When you sin against someone, your relationship with that person comes under strain. There’s this Thing that comes between the two of you. To be reconciled you need to deal with the Thing.
Jesus said if you are bringing your gift to the altar and you remember your brother has some Thing against you, go and deal with that Thing (Matt 5:23). He also said if your brother sins against you seven times in a day and seven times says, “I repent,” forgive him. “Send that Thing away” (see Luke 17:4).
You knew that already, right?
But here’s the thing. God is not like you or me. He doesn’t wait for you to act before he does his thing with your Thing. That Thing that was between you and him – your sin – he’s already dealt with it. He has already forgiven you. To forgive literally means to send away, and on the cross the your sins and my sins were sent away.
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psa 103:12)
The Thing is not the thing
So what in the wide world of sports was John thinking when he wrote: “If you confess your sins, God will forgive you” (1 John 1:9). Technically, this is just not true. God won’t forgive you because he has already forgiven you. God doesn’t judge the same sin twice and at the cross he judged all sin. Jesus will only die once and he did that already. No further sacrifice for sins remains.
You may think that God is angry with you on account of your sin – your Thing – but the gospel says, God is no longer counting your sins against you. As far as God is concerned the Thing is not the thing anymore.
So why does John say that God will forgive our sins as though it was something he hadn’t already done?
In a recent article on 1 John 1:9, we saw that John was quoting an Old Testament scripture to illuminate a New Testament truth. In that post we looked at the word “confess” but today I want to look at the word “forgive” because John’s choice of words is rather strange.
John describes forgiveness as a verb (aphiemi in Greek) when all the other New Testament writers tend to describe it as a noun (aphesis). This puzzle prompted me to do some counting and here’s what I found: prior to the cross, God’s forgiveness is almost always described as a verb. After the cross it is almost always a noun.
Do you see the significance of this?
Prior to the cross God related to the Israelites on the basis of the law-keeping covenant. “If you do A, B, and C, then I will forgive your sins and heal your land, etc.” This is called conditional forgiveness and it’s what Jesus preached prior to the cross: “If you forgive others, God will forgive you.” It’s an eye for an eye and a verb for a verb.
New covenant nouns
But after the cross, everything changed. The law was fulfilled, grace was revealed and verbs became nouns. Forgiveness was no longer conditional on you doing A, B, and C. Forgiveness became a free gift paid for by the blood of the Lamb. The Risen Lord was the first to announce this:
He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness (aphesis – a noun) of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47)
Now just take a moment to go and check that passage in your own Bible. What does it say? Does it read “repentance for forgiveness” or “repentance and forgiveness”? The difference is huge. Repentance for forgiveness is what John the Baptist preached prior to the cross. It’s forgiveness conditional on you turning from sin. It’s a verb for a verb.
But that’s is not what Jesus said after the cross. In Luke 24 Jesus says, “From now on, forgiveness is a noun. Forgiveness is not something God does, it’s something he’s done.”
This becomes clear when we read the verse in the King James: “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations.”
Forgiveness that has taken place is called remission. When were all our sins remitted? On the cross (see Mt 26:28 and Heb 9:22). This is what Jesus said we should preach – nouns, not verbs; gifts, not works.
Forgiveness is not something to sell but something to give
Jesus said the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name and that’s exactly what Peter (see Acts 5:31), Paul (see Acts 13:38), and the other apostles did. They proclaimed the good news of forgiveness – forgiveness as a noun, forgiveness as a done-deal – and invited people to believe in it. They encouraged people to receive the gift paid for by Jesus.
But John didn’t.
He said, If you confess, God will forgive. John went with the old verb instead of the new covenant noun. Why? Was he not in the room when Jesus made his Luke 24 announcement? Did he not get the memo that a new and better covenant was in town and that God’s forgiveness has been lavished upon us according to the riches of his grace?
No, John uses the old verb for the same reason Paul does in Romans 4:7-8 – they were both quoting Old Testament scripture. Indeed, they were both quoting the same Old Testament scripture – Psalm 32. And that’s as good a place as any for us to finish:
Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. (Ps 32:1, GNB)
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