Has God already forgiven our future sins? In other words, are Christians forgiven of their past, present and future sins? It is asked: When did Jesus take our sins upon Himself? At the cross, of course. How many sins had we committed at that time? None of them; they were all future sins at that time because you and I had not yet been born. All of our sins had not yet been committed when Jesus bore our sins on the cross. Therefore, it is argued that God has forgiven us of our past, present and future sins.
Their argument goes something like this: From the standpoint of the cross, all of the sins that we committed had not yet taken place. Thus, Jesus forgave us for all of our sins that we would ever commit because all sin was future from the time of the cross. It doesn’t matter if your sins were committed in the past, present or future from your perspective because they were all future at the time of the cross and covered by the blood of Jesus. Is this true?
What would happen if the President of the United States released every criminal from prison and promised to pardon all their past, present and future crimes? There would be total chaos and unbridled immorality. Unfortunately, this is the state of many churches today which look no different than the world because they have been poisoned with the false teaching of unconditional eternal security. What does the Bible say about this?
The Scripture does say: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Colossians 2:13). While the text does say “forgiven all your trespasses”, what is meant by that? It does not say past, present and future trespasses. The very same verse says that we were dead in our trespasses. Even though Jesus died for our sins, and all of our sins were yet future, we were at one time children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). If God forgave us of all of our future sins, why did God relate to us as children of wrath? What changed? How does a person transition from being dead in trespasses and a child of wrath to being forgiven of all trespasses? Is it really true or biblical that God has forgiven us of a lifetime of sins before they were even committed? Consider the verse following Colossians 2:13, part of the same sentence:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)
“Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us” speaks of past sins. When Colossians 2:13 says, “having forgiven you all trespasses” I believe Paul was speaking about all our trespasses which we had already committed prior to repentance and baptism. Their future sins had not yet been committed and didn’t even happen yet, nor should they ever happen. The debt we owed was the sins we had already committed. Other verses indicate that our previous sins were forgiven, not our future sins. For instance, Romans 3:25 says, “God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.”
Although all of our sins were future at the time Christ died, we were not forgiven of any of them until we personally repented of our sins. Jesus died for our sins, but the transaction of forgiveness takes place at a different time. The fact that the debt of our sins has been paid does not mean that forgiveness is already transacted. Otherwise we would not be alienated from the life of God (Colossians 1:21), dead in our sins (Colossians 2:13), and by nature objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:1-2) before we knew Christ. Even though Jesus died for our sins, our sins were still counted against us. There was something required on our part, in our relationship with God, that needed to happen in order to receive forgiveness and be converted. There is a difference between forgiveness and fellowship. Although Jesus had already died for our sins, forgiveness must be appropriated through repentance and faith.
Forgiveness Received Through Repentance and Faith
Peter the Apostle makes it clear that forgiveness is received through repentance. In his sermon at Pentecost, Pater said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. Repentance and baptism was required for remission of sins. Preaching at Solomon’s Porch, Peter said, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before” (Acts 3:19). Again, repentance and conversion is required in order for sins to be blotted out. Which sins? The sins they had committed until that point.
Speaking of unbelievers in Israel, Jesus said, “Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them” (Mark 4:12). God has forgiven our sins, but we have to receive that forgiveness. The Lord Jesus said to Paul at his conversion, “I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:17,18). God had already forgiven the Gentiles in Christ, but they had to receive the forgiveness of sins through repentance.
The remission of sins was made available through Christ’s blood, but our sins are not remitted until we come to Christ. We cannot repent for future sins and thus future sins are not covered by the blood. It would be unreasonable for a wife to tell her husband that she repents in advanced for committing adultery on him and expect him to also forgive her in advanced. That is not how relationships should function. Salvation is an ongoing process or obedient faith relationship, not an instantaneous forgiveness of all the sins we have committed, are committing, or will commit.
In the New Covenant, our forgiveness is dependent upon our continual repentance, our ongoing confession of sins and our forgiving others. In other words, the forgiveness of sins is conditional. In his first epistle, the Apostle John provides Christians the following conditions for God’s forgiveness: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9); “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). What is walking in the light? Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). Walking in the light is following what Christ taught.
Did the Apostles Believe God Forgives Us of Future Sins?
If God has forgiven our future sins, then why do the apostles address these very sins in their epistles, warning about the dangers of walking in those sins? In the book of Acts, we read of Simon the Sorcerer’s profession of faith. Simon believed what Phillip preached concerning the kingdom of God and was baptized (Acts 8:12-13). Later we read the following account:
And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.”
Then Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me.” (Acts 8:18-24)
Simon, a baptized believer, was told by the Apostle Peter to pray for God to forgive him. Obviously Peter didn’t believe that our present and future sins have already been forgiven. Repentance was required for Simon to be forgiven of his present sin.
