A Survey of Reformed and Puritan Views
by D. Scott Meadows
When does God forgive anyone’s sins? Are all the elects’ sins forgiven from eternity, as they are in Christ according to God’s decree? Or are all a person’s sins forgiven when he first repents and believes the gospel? What about future sins after conversion? Does God completely forgive even our future sins at the single point of our conversion, and after that, no longer exercise actual forgiveness toward us? Or does God keep forgiving believers’ particular sins again and again throughout our lives, only after we commit them, and perhaps, after we repent of them? When we pray, “forgive us our sins,” as Christ commanded us, are we pleading for something that has already been granted us, so that it is a mere formality, or are we begging something that we still need, and might be granted afterward and in answer to our hope-filled prayer?
These questions raise very interesting issues concerning the doctrine of justification and its relation to the forgiveness of sins. The matter is not easy because all these questions suggest at least an element of truth and all the truths they suggest are not easily harmonized.
Very significantly to us at CBC-Exeter, our formal subordinate doctrinal standard under Scripture, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (2LCF), stands squarely against the idea of complete forgiveness of all sins past, present, and future in every sense whatsoever, either in eternity or at a single point in time, when it says,
God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance (11.5).
So while justification is a permanent state for every Christian believer, from the moment he trusts in Christ (not actually before this), God’s forgiveness is a dynamic thing throughout our lives. According to this statement, He “continues to forgive” our sins; i.e., God forgives us particularly, repeatedly, and enduringly. Because we sin daily, we stand daily in need of His forgiveness, and the gospel promises us that we shall have this grand blessing through the renewed exercise of our faith and repentance.
My research into these matters has uncovered a fairly consistent consensus among Reformed and Puritan theologians on the matter, and that consensus is beautifully conveyed in 2LCF above.
Puritan John Owen (1616–1683) is a household name among discerning Reformed Christians today, for he may be one of the most eminent theologians in twenty centuries of church history. That does not mean he is infallible, of course, but he is an extremely reliable guide in biblical exegesis and doctrinal truth. His remarks below should carry much weight with us:
Future sins are not so pardoned as that, when they are committed, they should be no sins; which cannot be, unless the commanding power of the law be abrogated: but their respect unto the curse of the law, or their power to oblige the justified person thereunto, is taken away.
Still there abideth the true nature of sin in every inconformity unto or transgression of the law in justified persons, which stands in need of daily actual pardon. For there is “no man that liveth and sinneth not;” and “if we say that we have no sin, we do but deceive ourselves.” None are more sensible of the guilt of sin, none are more troubled for it, none are more earnest in supplications for the pardon of it, than justified persons. For this is the effect of the sacrifice of Christ applied unto the souls of believers, as the apostle declares, Heb. 10:1–4, 10, 14, that it doth take away conscience condemning the sinner for sin, with respect unto the curse of the law; but it doth not take away conscience condemning sin in the sinner, which, on all considerations of God and themselves, of the law and the gospel, requires repentance on the part of the sinner, and actual pardon on the part of God.
Whereas, therefore, one essential part of justification consisteth in the pardon of our sins, and sins cannot be actually pardoned before they are actually committed (Works of John Owen V.146–147).
Francis Turretin (1623–1687) left us a massive work of Protestant scholasticism defending Calvinistic orthodoxy, entitled Institutes of Elenctic Theology. His treatment of the subject is perhaps the fullest and most precise of all we are considering in this lecture. This complex statement, my friends, is a masterpiece of clear and faithful biblical teaching:
XVII. Third proposition: “Remission is extended to all the sins entirely of believers, of whatever kind they may be, future as well as past and present, but in their own order.” This question is moved with regard to future sins—are they also remitted at the same time and at once with the past and present sins? For there are some even of our theologians of great reputation who think that in the justification of the sinner all his sins (the future equally with the past) are at the same time and at once remitted, both because the righteousness of Christ, which is the foundation of our justification, is wholly (however great it is) imputed at once and at the same time to us and because justification ought to leave no room for condemnation (Rom. 8:1). . .
XVIII. We think the difficulty can be overcome by a distinction. All sins (future as well as past) cannot be said to be remitted at the same time and once formally and explicitly because as they are not accidents of a nonentity, so as long as the sin is not, punishment is not due to it; and since it is not due, it cannot be remitted (as a debt not yet contracted cannot be cancelled). Besides for the remission of sin there is required a confession and repentance of it, which cannot be made unless it has been committed. Hence we are ordered to seek remission of sins every day, which is to be applied to sins committed, not to anticipate their perpetration. But because in justification the righteousness of Christ is applied to us (which is the foundation upon which the remission of all our sins rests) and because from the covenant of grace God promises that he will not remember our sins, nothing prevents us from saying that in this sense sins are remitted eminently and virtually because in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us is the foundation of that remission. And thus all our sins are remitted by God, whether past or present or future, but with respect to the time in which they are committed; so that past and present are actually remitted, the future when they are committed will most certainly be remitted according to God’s promise. Thus the state of justification remaining undisturbed and the acceptation of the person remaining uninterrupted and the general remission of sins already committed, the following and future as to particular absolution are not actually pardoned before their commission; nay, before they have been repented of either generally or particularly.
