The four parts of this article stem from a question I received about unlimited atonement and the forgiveness of sins. You can see the question in part 1, here.
In this fourth part, we will consider the question of whether there are two types of forgiveness, fellowship and positional, or just one, fellowship.
When a person believes in Jesus Christ for everlasting life, does he not receive forgiveness of all his sins—past, present, and future? I have taught that for years, distinguishing positional forgiveness from ongoing fellowship forgiveness.
I no longer think there is such a thing as positional forgiveness or the forgiveness of our future sins.
Forgiveness in Scripture is a relational concept.
When someone sins against you, God calls upon you to forgive him. He never asks you to forgive someone for future offenses.
When we realize we have sinned against God, He asks us to confess our sins, and He promises to forgive us (1 John 1:9). He does not forgive us for sins that we have not committed yet.
Why did I teach for decades that He does forgive our future sins? Why do so many pastors and theologians teach this idea of positional forgiveness?
I believe there are three reasons.
First, this is a powerful tradition in Evangelical circles. It is widely taught.
Second, most Evangelicals believe that if you have everlasting life, then all your sins have already been forgiven. If future sins were not already forgiven, then eternal security would not be true. Hence, for many Evangelicals if you believe in eternal security, then you also believe in the forgiveness of future sins.
Third, there are a few verses in the NT that seem to suggest that God forgives our future sins. Some verses say that “He has forgiven us all our trespasses” (Col 2:13), that “the handwriting of requirements that was against us…He has taken…out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14), and that “whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
There is not much to say about tradition, other than tradition can be wrong (Mark 7:1-23). We should not hold on to this tradition unless it is proved true by Scripture.
The second point is only valid if we can establish that the forgiveness of future sins occurs at the moment of regeneration. We know that is not true because of 1 John 1:9 and the foot washing incident in John 13. Of course, the explanation is that there is one type of forgiveness that covers even future sins and another type of forgiveness that does not yet cover future sins.
That leads to the third point, one rarely considered. Most people simply assume that God forgave all our sins, past, present, and future, when we believed in Jesus for everlasting life. But is that really taught in Scripture?
There are seventy references to forgiveness in the NT. Most (forty-nine) refer to God forgiving men. There are, however, twenty-one of those references that concern our need to forgive those who sin against us.
In every case when we are commanded to forgive others, it is always to forgive them of past or present offenses. There is not a single case where God commands us to forgive others of their future sins.
In several places we are told to forgive others as God has forgiven us and that if we do not forgive others, then God will not forgive us (Matt 6:12, 14, 15; Luke 17:3-4; Col 3:13). This suggests that there is a correspondence between God forgiving us and us forgiving others. If we only forgive others of current and past sins, then this suggests that is how God forgives, especially given the fact that God will not forgive us unless we forgive others.
There are a handful of verses that link the new birth with the forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43; Rom 4:7; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; 2:13; 3:13; 1 John 2:12). I plan to write a journal article dealing with all of those verses. At this time, it can be noted that there is no verse that explicitly refers to the forgiveness of our future sins. Every one of those verses could well be saying that when we came to faith in Christ, all of our sins up to that point were forgiven. We start the Christian life in fellowship with God.
An unbeliever does not need to confess his sins in order to start the Christian life forgiven. At the moment of faith, the new believer is forgiven and is in fellowship with God (Acts 10:43; Col 2:13).
I urge you to be a Berean (Acts 17:11). Search the Scriptures on the issue of the believer and the forgiveness of sins. This is a wonderful study. You may or may not agree with me. But you will benefit greatly from meditation on God’s Word on this vital subject.