What is the scope of God's forgiveness?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: According to the scriptures when we as sinners are born again are we only forgiven for past sins or are we forgiven for our past and future sins until we leave this world? Are the scriptures clear in this matter? I understand the part that Christians will never be in hell or the lake of fire but when we are born again do we receive lifetime forgiveness because of what Jesus did on the cross shedding his blood and dying for our sins, being buried and raised from the dead, completely paying for our sins? What is the scope of God's forgiveness? Thank you for a clear simple answer from the scriptures.

Answer: It will be my pleasure to respond to your questions today — and I appreciate your desire for a “clear simple answer from the scriptures.” Therefore, let me begin with the simple answer to your question: Yes, yes and no: Yes — we Christians enjoy lifetime forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice. Yes — we have clear answers to give you. No — lifetime forgiveness is nowhere directly stated. Let’s explore.

We Christians take a pretty free hand at teaching that our sins — past, present and future — are all forgiven when we come to Christ for salvation… and there are good scriptural reasons for this. But, these good reasons are usually found a few layers down in the verses, and they are more a fact of doctrine (justification) or ontology (the essence of the new creature) than they are of plain statements floating along on the surface of Scripture. So, if you’re looking for a handy quote to make this point in the future, you are out of luck. That being said, I think I can make it clear that we have lifetime forgiveness; it just won’t be as simple as you hoped.

Let’s begin by seeing what I mean by “a few layers down.” The following verse is a great example of a truth living on the surface of a verse.

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:7, NIV, emphasis mine)

Now, there’s a truth simply stated: “You must be born again.” It introduces regeneration as the process of salvation, it states the process plainly and it describes the truth simply. Concerning the forgiveness of all the tenses of sin then, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a verse that went something like:

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘all who are born again have had their past sins, their present sins and their future sins forgiven to the uttermost.’” (MB version [Make Believe version]).

Well, no such a verse exists… and I am a little afraid that this is what you’re looking for. So, let us look at some relevant verses — but ones in which we must bore down a little.

“….Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” (Hebrews 10:17, NIV)

The above verse does not plainly state the tensed forgiveness of sins, but it does teach it. First of all, God “not remembering” is the functional equivalent of God forgiving; it is just a poetic way of saying it. So, which sins will he forgive? Definitely the past ones... and we don’t seem to have an issue with that. But what about the future? Look at when God is saying that he will perform this activity, that is, when will he remember no more? In the future! Now consider the order of the actions. Sometime in the future, we will surely sin. But at some point in the further future, God will look back and see that sin… and he will “forget” it. (Amen… and praise God!)

Here’s another one that shows God’s attitude towards sin.

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18–19, NIV)

When I read this verse, I have no trouble seeing that God’s treading our sins underfoot and hurling our iniquities into the sea is just a poetic way of saying that he will forgive us to the nth degree — and such forgiveness is complete, and it transcends time. Let’s look at another.

“as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12, NIV)

This, too, is far from a clear or technical utterance. But it tells us what God does with the sins of his people. He removes them utterly from us. You see, East and West never meet, because wherever you go in the world, East will be one way and West the other. As to your requirements for “clear simple,” this verse is far from exact… but it is exactly perfect. Does it mention your sins past, present and future? No — not in those words. But are those sins included in the wording? Certainly. In fact, let me rephrase it.

“Hey you! Child of mine—in whatever age and whatever place. I have removed your sins utterly and irretrievably. Go ahead, look in any direction. Look to the East. Look to the West. Do you see them? Yes? No? Well… I don’t.” (a real loose paraphrase of Psalm 103:12.)

Remember, just because a portion of Scripture is poetry does not mean that it has no teeth. God frequently uses imagery rather than a precise description to communicate his truth. A poetic genre has its limits, of course, but it also has its place in God’s revelation (to everything there is a season) — and it is our job is to know what that place is. That being said, let’s move on to something a little more technical.

“….When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13–14, NIV)

Again, the surface of this verse does not speak to the forgiveness of sins, but we must think of the actions in the verse and their implications. We born-again Christians have been given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our redemption until we get to heaven. The fact that God gave us a guarantee that we will go to heaven — but did so while we are still living in a world where we will assuredly sin — shows that those future sins are already forgiven.

As you can see, there is often a difference between a verse containing the truth and a verse containing that truth on the surface. I’ll give you a possible reason for this later, but for now, let’s look at some more verses in the same vein.

“….Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1–2, NIV)

We should never plan to go on sinning! But if we did, those sins would be addressed by grace — not by condemnation (Romans 8:1). That is a powerful picture of God’s dealing with our future sins. Here is another.

