By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
Last Sunday the pastor preached on gossip. It found its mark and a wave of deep conviction washed over you. You realized the depth of your problem and worked to put things into your life to grow in this area. You promised that you’d never gossip again. Your morning devotion was on the same topic. Helpful and convicting. But then, over coffee with friends, you find yourself engaging in the very sin that you had sworn off only a few hours prior. Will God forgive you? Does God forgive sins you continue to repeat over and over and over again?
It is clear from Scripture that though we have a multitude of sins, and even if we keep returning to the same sin, we are washed through the blood of Jesus. This is the nature of salvation. You cannot out sin God’s mercy. Believing that you could somehow repeat a sin too many times that God would withhold forgiveness is a misunderstanding of how God’s forgiveness actually works.
How Does God's Forgiveness Work?
In Jeremiah 31, quoted in Hebrews 8, we read that part of the new covenant is that God will “forgive our wickedness” and “will remember our sins no more”. Think about what this means for a moment. For God to do this is not pointing to a momentary lapse of memory. It means that God is intentionally refusing to keep a record of our wrongs. He is throwing away the ledger.
What is forgiveness? I appreciate the definition given by Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane. Using Matthew 18 as a guide the authors explain forgiveness thus:
The metaphor of debt cancellation clearly defines the nature of forgiveness…when you forgive someone, you cancel a debt. But, more specifically, you make a conscious choice to absorb the cost yourself. You choose not to make the offender pay for the offense. (Tripp and Lane, Relationships, 95)
If the debt has been paid, then the debt has been paid. If you get yourself back into debt it does not mean that the prior debt is now tacked onto your new debt. When we read in 1 John 1:9 that Jesus is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” he means it. This is not a promise with an asterisk. When we confess our sin Jesus cleanses. Period.
It’s also important to understand the nature of salvation and our union with Christ. The language of debt can be helpful—but there is a way in which it can be prone to misunderstanding. We can think that the nature of sin and salvation is that each time we sin we get ourselves back into debt. (I even spoke that way previously in order to illustrate a point). And with each bit of debt, we imagine that we lose our status.
Imagine that each sin is akin to $5 worth of debt. (In reality, it is infinitely more because it is an offense against an infinite God, but hang with me). With each sin, we tally up a total. Then upon confession and repentance, our account goes back to zero. Jesus absorbs the debt for that day and then we are able to go on the next day with our debts paid. This analogy isn’t entirely wrong—but it fails to take into account the nature of our union with Christ.
Forgiveness isn’t only about debt cancellation. There is a relational component as well. I, quite sadly, sin against my wife. But my sin against her does not sever our union. When I repent and ask for forgiveness there is relational healing and reconciliation, but we do not need to plan a new wedding. It is the same way in our union with Christ. When we are united to Christ, we are united to him forever. Which means we are connected to all the blessings of Christ and it means that His record is forever ours. This analogy is close to what gave John Bunyan such peace. Bunyan was afraid that he had failed to properly repent. He was overtaken by his fear that he had committed the unpardonable sin and that he had trampled upon grace far too many times.
One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he lacks my righteousness, for that was just [in front of] him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today, and forever.�� . . .Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God [e.g., Hebrews 12:16-17] left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.
Bunyan came to realize that his union with Christ meant that his righteousness was firmly fixed in Christ. The same is true of our forgiveness. We always stand forgiven because we stand in Christ. This is why God continues to forgive the sins we continue to repeat. He forgives the repeating sins in the same way he forgives the past and the initial sins, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
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What Does it Mean to Truly Repent of Your Sins?
One caveat that I see frequently in a discussion such as this is that the person must “truly repent.” I find that language both helpful and elusive. It is elusive because “true repentance” is often woefully undefined. Does it mean that I am really deeply sincere in wanting to change? Does it mean that if I’m truly repentant then I will change? Such questions betray a simplistic view of humanity and our ongoing battle with sin. Yet, this statement does have some truth.
These are two different questions:
- Does God forgive sins you continue to repeat?
- Does God forgive sins you deliberately continue to repeat?
It would be beyond the scope of this article to answer that first question, but it is enough for now to note the difference between the two. There is a different biblical answer to both of them as well. And that little difference also helps us see the difference between “truly repenting” and not. To truly repent means to change your mind about a particular thing. It may not yet mean that your behavior catches up with your new opinion. But your view of that thing has changed.
Let’s go back to our earlier illustration of gossip. Imagine that before that sermon series you were uninformed and not deeply convicted about the sin of gossip. But when the Spirit opened your eyes to this sin, you had changed your mind about things. You now agreed with God in regards to gossip and you disagreed with yourself. Previously, you would have gossiped and written it off as “not that big of a deal”. You might have heard it was wrong, but you did not yet have true repentance. But then the Spirit did a work in your heart and now you have repented. Now when you engage in the sin of gossip you respond differently. You hate the sin—you agree with God that you’re guilty—and you run to God for forgiveness. And we know that we are met with grace and forgiveness.
If you deliberately sin, then it means that you do not yet agree with God about the odiousness of that particular sin. This means that repentance has not actually taken place. And that is a different article.
Does God Forgive Sins You Continue to Repeat?
It can be discouraging to keep battling the same types of sins over and over again. It can feel as if we are not making progress in our walk with Christ. And it can make us question whether or not God will get sick of us, or get tired of having to forgive us for the same thing over and over again. But be reminded of the nature of your relationship. What matters more than anything is your union with Christ. And a weak faith can lay hold of a strong Christ. He is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. Though grieved by sin, He delights to forgive. I’ve found these words from Spurgeon to be helpful:
“The bridge of grace will bear your weight, brother. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yea, tens of thousands have gone over it. Some have been the chief of sinners and some have come at the very last of their days but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them trusting to the same support. It will bear me over as it has for them.”
That bridge will bear your weight…no matter how many times you walk across it. His mercy his always greater than our sin.
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