“If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” — Psalm 130:3-4
Satan is a master deceiver. He is such a subtle, crafty deceiver that he often uses the Word of God itself to confuse people. He is particularly good at using Scripture texts as stumbling blocks, which he piles in the path of sinners seeking the Lord, or to trip and harass God’s pilgrims as they seek to follow Christ through this world. In this study, I hope to clear away some of those stumbling blocks, by answering some questions about forgiveness. I cannot here answer all the questions people have asked me about the forgiveness of sins. It would be futile for me to attempt that. However, I have carefully and prayerfully chosen seven questions which I want to answer.
1 Are there varying degrees of sin, of guilt, and of punishment?
Without question, the Word of God clearly teaches that there are no varying degrees of innocence, righteousness, or holiness, and no varying degrees of reward for the righteous in heaven. The teaching of decrees of reward in heaven is totally contrary to the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. However, the Scriptures do teach us that there are varying degrees of sin, of guilt, and of eternal punishment.
The papists teach that certain sins are venial (pardonable) in themselves, not deserving the wrath of God and eternal damnation, while other sins are mortal, deserving of God’s wrath and eternal damnation. That distinction is purely a matter of papal invention, as are most of the doctrines of Rome. All sin deserves the everlasting wrath of God in hell. There are no exceptions. “The wages of sin is death!” Spiritual, physical, and everlasting death, are the just reward of iniquity, transgression, and sin.
Yet, the Word of God tells us, in the plainest terms possible, that there are greater and lesser sins. Just as some breaches of the law were weightier than others, so the sins of men and women today are of a greater and lesser degree, depending upon the circumstances. Those who perish without the light of the gospel shall indeed perish forever under the wrath of God, but their punishment will be far less than that of those who go to hell pushing God out of their way. Read the Scriptures for yourself, and you will see that this is clearly the teaching of the Inspired Volume (Rom. 2:12; Matt. 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48; John 19:10-11).
“God forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin,” wrote John Gill, “which include all sorts of sin; sins of the greatest magnitude, and of the deepest die, are blotted out for Christ’s sake. Such as are like crimson and scarlet become through him as white as wool, as white as snow. His blood cleanses from sin; every sin is forgiven, but the sin against the Holy Ghost (Matt. 12:31-32).”
2. Will there be any forgiveness of sins in the world to come?
Some people reading Matthew 12:31-32 have erroneously concluded that our Lord there suggests that there is another day of grace yet to come in which sins shall be forgiven. Our Savior there declares, “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
Our Lord here tells us that this sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall never be forgiven. The text teaches no more and no less than that. Nowhere in Holy Scripture is there even the slightest hint of some state of purgatory or limbo between heaven and hell, or that there will be a second chance for grace, during some future tribulation period, or that there will be forgiveness at the day of judgment. Once this gospel age is over, the day of grace has ended. There is no hope beyond the grave for those who die without Christ. Those who die without forgiveness will spend eternity in hell without so much as a faint, glimmering hope of forgiveness (2 Cor. 6:1-2).
3. Why is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost said to be unforgivable?
Matthew 12:31-32 does not suggest that any sin against the Holy Ghost, or every sin against the Holy Ghost is unpardonable. That cannot be the case, because every sin committed against God is committed against the Holy Ghost, as well as against the Father and the Son. He is God! The sin here spoken of is something more than a denial of his deity, and of his personality. It is more than a denial of the necessity of the operations of his grace on the souls of men in regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. It is also something more than vexing and grieving the Holy Spirit.
The Israelites certainly vexed and grieved him, as did Lot in Sodom, as did David in the matter of Uriah, as we all do both in our sinful thoughts and in our acts of sin. But these things are not unpardonable. The fact is a man may break all the ten commandments (We have all done so from our youth!), and not commit this sin against the Holy Ghost. This is a sin not against the law, but against the gospel. “It lies in the denial of the great and fundamental truth of the gospel, salvation by Jesus Christ, in all its branches; peace and pardon by his blood, atonement by his sacrifice, and justification by his righteousness” (John Gill).
This blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is a sin committed after a person has received the knowledge of the truth, under the illuminations, convictions, and demonstrations of the Spirit of God; and yet, through the instigation of Satan, and the wickedness of his own heart, knowingly, and wilfully, and maliciously denies this truth, and obstinately persists denying it. The person who commits this blasphemy never comes to repentance, and therefore he has no forgiveness, here nor hereafter.
