By Peter Amsterdam
October 18, 2016
In Holiness parts 1–3 we’ve seen that God is the standard of goodness and holiness. He has revealed His moral will through the Bible, and His will as presented through Scripture is an expression of His character. If we desire to be more like Jesus, we will aim to live in a way which expresses God’s character. This means making a conscious effort to align our thoughts, desires, attitudes, and actions with godliness and with the guidance provided through Scripture.
When we inwardly or outwardly contravene God’s moral will, we sin. Unfortunately, as fallen human beings we do this on a fairly regular basis; and when we do, our sin affects our relationship with our loving Creator. Of course, through Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, our sins have been forgiven; but that doesn’t mean sin doesn’t affect us. Salvation has brought us into God’s family as His adopted children, and being adopted into His family gives us, in a sense, a legal or judicial right to be permanent members of His family and enter heaven. But having a legal right to call God our Father isn’t the full extent of our relationship with Him.
Through Jesus’ atonement for our sins, we have judicial forgiveness. Salvation has brought us freedom from eternal condemnation for our sins. But there is another aspect of forgiveness, which can be called relational or parental forgiveness. God isn’t only our Father legally, but also relationally. So when we sin, while it doesn’t change our legal standing with God, it does change our relationship with Him. Author John F. MacArthur1 explains the concept of God’s parental forgiveness:
[God] is grieved when His children sin. The forgiveness of justification takes care of judicial guilt, but it does not nullify His fatherly displeasure over your sin. He chastens those whom He loves, for their good (Hebrews 12:5–11). Let me show you the difference:
—Judicial forgiveness deals with sin’s penalty. Parental forgiveness deals with sin’s consequences.
—Judicial forgiveness frees us from the condemnation of the righteous, omniscient Judge whom we have wronged. Parental forgiveness sets things right with a grieving and displeased but loving Father.
—Judicial forgiveness provides an unshakeable standing before the throne of divine judgment. Parental forgiveness deals with the state of our sanctification at any given moment and is dispensed from a throne of divine grace. So the forgiveness Christians are supposed to seek in their daily walk is not pardon from an angry Judge, but mercy from a grieved Father.
While our sins (past, present, and future) are forgiven, and we have eternal life, we are still called to confess and ask our Father to forgive our sins. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.2 Parental forgiveness is referred to here. When we confess our sins to the Lord and ask for forgiveness, we repair the damage sin has done to our relationship with Him.
Our desire to be more like Jesus calls for us to both avoid sin (going against God’s moral will) as well as to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness when we do sin. It’s part of our spiritual growth, part of sanctification. The Greek word translated as confess, homologeō, has a few meanings, the first one being “To say the same thing as another, to agree with, to assent.” When we confess our sins to the Lord, we are in essence agreeing with what God says about our sins; we are acknowledging that we have in some manner (through thoughts, desires, attitudes, or actions) acted against His moral will. We are agreeing that we are wrong, we are at fault, and have sinned against Him. All sin is ultimately against Him. This doesn’t mean that our sins aren’t sometimes committed against others and don’t cause them damage—often this is the case—however, ultimately God is the offended party.
He is complete goodness, love, and holiness; so when we sin, we cause a breach in our relationship with Him, and like any earthly parent, He is hurt by this offense. We get a sense of this from the account of the sin of those before the flood as expressed in Genesis 6:5–6:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Other Bible translations render that last phrase as his heart was filled with pain (NIV), or it broke his heart (NLT).
Our sins drive a wedge between us and our Father.
It is easy to develop an attitude that sin doesn’t matter so much, since we have salvation and our sins are already forgiven, but such an attitude shows a lack of understanding of what the Bible teaches about sin and its effects. Scripture tells us that sin is an offense to God, including the sin of a Christian. Being judicially forgiven is a wonderful gift of God; but as believers, we are in relationship with Him, a relationship which suffers damage when we sin. While our sins are forgiven, there can still be consequences in our lives or in the lives of others due to our sin.
As pursuers of Christlikeness, those seeking for holiness, we must face the fact of sin in our lives and respond to it appropriately. God has given us a conscience, the inborn ability to discern the difference between right and wrong, which helps us judge whether or not an act we have planned or have already carried out is moral. As Christians, we fine-tune our conscience as we align it with God’s moral will, when we agree with what God has revealed in Scripture about what is right and wrong, what is godly, what actions reflect His nature and being. We are called to follow our Scripture-informed conscience, to avoid sin, in order to remain in close relationship with our Father.
Because we are human, we will sin; but because we are Christians, we are to put effort into not damaging our relationship with God by doing our best not to sin. We’re told to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.3
Of course, no matter how much we try not to sin, we do. And when we do, if we have the right understanding of sin, we feel guilt and sorrow. We damage our relationship with God, and in order to repair that relationship, we are called to confess our sins. As mentioned earlier, confessing our sin is agreeing that we have acted against God’s moral will; and while that’s a first step, we must also be sorry, or have contrition, for the sins we confess. Contrition is owning up to our actions, acknowledging they were wrong, having an aversion to the sin, and being sorry for sinning.
Besides confessing and having contrition, another element of repairing the damage caused by our sins is repentance—change of attitude, turning away and going the opposite direction. Repentance calls for change in our behavior, a commitment to stop committing the sins we have been committing. This isn’t easy, especially when we have made a habit of some sins or have accepted some sinful behavior as part of our personality, such as impatience, lack of self-control, being judgmental, anger, selfishness, pride, anxiety, sins of the tongue, addictions, etc. It can be a struggle to accept that because Scripture calls these things sins, they damage our relationship with God, and they are to be confessed, and we are expected to change, to stop doing them by God’s grace. All of us have sins which have become habitual, so much so that we hardly consider them sins. The problem is that regardless of our perception of them, they are.
If we want to be more like Jesus, then we have to face our sins. We can’t simply look at them as personality traits or excuse them as “this is the way I am, I can’t change”; nor can we justify sinning by thinking, “this is just a small sin, so it doesn’t matter much.” Part of Christlikeness is accepting what Scripture says is sin, recognizing our sins, confessing our sins, and crying out to the Lord for His help to overcome them. We may not be able to focus on all of our sins at once, especially if they have become habitual, but we can admit we have them, regularly ask God’s forgiveness, and make a conscious effort and commitment to overcome them.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.4
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 John F. MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998).
2 1 John 1:9.
3 Ephesians 4:22–24.
4 Philippians 4:13 NKJ.