Forgiving Each Other with God’s Immanence and Transcendence: A Corporate Call for Doctrine (Part Two)

Forgiving Each Other with God’s Immanence and Transcendence: A Corporate Call for Doctrine (Part Two)

Written by J. Lance Acree |
Monday, April 17, 2023

Forgiveness is an act of worship in which a believer, acting as an authorized imperial agent, formally invokes the profound, transcendent goodness and immanence of God, beginning with His perfect justice—either on the cross for the elect, or in the future for those passed by.  Forgiveness is practiced without waiting for any particular emotional state on the part of the victim, nor for any action on the part of the perpetrator.  Our profoundly broken hearts learn forgiving: by meditation, on God’s sovereign immanence in this angry moment, on His justice and on His relentless agenda of transcendent good for His own; and by practice, choosing to verbally invoke His actions in His name.

Should the Christian community overcome its current confusion by developing and adopting a Biblical explanation of forgiving each other, this concept could be introduced in ordinary conversation with unbelievers about forgiving as a means of clarifying the difference between Biblical thinking and other worldviews, while inviting a deeper investigation into the gospel.

Orthodoxy: The Theological Foundation for Forgiving Others in Practice

It is worth noting that the Reformation is credited with a significant change in the orthopraxy of forgiveness.[i]  In a sense, five centuries later the Reformed community is still working out the ramifications of God’s immanence, transcendence and sovereignty over three elements in play in every conflict (and consequently in every attempt to forgive): the individual; the situation; the law.[ii]

Christ’s Perspective on Forgiveness and Time

Returning to Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32, we can see it is important to note how God exercises His sovereignty from outside of both space and time (“from all eternity”).[iii]  This can be seen clearly in the way Jesus responds to the evidence of faith, a gift of God, in the paralytic and his friends (Matt 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20) and in the woman who washed His feet with her tears (Luke 7:47, 48): “Your sins are forgiven.”  Given that these two conversations occur prior to the cross, one would expect the verb tense He selects to be the future tense; but none of the five instances in Scripture use the future tense.

In Luke’s account, where three of the five instances occur, the verb tense Jesus selects (the perfect tense) is particularly striking.  This tense is used to convey “action terminated in the past with effects continuing into the present.”[iv]  That is, He neither declares instantaneous forgiveness (effective beginning in the moment He spoke), nor potential future forgiveness (contingent on His self-sacrifice on the cross, and/or contingent on some repentance or behavior on the part of the paralytic and the weeping woman).  At the moment He spoke, in Christ’s mind the action of forgiving was a completed action; and the effects of that completed forgiveness continued into the present.

It is also important to note that bloodshed is required for forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22b), and that the temple sacrifices never take away sins (Hebrews 10:4).  Therefore, we can conclude that Christ was not referring to a completed forgiveness based on Mosaic law and its ceremonial sacrifices.  Nor, despite the scribes’ misconstruing of His choice of verb tense, was He declaring an instantaneous action solely based on His own authority; such an action would not fulfill the requirement to shed blood.[v]  If we unwittingly misinterpret His verb tense (like the scribes apparently did) to be about His authority, one obviates His imperative to go the cross—and die on it.

For the redeemed, forgiveness is granted because of the sovereign actions of God, who is working both outside the constraints of time and space and within the timeline of history.  To this end God employs the governance office of firstborn.[vi]  He appoints Christ to this unique office, just as He originally appointed Adam (Colossians 1:15, 18; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45), to both govern the elect and represent them before Him.  Because Christ is serving as their firstborn, He assigns each of the elect to the judicial status of “in Christ”, a phrase repeated throughout the epistles (e.g., Ephesians 1:4; Colossians 1:12-13).

The result is that the death of Christ applies to all the elect: in judicial terms they were executed when their firstborn was executed; sentence of death has been carried out, so any case against one of the elect is already closed (Romans 8:1, 33-34).  For the elect, perfect justice has been completed.  Likewise, because the elect have the covenant status of “in Christ” not only is His death imputed to them but also His perfect obedience (Hebrews 4:14-16).  In terms of the debt analogy, this “payment” of death and obedience by Christ cancels our “certificate of debt” (Colossians 2:13-14).  Since Christ fulfills the role of firstborn for all those regenerated from the dead, He is the sole means by which God forgives the elect.