Moreover, there are a few passages in James’ epistle which indicate that forgiveness does not include our future sins. In order to obtain forgiveness after our conversion, we must abide in holiness and continual repentance in order to remain forgiven. First of all, the Apostle James said:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15)
If this person’s sins were already forgiven, then why does God need to forgive his present sins? James is not teaching that God will inevitably heal the believer from their sickness if they have enough faith. He says to call for the elders of the church to pray over the sick person. It’s possible that these present sins are related to this Christian’s sickness. Elsewhere, Paul said that whoever eats and drinks of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner “eats and drinks judgment to himself,” and for this reason, “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Thus, in some cases (but not all), these illnesses are directly related to a believer’s sins. Once again, this reality is hard to imagine if God has forgiven all of our future sins at conversion. Certainly James believed in supernatural healing if it was God’s will, but this passage does not guarantee physical healing. There are cases within the New Testament where sick people (even the Apostle Paul) were not healed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:20). James does not say that the sick person will be “healed” but “saved” and “raised up.” The Greek word ἐγείρω (egeirō) translated “raise up” is used in the New Testament with reference to healing, but more often with reference to resurrections. If the passage in James refers to healing, it would be the only time the word is used in the epistles with regard to healing. Since the subject of confessing sins and forgiveness of sins is mentioned in close proximity (James 5:15,16), these instructions are probably addressing what the church should do for sick people who are facing death in order to prepare them for judgement and resurrection. This brings us to the next relevant verse in James’ epistle:
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16)
Why are we confessing our sins one to another if God has already forgiven them? Once again, James did not believe in the unconditional forgiveness of sins committed after baptism. Finally, James says:
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
Clearly, James is addressing “brethren” or Christians, and he said if anyone “among you” Christians wanders from the truth thereby indicating that a Christian can indeed wander off by sinning. At that point, this believer is called a “sinner.” Obviously, we are not forgiven of our future sins at the time we are saved because this “sinner” who wandered from the truth has committed a “multitude” of new sins that now need to be covered. But those multitude of sins are only covered if this person turns back and repents.
The Apostle Peter wrote:
But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9)
Peter described a backslidden Christian whose past sins were cleansed, but now they are blind. Their present and future sins will not be forgiven and cleansed unless they repent.
Not a single verse in the New Testament pronounces us already forgiven of sins we have not yet committed. Even the Old Testament says, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy”(Proverbs 28:13).
Another chapter of Scripture quoted by those who advocate the forgiveness of future sins is Hebrews 10. The author of Hebrews tells us how animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant were insufficient to have “no more consciousness of sins” (Hebrews 10:2) or to “take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4,11). In contrast, we have been “sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). It is emphasized that Jesus, “after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). This culminates with a quotation of Jeremiah 31:34, a prophecy about the New Covenant, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17). The point of all of this is that “there is no longer an offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). However, the author is not saying that God has forgiven our future sins. The author is contrasting the Old Covenant sacrifices with Christ’s death which perfects those who are sanctified. In other words, no more sacrifice is required to take away sin. Moreover, the author then gives a strong warning to the very same believers who are addressed throughout the epistle. He warns:
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
No honest reader can escape the context of this warning being directed to believers. In verses 16-17 of the same chapter are the promises of the New Covenant which are clearly intended for believers. In the verse immediately following the warning, the author says to “recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated” (Hebrews 10:32). φωτίζω (phōtizō) is the Greek word for “illuminated” used elsewhere to speak of Christians “being enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18). The warning itself is given to those who “have received the knowledge of the truth” and been “sanctified” by the blood of the covenant. Translated “sanctified” the Greek word ἁγιάζω (hagiazō) is never used to speak of unbelievers, with the exception an unbeliever being “sanctified” by a believing spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:14. On the contrary, the word is used to describe Christians (See John 17:17,19; Acts 20:32; 26:18; Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 6:11; Ephesians 5:26; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Timothy 2:21; Hebrews 2:11; 10:10,14,29; 13:12; Jude 1:1). Our past sins have been forgiven but there is no more sacrifice for sins while we are deliberately sinning. For those who continue in willful sin and justify it, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins. Why? Because they are unrepentant. Forgiveness of sins is received through repentance. So long as a person is continuing in unrepentant willful sins, regardless of their belief in Christ, there remains no more sacrifice for sins, but judgment, fiery indignation, and worse punishment than the civil laws of the Old Testament.