XIX. I confess if we regard the eternal purpose of God in which all things, even the future, appeared to God as present (Acts 15:18) and the merit and acquisition of Christ, who offered to God a perfectly sufficient ransom for the expiation of all our sins, so that as to the promise given by God in the covenant of grace concerning their remission, remission under this relation can be said to be extended to all sins whether past or future. But if the actual remission itself is regarded, which is made by an intimation of the absolving sentence in the heart of the believer and penitent, it can be referred only to sins already committed. Thus to take away the guilt of subsequent sins, there is required a particular application of remission, not only as to the sense and assurance of remission, but also as to the true and real forgiveness itself (emphasis mine, DSM).
XX. As the person whose sins are pardoned can be considered, either as to the state of grace (in which he is constituted by justification) or as to the particular acts (which he can afterwards commit), so remission can be viewed in two aspects: either generally as to state (according to which God receives the believing and penitent sinner into grace on account of Christ and bestows upon him the pardon of all the sins of which he is guilty); or specially as to particular acts of sin into which he afterwards falls, for taking away the guilt of which a particular absolution is needed. Not that the state of justification into which he is translated can be dissolved or remission once bestowed be abrogated, because God remains always his Father, but a Father angry on account of sins recently committed (which although they cannot constitute him a “child of wrath” on account of the immutability of calling and justification, still they make him a “child under wrath,” so that he deservedly incurs the fatherly indignation of God and has need forthwith of a new justification or particular remission of these sins through faith and repentance).
XXI. Although the justified believer has not as yet the formal remission of future sins, he does not cease to be happy and free from actual condemnation because he has the foundation from which he can infer with positive certainty that it is prepared for him according to God’s promise. If the whole righteousness of Christ is at the same time imputed, its entire fruit does not flow out to us at once, but successively in proportion to the inrushings of sin (for the remission of which the believer ought to apply that ransom to himself every day). (Institutes 16.5.17–21).
Benedict Pictet (1655–1724), scarcely known today, even among Reformed Christians, was successor at Geneva to the venerable Turretin.
Should it be inquired, whether remission or forgiveness be extended to future sins; although some divines contend, that, from the moment of our entrance into communion with Christ, there is no sin of which we do not obtain the remission, yet we think it better to say, that remission is not extended to future sins. For in the first place, as long as there is no sin, punishment is not due to it, and when it is not due, it cannot be said to be remitted. Again, to remission of sin are required repentance and confession, which therefore suppose sin to be actually committed; hence we are commanded to seek forgiveness daily, which can only be applied to actually committed sins. Observe, also, that when a believer falls into sin, the forgiveness he has once received is not done away, nor do the sins forgiven him, rise up again in judgment, but still he incurs the wrath of his heavenly Father, and stands in need of fresh forgiveness (Christian Theology, p. 320).
I believe this is, in the main, what Puritan Thomas Watson (1620–1687) was driving at when he wrote,
When I say, God forgives all sins, I understand it of sins past, for sins to come are not forgiven till they are repented of. Indeed, God has decreed to pardon them; and when he forgives one sin, he will in time forgive all; but sins future are not actually (emphasis mine) pardoned till they are repented of. It is absurd to think sin should be forgiven before it is committed. If all sins past and to come are at once forgiven, then what need to pray for the pardon of sin? It is a vain thing to pray for the pardon of that which is already forgiven. The opinion that sins to come, as well as past, are forgiven, takes away and makes void Christ’s intercession. He is an advocate to intercede for daily sins. 1 John 2:1. But if sin be forgiven before it be committed, what need is there of his daily intercession? What need have I of an advocate, if sin be pardoned before it be committed? So that, though God forgives all sins past to a believer, yet sins to come are not forgiven till repentance be renewed (The Lord’s Prayer, in loc.).
