed forgiven."

-So the bottom line is that I CAN ask God for forgiveness, but I don't NEED to ask Him for forgiveness.

Clear as mud? :)