Vol. 30 New Series November, 1968 No. 6
FORGIVENESS OF SINS

Under the influence of certain theories put out within the last century, some of us are inclined to shy like a startled horse at any reference to this subject. For certain minds it has a strange fascination which affects them to an extent out of all proportion to the references to it in Scripture.

The occurrences of the word aphesis, forgiveness or pardon, in connection with sins are ten in number, as Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 reduce to one, being parallel (see below): Matt. 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; 3:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Col. 1:14.

Three sets of the occurrences of the verb forgive, aphiEmi, applied to sins, are in accounts of the same event: Matt. 9:2-6;. Mark 2:5-10 and Luke 5:20-24, eleven times in all. Matt. 12:31 and Mark 3:29 form a duplicate, too. The remainder are Luke 7:47, 48, 49; 11:4; John 20:23; James 5:15; 1. John 1:9; 2:12. The number of distinct passages in which the word occurs is therefore not great.

The triplicate account is of the healing of the paralytic, and announces the authority of the Son of Mankind on earth to forgive sins. Matt. 12:21 and Mark 3:29 refer to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Luke 7:47-49 is in the account of the washing of the feet of the Lord Jesus by the woman who was a sinner. Luke 11:4 is in his account of "the Lord's prayer." John 20:23 is an account of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the disciples from the Lord Jesus and His commissioning them to forgive sins. All these are strictly in connection only with the ministry of the Lord Jesus. The same applies to the occurrences of forgiveness or pardon, aphesis, in connection with sins. Apart from all these, not many remain. Peter's first proclamation was for pardon of Israel's sins (Acts 2:38). This he repeats in 5:31 and 10:43, and Paul in 13:38. It is part of Paul's commission by the Lord Jesus (26:18) and we find Col. 1:14. All these in turn are confirmed by 1. John 1:9; 2:12. Lastly, in James 5:15 is the special direction to the Twelve Tribes, those in the dispersion.

Perusal of all these will show that they can hardly be described as obscure or complicated in any way; so it is extraordinary what a web of complication, sometimes verging on sophistry, has been woven around them. Even 1. John 1:9 has not been spared; for one writer drags the circumcision evangel into it with what he supposes is a "probational pardon" specifically excluding "justification." Yet what the passage actually says of God's Son, Jesus Christ is that "He is faithful and righteous that He may be forgiving us our sins and should be cleansing us from every unrighteousness," thus flatly contradicting the fancies of the commentator. Paul's first announcement to "Israelites and those fearing God" is entirely in line with those words of John. Through "this One," the risen Lord, is being announced to them forgiveness of sins; together with the further and vitally important disclosure that "in this One, everyone who is believing is achieving righteousness" (Acts 13:38, 39). This last is the subject of the first four chapters of Romans. What more could we desire? And, indeed, what could be simpler and clearer? All we have to do is believe it. Yes! And yet how few do!

Nevertheless, just as a sparkling mountain spring can be sullied with a handful of mud or dung; the beautiful clarity of all this, which is the source of Paul's Evangel, can somehow be made opaque. This feat was accomplished by one writer in a short Note to Acts 13:38. It is worth reproducing entire as an outstanding example. In addition, I have indicated the points of departure from Scripture by numbering them in order to facilitate reference. It reads:

Before going into this, there are two things that ought to be said. First, the original from which the Note just quoted plainly was compiled was discussed in "Law and the Law," Part 4. This very much more thorough examination is being made here because the whole thing would have been too great a digression at the time. Second, I would like to emphasize that the severity of the criticism is directed at least as much against myself as those responsible for the quotation. When I first appreciated its enormity I felt bitterly ashamed of myself! For years I had gone on accepting it as truth and never taken the trouble to test it by God's Word. The fact that its writer and his friends had done precisely the same merely puts us both in the dock; but I am the worse of the two because I should have known better. Among us there is a most unhealthy fear of criticism. It is thought to be unchristian and unloving. Yet for such critical search of the Scriptures the Bereans were described as "more noble." Why, then, are those who "examine the Scriptures daily, if these things be so" (Acts 17:11) be commonly regarded as little better than criminals?

To resume, taking the nine points indicated above in order: (1) It is entirely untrue that "justification" means "acquittal." The C.V. Concordance says it does, but offers no evidence; and the 1930 C.V., with which it was published, does not use the words acquit or acquittal at all, and justification only once, Rom. 4:25, which was later corrected. If there were any substance at all in this idea, we ought to be able generally to substitute "acquit" for "justify," as the C.V. Concordance permits. And why not "acquitted" for "just," etc.?

