Chief among those questions that plague Christians the most in this life are those that concern the forgiveness of sins. Many Christians have asked the following out of a sincere sense of spiritual desperation: If God has forgiven all of my sins in the death of Jesus, why do I need to continually confess my sins? What if I die with unconfessed sins, will the death of Jesus cover them? These are vital questions for which we should diligently search for answers in Scripture. So, how are we to reconcile the biblical truth that God has already pardoned all the sins of believers in the death of Jesus and that Scripture holds out the hope of forgiveness to those who live in the continual act of confessing their sin to God? The answer is found in the distinction between legal and paternal forgiveness.
On the one hand, Scripture teaches us that all of our sins–past, present and future–are forgiven based on the one-for-all atoning sacrifice of Christ. On the other hand, Scripture teaches us that we must confess and forsake our sins in order to obtain forgiveness. We know that to confess and forsake our sins is not a one time act that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life and does not recur in our Christian experience. It is a continual process in the life of believers (1 John 1:8-10).
In his book Evangelical Repentance, John Colquhoun explained the teaching of Scripture regarding judicial pardon when he referenced “God’s judicial pardon of sin in the act of justification…’I have blotted out,’ says Jehovah, ‘as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and as a cloud, thy sins'” (Isa 44:22). He then proceeded to explain paternal pardon when he wrote,
“By paternal pardon is not meant that forgiveness of all sin which forms a part of justification, but that fatherly pardon which consists in a believer’s deliverance from the guilt which he is daily contracting, by sinning against God as his God and Father, namely, the guilt which renders him liable to the painful effects of paternal displeasure.”
The implications of this biblical teaching on pardon cannot be overestimated. Colquhoun went on to explain,
“As the believer is, by his sins of infirmity, daily contracting this guilt, so the daily exercise of faith and repentance, is necessary to the daily removal of it. For although faith and repentance do not give the smallest title to deliverance from this guilt; yet the frequent exercise of them is a necessary means of that deliverance.”
The judicial pardon that we have in our justification on account of the sacrificial death of Jesus is the foundation of our paternal pardon (1 John 2:1-2). If our sins have not been judicially blotted out, then there is no hope of our Father restoring us whenever we sin after we have been justified. Once God has blotted out out sins judicially there remains no more sin before the divine tribunal. This means that I can rest content that I have been accepted by God on account of the blood and righteousness of Jesus, once and for all time. This is what the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism have in mind when they answer the question, “How are you righteous before God?”
“Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.
Although my conscience accuses me
that I have grievously sinned
against all God’s commandments,
have never kept any of them,
and am still inclined to all evil,
yet God, without any merit of my own,
out of mere grace,
imputes to me
the perfect satisfaction,
righteousness, and holiness of Christ.
He grants these to me
as if I had never had nor committed
and as if I myself had accomplished
all the obedience
which Christ has rendered for me,
if only I accept this gift
with a believing heart.”
If our sins have been blotted out by the blood of Jesus, then we can come with trembling confidence before the throne of grace to obtain the continual forgiveness that we so desperately need. The first pardon is the judicial blotting out of all of our sins. The subsequent pardoning is the forgiveness extended by our Father when we have turned back to Him after we have displeased him by our lawlessness. Colquhoun elsewhere explained the connection between the two-fold pardon when he wrote,
“[God] dispenses to them the forgivenesses promised in the covenant. The pardoning of crimes against the law of Jehovah, is one of the royal prerogatives of the King of Zion. ‘Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince, — to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.’ Hence He, according to the covenant, gives them the first pardon, removing, in their justification, the guilt of revenging wrath; and he likewise dispenses to them, the subsequent forgivenesses, removing, upon their renewed acts of faith and repentance, the guilt of paternal displeasure.”
It is important that we come to understand that paternal forgiveness deals with the removal of the “fatherly displeasure” that believers incur when we sin against God. It has become common in our day for ministers to speak only of the need we have for legal pardon. Many go so far as to say, “God is not displeased with you when you sin, if you are in Christ.” But the Scriptures are clear. Just as earthly fathers–who love their children–are displeased when their children rebel against them, so the heavenly Father is displeased with us on account of our sins (Heb. 12:3-11). His disposition toward us when we live in unrepentant sin is one of holy displeasure (2 Sam. 11:27; Micah 7:9).
We come to Christ in faith and repentance for both judicial and paternal forgiveness. We are assured that Jesus washed away all of our sins in His blood when he hung on the tree (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:20; 2:13). There is nothing that we can add to or take away from the once-for-all sacrifice of the Son. However, we must also be assured that there is a way of forgiveness to heal the relationship that we have with our Father when we sin against Him (Ps. 51:1-2, 7-12; John 13:10; 1 John 1:9).