Our topic today is a subject that is very important to Christians and at the same time a favorite target to twist by heretics and false teachers. I am pertaining to the topic of forgiveness, specifically, the topic of asking forgiveness from God.
Right now, there are two extreme and false views about asking forgiveness from God. One of them says that since Christ has already paid for our since, both past, present and future, there is now no need to confess our sins and ask forgiveness from God. This view is being espoused by the proponents of the hyper-grace doctrines such as Joseph Prince.
The other extreme view says that Christians ought to ask forgiveness from God even though their sins have been paid. However, this other view put too much emphasis on asking forgiveness to the point that if a believer sins and failed to ask forgiveness from God, he will lose his salvation. They go further by also teaching that God’s forgiveness of our sins, or in other words, our salvation, depends on our capacity to forgive others, such that if we cannot forgive others, our sins are not forgiven as well. This view is usually subscribed to by the Armenians and the Roman Catholics.
But then you might think, isn’t that what the Bible actually said because in Matthew 6:14-15 we read “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Does this mean that the Armenians and the Roman Catholics are correct in their understanding about asking forgiveness from God?
To answer these questions, let as study the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation about the fifth petition “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.
The answer of the Catechism goes this way:
Because of Christ’s blood,
do not hold against us, poor sinners that we are,
any of the sins we do
or the evil that constantly cling to us.
as evidence of your grace in us,
to forgive our neighbors.
Forgive us our sins
The first part of the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation about the fifth petition tells us three things: first, it means asking God to not hold against us any of the sins we do or the evil that constantly cling to us; second, a recognition that we are poor sinners; and third, the basis of the request which is blood of Christ.
When we ask God not to hold against us the sins that we do and the evils that cling to us, we are basically appealing to God’s mercy. In other words, we are asking God to not give us the very thing that we deserve which is wrath, judgement or condemnation. We are asking God to do this according to his steadfast love and abundant mercy. Here, we are not asking God to be fair or to give us what we deserve. We are not invoking a right, but we are approaching God in a position of humility because we know that we deserved to be condemned.
Asking forgiveness from God is not a small thing specially when we take into consideration the fact that He is absolutely just and holy. We know that God gives to everyone exactly what they deserve, because He punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. Yet when we ask God to forgive our sins, it is as if we are asking Him to do something that seemingly or apparently goes against His nature. It is because when we ask God to forgive our sins, we are also asking Him to blot out our transgressions. We are asking Him to no longer consider all the sins and the evils that we did which He completely witnessed in His omniscience.
In Psalms 51: 1-2, we will see that this is exactly what David asked for when prayed to God to forgive him for the sin that he committed with Bathsheba. It reads, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”
When we ask God to forgive us, we are asking Him not to judge us anymore which is exactly the opposite of what a just God would do. Psalm 143:2 says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”
And together with our request for God to not hold our sins against us is a recognition that we are poor sinners. In Psalms 51:3-5, David made the following confession, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Here, David is saying that his sins and transgressions are laid bare before the eyes of the omniscient God, and that he cannot hide anything from Him. And even though his sin aggrieved many people such as Bathsheba, Uriah and all the people of Israel who expected him to uphold a certain moral standard being the king, David understood that ultimately, his sins were committed against God.
This is the reason why David no longer made an alibi nor argued his case when God sent the prophet Nathan to bring the charged against him. David is fully convinced that God is justified in his words and blameless in his judgement, such that if God decided to destroy Him on the spot, he will not have any complaint about it.
And then finally, David did not only acknowledge that he committed a sin, but he also recognize that his very nature is sinful and corrupted. That is why he said that he was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did his mother conceive him. This is what it means to acknowledge that we are poor sinners, that we admit that we have sinned, we acknowledge our sinfulness and recognize that God fully justified should he decide to destroy us.
But still, our asking for forgiveness from God will be in vain unless we know the basis of the forgiveness. And that, my friends, is the blood of Christ. The only reason why God can forgive sinners is because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ for our sins. 1 John 2:1-2 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
If we will think about it, the concept of justice and forgiveness are two contradictory things. Justice means giving a person what he deserves, and that is what God does, He gives people what they deserve by punishing them for their sins. On the other hand, forgiveness is not giving a person the punishment that he deserves. Therefore, if God is just, He cannot forgive. And on the other hand, if God forgives, He can no longer be considered as just.
But praise God brothers and sister, what is impossible for men is possible for God. Truly no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has conceived, the manner by which God will save His elect. What seemed to be an irreconcilable and unsolvable dilemma was resolved in the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Because while Jesus hanged on the cross, he who knew no sin became sin on our behalf. And while he bears in Him the sins of all the elect, the full force of the wrath of God fell upon Him. And in this way, the forgiveness of our sins was purchased by Christ.
So now, God can forgive our sins without ceasing to be just because 2000 years ago, His justice fell upon His own Son. And now, no one can question His forgiveness. So here we can see that in His great act of redemption, Christ did not only justify us, but first and most importantly, He justified His own Father in forgiving us. Romans 3:23-26 put it this way, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
So therefore, apart from Christ, the forgiveness of sins will never be possible. Without the atoning sacrifice of Christ, not even a singles person will escape the judgment of God. Outside Christ, there is absolutely no forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, to those who have heard the preaching of the gospel and have genuinely repented of their sins and put their faith in the finished work of Christ, the forgiveness of sin is an absolute certainty. And as Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
Why Do We Ask God to Forgive Our Sins?
But one might also ask, isn’t it true that a Christian, the moment he is justified, is forgiven of all his sins both past, present and future? If this is the case, then why is there still a need to pray the fifth petition? Are we going to lose our salvation if we fail to ask God’s forgiveness for a particular sin?
