Monday, May 10, 2010

God's Forgiveness

There is nothing like being caught off guard by a theological question from one of your own children. Last year I casually mentioned that because of Jesus Christians do not need to fear God’s judgment, whereupon one of our children responded that in the Omnibus readings the author refers to believers facing God’s judgment and the consequent need for believers to examine themselves.

That got me thinking. While there are certainly verses that hold the threat of judgment over believers, how are these to be reconciled with the various promises of forgiveness offered to those who are in Christ? 
We begin by noting that through Jesus, Christians can have confidence of God’s forgiveness. We do not need to be afraid that when we meet the Lord he is going to punish us for our sins. The following verses give us that assurance:

1John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Colossians: 1:13-14"For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Psalm 103:12: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us."

1 John 2:1: “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."

Romans 8:1: "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus ..."

Ephesians 1:7: "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace."

On the other hand, there are also a number of verses which seem to indicate that believers will be judged, and in some cases even condemned, on the basis of their works.

John 15:6; 10: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned…. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”

2 Corinthians 5:10: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad,"

2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves [as to] whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?--unless indeed you are disqualified.”
Revelation 22:12: "Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done..."

1 Cor. 3:11-15: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”

How are we to reconcile these two sets of teaching? As Christians should we be confident in God’s forgiveness, or should we be constantly examining ourselves to see whether we can expect judgment or forgiveness from God?

These are hard questions for anyone wanting to do justice to the entire teaching of scripture. While some of the above passages seem to be limited to the issue of future rewards rather than God’s forgiveness (i.e., 1 Cor. 3:11-15), others verses seem to make human behaviour a condition of God’s forgiveness.

I think I good place to start is simply to recognize that God’s forgiveness (and therefore the love from which it proceeds) is not unconditional. I realize that this will not be popular with many evangelicals for whom the unconditional love of God has become a truism, but there seems no getting around the fact that scripture does put conditions on God’s forgiveness. For example, in Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says that He will only forgive us our sins if we forgive those who sin against us: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Likewise Hebrews 10:26 tells us that Jesus’ sacrifice does not apply to those who sin wilfully. “For if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.” Even the wonderful forgiveness promises like 1 John 1:9 and Romans 10:9-10 include tacit conditions: the promise of forgiveness in the former passage suggests that we must be repentant of our sins while the latter passage makes belief in Christ as a condition for salvation and therefore forgiveness. James 2 adds to this by suggesting that good works are the proof or evidence that our faith is real.

In light of the above, I think we can conclude that in order to access God’s forgiveness, we must meet certain conditions, notably faith in Christ (Romans 10:9-10) and if this faith is real then it will be manifested in a life of good works (James 2) and a repentant attitude towards our sins (Heb. 10:26; John 1:9).

How then can we confidently apply the promises of God’s forgiveness? Romans 8:1 tells us that there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, but should we be constantly examining ourselves to see if we are indeed “in Christ Jesus”?

Well, it depends. If a person is unrepentant for their sins, worshiping idols, growing in evil rather than the fruit of the spirit, then such a person ought to question whether he is in Christ. Such a person ought to meditate on the conditions of God’s forgiveness rather than being too confident in God’s promises. But I think where it is easy to go wrong is in treating that like the norm. Unless there is clear evidence of apostasy in our lives, we should be confident in God’s forgiveness, which is proclaimed in our baptism and every week in the Eucharist. If a person is worried about not being in the faith because he is struggling with sin, then the fact that he is struggling is itself evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work. It is those who stop struggling, those who accept sin’s mastery over them without a fight who need to start doubting.

Similarly as a parent, unless I am presented with a persistent pattern of idol worship and unrepentance in my children, I would never urge them to examine whether they are truly in the faith.

This principle of confidence is why we baptize our infants. It is our way of claiming God’s wonderful promises for our children and assuming that these blessings are the norm. We don’t say (as Baptist parents typically do), “Wait until you’re old enough and then decide for yourself whether you want to accept or reject the Lord.” Neither do we say “the verdict is still out on you until you’re old enough to have a ‘salvation experience.’ That is unconsciously training the child to doubt. Instead we say, “You have been bought with a price! Your baptism is proof that you are a covenant child. Now walk in the faith you've been given.” Baptising infants is a way of laying hold of these promises by faith. Baptising infants operates on the assumption that faith should be the normative condition of a covenant child, just as confidence in God’s forgiveness should be the normal condition for all of God’s children.

Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!