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.
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.