A Reformed Perspective on Forgiving Debts in the Lord’s Prayer

As it appears in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:12) the metaphor of debt begs two questions: What do humans owe to God, and What do humans owe each other?  The most obvious answer to both is “more than money.”  There are many things one could list that men owe to God that are not merely financial: their attention; their loyalty; their obedience; their affection; their worship; their thanks and gratitude, etc.  These are inherent in the primary command to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength.  More to the point, men owe God these things continually, in every moment, simply because He created them.  Likewise, since all men bear the image of God, they owe to each other respect, justice, compassion, service, etc.

Applying these debt concepts to our daily activities, as clearly intended by the language of the Lord’s prayer, we can see that we are continually in debt—both to God and to each other.  The result of this wide perspective is humility: as we consider another’s deficient payment of what we think is owed to us (respect, for example), we simultaneously consider how we fail to pay God the respect He is due.  This leads to contemplating how we will never be able to pay that debt off because day by day we fall further short and our debt to Him (and by extension, to His image bearers, our fellow men) continues to accrue.  In turn, this leads to contemplating how Christ our firstborn pays God the honor and respect He is due, and since we are “in Christ” that perfect payment is credited to our account.

The Individual: What is the nature of the person attempting to forgive, and the nature of the perpetrator?

Fortunately, we are informed by the anthropology revealed in the scriptures.  We can fully embrace passages that describe humanity as profoundly and completely broken and enslaved to sin (Isaiah 1:5; Isaiah 61:1; Romans 7:14-25; Romans 8:5-8).[vii]  In the context of human relationships, this pervasive brokenness of both victim and perpetrator must be taken into consideration.  For both victim and perpetrator all three core faculties (thinking, feeling, choosing) are profoundly flawed and unreliable.  For example, we don’t emote accurately; we may feel angry, but the driving emotion might be sorrow or loneliness or fear.  For the victim, this means that the strong feelings experienced in conflict are just as suspect as the spurious reasoning of self-justification.  More specifically, feeling angry does not necessarily mean that one has in fact been wronged; nor does concluding one has been wronged necessarily mean that all the logic one has employed to reach that conclusion is sound and the premises true.

In addition to being profoundly and completely broken, both perpetrator and victim lack intrinsic rights before God.  Both are slaves, either to sin or to righteousness (Romans 6), but slaves nevertheless.  Any privileges we enjoy are not self-generated; they are gifts from God.  Some have argued that God’s prohibition of stealing implies a right to own property; however, while property rights make sense in the presence of a human judge, they don’t make sense in the presence of the Lord.  The concept falls flat.  Stewardship, yes (1 Cor 4:7, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 4:10); ownership, no (1 Corinthians 4:7).  Any temptation to claim what we deserve from our fellow man must take into consideration as the starting point this fact: both victim and perpetrator have no intrinsic rights apart from God’s condescending to grant them subordinate roles under His sovereignty.  And since both perpetrator and victim are guilty of sin (Romans 3:23), it must be remembered that they both intrinsically deserve death followed by eternity in hell.

Both victim and perpetrator are subjects under the sovereign governance of God.  For the redeemed, the “outer man” is subject to any decay and affliction He directs; but He preserves and renews the “inner man” (2 Corinthians 4:1-12, 16-17).  This phrase (“inner man”) probably refers to what in the Old Testament is called the “heart”—the essential core of a person, from which flow thoughts, emotions and decisions (Proverbs 4:23).  This is also where idolatry takes root (Ezekiel 14) as our sin natures embrace the lies of the enemy, causing us to become demanding, and to sacrifice invaluable relationships.[viii]  For the elect, this essential core has a new identity that is hidden from view and protected by the Trinity (Colossians 3:3).  It will be fitted with a new “outer man” (body) at the resurrection for life in the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; John 5:25-29; 2 Peter 3:13).

