By Ken Yates
I conducted a very unscientific survey. What I found is that the most popular way of presenting the gospel today is for the speaker to tell unbelievers that Jesus will forgive them of their sins if they believe in Him. We find this gospel presentation in numerous tracts, in sermons, and even on billboards along the highway.
Such a presentation is given in various ways. Often, the preacher will use 1 Cor 15:3, which says that Jesus died for our sins. If we believe He died for our sins, then we also realize that when we believe, He forgives us of those sins. The evangelist might say that when we believe, our sins are washed away and we become as white as snow.
Jesus certainly died on the cross for the sins of the world. When we believe in Him for eternal life, we also receive the forgiveness of sins. But here at GES, we are clear in proclaiming that one must specifically believe that Jesus gives eternal life. Believing in the forgiveness of sins is not the same thing.
Is that being too picky? Why wouldn’t simply telling the unbeliever to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins be an acceptable way to preach the gospel? There are a number of reasons why it is not.
Eternal Life and the Forgiveness of Sins Are Not the Same Thing
Eternal life means that the believer will live with Jesus in His kingdom forever. The very word eternal means that it cannot be lost. Once you receive it, it is yours forever. The believer never needs to receive it again. That is what we believe in Jesus for when we come to faith.
Forgiveness of sins results in communion with the Lord. But this communion can be lost. As a result, when the believer sins, he needs to be forgiven. This is an ongoing need in the life of the Christian (1 John 1:9).
A person can have eternal life, but not have the forgiveness of sins. Paul, for example, received eternal life on the road to Damascus when he believed that Jesus is the Christ who gives that gift. However, he did not receive the forgiveness of sins and communion with the Lord until three days later (Acts 22:16).
Since they are not the same thing, a person can believe that his sins are forgiven, but not believe he has eternal life. In fact, many people believe just that.
The Gospel of John Doesn’t Mention It
The Gospel of John is the only NT book written to unbelievers. It tells them how to receive eternal life. In John, whenever Jesus speaks to unbelievers, He tells them that He has eternal life to give. He never tells them they need to believe in Him for the forgiveness of sins. We need only think of the book’s most famous verse—a verse loved by countless millions. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). You don’t have to be a Greek scholar to recognize that Jesus never mentions the forgiveness of sins to Nicodemus. He does, however, tell him to believe in Him for everlasting life.
The only time the forgiveness of sins is mentioned in the book is John 20:23. There, Jesus is speaking about the forgiveness of sins between believers.
This should raise an important question: If Jesus did not ask unbelievers to believe in Him for the forgiveness of sins in order to receive eternal salvation, why should we?
A Practical Question
If believing in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins brings eternal salvation, it raises a troubling question: Who, in all of Christendom, is not saved? I was a chaplain in the military for around twenty-five years and met chaplains from many different denominations and even cults. I never met one who didn’t believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
I worked with Mormon chaplains who assured me that they were not a cult because they believed that Jesus died for their sins and that He had forgiven them. They quoted 1 Cor 15:3 to make their case. I had a Christian Science chaplain who was my boss. He also told me that Jesus had forgiven him of his sins.
There are many different groups proclaiming that salvation is by works. They insist that if one is going to be in the kingdom, they must be baptized, or speak in tongues, or tithe, or do a number of different things. But they all believe that Jesus has given them the forgiveness of sins. It is a fact that many people believe they have been forgiven, but do not believe they have eternal life. They do not believe eternal life is given as a free gift by God’s grace. They believe they must earn it, even though Jesus has forgiven them.
A Biblical example of such a group is found in Acts 15:1. There, we are told that in the early church, some were preaching that in order to be saved, one must be “circumcised according to the custom of Moses.” It is probable that this was not the only requirement the unbeliever had to perform. Circumcision was the first step in keeping the whole Law of Moses. These preachers were clearly teaching that one had to work in order to make it into the kingdom.
But there is no doubt that they believed that Jesus was the Christ. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have been at the church council that was taking place. If asked, they would have said that Jesus had forgiven them of their sins. However, the apostles strongly condemned the message these men preached.
Are all these groups preaching an acceptable gospel—one that saves a person from the lake of fire? They all preach the forgiveness of sins and that this forgiveness is only found in Christ. At the same time, they also deny that they have eternal life. That can only be obtained by doing good works for the rest of their lives. Once again, we see that there is a difference between the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
I would say that the message they preach is not a saving one, even though they all claim the forgiveness of sins.
It’s Awfully Confusing
The unbeliever who is told to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins will usually be left in a confused state. What does that mean? Does it mean that He forgives us of our sins now, and that if we continue in good works, we might make it into heaven? Does it mean that He wipes the slate clean, but then we’d better not mess it up? It is my experience that most people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning believe some version of these ideas.
But the confusion is even worse. How badly can we mess up and still make it? Since we all continue to sin, when do we sin to the degree that we are no longer forgiven and will be cast into hell? This confusion is the reason that we hear people who say they are forgiven also say things like, “I hope I make it into heaven. I try to keep the Ten Commandments and think I am better than most. If I hold on, maybe I have a good chance.”
That is a far cry from the assuring words of our Lord: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47).
The Lord’s payment for our sins on the cross is a wonderful doctrine. It is the reason Jesus can give eternal life to anybody who believes in Him for it. It is possible that an unbeliever can hear about the forgiveness of sins and deduce that Jesus gives him eternal life as well. Most unbelievers, however, do not come to that conclusion. That explains the lack of assurance on the part of many who believe Jesus forgives their sins.
To simply say to the unbeliever that Jesus offers the forgiveness of sins will most often leave him confused. Why should we help to create that confusion? The Gospel of John repeatedly proclaims the offer of eternal life and never mentions the need to believe in the forgiveness of sins. It is tragic that in Evangelicalism this is often reversed. In gospel presentations we constantly hear about the forgiveness of sins, but very rarely about everlasting life.
Let’s make it clear. Let’s tell unbelievers that they need to believe in Jesus for eternal life. That is what the Lord Himself did.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He leads the GES international ministry, cohosts the daily podcast, and assists Bob in all aspects of the GES ministry. His new book, Elisabeth, is a powerful testimony to the power of God manifested in a Christ-centered family. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.