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Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (4): Forgiveness of Sins

Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (4): Forgiveness of Sins

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness of Sins (3): Classifying Repentance (b).


The risen Lord Jesus commanded his disciples that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Luke 24:47). We have seen what repentance is: a change of mind, which leads to sorrow over, and turning from sin. It is the gift of God, the activity of the sinner by God's grace; it is not a work, it is not conversion, and it is not faith, although it is inseparable from faith. Herman Hoeksema defined it thus: “Repentance is a state of mind, a turning of the mind from the love of sin and unrighteousness unto the love of righteousness, and therefore unto a true sorrow over sin" Reformed Dogmatics [RFPA: 2005], vol. 2, p. 173.

In the minds of some, forgiveness of sins is the same thing as justification by faith alone and, since we are justified by faith alone without works (and the same people often define repentance as a work), to connect the forgiveness of sins in any way with repentance jeopardizes the truth of justification by faith alone. Therefore, with due deference to the fundamental truth of justification by faith alone we proceed carefully.

The forgiveness of sins is God’s gracious act of putting away our sins. The word “forgive/remit” in the New Testament is the translation of a word that means “to send away” or “to let go.” When God forgives our sins, he sends them away from us so that he does not hold them against us or he lets them go so that he does not punish us for them. That is a wonder of God’s grace. We are guilty in Adam and we are guilty for our own personal transgressions. Being guilty means that we are liable to—we deserve—punishment. Yet God says, “I forgive—I remit—your sins. I send your sins away or I let them go.” “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matt. 9:2). “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven” (Luke 7:47). “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 him give all the prophets witness that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). 

Forgiveness or remission of sins is not exactly the same thing as justification. Justification is very similar to forgiveness of sins and they are related, but we should distinguish them from one another. Justification is more than forgiveness of sins; it includes forgiveness of sins, but it includes more. Forgiveness is God’s act of sending away our sins, while justification is God’s act of declaring that we are righteous. When God declares that we are righteous, he means that we are in perfect harmony with his standard which is revealed in his law. If you will, forgiveness is the negative side of justification: if God forgives us, we have no guilt, but what about positive righteousness? In justification God imputes or reckons Christ’s righteousness to our account. Or forgiveness is the non-imputation of sin, while justification is by the imputation of righteousness.

When we pray for forgiveness we ask that God would be “pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood not to impute to us poor sinners our transgressions, nor that depravity which always cleaves to us” (Heidelberg Catechism A 126). The Catechism also closely connects the forgiveness of sins to justification: “What believest thou concerning the forgiveness of sins? That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long” (Q&A 56). That is, strictly speaking, what the remission of sins is—God not remembering our sins. The Catechism adds, “but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God” (A 56). That is justification, which is closely connected to the forgiveness of sins, although not identical to it. Similarly, the Belgic Confession does not say in Article 23 that the forgiveness of sins is justification, but that “[in the forgiveness of sins] our righteousness before God is implied.”

Also, justification concerns our legal state or status: it is God’s unchanging declaration that we are righteous received by faith alone. We can speak of justification in different senses or we can say that there are multiple declarations of righteousness. To that we will turn next time, God willing.


From the same author

Grace and Assurance: The Message of the Canons of Dordt

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