Sunday, December 28, 2014

John Piper on The Legal and Relational Aspects of Forgiveness

Does God respond to us as a judge or as a father?

First, some context. The core of the good news of Jesus is that, even though we're sinners filled with guilt and shame for the evil we've done, God graciously forgives our debt when we put our trust in Jesus. This is unfathomable freedom!

With that context, we find a tough question when we dig deeper: How does this forgiveness thing work? Is God's forgiveness a legal, objective, decisive, once-and-for-all cosmic judicial ruling? Or is God's forgiveness a subjective, relational, emotional, organic, temporal act that is repeated for each of our sins?

The answer is both.

This seems like a bit of a paradox, but a wise one at that. On the one hand, it keeps us from thinking we're free to commit evil without consequence now that we have a legal ruling in our favor; We've got a relationship to think about. On the other hand, it keeps us from fearing that God will push us out of his grace if we do happen to disappoint him by sinning after coming to faith; He has certified a legal declaration in our favor.

In the following excerpt, pastor and scholar John Piper seeks to unpack what the Bible says on these questions.

[Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (pp. 95-97), 2005.]

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Pondering the Difference Between Judicial Wrath and Fatherly Displeasure

How can we be justified by faith, once for all, and yet need to go on confessing our daily sins so that we will be forgiven? On the one hand, the New Testament teaches that, when we trust Christ, our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness (Romans 4:3, 5-6) the righteousness of God is imputed to us (Philippians 3:9). We stand before God "in Christ" as righteous and accepted, yes, even "forgiven," as Paul says, "David [in Psalm 32:1] pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered" (Romans 4:6-7, RSV). Thus justification, in Paul's mind, embraces the reality of forgiveness.

But, on the other hand, the New Testament also teaches that our ongoing forgiveness depends on confession of sins. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, RSV). Confessing sins is part of "walking in the light" which is what we must do if the blood of Jesus is to go on cleansing us from our sins: "lf we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light...the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7, emphasis added). And Jesus taught us to pray daily, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12).

How then shall we see ourselves in relation to God? Are all our sins already forgiven, or are they forgiven day by day as we confess them? Does justification mean that all sins are forgiven - past, present, and future - for those who are justified? Or is there another way to see our sin in relation to God? Let's listen first to a pastor and theologian from 350 years ago, Thomas Watson.
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 pardoned till they are repented of. It is absurd to think sin should be forgiven before it is committed....

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 sin (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. (Body of Divinity [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979], 558) 
Is Watson right? It depends. Yes, I think one can talk this way about forgiveness if one keeps firmly in mind that the purchase and ground and securing of all (past, present, and future) was the death of Jesus, once for all. The ambiguity comes in the question, When do we obtain forgiveness for all the sins we will ever commit? Does this question mean, When was our forgiveness purchased and secured for us? Or does it mean, When will our forgiveness be applied to each transgression so as to remove God's displeasure for it? The answer to the first question would be, at the death of Christ. And the answer to the second question would be, at the renewal of our repentance.

Which raises another question: Does God feel displeasure toward his justified children? If so, what kind of displeasure is this? Is it the same kind of displeasure he has toward the sins of unbelievers? How does God see our daily sins? He sees them as breaches of his will that grieve him and anger him. This grief and anger, however, while prompted by real blameworthiness and real guilt, is not "judicial wrath," to use Thomas Watson's phrase. "Though a child of God, after pardon, may incur his fatherly displeasure, yet his judicial wrath is removed. Though he may lay on the rod, yet he has taken away the curse. Corrections may befall the saints, but not destruction" (Body of Divinity, 556).

God also sees our sins as "covered" and "not reckoned" because of the blood of Christ (Romans 4:7-8). Thus, paradoxically, he sees our sins as both guilt-bringing (and thus producing grief and anger) and guaranteed-of-pardon (though not yet pardoned in the sense of his response to confession and the actual removal of his fatherly displeasure). What is it that distinguishes God's judicial wrath toward the unbeliever's unconfessed sin from God's fatherly displeasure toward the believer's unconfessed sin? The difference is that the believer is united to God in Christ by a new covenant. The promise of this covenant is that God will never turn away from doing good to us and will never let us turn away from him, but will always bring us back to confession and repentance. "I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me" (Jeremiah 32:40, RSV, emphasis added).

This new covenant commitment was purchased by Christ for us (Luke 22:20) and applied to us through faith so that, though we incur our Father's displeasure, we, who are justified believers, never incur the judicial wrath of God to all eternity. Or to put it another way, since the forgiveness of all our sins is purchased and secured by the death of Christ, therefore God is totally committed to bring us back to confession and repentance as often as necessary so that we may receive and enjoy that forgiveness in the removal of his fatherly displeasure. It is our Father's pleasure to restore us to his pleasure until such restorings are needed no more.

[My thanks to J.J. Seid for bringing this article to my attention.]

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