First of all, let me just clarify that no true believer will lose his salvation just by failing to ask God’s forgiveness for a particular sin. If this is the case, we can all be sure that all Christians will fall from grace since all of us have committed sins, whether big or small, that we can no longer remember. And since we cannot remember some of our sins, we cannot also ask God to specifically forgive them. The Bible is clear that once a person is saved, he can no longer lose his salvation because his security is in Christ. Romans 8:38–39 says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Certainly, our poor memory and our failure to ask God to forgive our forgotten sins cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
So why then should we pray for God to forgive our sins if all of our sins are already forgiven. One reason is for our continuous sanctification. Although legally or positionally our sins have been washed and forgiven through the blood of Christ, practically speaking our sins are still present in our life. The process of sanctification aims to remove these sins in our life little by little until we are conformed to the image of Christ. However, we cannot get rid of our sins unless we confess and repent of them first. An unconfessed sin will never be a conquered sin. In 1 John 1:9 it was said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So, the purpose of asking forgiveness from God is not only to obtain forgiveness, but also to be cleansed and delivered from our indwelling sins as we progress in our sanctification.
Another reason why we must pray the fifth petition is to restore our broken fellowship with God. Just a couple of clarification first. When we were converted and justified by faith, we were also reconciled to God. From being God’s enemies, we were transferred to His family and we became His adopted sons and daughters. Once we are reconciled to God, our relationship with Him is already permanent. Even if we sin against Him, we will never be alienated from Him to the point of being called His enemies again because He will preserve us for the sake of His Son.
However, when we sin against God and fail to confess and repent of them, our fellowship with God is broken in such a way that even though we are still His children, we cannot enjoy some of the benefits of this relationship especially the sense of peace and the feeling of his abiding presence. That’s why when we rebel against God, we cannot feel Him. It is as if God is so distant and He is hiding his face from us. This is why the prayer in Psalms 27:9 goes like this, “Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!”
A true child of God will not last long without the abiding presence of God in his life. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and no matter how pleasurable are the sins around us, we just cannot go on in life without experiencing our fellowship with God again. So, in order to heal and restore this broken fellowship, we have to ask God for the forgiveness of our sins every day. In James 5:16, it was said “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Although the context of this text is about confessing our sins to the persons we have offended in order to heal our broken relationship with them, we know that ultimately, God is the one offended by our sins. So aside from confessing our sins to the people we aggrieved, most importantly we should confess our sin to God and seek for the healing and restoration of our fellowship with him.
As We Forgive Our Debtors
Now we go to the second part of the catechism’s explanation about the fifth petition. Jesus Christ added the phrase “as we have also forgiven our debtors” to the petition. The addition of this phrase causes a lot of people to think that God’s forgiveness of our sin is dependent upon our ability and willingness to forgive the sins of others. We became more inclined to believe this explanation when we read the fifth request in light of Matthew 6:14-15 which says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The problem with this view is that it uses the imperfect ability of man for forgiveness as a limiter to God’s perfect and infinite capacity to forgive. If God will exercise his forgiveness in accordance to how we forgive, no one will be forgiven because men are naturally unforgiving. And even if we forgive sometimes, the forgiveness that we extend our neighbors is not perfect. Unlike God, when we forgive the sins of others, we do not blot out their transgressions, but rather, the moment we have another conflict with them, we bring back all of their past offense as if we have never forgiven them at all.
Furthermore, if we will interpret the text in such a way that our forgiveness of other is the necessary condition for God’s forgiveness of our sins, this will lead again to the conclusion that our salvation can be lost due to our failure to forgive.
So what then? Are we just going to scrap Matthew 6:14-15 out of the Bible or pretend that it doesn’t exist just because we don’t agree with what it says? Not at all!
One of the primary rules of hermeneutics is what we call the analogy of faith. The analogy of faith is the rule that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. This means that no part of the Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render in conflict with what is clearly thought elsewhere in the Scripture. Therefor, if a given verse is capable of two renditions or variant interpretations and one of those interpretations goes against the rest of Scripture while the other is in harmony with it, then the latter interpretation must be used.
The fifth petition and Matthew 6:14-15 can be interpreted in two ways. First, it could mean that our forgiveness of others is the cause or the necessary condition for God’s forgiveness of our sins. The implication of that is, even if we are already saved, when someone sinned against us and we failed to forgive them, God will also not forgive our sins and in effect we will lose our salvation.
The other interpretation is this, that God will only forgive the recipients of His grace in Christ, and the evidence that a person is a recipient of that grace is that he also forgives the sins of others. Brothers and sisters, I would submit to you that the latter interpretation is the correct one. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that the fifth petition means asking God to forgive us just as we are fully determined, as evidence of your grace in us, to forgive our neighbors.
Awhile ago we discussed that the basis for the forgiveness of our sins is the blood of Christ. However, unless we are convinced that the blood of Christ or His atoning sacrifice is applied to us, we can never be sure that our sins have been forgiven. And one of the evidence that we have received the grace if God and the benefits that come with the atoning sacrifice of Christ is that we are able to forgive those who sin against us. So, in other words, our ability to forgive others is not the condition for God to forgive us, but it is the other way around. We are able to forgive others because we are forgiven by God. Those who are forgiven by God are the ones who can forgive, and those who can forgive are the ones who can ask God to continuously forgive their sins because the promise of forgiveness is specifically and exclusively given to them.
ZCRC Imus, let us make it a consistent practice to confess our sins and ask forgiveness from God. We can be sure that our sins will be forgiven because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ which was applied to us evidence by our ability to forgive the sins of others against us. Let us come to the Lord in humility but with full confidence that we will be forgiven because He is just and faithful to forgive our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness.