Forgiveness and Salvation

By Peter Amsterdam

March 22, 2011

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In two previous posts on the topic of forgiveness I wrote about 1) forgiving others and 2) avoiding the need to be forgiven, by doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. In this post I’ll address how principles of forgiveness connect with salvation.

When Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,”He was not speaking of the forgiveness of sins that we receive when we accept Jesus as our Savior and get saved.[1] Jesus died on the cross for our salvation so that we would be redeemed, so that our sins—past, present, and future—would be forgiven.

Anyone who has received Jesus as their Savior possesses forgiveness for their sins. The saved are justified before God through Jesus’ death on the cross. This does not mean that as Christians we are no longer sinners—for we all sin throughout our lives—but we are justified sinners, sinners for whom Jesus died, who have accepted Him as our Savior, and who are now the holders of everlasting life. Our initial forgiveness, however, does not give us license to continue sinning; rather we are to confess our sins to the Lord, seek His forgiveness, and strive to change those things that we know are not acceptable to Him.

In a sense, accepting Jesus as our Savior brings us into God’s family, and we become adopted children of God. Adoption is a legal term which expresses that a child is now legally part of a family, and similarly, salvation can be seen as a legal right that you possess. Your position in relationship to God changes when you receive salvation—you are no longer someone who is not a child of God, but someone who is now legally part of His family.

John 1:12 expresses it this way: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (ESV). As justified sinners, we are God’s adopted children, thus we can call God our Father. When we die, we have the legal right to enter heaven as one of His children. So the forgiveness of our sins at salvation can be seen as changing our legal position to that of adopted children. Some call this positional forgiveness. Others call it judicial forgiveness, or forensic forgiveness, or God’s family forgiveness.

Back to the statements in Matthew 6: When Jesus said that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us, He was not talking about positional forgiveness. He didn’t mean that if we don’t forgive someone who has wronged us, we would lose our salvation. Instead, He was speaking of what can be called relational forgiveness. Even though we are saved and have the legal right of being God’s children through adoption, when we sin it affects our fellowship and personal relationship with God.

When Jesus taught His disciples, in the Lord’s Prayer, to ask the Father to forgive them for their trespasses or debts, He was teaching them to repair any damage their daily sin had caused to their relationship with God. Our sins cause a breach in our personal relationship with God, similar to what occurs when a son knowingly and deeply offends his earthly father. Even though his legal position as son would remain the same and the father’s love toward the child may be unchanged, the relationship between father and son would suffer some damage and would need repair or restoration.

When Jesus said that God won’t forgive our trespasses if we don’t forgive those who trespass against us, He was saying that God’s response to us is connected to how we treat others. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are specifically asking God to forgive us in the same manner as we forgive others. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[2] We are praying that God will treat us in our sins as we have treated others in theirs. We are meant to then put feet to our prayers and actively forgive others, which positively affects God’s treatment of us.

Sin has an effect on our relationship to God, so it is important to not only forgive others who sin against us, but also to confess our sins to God and ask for His forgiveness on a regular basis. Doing so helps us maintain a right relationship with Him.

The Bible sometimes depicts our relationship with God with language expressing nearness or distance. He is “near” us, or His presence is “with us” when we have a right relationship with Him; and He “departs” from us or is “distant” from us when we distance ourselves from Him through sin.

James 4:8 expresses it in the positive:

“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (ESV).


Then there are scriptures about how we create distance:

“Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.”[3]

“The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”[4]

To understand how relational forgiveness works, it might be helpful to think in terms of the relationships you have with others—your spouse or significant other, your close friends, your siblings, your parents, or your children. If you have a big argument or major disagreement with one of them, or if one of you has offended another or has deeply hurt the other in some way, then there is a distance between you. Even if you are still in physical proximity, there is a separation between you emotionally and spiritually. This separation disappears once something is done to repair the relationship, and generally when it’s repaired, the close connection is present once again. However, if the breach is not repaired, then the distance remains and can even increase.

When we sin, we commit an offense against God; we are distancing ourselves from Him, and this hurts our relationship with Him. Like with a friend or a spouse, something needs to be done in order to fix the relationship, and that something is us confessing our sin to Him and asking for His forgiveness, along with working to change our behavior and not continuing to do the same thing that displeased Him. If you have done something to hurt someone you love and you want to make amends, then you generally have to go to that person and say that you were wrong and you are sorry, and ask forgiveness—and try not to do it again. It’s that way with God as well. When we confess, we are forgiven, and the distance between us dissipates. That’s how we repair our relationship with Him when we’ve damaged it with sin.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[5]

But it’s also important to remember what Jesus said about forgiving others:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”[6]

The “nearness” or “distance” of our relationship with God is affected by how we forgive or don’t forgive others. So if someone has offended you, forgive them—no matter what their attitude or whether they continue to transgress against you. Forgiveness benefits both your relationship with others and your relationship with God.

It’s wise to forgive. It’s loving. It’s Christlike. God’s nature is loving, and forgiveness is part of His love. He gave His only Son for the forgiveness of our sins, and Jesus gave His life so that we could be forgiven. If you forgive others, which is an act of love on your part, then you are reflecting God; you are being like Jesus.—And that’s a good thing to be.

To close, here is a beautiful example of a prayer of confession and petition to God for forgiveness, prayed by a man who committed horrible sins, who repented, and whom God called a man after His own heart … King David of old:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.[7]

[1] Matthew 6:14–15 ESV.

[2] Matthew 6:12 ESV.

[3] Isaiah 59:2 ESV.

[4] Proverbs 15:29 ESV.

[5] 1 John 1:9 ESV.

[6] Matthew 6:14–15 ESV.

[7] Psalm 51:1–17 ESV.


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