Forgive To Be Forgiven
Another condition for abiding in God’s forgiveness is continually forgiving others. We must forgive to be forgiven. Jesus spoke about being forgiven on an ongoing basis, not that God forgave all of our sins, past present and future. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:3,4; cf. Matthew 6:12). Our forgiveness is conditioned upon our forgiving others who sin against us. Jesus also taught:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses. (Mark 11:25)
Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
Jesus made it very clear that if Christians do not forgive, then God will not forgive them. He preached conditional forgiveness; forgive to be forgiven. Jesus practiced this Himself. When He was being crucified, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Following Jesus’ example, the martyr Stephen, when he was being stoned, knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60).
Note what Jesus said in the parable of the unforgiving servant. First of all, Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Jesus responded:
I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses. (Matthew 18:22-35)
Just like the certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants, God forgave our sins. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Our sins were forgiven at the cross, but we need to receive that forgiveness through repentance. In the parable, the servant had already been forgiven, but he was delivered to the tormenters because he did not forgive his brother. Being delivered to the tormenters cannot possibly be the fate a saved person. Jesus said to his disciples (not to unbelievers), “So My heavenly Father will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:35). This servant’s past sins were forgiven but the forgiveness of his future sins was conditioned upon his forgiving others. When a forgiven Christian does not forgive his brother, God’s forgiveness will be revoked and the penalty will be reinstated. If you refuse to forgive others, even though you have already been forgiven by God, then you won’t be forgiven after all.
Some commentators skirt around this ongoing condition of forgive to be forgiven. They say that after the cross, it is no longer necessary to forgive others. Yet the apostles all wrote their epistles after the event of the cross, and still forgiveness is imperative for Christian living. Consider Paul’s words to the churches: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32); “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Colossians 3:12-13).
If He Repents, Forgive Him
It is established above that Christians should be indiscriminate in forgiving others (Matthew 6:12; 18:21-35; Luke 11:3,4). If Christians do not forgive, they will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37). Now we should take a look at the verses people use to say that Christians are only required to forgive those who repent.
Like God, we must forgive everybody who sins against us. But in order for them to receive our forgiveness, repentance is required. This is why Jesus also told us,
Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him. (Luke 17:3,4)
Some people mistakenly focused on this passage of conditional forgiveness to the neglect of those passages which teach unconditional forgiveness. You need to forgive your brother even if he doesn’t repent, but he can only receive that forgiveness if he does repent. Likewise, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). These passages relate to church discipline. Jesus said,
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18)
Keep in mind in the same chapter Jesus instructed us to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22) and told the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35). But Matthew 18:15-18 tells us how to deal with a sinning brother in the context of church discipline, thus the last step of the process if unsuccessful is “tell the church.” We find an example of church discipline in Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. By the way, if a Christian’s present and future sins were forgiven then Paul would not have to confront the Corinthians about this man who had his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). But Paul said,
For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)
Paul instructed the Corinthians to put the offender outside of the church as a loving disciplinary action (1 Corinthians 5:13). The intention of church discipline is so that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” But this salvation is not guaranteed unless the sinner repents. Never is there forgiveness or salvation for the unrepentant. Paul makes clear that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:7-11). An excommunicated sinner delivered to Satan who can “destroy his flesh” sounds cruel and unusual, but it is actually intended as an act of mercy toward that sinner. The same expression is found in 1 Timothy 1:18-20:
This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20)
Paul exhorted Timothy to have faith. Hymenaeus and Alexander had the same faith which Paul exhorted Timothy to continue in but they rejected it. These men were “delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Being delivered to Satan cannot convey eternal security and suffering shipwreck is sure destruction. Hopefully the discipline brings about repentance so that their spirit will be saved. If church discipline is not practiced, then a message of false assurance is given to both the sinner and the congregation, that a person can live in unrepentant sin and still be saved. Paul was simply following the practice which Jesus commanded the church to follow in Matthew 18:15-20.
In this case, church discipline had the desired effect because the man who had his father’s wife repented and was restored to the church. In his second epistle, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to forgive the repentant offender who was previously put out of the church. Paul said, “You ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7). Although we must forgive everybody who sins against us on a personal level, immorality must be judged within the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). We are not to keep company or even eat with a professing Christian who is living in sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). Paul does not speak as one who believed in the forgiveness of present and future sins apart from continual repentance. He also wrote, “I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced” (2 Corinthians 12:21). Why would Paul mourn over unrepentant sinful behavior if it did not affect a person’s relationship with God? Once again, forgiveness is obtained through repentance.
So we should forgive unconditionally and continually. But there is a difference between forgiveness and fellowship. Just as God requires repentance in order to receive His forgiveness and remain in fellowship with Him, so repentance is required for Christians to remain in fellowship. Unforgivenness is ungodly and a sign of perilous times (Romans 1:28-31; 2 Timothy 3:1-5).