My daughters are all adults now, but when they were younger, they loved the movie The Princess Bride. All I remember about the movie are certain phrases that were repeated over and over. The word inconceivable is one example. One of the characters misused it on various occasions. Once, after he said it, another character famously remarked, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” That line was both memorable and funny.
I guess all of us have misused words and phrases from time to time, which is what makes that statement humorous. I am sure that every student of the Bible can attest to having been guilty of such an error.
In recent years, I have concluded that one such example is the way Christians use the phrase, the forgiveness of sins. We have certainly used it and have heard it used by others. But are we using it incorrectly? Do we know what the Bible says it means? Or, like the character in the movie, do we use it in a way that we only think fits a situation in which we find ourselves?
For example, we often hear (and have said ourselves) that the believer has the forgiveness of sins, which we understand to mean that all our sins–past, present, and future–have been forgiven. We then have to backtrack and say that we still need to confess our sins in order to be forgiven on an ongoing basis. When a believer sins, he needs to confess it in order to have the forgiveness of sins. When we are asked to clarify the seeming contradiction, we say that one deals with positional forgiveness and the other deals with daily forgiveness. Perhaps that is right. But perhaps, on the other hand, we hear a voice in the back of our minds saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Another time that we often hear the phrase used is when people present the gospel. They tell people to believe in Jesus for the “forgiveness of sins,” and that if they do, they will be saved. The problem here is that when Jesus presents the gospel to people in the Gospel of John, He never mentions the forgiveness of sins. Furthermore, every member of a cult will tell you that they have the forgiveness of sins because of what Christ has done. They will tell you that they do not believe they have eternal life, but that they do have the forgiveness of sins. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim that they believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Is their gospel message a saving one? Once again, I hear a voice: “You keep using that phrase…”
Based on a closer look at the NT, and on conversations with folks who know the Bible better than I do, I think we haven’t been using that phrase correctly. A proper understanding would be that the forgiveness of sins is not the same thing as having eternal life and being saved from the lake of fire. Forgiveness of sins deals with fellowship with the Lord. When we believe in Him for eternal life, we also receive the forgiveness of sins. This means we can have that fellowship with Him. But this forgiveness does not cover future sins. When we commit sins after becoming a believer, we need to confess those sins. When we do, we receive the forgiveness of those sins and we can continue to have fellowship with the Lord.
A believer who does not confess his sins when he becomes aware of them does not receive forgiveness for those sins unless and until he does so (1 John 1:9). Of course, he never loses eternal life. But the forgiveness of sins and the reception of eternal life are not the same.
If I am correct, we ought to consider more carefully how we use this phrase. In the future we might hear somebody say, “If you believe in Jesus, you have the forgiveness of sins: past, present, and future.” Or, we might hear a gospel presentation like this: “Believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.” When we do, we can act like the character in The Princess Bride. We can speak our line: “You know, you keep using that phrase. But I don’t think it means what you think it means.”