That His sovereignty is immanent is frequently forgotten by those churned up in conflict.  He is with His people, not separated from them, as some depict in a triangle diagram widely used to depict interpersonal relationships between three parties (you and me at the lower apexes, and God at the upper apex).  This triangle illustration is tainted with a hint of the Gnostic spectrum, where the pure divine is kept separate from us mere dirty mortals by a spectrum (in the vertical dimension).  It implies that He is “up there somewhere”; aloof and waiting in His purity for you and I to sort our dirty things out, just between our dirty little selves.

He is certainly the “most high God” in the sense of transcending all He has created.  This is the most profound meaning behind “holy—holy—holy”.  But He (in His transcendent holiness) is not aloof from the sinful conflicts of His elect; on the contrary, He is personally and directly involved in the least of them—as outrageous an idea as you will ever find.  His transcendence is comprehensively coupled with His immanence.  Because of His immanence the triangle, if we have been taught that picture, should be completely (and permanently, as with a sledgehammer) flattened into a linear relation:


No more triangle.  I contend that the only way you and I can relate to each other—even down to conversing together—is through our God.  We will further explore this outrageous, anti-Gnostic idea as we examine the situation and our God’s commands.

The Situation: What is the nature of the details and the context of the conflict?

Experientially, conflict seems to pop up out of nowhere; both its sudden appearance and its effects seem chaotic.  This makes conflict, for those embroiled in it, seem to occur outside the sovereignty of God.  Typically, the last thing on their minds is how God is controlling the conflict and the situation and using them to accomplish His transcendent agenda.

From the Reformed perspective, we see that all things are under His dynamic control.[ix]  It’s important also to understand that God’s sovereignty is what makes human choices possible; to what degree we exercise “free will,” He is the sole enabler. [x]  In simple terms, He is forcing His electrons in our nerve cells—our outer man—to obey our biology-transcendent wills—our inner man.  Moreover, while He respects the will of the creature, He exercises this sovereign control to prosecute His grand agenda: to make “all things work together” (including the details of our sin and conflict) for the good of the redeemed (Romans 8:28).  Joseph experienced this transformation personally (Genesis 50:20); he knew God was transforming his many years of pain-filled injustice into His transcendent good for His people.  In the thick of a conflict, this is a difficult truth to grasp: how God is relentlessly transforming the worst we can do to each other into His transcendent, infinite good.  As the human mind grapples with this truth, however, the self-shriveling smallness of evil begins to emerge—a perspective C. S. Lewis offers in The Great Divorce.

The Law: What is the nature of the offenses we are attempting to forgive?

There is only one Lawgiver (James 4:12; Isaiah 33:22).  The ethics of the universe belong to God and God alone (Genesis 2:16-17; Deuteronomy 8:11; 10:14).  Despite our tendency to generate the 11th and 12th Commandments (e.g., “Thou shalt not leave random bits of junk on my workbench” and “Thou shalt not disappoint me, neither shalt thou disrupt my hopes and dreams…”) and get angry about them, we do not have the authority to define ethical absolutes for our interpersonal relationships; only He does.  Therefore, we must distinguish between our routine usurping of God’s authority to define right and wrong—the “knowledge of good and evil”[xi]—and His recorded commands and definitions of sin.  Further, sins committed “against one another” are always committed against God (Matthew 25:40, 45) and God alone.[xii]  For example, although David used the phrase (sin against men) in conversation with Saul (1 Samuel 24:11), when confronted by Nathan he recognized that God alone is the only offended party (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51:4).[xiii]

This means that our talk of sinning “against one another” may be phenomenological only; language that captures the appearance of events, but not the essence of them.  This kind of language uses the apparent form of a thing to allude to its substance, but can end up confusing the two in our minds.  Like the phrase “the sun is rising,” the phrase “sin against one another” is useful in conversation as a kind of sloppy shorthand for limited local contexts but is not technically accurate.  It’s missing its proper cosmic-scale context.  In larger, more comprehensive contexts such as the solar system or the Milky Way galaxy, to speak of the sun rising is to say nothing useful.  Because God is directly and immanently involved in every offense, we must expand our perspective to include Him in the context of the offense, and in any concept of forgiving each other.  Remember that we flattened the triangle.  That means we must consider that the offenses we are attempting to forgive, while they appear to be committed against us, are not, even if we are harmed.  Indeed, to say that one man sinned only against another man is to reveal a perspective that is too small.

