It’s an understandable question: If we’re justified by faith and forgiven all our sins—past, present, and future—then why is it necessary to continue seeking forgiveness?
Aren’t our sins already forgiven?
Both Saint and Sinner
There are at least three biblical truths that must be kept together simultaneously.
First, for those who have repented of sin and trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior, God declares them right before him on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and substitutionary death (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:1; 8:1, 30, 33–34). As a declarative act of God and not a process by which we are infused with righteousness, justification takes place in the believer once for all time (Rom. 5:12–21; Phil. 3:8–9; 2 Cor. 5:19–21).
Although everyone will stand before Christ’s judgment seat and hear the public verdict of whether or not we are in him (2 Cor. 5:10), for believers this end-time verdict has now been brought into the present. We have already crossed from death to life (John 5:24; Rom. 8:1). Justification once received cannot be lost.
Second, God commands us to confess our sins as we sin (1 John 1:9). This command not only applies to our initial justification, but, as the context of 1 John makes clear, confession is ongoing for Christians:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves if we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar . . . but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 John 1:8–10).
Third, God not only commands us to confess our sins, but also promises to forgive us in the future and, in a real sense, hinges our forgiveness on whether we forgive others, after we have presumably been justified (Matt. 6:14; 18:15–35; 1 John 1:9; James 5:15).
But how do we make theological sense of these truths without minimizing any of them? Here are three reflections.
First, from God’s viewpoint there is no problem with saying that when he declares us just, he forgives our future sins—as well as our past and present sins—since our future lies before him as an open book. Yet from our point of view, it’s best to think of our justification as the forgiveness of all our past and present sins, and as the judicial ground for the forgiveness of future sins.
As we live our lives and unfortunately sin, we need to return to God in repentance and faith and seek his forgiveness. Yet we do so on the basis of Christ’s work applied to us in our justification. Such an experience is not a new justification but a renewed application of our justification.
When we sin, we lose our consciousness of forgiveness and our sense of peace with God. So when we confess our sins, by the work of the Spirit, we are reawakened to what Christ has done for us, and God revives our security in him and assurance of our salvation. Believers, then, continue to pray daily for forgiveness—not with the despair of one who thinks he is lost, but in the confidence of justified and adopted children approaching a heavenly Father who has declared them just in Jesus Christ.
When we confess sin, we are not experiencing a new justification but a renewed application of our justification.
Second, this issue illustrates the importance of time and history. In our justification by grace through faith in Christ’s all-sufficient work, our past, present, and future sins are fully forgiven and paid for—and yet history is important. In a similar way, although God elects a people for himself before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-6) and it’s certain that they will be justified in Christ, the plan of salvation must still unfold in space and time. Christ must take on our humanity, live his life for us, and die and be raised on our behalf.
In addition, for Christ’s work to be applied to us, the elect must come to exist, hear the gospel, and be brought to saving faith. Although God’s plan is from eternity, it’s effected in time. As temporal creatures, God applies Christ’s work to us by the Spirit in time.
Third, we live in covenant relationship with our triune God. In history, we are brought to saving faith in Christ and enter into a covenant relationship with him. In that relationship—until our glorification—we will still sin, and God, as the triune-personal God, is displeased with our sin. This requires repenting and seeking forgiveness on an ongoing basis. As we confess our sin, God forgives us on the basis of Christ alone.
We are always complete in Christ, yet we are also in real relationship with God. By analogy, in human relationships we know something of this truth. As a parent, I am in relationship with my five children. Because they are my family, they will never be cast out; the relationship is permanent. Yet if they sin against me, or I against them, our relationship is strained and needs to be restored. Our covenant relationship with God works in a similar way.
We ask God to forgive us not to be re-justified but to walk before him in confidence that Christ has paid it all.
This is how we can make sense of our full justification in Christ and Scripture’s teaching that we need ongoing forgiveness. In asking God to forgive us, we add nothing to Christ’s perfect work. Instead, we are reapplying what Christ has done for us as our covenant head and Redeemer.
There is absolutely no contradiction between justification by grace through faith and our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin. We ask God to forgive us not to be re-justified but to walk before him in confidence that Christ has paid it all, and we are debtors to grace alone. Justification occurs once for all time, yet confessing sin and receiving forgiveness is ongoing until we are glorified and sin no more.