(2) In what way this passage is "below," let alone "far below," is not explained. This is not surprising. Such assertions are more easily made than proved. But why make them?

(3) The way "justification" is associated with "the law" in Acts 13:38, 39 is exactly the same way as it is associated with law in Rom. 3:19-28; 4:13-15; and in Galatians. The "association" with Moses' Law is, in fact, a plain statement that it could not make anyone righteous. So why write in such a manner as to seem to mean otherwise?

(4) Paul did not announce any kingdom in this speech. He is not recorded as uttering the word "kingdom" till Acts 14:22.

(5) "But a temporary respite!" This needs only to be quoted to be dismissed with contempt. The first occurrence of aphiEmi where it can properly be rendered forgive is in Matt. 6:12-15. Can anyone seriously maintain that what the Lord Jesus had in mind here was no more than a temporary respite?

(6) In support of this alleged possible forfeiture, Matt. 18:23-35 is cited. The subject of this parable is settling accounts. One loan is remitted, but the slave who is advantaged thereby does not behave similarly to another slave who is indebted to him, so the remission of his debt is cancelled. Clearly, in this parable the implication is that the remission is conditional in the same way as it is in "the Lord's Prayer" (Matt. 6:12): "And forgive us our debts as we forgive those of our debtors." This conditional element is very clear in vv. 14, 15: "For if you should be forgiving men their offences or, better, "fallings aside," your heavenly Father also will be forgiving you. Yet if you should not be forgiving men their offences, neither will your Father be forgiving your offences." Matt. 18:23-35 is an amplification of this truth. The context in which all this is true is thus clearly defined. We have no right to extend it to where forgiveness is unconditional.

(7) Strangely enough as regards this matter, we are told nothing in Acts about anyone being forgiven. The five occurrences of aphEsis are Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38, 39; 26:18. The first is: "Repent and be baptized. . . . into the forgiveness of your sins." The second is about the exaltation of the Saviour by God" to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." The third is of the utmost importance: "To this all the Prophets are testifying, that every one believing into Him, forgiveness of sins is to be obtaining through His name." The fourth has been discussed elsewhere: "Let it be knowable to you, then, men, brethren, that through this One, to you, forgiveness of sins is being announced; and from all from which you were not enabled in Moses' Law to be put right (or, made righteous) in this One everyone who is believing is achieving righteousness." The fifth is the commission to Paul by the Lord Jesus to turn Israel and the Gentiles about "from darkness into light and (from) the authority of Satan to God, for them to get forgiveness of sins. . ."

In each, forgiveness is something to be attained, and there is no hint of it being conditional or liable to be withdrawn. The verb aphiEmi occurs in Acts only twice (8:22; 14:17), to which the same applies.

(8) Nowhere in Acts is there anything to suggest that those who had been forgiven had refused to forgive the Gentiles.

(9) Neither is there anything in Acts about such forgiveness being revoked; nor any hint of what the Pentecostal believers from Israel and Judah were (by this theory) required to forgive the Gentiles for. To justify at all any withdrawal of forgiveness; from the Pentecostal believers would require evidence that, though forgiven themselves, they had refused to extend forgiveness to the Gentiles for the same offence. There is no trace of such an idea anywhere.

To conclude: what place is there for forgiveness in Paul's teaching for ourselves in particular? In addition to Peter's words in Acts 10:43 and Paul's in 26:18, discussed above, very little—only Rom. 4:7; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14. The first is plain enough. The man to whom God is reckoning righteousness apart from works has his lawlessness forgiven and his sins covered over. The second discloses that our fallings aside, offences, are forgiven, and the third that our sins are. That is, or should be ample for any reasonable person.

Yet one writer, greatly daring, has had the audacity to assert that the "pardon" of sins in Col. 1:14 is only figurative! A thinner excuse for open unbelief would be hard to find anywhere. How on earth can he know this when Scripture itself gives no evidence that way? It is a most barefaced imposition of man's conceit on God's Word. Another outstanding example of open unbelief is in a Note on Eph. 1:7: "'Pardon' of sins becomes forgiveness when associated with offences." Whoever would imagine from this effusion that pardon and forgiveness represent the same Greek word in the version used by this annotator? Possibly, this is an even worse example, because it is hard to believe that its author did not know better.

Actually, it would be very strange indeed if those who had been made righteous or put right still remained unforgiven sinners with lawlessnesses and fallings aside not forgiven or not pardoned. How could anyone possibly be right or righteous with such things still lying behind him unforgiven.

R.B.W. Last updated 19.5.2006