“This is not,” Gill continues, “because the Holy Spirit is superior to the other divine Persons; for they are equal: nor through any deficiency in the grace of God, or blood of Christ; but through the nature of the sin, which is diametrically opposite to the way of salvation, pardon, atonement, and justification; for these being denied to be by Christ, there can be no pardon; for another Jesus will never be sent, another Savior will never be given; there will be no more shedding of blood, no more sacrifice, nor another sacrifice for sin; nor another righteousness wrought out and brought in. And, therefore, there remains nothing but a fearful looking for of judgment and indignation, to come on such persons.”
In Hebrews 10:26-29 the Holy Spirit himself shows us that this is the meaning of our Lord’s words in Matthew 12:31-32. — “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”
4. What happens when a believer sins?
This question is very troublesome and perplexing to many. If I trust Christ now and am forgiven of all my past sins at this moment, what will happen when I sin again? Will the Lord turn against me again? Will I lose my salvation? Will I forfeit my interest in Christ and his salvation?
What does God say in his Word about this matter? When a believer sins, much happens, in his own heart and experience. He often loses the joyous knowledge of Christ’s manifest presence. Our communion with him whom we most love is broken. Our heavenly Father chastens us sore. But our standing before God, our relationship with him, and our acceptance with him is not affected at all. Our acceptance with our God is a matter of grace, not merit. It is in Christ our Substitute, not in ourselves. It does not in any way depend upon us and cannot in any way be altered by us. Let wicked, self-righteous men do and say whatever they please in response to that, that is the teaching of this Holy Scripture (Rom. 4:8; Ps. 32:1-2; 89:30-37; John 10:28; 2 Tim. 2:13; 1 John 2:1-2).
5. Should we pray for the forgiveness of sins?
Sometimes, when I am asked that question, I think to myself, “How silly! What could it possibly hurt?” But I know that for some this is a serious question. Certainly, unbelievers ought to confess their sins and seek forgiveness by faith in Christ. However, we must never get the idea that praying for forgiveness and seeking it will be a substitute for believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. The unbeliever is not told to pray for forgiveness, but to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31).
Then the question arises, “If our sins are already forgiven, is it right for us as believers to pray for forgiveness?” Rather than speculating about it, let’s simply see what the Book of God says and the saints of God have done. Our Savior taught his disciples (as disciples, as believers) to pray for the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 11:2-4). Moses, God’s faithful servant, prayed for forgiveness (Ex. 34:9). Not only did David seek forgiveness at the throne of grace (Ps. 25:11), he (writing by inspiration of God the Holy Spirit) declared plainly, “For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found” (Ps. 32:5-6). Daniel’s great prayer (Dan. 9) stands as an example of how believing, forgiven sinners ought always to seek God’s face in Christ, confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness by his grace through blood atonement. Yes, believers must and should seek the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 4:16).
6. Will the sins of God’s elect be exposed in the day of judgment or in the world to come?
There are many who claim to believe in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, who yet hold people in bondage with the threat of some form of future punishment (the loss of rewards) and the promise of rewards for doing good. Such doctrine is contrary to Scripture and to every doctrine of the gospel, and dishonors Christ in the most insulting manner. The Scriptures tell us plainly that God’s people will never suffer such humiliation and shame (Rev. 21:4). There is no such thing as partial righteousness or partial holiness. The basis of our acceptance with God in the day of judgment is the person and work of Christ our Substitute. The notion that Christ will expose the sins of his beloved bride on her wedding day is preposterous beyond imagination. The purpose of God in election, the purpose of Christ in redemption, and the purpose of the Holy Spirit in sanctification would all fall to the ground if we are found with even one spot of sin in that great and glorious day (Eph. 1:3-6; 5:25-27; Jude 24-25)).
7. How can I obtain the forgiveness of sin?
“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). To confess our sins is much, much more than telling a man, or even the church of God about our evil deeds. It is much more than the acknowledgement that we have done some bad things. We confess our sins when we, like the publican, rip open our hearts before God, acknowledging the corruption and depravity of our hearts before him, looking to the blood of Christ for propitiation, and calling upon God for mercy through the merits of Christ’s shed blood. The promise of Holy Scripture is this: — To all who thus confess their sins, God is faithful to his Word, faithful to his covenant, and faithful to his own character, and just, through the blood sacrifice of his own dear Son, to forgive sin. That is grace! May God the Holy Spirit ever grant us grace to confess our sins, with the eye of faith cast upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and grant us the blessed knowledge of sins forgiven through the blood of Christ.