Like Uriah, one may suffer harmful consequences from another’s sins, but those consequences are under the sovereign control of God; He alone decides what the impact of the perpetrator’s sin will be on the victim’s “outer man” (2 Corinthians 4:16), including losses of life, limb, reputation and possessions (Job 1:21).  He alone determines what we will suffer, and to what degree.  This is perhaps the most difficult and at the same time the most important concept to grasp regarding the nature of offenses: as we are getting hammered out on the anvil of suffering, the hand holding that hammer is His, and the final outcome of the suffering will serve His transcendently good purposes.

The final point to consider about offenses is that they must be carried by someone (Genesis 50:17).[xiv]  While the secular world (and some Christian authors) speak of “letting go” of offenses, Scripture never speaks that way.  On the contrary, sins are always spoken of as judicial facts that require justice.  Every offense is carried to that justice either by the individual who committed it, or by their covenant community representative, if they have one—the one who holds the office of firstborn.

What does it mean to forgive “as God in Christ has forgiven you”?

Having examined the way God is directly involved in every aspect of an offense, we now come to the crux of the issue.  One can rapidly dismiss the secular voices attempting to tell us how to forgive by simply comparing them to the two key verses mentioned earlier in this paper, Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32.  For example, it is clear from multiple Scriptures that God did not just “let it go” or “change the narrative” in His mind to forgive the elect.

Adopting the same attitude/disposition

There are two distinctly different views for interpreting the two key verses mentioned earlier: Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32. The view that seems most widely adopted among Christian authors is that the critical word “as” (kathos) in these verses means “by adopting the same attitude.”  The phrase “as God in Christ” is interpreted to employ Christ as an illustration of the love and mental forbearance necessary to forgive.   I will call this the isopsychic (from isopsuchos) interpretation; it seems to be the foundation for the two-stage approach of separating attitudinal from transacted forgiveness.   This view may draw support from a widely accepted but flawed inference that 1 John 1:9 is stating a cause-and-effect relationship between confession and forgiveness.  Likewise, this view may infer from Mark 11:25 a cause-and-effect relationship between our forgiving others and God granting us forgiveness.  The Reformed view categorically rejects any such cause-and-effect notions; these are not asserting causation, but correlation.[xv]

Some Christians assert that forgiveness is always contingent on the perpetrator’s repentance, so that forgiveness and reconciliation (and restoration) are identical: “The sinner forgiven is the sinner reconciled.”[xvi]  This view may be based on an understanding that God’s forgiveness of the sinner is contingent on the sinner’s repentance.  In contrast, the Reformed view asserts that God grants forgiveness of sins independent of any action or condition on the part of the recipient.[xvii]

Another weakness in this view is that it imposes on God a two-step process, where forgiveness is separated into dispositional (attitudinal) and transacted events.  While this separation may make sense from human experience, it is nowhere described in Scripture as applicable to our transcendent God.  It seems presumptuous to impose on God something that makes sense to broken-hearted, finite humans but lacks explicit special revelation to support it.  We must consider that we may be viewing forgiveness in this fractured way simply because our hearts are still profoundly fractured, and that causes us to consider forgiving in a disjoint and fragmented way.

Finally, this view in practice tends to puff up the mind of the one granting forgiveness, in that we tend to take credit for our magnanimity.  We unconsciously pat ourselves on the back for having wrestled our anger and disappointment into something other than biting sarcasm and at least allows a few polite words in a mild tone of voice.  We are prone to take pride in condescending to speak kindly, as one having acted on our own power to absorb a debt or insult, and/or releasing the perpetrator from liability.  That troublesome triangle tends to reinforce this self-aggrandizement; squash it back flat in your mind.  Use a bigger hammer this time.

