I received this terrific question from Dan. He writes:
My wife and I are fairly new Christians. We live in a suburb south of San Diego. We attend a large Baptist church, and two weeks ago we joined a home Bible study. We are learning all sorts of new things, but at this second Bible study, something came up during the break that has bothered and confused us. It has to do with a question I’ve had for several months—when and how are our sins forgiven.
We stayed out of the discussion but heard both sides. The Bible study leader asked M if she knew what the “Christian bar of soap” was. She laughed and said, “Sure! It’s 1 John 1:9, and I’m all ‘fessed up.” Now, my wife and I are sponges for new learning. We had no idea there was this bar of soap thing, so we stayed close to listen and learn. That’s when T (he’s in his sixties or seventies) stepped up and said, “So, in between confessions, you two are un-forgiven Christians, huh?” The leader held his temper, but M let loose on him: “Yeah—we all know about you! You believe all sin was taken away at the cross, don’t you?” T nodded. “That’s what the Bible teaches.” M shot back. “What about judicial forgiveness and paternal forgiveness? I suppose you don’t believe there are two kinds of forgiveness either.” T shook his head. “There’s one kind of sin and God didn’t forgive all sin at the cross. He took all sin away at the cross, but only those who believe it are saved.” Widow M threw her paper plate at him, pointed at the door, and told T to leave.
There was a little more talk about what a problem T was, and how everybody wished he would go find a church that believed his heresy, and then we got back into the discussion. M had one of your magazines on her coffee table, so I got your email address.
So, can you explain this Christian bar of soap thing to my wife and me, and give us the verses that tell that there are two kinds of forgiveness? And we’ve never heard our preacher say that Jesus took away all sin at the cross. If that’s true, then it makes me lean toward T. It stands to reason that when a Christian sins, there is no need for confessing it to get God’s forgiveness if Jesus already took away the sin of the world. Isn’t it like when you pay a debt in full, then asking for that same debt to be forgiven is a contradiction? The man you owed would tell you that a forgiven debt need not be paid, and a paid debt need not be forgiven. Did Jesus pay the sin debt of everybody, or are the Calvinists correct that Jesus only paid the debt of the elect?
Since it is a long question with multiple aspects, I’ve broken my answer into four parts.
Here are four issues that need discussion:
- Did Jesus actually take away the sin of the world? Or did He only potentially take it away?
- If Jesus actually removed the sin of the world, does that mean that everyone is already forgiven?
- If believers must confess their sins to be forgiven, does that mean that we are out of fellowship with God between times of confession?
- Are there two kinds of forgiveness?
Jesus Actually Took Away the Sin of the World
John the Baptist pointed at Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He was referring to the cross of Christ when the blood of the Lamb of God would be shed. He used the present tense to vividly portray the fact that the death of Messiah was near at hand.
He did not say that Jesus would potentially take away the sin of the world.
There are instances in Scripture in which something is declared as about to happen, but then it does not happen. For example, Jonah said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). But that did not happen since the Ninevites repented and God withdrew the judgment (Jonah 3:10). Jonah’s statement was conditional, even though God did not tell him to proclaim the option of escape.
Therefore, one might argue that John was saying that Jesus might or might not go to the cross. What if there was some way in which Israel could have responded to His preaching that would have eliminated the need of His shed blood? But we know from many other texts that only by the shed blood of Christ could redemption be accomplished (Matt 26:28; Rom 3:23-26; Heb 9:22; 1 John 2:2).
The idea that John meant that Jesus was potentially taking away the sin of the world by His death is impossible. He said nothing about the taking away of the sin of the word being merely potential. His point was that when Jesus shed His blood, then the sin of the world would be taken away.
There are many other texts that say the same thing. The Apostle John said in 1 John 2:2 that “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” The word propitiation means the satisfaction of God’s justice. The death of Christ satisfied God’s justice regarding the sins of the whole world, not simply of believers. As with John 1:29, 1 John 2:2 is not saying that Jesus potentially is the propitiation for our sins and for the sins of the whole world. He actually is the satisfaction of God’s justice for all sins of all people of all time.
If Jesus only potentially took away the sin of the world, then where do we turn in Scripture to find out what we must do in order to cause His shed blood to actually take away my sin? I realize that people turn to various verses like John 3:16 or John 5:24 to suggest that it is when we believe in Jesus that our sin is taken away. But no verse in the entire Bible says that. (I will discuss 1 John 1:9 in part 2. Preview: It says nothing about the world or about taking away sins.) There are verses like John 3:16 and John 5:24 which say that whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life. But that does not mean that it is at the moment of faith in Christ when Jesus takes away the sin of that person. Jesus took away the sin of the world 2,000 years ago.
Limited atonement is wrong. Jesus died for the sin of the whole world, not just for the sin of those who would later believe in Him.
But we have not yet addressed what the relationship is between taking away sins and forgiving sins. That will be the question for part 2.