If you’re a regular reader, then you know that forgiveness is a frequently addressed topic on our pages. Through the lens of forgiveness, we have examined doubt, anger, lying, and even murder as we have explored how God helps us to overcome these sins and their burdens.
As we meditate on God’s forgiveness in these situations, some of you might begin to wonder if God’s patience will ever run out. Is there a point when God will finally answer, “No!”? And if so, how many times will God forgive me before He decides that He has had enough?
God forgives us as many times as we need Him to. His single act of redemption on the cross imparts forgiveness to each believer at the moment of salvation, covering all past and future sins.
Salvation Once for All
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.Hebrews 10:10, 14
To understand how God can forgive us over and over, let’s start by examining what the Bible says about salvation. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament are no longer necessary because Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is complete, perfect, and final.
It is the work of Jesus that makes us holy, and once we have been made holy by receiving the grace of salvation through faith, we are made holy forever. It is for this reason that Paul writes that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
And it is for this reason that we refute the Catholic doctrine of purgatory as an unnecessary construct.
If it seems confusing that God can forgive our sins before they happen, we should first remember that we are forgiven through a sacrifice that was made 2000 years ago. It might further help us to look at an illustration from the Old Testament:
Joshua the High Priest
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”
Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”
Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.Zechariah 3:1-5
In this vision recorded by Zechariah, we witness a heavenly court proceeding in which Joshua the high priest stands before God’s throne, where Satan prepares to accuse him.
But before Satan even speaks, the Lord rebukes him and declares Joshua innocent, describing him as a “burning stick snatched from the fire.” Joshua was forgiven because the Lord had already forgiven him before the accusation was made and the charges were declared.
Joshua was given new garments to wear not because he had been forgiven anew, but as evidence that he had already been forgiven.
So Why Confess?
If God forgives us once and for all, why do we need to bother with confession and repentance? Can’t we just go on living the way we want to, since our sins are already covered?
The short answer is that we confess because we are commanded to. And we are commanded to because part of the faith journey is overcoming the power of sin.
John writes that “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9). God’s forgiveness is only just because it does justice to the work of Jesus on the cross.
And Jesus himself stands as our advocate, the one who declares us innocent when the accuser levies charges against us (1 John 2:1-2). The vision of Joshua the high priest is given to us as a prelude to what was to come when Jesus would complete the work of redemption (Zechariah 3:8-9).
But if we are too casual about our forgiveness, we might be tempted to dismiss any feelings of guilt as they arise. However, as we explored in a previous article, embracing sin is very different from struggling with sin. When we follow the path of our sin without turning back in repentance, it is sure to lead to destruction.
In fact, one of the ways that we know that our salvation is genuine is when we experience conviction and remorse in response to our sins.
The Role of Conviction
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.1 John 3:19-20
Throughout John’s first letter, he reminds us that we know we belong to God if we keep His commands (1 John 2:3, 3:24). But we are sinners by nature, so we are powerless to keep His commands on our own.
When the Spirit convicts us, He reminds us of this truth but He also reminds us that keeping God’s command means believing in the name of Jesus Christ (v 3:23). To return to Christ in repentance as you trust in his grace is itself, an act of obedience.
It is because we are made alive in Christ that sin is no longer our master and we are no longer under the law And it is by God’s grace that we are empowered to reject sin (Romans 6:11-14). So we know that Christ is alive in us because His Spirit identifies and reveals our sins through conviction. And it is conviction that compels our hearts to seek forgiveness and strength to overcome sin.
One Final Command
By Jesus’ sacrifice, we are forgiven and made holy. By his teaching, we are reminded of his truth. Jesus regularly taught that our forgiveness of others is inextricably linked to God’s forgiveness of us (Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37).
Likewise, Paul reminds us to “forgive as the Lord forgave [us]” (Colossians 3:13) But what does forgiving as the Lord forgives actually look like in practice? Perhaps the best example comes to us from Jesus’ words to Peter:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” – Matthew 18:21-22
The number seven represents completeness and perfection. By instructing Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” times, Jesus is emphasizing that we should not be keeping count when we forgive others. Our forgiveness should be continuous, even if we lose count.
Because our Heavenly Father who forgives us over and over has stopped counting:
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.Psalm 103:12