Puritan Thomas Manton (1620–1677) wrote that
As soon as we repent and believe, a threefold benefit we have:– 1) The state of the person is altered; he is a child of God: John 1.12. . . . 2) The actual remission of all past sins: Rom 3.25, “To declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” It would be a license to sin if his sins were remitted before committed. 3) A right to the remission of daily sins, or free leave to make use of the fountain of mercy, that is always running, and is opened in the house of God for the comfort of believers: Zech. 13:1, “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.” (emphasis mine)
Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) had his own way of expressing these things:
These views may assist us in the intricate subject of the relation which justification bears to the believer’s future sins. On the one hand these things are evident; that there is not a man on the earth who does not offend (Jas 3.2), that sin must always be sin in its nature, and as such, abhorrent to God, by whomsoever committed; and even more abhorrent in a believer, because committed against greater obligations and vows; and that sins committed after justification need expiation, just as truly as those before. On the other hand, the proofs above given clearly show, that the justified believer does not pass again under condemnation when betrayed into sin. Faith is the instrument for continuing, as it was for originating our justified state. This is clear from Rom. 11:20; Heb. 10:38, as well as from the experience of all believers, who universally apply a fresh to Christ for cleansing, when their consciences are oppressed with new sin. In strictness of speech, a man’s sin must be forgiven after it is committed. Nothing can have a relation before it has existence, so that it is illogical to speak of sin as pardoned before it is committed. How, then, stands the sinning believer, between the time of a new sin and his new application to Christ’s cleansing blood? We reply: Justification is the act of an immutable God, determining not to impute sin, through the believer’s faith. This faith, though not in instant exercise at every moment, is an undying principle in the believer’s heart, being rendered indefectible only by God’s purpose of grace, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. So God determines, when the believer sins, not to impute guilt for Christ’s sake, which determination also implies this other, to secure in the believer’s heart, the unfailing actings of faith and repentance, as to all known sin. So that his justification from future sins is not so much a pardoning of them before they are committed, as an unfailing provision by God both of the meritorious and instrumental causes of their pardon, as they are committed (Systematic Theology, p. 369).
In a discussion of the same question, the great scholar of biblical theology in modern times, Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949), quoted this statement with approval:
In justification future sins are not forgiven explicitly and formally, but virtually, that is, in principle and potentially (Reformed Dogmatics IV.159 §19).
Vos added his own explanation,
Sin as it actually exists certainly retains its character as sin as far as its inherent character is concerned. . . . When the consciousness of sin awakens in the believer, again and again there must be a renewed application of justification to the conscience. . . . The application of this single pronouncement [in the forum of heaven or before God of justification] to the conscience occurs again and again in renewal. Scripture calls that the forgiveness of sins (1 John 1.9; Matt 6.12; 1 John 2.1). (Reformed Dogmatics IV.159 §19).
That eminent systematic theologian, Louis Berkhof (1873–1957), is known for simplifying and synthesizing the best of the Reformed tradition. His comment on this is most illuminating:
The usual position of Reformed theology, however, is that in justification God indeed removes the guilt, but not the culpability of sin, that is, He removes the sinner’s just amenability to punishment, but not the inherent guiltiness of whatever sins he may continue to perform. The latter remains and therefore always produces in believers a feeling of guilt, of separation from God, of sorrow, of repentance, and so on. Hence they feel the need of confessing their sins, even the sins of their youth, Ps. 25:7; 51:5–9. The believer who is really conscious of his sin feels within him an urge to confess it and to seek the comforting assurance of forgiveness. Moreover, such confession and prayer is not only a subjectively felt need, but also an objective necessity. Justification is essentially an objective declaration respecting the sinner in the tribunal of God, but it is not merely that; it is also an actus transiens [an actuality or reality that crosses over to us, DSM], passing into the consciousness of the believer. The divine sentence of acquittal [i.e., forgiveness, DSM] is brought home to the sinner and awakens the joyous consciousness of the forgiveness of sins and of favor with God. Now this consciousness of pardon and of a renewed filial relationship is often disturbed and obscured by sin, and is again quickened and strengthened by confession and prayer, and by a renewed exercise of faith.
In all candor, I admit that the judicious Hermann Bavinck (1854–1921) seems out of step with the best of the Reformed tradition, because he denies that God actually forgives us after conversion (Reformed Dogmatics IV.224) by appealing to the permanency of our justification. But as we have seen, these two things (repeated actual forgiveness and permanent justification) are not considered incompatible by the other Reformed and Puritan theologians we have cited. C. H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), too, seems of the same mind as Bavinck (e.g., “The Glories of Forgiving Grace,” MTP #1555). That these worthies grapple with this subject and do not exactly see everything in just the same way should humble us deeply, and guard us against pontification on the fringes. Some things we know for sure because of plain biblical statements; other things are not so clear even to godly and discerning spirits.
Applying this theology, let us rejoice in our once-for-all justification in Christ by faith alone, and apply to God every day for the actual forgiveness of our sins on the basis of Christ crucified, not our repentance or faith. Ω