Applying the same means

This leads us to examine the alternative view: that the critical “as” might well be interpreted as “using the same means” or “using the same mechanism/working.”  I can’t make up my mind whether to call this an isomechani (from μηχανή) or isoenergic (from ἐνέργεια) view.  It considers the phrase “as God in Christ” to draw on its covenantal scripture-wide context: Christ our covenant head, our firstborn, is the means by which we forgive others.  It is clear from multiple Scriptures that use this phrase that Christ is far more than merely an illustration of God’s attitude; Christ is the sole means by which God works out forgiveness for the elect (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:5).

The ramifications of adopting an isomechani/isoenergic view (applying the same means) over against the first view (adopting the same attitude/disposition) are significant.  First, forgiving other believers works only through our Lord on the cross, the sole means by which we are forgiven by God.  We have authority to forgive sins “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (John 20:23; Colossians 3:17), an authority He formally delegated to His agents to invoke the just actions of their God regarding the firstborn in whom they stand.  This delegated authority implies that we as kingdom agents are formally invoking our king’s completed/time-independent action—as opposed to declaring our own.

This invoking action necessarily also includes invoking His relentless transformation of our sins into His transcendent good for His elect, as Joseph demonstrates in Genesis 50:19-20 (see also Romans 8:28).  Therefore, in this view we forgive others by invoking both God’s perfect justice (in Christ’s propitiation) and His relentless transcendent good that transforms even sinful action into good.  We grab His transcendence and His immanence out of their academic glass cases and insert them into our hot, angry moment; theology in action.  Forgiving the elect is therefore equivalent to preaching the gospel; to ourselves always, and if they happen to be present, to the other believer.

Second, in this view forgiving is not a process, or a sequence of actions; it is a single act.  The language of Mark 11:25 implies that forgiving can be done on the spot, the instant one realizes that one holds a grudge.  There is no indication in this verse of two or more stages.  Feelings are not mentioned—only an action.  It is a stretch to assert that God separates His transacted forgiveness from His attitudinal forgiveness, as if He waits either for His emotions to rise to compassion, or for some action on the part of the sinner.  He acted once for all time to forgive the elect, without waiting for their repentance; that action was the execution of Christ, their firstborn.  Therefore, the orthopraxis for this view is to forgive in the name of the Lord Jesus without waiting—for better feelings on our part, nor for any action on the part of the perpetrator.

Third, our forgiving unbelievers works only through the action of God, not our own.  Like the cross, the action invoked in this case is also an act of justice, but instead of a past event it is an event future to us: either the final judgement (2 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 20:12-13) or the (future to us in this moment) evidence of the application of Christ’s death to the perpetrator’s sins.  Since Christ is also directly involved in the final judgement as firstborn of all creation, we are to invoke that perfect justice in His name.  As before, no credit accrues to us; we are not the prime actor in view.  In this view, forgiving means invoking the perfect justice of God, either on the cross for the elect, or in the future for everyone else.[xviii]  And as before, it means invoking God’s immanence and transcendence, transforming even sins into His transcendent good for His beloved.

Fourth, forgiving in this invoking sense is accessible only to the elect.  No one else has authority to use the name of the Lord Jesus to invoke either the judicial action of the cross or the judicial action of the final judgement.  No one else has official authority to invoke His great transforming good on behalf of His beloved.  Any unbeliever may speak the phrase “I forgive you” but it does not have the same meaning or effect of the same words spoken by a believer.

What does it mean to forgive “from the heart”?

Using the Jewish sense of the term, we can see that “from the heart” means using all faculties of the new self—mind, will and emotions—to forgive, even as broken as these faculties are.  While the act of forgiving is a single event, there is a sequence the Holy Spirit uses to train broken hearts to forgive.  The broken mind is involved first (Romans 12:2) by meditating (Psalm 1) methodically on His sovereignty, His perfect justice and His relentless agenda of forging the good of the elect.  Psalm 73 is a clear illustration of this pattern of meditation.  The Holy Spirit uses this meditation to prepare the broken heart for absorbing the consequences voluntarily rather than choose litigation (1 Corinthians 6:7) or revenge when offenses come.  The broken will is drawn into these meditations and responds by formally invoking both His justice and His relentless good, an imperial action by the King’s authorized agent.  Lastly, and after what may seem an inordinately long time, our broken emotions find their rest and healing in His relentless agenda of creating transcendent good.

