Have you ever heard the statement, “All of your sins, past, present, and future, have already been forgiven” in a sermon before? If not in a sermon, how about in a Bible study? Chances are, if you’ve ever been raised in an evangelical, conservative, Bible-believing church, you’ve heard these words. If you’ve ever been a member of a conservative church, you’ve heard these words. I point out conservatives in this post not to make fun of us, but to make the point that most conservative churches (particularly Baptist churches) have heard the above statement made within church walls.
In this post, I desire to tackle the above statement and see if Scripture really teaches such a thought. In my reading, though, I’ve found little to commend itself to this train of thought; however, in my estimation (however little that may be), it seems that the above statement is just another one of those philosophical statements of the Doctrine of Eternal Security that preachers place in sermons (and teachers in class lessons) without thinking about the implications of such statements.
Here’s what Calvinist theologian James White has to say about past, present, and future sins:
“The truth is, if justification is a one-time declaration by God, intimately connected with the forgiveness of sins through the work of Christ, then it follows that all of the believer’s sins have been forgiven him for Christ’s sake. This remission of all sins IS NOT LIMITED TO PAST SINS ONLY, BUT TO ALL SINS---PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE. If it were not so, THEN JUSTIFICATION WOULD HAVE TO BE REPEATED OVER AND OVER AGAIN, AND THE IMPUTATION OF THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST WOULD BE LITTLE MORE THAN A FICTION, lowered to the level of the animal sacrifices of the old covenant, which had to be offered over and over again as a symbol of the continued presence of sin. Instead of this, all our transgressions were laid upon Christ and were, therefore, nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14)” (James White, “The God Who Justifies: The Doctrine of Justification, A Comprehensive Study.” Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2001, page 98).
It is noticeable throughout James White’s quote above that for him, justification is a one-time-for-all-time act. Then, White seems to struggle with the biblical evidence that might stir controversy toward his view:
“The problem with accepting this fact is easy to see: how can we speak of sins being forgiven when they haven’t even been committed yet? AND WHY DO WE READ THAT WE AS BELIEVERS ARE TO CONFESS OUR SINS (1 JOHN 1:9)?” (White, “The God Who Justifies,” page 98).
White then turns around and, against Scriptural proof, argues from his own logic:
“First, we note that at the time of the death of Christ, all the sins of all believers for the next two millennia were yet future. So if we believe that ANY of our sins were laid upon Christ, even if we limit this to our past sins, we are asserting that future sins were laid upon Christ in the past. Therefore the idea that future sins can be said to be forgiven in the death of Christ is basic to the whole presentation of the efficacy of His saving work” (White, “Doctrine of Justification,” page 99).
What do we do with James White’s analysis? If you ask me, I think that James White’s logic should not be placed before Scripture itself. The fact that he notes 1 John 1:9 and the continual need to ask God for forgiveness of sins does not justify his logical argument given right after which seems to assert that past, present, and future sins have all been forgiven.
What does 1 John 1:9 say, exactly?
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, NKJV).
The condition is “if we confess our sins,” and only with the confession of sin will we be forgiven. No other “if” statement in Scripture is hypothetical, so why would this one be? The condition must be met in order for sins to be forgiven. If this is true, then James White’s assumption is wrong. While our future sins are forgiven in some sense, it is a “conditional forgiveness”---a forgiveness that is dependent upon us asking the Lord to forgive us of our many sins.
The idea of conditional forgiveness can even be found in the Lord’s Prayer, as Jesus taught the disciples to pray:
“And forgive us our debts, AS WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS” (Matthew 6:12, NKJV).
What are we praying in Matthew 6:12? We are praying that, AS we forgive others, by us meeting the condition of forgiving others (and praying to God, as Jesus does here), we will receive forgiveness from God. The text does not say, “Forgive us our debts, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS,” or “forgive us our debts because we are eternally secure and you died once for sin,” etc; no---the text itself points to a forgiveness that COMES ALONGSIDE our forgiveness of others who have wronged us and our requesting forgiveness of our own sin from a holy God.
Not only are sins forgiven on the conditions that 1) we ask for it and 2) we forgive others...also, forgiveness of past sins can be withdrawn. Jason Kerrigan writes in his work, “Against Once Saved Always Saved: Refuting the Doctrine of Unconditional Eternal Security,” that Matthew 18:23-35 is the ideal parable on forgiveness. Jesus tells the story of a man who, as a servant, was forgiven of his debt; however, this forgiven servant had a servant under him who also had debt...and yet, the forgiven servant failed to forgive his own servant of his debt. The king discovers that the forgiven servant has failed to practice forgiveness and retracts his debt. Matthew 18:34 tells us, “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (NKJV). Here’s what Kerrigan has to say about the parable:
“Since the servant did that which was wicked after being forgiven, the lord of that servant WITHDREW HIS PREVIOUS FORGIVENESS AND REINSTATED HIS OLD DEBT. THIS IS A PICTURE OF WHAT GOD WILL DO TO US IF WE DO NOT FORGIVE OTHERS AFTER GOD HAS FORGIVEN US...Matthew 28:35” (Jason Kerrigan, “Against Once Saved Always Saved: Refuting the Doctrine of Unconditional Eternal Security.” Denver: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2009, page 24).
The fact that the king took back his forgiveness on the servant means that the forgiveness itself is not guaranteed, nor is it automatic; rather, the king’s forgiveness was CONDITIONAL, based upon the servant’s forgiveness of his servant (and others). Because he failed to do that, he failed to meet the condition, and the king took back the forgiveness and reinstated the financial requirement upon the head of the unforgiving servant. This explains why the parable tells us that the unforgiving servant was thrown into prison “until he should pay all that was due to him.”
Now, back to the question of 1 John 1:9. James White’s quote above asked the question, “how can we be forgiven of past, present, and future sins if we must confess our sin (1 John 1:9)?” Responding to White’s question would now be one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time, Tom Schreiner:
“Some maintain that John could not possibly intend such a thought, since WE ARE ALREADY FORGIVEN BY OUR DIVINE JUDGE. They think, therefore, that JOHN MERELY MEANS THAT WE MUST CONFESS OUR SINS TO MAINTAIN FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD. In their view, fellowship is not the same thing as salvation...THIS INTERPRETATION IS MISTAKEN, for fellowship in these verses cannot be separated from salvation. In the context John counters the teaching of secessionists who had left the church. These secessionists claimed to be without sin (1 John 1:8) and asserted that they had not sinned since their conversion (1 Jn 1:10), yet John says they ‘walk in darkness’ (1 Jn. 1:6)...Thus, John really means that WE MUST CONFESS OUR SINS IN AN ONGOING WAY TO BE FORGIVEN BY GOD” (Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, “The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001, pages 76-77).
What do we do with the testimony here of Jason Kerrigan and Dr. Thomas Schreiner against James White? Scripture doesn’t lie, and it testifies to the need for ongoing confession and ongoing forgiveness of others. At the end of the day, no matter how eloquent James White’s argument may be, it is more a sign of human depravity to buy into “unconditional eternal forgiveness” than to admit that Scripture contradicts the idea. In my next post, I will tackle the philosophical reasoning behind James White’s argument and tie in “unconditional eternal forgiveness” with “unconditional eternal security.” Stay tuned...