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7, NIV)

If people do not believe that their future sins are already forgiven, how little they think of God’s grace — how cheap they have made it!

As you can see, we have plenty of scriptural testimony that every tense of our sin has been forgiven — we just have to “crack the shell to gain the nut.” But this truth is found (and more profoundly so) in the doctrine of Justification… and yes, I know! We are not looking to quote doctrine — just the plainly stated Scriptures! But doctrines are the distillation of the topical truths spread throughout the Bible — and there’s the rub. Oftentimes, things worth knowing are not plainly stated in one place — like lifetime forgiveness. But the doctrine of Justification deals with that, so let’s give it a quick look.

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Romans 8:31–34, NIV, emphasis mine)

Note particularly that the underlined portion is a polemic against condemnation — and that’s a great way to understand justification. The reason we are not condemned (Romans 8:1) is that we are justified. What does the justification have to do with our sins? When we are saved, God declares that we are righteous — but based on the merits of Christ’s sacrifice. This is a judicial decree — as from a judge in a court.

Are we intrinsically righteous? Hardly. But since God has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us, we are positionally righteous… forever! Therefore, we are positionally immune to condemnation… forever! So, it is not so much that our future sins are forgiven. It is more that we are former defendants resting in double-jeopardy protection. We have already been tried (at the cross) for the crime of sin… and we can’t be tried for that same crime again. Perhaps this is why “the future forgiveness of sins” does not to appear on the surface of verses. It is more the product of a deep mine.

The moment we come to Christ for salvation we are justified, and we take on all the benefits of imputed righteousness — including lifetime forgiveness. But other things happen, too. For instance, we become a new creation.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
(2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”
(Galatians 6:15, NIV)

When we are born again, we become new creatures. And when we do, we take on some new characteristics… and we shed some of our old ones. For example, both our old and our new natures are everlasting. But, since our “old creature” had Satan for a father (John 8:44), and our new creature has God for a Father (Romans 8:14-15), our everlastingness has different characteristics. Satan’s children go to live in his house forever (Revelation 20:10), and God’s children go to live in his house forever (Psalms 23:6; John 8:35). Therefore, our future sins can have no condemning bite (which is the effective equivalent of having them forgiven).

But, our future sins are not forgiven per se. We are protected from their condemnation right up front. Our new nature as new creatures in the household God, places us in the category of protected beings. Therefore, sin can no longer affect our eternal destiny. Therefore, our future sins are nonstarters… but… (and note this well) there are future sins. What happens to them? Justification and the new creature come into play here, also.

It is a fact that Christians sin; that is, we continually do things that God would rather we not do. But — and unlike everybody else — we Christians have already been justified (have been declared righteous concerning sin) and have become new creatures (eternally secure in the household of God), so our sins have also taken on new characteristics. Formerly, sin ruined our lives — both temporal and eternal. But now, sin can only soil our temporal lives — and this soil is easily removed! So, where once sin could destroy — it can only now annoy… and it does! We just have to keep after it.

We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world… I mean… how could we not sin? (Romans 7:21-23). So, it is important to understand the difference between the type of forgiveness expressed under the atonement (which is our legal forgiveness) and the type of forgiveness that the children must seek of their Father for their ongoing infractions (which is a relationship-maintenance type of forgiveness).

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1, NIV)

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:21–23, NIV)

The above two passages show this issue. No one would argue that the apostle Paul was among those who enjoy the protections of Romans 8:1. But by his own admission, he still obeyed the law of sin. So yes… even the apostle Paul continued to sin! (And so do I!)

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, NIV)

But, even though all my sins have been forgiven in an atoning kind of way, I still have lifestyle responsibilities as a child of God.

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

So, all my sins are forgiven by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ — past present and future! But, I am not off the hook. As a child of God, I am responsible to work with God to improve our relationship while I am still on this earth. This involves confession on my part — and forgiveness on his part. But the above verse tells us that this type of forgiveness is for purification, not for regeneration. So, purifying an already saved sinner involves forgiveness which is different from that which is needed to regenerate a lost sinner — and if we do not understand this distinction, we can get into some doctrinal trouble.

When we talk about the efficacy of Christ’s blood to forgive every sin, this is of the atoning type — and this is the type referenced in your question. However, this very atonement places us in a category where sin will mean something different — and this is not a problem for us. But this is a problem for those who have not yet been regenerated — but who see sin as a maintenance issue as opposed to a matter of life and death!

I am glad that you asked this question because clarity favors God — while confusion favors Satan. Enjoy your lifetime forgiveness of sin!

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