Does it take God time to forgive us, or is it automatic?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Does God take time to forgive us or is it automatic? 

Answer: This is a great question. If, at the moment of salvation, God forgives a sinner instantly and forever, doesn’t logic demand that any subsequent forgiveness be automatic? Or else, what’s the “forever” about? But if the forgiveness is not automatic, then what is he waiting for — sorrow? Repentance? That sounds like we are adding “works” to an already accomplished salvation (which we know that we can never do). Fortunately, this is only a mild conundrum; we can get through it by analyzing salvation and the impact of a believer’s subsequent sins.

What is the nature of salvation? Is it temporary? Is it intermittent? Or is it eternal? The Bible calls salvation eternal life… not intermittent life… not temporary life.

“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11–12, ESV, emphasis mine)

Since eternal life is in God’s Son, anyone who “has” Jesus has what is within him — eternal life. (And note the inverse: Anyone who does not have Jesus does not have life. Jesus is the only way of salvation). Therefore, anyone who “has” eternal life, has, by the definition of eternal, something that cannot stop or change — and he has this now. Eternal life is not something that people cash-in on in some heavenly future; it is effective from the moment of their salvation. As such, the forgiveness that connects to eternal life is in place.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24, ESV, emphasis mine)

Now, having salvation is great… but God wants more for us than that: He wants us to know that we have it.

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13, ESV, emphasis mine)

Not only does God want us to know that we have eternal life, he wants us to understand just how effective this salvation is. We will never (never never never!) be condemned for any of our sins — past, present and future. This too speaks to the kind of forgiveness that is once and for all.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, ESV)

Although salvation keeps us from being condemned as sinners, it does not keep us from sinning as believers. It is a sad fact of the Christian life that we continue to sin — or else, why would Paul tell believers how not to sin.

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16, ESV) (cf. Romans 7:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; Hebrews 10:26)

All this sets up your question: Since we will continue to sin, and since we can never be condemned for those sins, doesn’t that mean that they are forgiven automatically? No.

My first objection is to the word automatically. Although it is technically acceptable in this discussion, it evokes a mechanical and unattended process. But God does not “do” unattended. He is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent; he attends to everything everywhere continually. Just because God’s processes are invisible to us does not mean that they are not at work. For instance, as you read this, Jesus Christ is with the Father interceding for us. This is a priestly duty, and priestly always has something to do with sin.

“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:34, ESV)

Some would have us believe that Christians cannot sin — that our substandard behaviors cannot be sin categorically. That’s off the mark. Those sins cannot be condemning categorically (Romans 8:1), but they are still sin — they still displease God. Are any bold enough to say that the very behaviors that would have sent us to hell before we were saved would not still sadden God after we were saved? Not I.

And here’s the key: sin can no longer affect us positionally, but it still affects us relationally. That is, no sin can send us to hell, but any sin can send us to the doghouse. Just like any sensible parent, God is pleased that our future is secure — but he is never pleased with bad behavior — and he has a duty to correct it! (Hebrews 12:6)

As you can see, we are talking about two different types of sin, and therefore, two different takes on God’s “auto-forgive” feature. Our default load of sin has been forgiven and made ineffective at the moment of salvation. Therefore, it never needs to be managed again! But that’s not about being automatic—that’s about being free from any future salvation tasks; there are none to perform! But our ongoing sins are another matter.

Our ongoing sins, although no longer condemning, are continually annoying—and they are still an affront to a holy God! But we are family now — and not outsiders. All we can do is disturb the peace of the household; we cannot change our DNA. We have been born again by the Spirit of God, so family-rules apply rather than the Rule of Law. When we sin, if we are sorry, and if we confess those sins, the Father forgives us and fellowship is restored.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
(1 John 1:9, ESV)

Jesus taught this very thing as he washed the disciples’ feet. Let’s eavesdrop.

“Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” (John 13:10, ESV).

After Peter and Jesus had gone back and forth about the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, Peter finally acquiesced… except that he wanted a whole bath instead of a foot bath! But Jesus used this opportunity to teach that we are already clean as a whole; we just have to take care of the places that are easily soiled — like the feet. This is the picture of how a believer deals with ongoing sin; he repents of it.

But this type of repentance is not about the whole person who has already repented unto salvation (as symbolized by being bathed); it is about the parts of a person, like his feet, that will certainly be soiled while he still walks this earth (as symbolized by the foot-washing). Therefore, just as the feet need a washing that is not an entire bath, so do our ongoing sins need some attention that has nothing to do with salvation. This is about washing the new creature—not becoming a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In summary, saved people are (forever and always) positionally clean — but they are not always relationally so. God’s forgiveness at the moment of salvation is total. As such, automatic forgiveness (although still a troubling term) is a non-issue concerning the sins that condemned us. Our ongoing sins, however, make us relationally unclean, so we must pursue peace with God through heartfelt repentance, and no automatic process can do that.

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