In part 1 (see here), I presented Dan’s question about Jesus’ shed blood and the forgiveness of sins. I showed that Jesus actually took away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Now in this second installment, I will show that there is a difference between taking away sin and forgiving it.
Many people wrongly equate the atonement with forgiveness. Thus, they argue that the atonement could not have been for all, since that would mean that all are forgiven. Faith in Christ would not be required for forgiveness if the atonement was unlimited, they reason.
However, it is wrong to equate the atonement with forgiveness.
The Difference Between Removing Sin and Forgiving Sin
If you have ever seen any gospel tracts, you will remember that most of them show a diagram. God is high above the earth and man. There is a great chasm between the two. But there is a huge cross that starts on the earth and goes all the way to God.
That diagram is meant to picture what John 1:29 means: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The cross of Christ dealt with our sin problem.
As mentioned in part 1, there is no verse in the Bible that says that when a person believes in Christ, then his sins are taken away. In fact, the expression taking away sin(s) is only found five times in the NT. I will briefly discuss each.
First, John the Baptist did not mention the forgiveness of sins. Instead, John spoke of Jesus taking away the sin of the world. To take away sin in that context would refer to removing the sin barrier between God and man. (See the Hodges quote below, however, for the suggestion that more might be intended.) The point is that sin is no longer the issue in terms of the new birth. Jesus’ finished work means that we simply need to believe in Jesus to have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Second, in Romans 9-11, Paul discusses the future of Israel. Then in Rom 11:26, he points to the day when “all Israel will be saved.” That refers to the national salvation of Israel from Gentile oppression. The very next verse, Rom 11:27, refers to that future time and says that is when Jesus will “take awayi their sins.” Taking away Israel’s sins is not the same as taking away the sin of the world. Compare Matt 1:21, which also mentions the national salvation of Israel and taking away Israel’s sins.
Hodges comments, “In the quoted material the statements that (1) ‘the Deliverer…shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob,’ and (2) ‘when I take away their sins’ are parallel statements. The deliverance in view is not simply justification by faith, though that of course is essential (10:9-10), but instead it is freedom from sin’s dominion over Israel’s conduct” (Romans, p. 344).
Third and fourth, two verses in Hebrews 10 (vv 4, 11) indicate that the blood of animal sacrifices “can never take awayii sins.” Most likely this is parallel with John 1:29 and refers to the removal of the sin barrier, making one savable. Only the blood of Christ could do that.
Fifth, the final verse is the trickiest, 1 John 3:5: “And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.” The context here is different from John 1:29. Here “our sins,” not the sin of the world, are in view. And in 1 John 3:5 taking away our sins refers to His aim that believers live righteous lives. Hodges, however, suggests that even in John 1:29 there might be an inference that Jesus’ aim included eradicating human sin. In his commentary on 1-3 John, Hodges wrote,
The purpose of His manifestation at His First Advent was to take away our sins. This declaration easily recalls the exclamation of John the Baptist, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In both statements the same Greek verb (airō) is used. It seems likely that the sacrificial work of Christ, at His First Advent, is very much in John’s mind. But both in John 1:29 and here, the reference may be broader than that and may include the thought that, because of His sacrificial death, ultimately the world’s sin will be removed from human experience. That is to say, no one in God’s eternal kingdom (after the final rebellion in the millennium: Revelation 20:7-10) will ever sin again. In this light the thought in our verse is not only that Christ died for our sins but that His ultimate goal is our total freedom from sin forever. In fact, the statements of verse 2 have already referred implicitly to this climax. Our repudiation of sin, therefore, should be based not only on its iniquitous character, but also on the realization that the goal of our Savior who redeemed us, is to completely remove it from our lives (p. 133).
I think that 1 John 3:5 and Rom 11:27 refer to different people and have a different sense than John 1:29 and Heb 10:4, 11. The former refers to eliminating sin’s dominion for believers and for Israel, and the latter refers to removing the sin barrier to make everyone in the world savable. Notice, however, that none of these five passages mention or refer to the forgiveness of sins.iii
The answer to the question, “If Jesus actually removed the world’s sin, are all forgiven?” is no. Forgiveness is not at all the same thing as the removal of sin. All are savable because Jesus actually took away the sin of the world. But being savable is not the same as being saved (or as being forgiven).
In Part 3 we will address what the relationship is between confessing our sins and being in fellowship with God. Are believers out of fellowship with God between times of confession?
i A different Greek verb is used here, but the sense is still that of taking away or removing. See BDAG, p. 154.
ii The verb in v 4 is the same one used in Rom 11:27. The verb found in v 11 is different, but still has the sense of taking away or removing. See BDAG, p. 799.
iii Hebrews 10 does speak of being purified or cleansed (Heb 10:2). That idea is probably parallel to the cleansing in John 13:10 and 15:3 and the “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5. In the first place, the text goes on to say that it is those who have been sanctified, that is, set apart in our position, who have been cleansed/perfected (Heb 10:10, 14). Only those who believe in Christ have the blood of Christ applied to their lives for cleansing. In the second place, cleansing is probably not to be equated with positional forgiveness since it is doubtful that is even taught in Scripture (as we will discuss in part 4).