In practice, this may require us to use more explicit language so that we are clearly using a forgiveness concept that differs profoundly from that of the secular world.  For example, we might practice replacing the ambiguous “I forgive you” with cosmic context language that clearly defines our meaning: “I forgive you forever in Christ, because our God has already dealt with this sin for all time, by impaling Christ with it on the cross, and He’s already transforming it into His transcendent good for our benefit.”

This approach also leads to a practice that is more effective when confronting others about a particular sin: stating the cosmic context up front.  It disarms both the rebuker and the rebuked, both of whom need to hear the gospel preached in the moment.  It sounds something like the following:

“Lance, I have good news for you: from outside of time God has collected all your sins from across your entire life, from your first sin to your last: the sins you committed last month and last year, and those you will commit next year and five years from now.  He has impaled Christ with each and every one, and while you were yet a sinner, Christ paid your penalty of death in full on the cross. 

“I want you to know that right next to your sins are all my sins—billions of them.  All of our debts to God have been satisfied by Christ, our covenant representative before God.  He has imputed Christ’s perfect obedience to you and me, and promised to transform everything, including our sinful actions, into His transcendent good for us. 

“He is here with us now, moving us both to keep His commandments; and with His help you and I need to talk together about one of those sins.  Some of my trust in you has been destroyed, but you and the Holy Spirit can rebuild it, and transform our relationship into something even more beautiful and fulfilling than it was before this incident.”

This invoking approach, when applied to a perpetrator who is not evidently a believer, also leads us to pray for their salvation.  In forgiving them we are formally invoking His perfect justice, but as far as we know, there are still two ways that justice is performed.  We know that unless God selects them to receive His affection, they will suffer judgment and eternal punishment; they will glorify Him as a trophy of His perfect justice.  We recall “And such were some of you.”  As we contemplate our God’s kindness and mercy on wretched sinners such as ourselves, we are moved to ask Him to put His covenant affection on the perpetrator and make them, like us, another “trophy of His grace,” washing them with regeneration and giving them gifts of faith and repentance.

A Proposed Summary Statement

To seed further debate and discussion, I tentatively offer this summary and invite your open comment and critique:

Forgiveness is an act of worship in which a believer, acting as an authorized imperial agent, formally invokes the profound, transcendent goodness and immanence of God, beginning with His perfect justice—either on the cross for the elect, or in the future for those passed by.  Forgiveness is practiced without waiting for any particular emotional state on the part of the victim, nor for any action on the part of the perpetrator.  Our profoundly broken hearts learn forgiving: by meditation, on God’s sovereign immanence in this angry moment, on His justice and on His relentless agenda of transcendent good for His own; and by practice, choosing to verbally invoke His actions in His name.

If that triangle pops up again, you know what to do.

J. Lance Acree is in his 34th year of service as a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He researches preventable human error; he and his wife of 42 years live in Clinton, Tennessee.

[i] Beckwith, S. (2011). Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[ii] Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.

[iii] Westminster Confession of Faith, III.1

[iv] Moulton, H. K. (1978). The Analytical Greek Lexicon, Revised. (H. K. Moulton, Ed.) Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[v] Luke’s account is clearly the more difficult reading, and therefore (humanly speaking) the more unlikely to have been written as we see it now. For this reason, one may conclude that Luke’s is probably the most accurate, and the extant manuscripts of both Matthew’s and Mark’s record of the conversation probably carry copyist-induced errors with respect to the verb tense.  It also seems more probable that Luke, who grew up speaking Greek and whose grammar is precise, recorded the correct verb tense (perfect) despite its difficult implications.

[vi] The term firstborn as used in the Scriptures usually denotes chronological order, but some uses denote an achronological preeminence and supremacy in a representative role.  This can be clearly seen in Psalm 89:27.  In Colossians 1 we see it in two ways: while Christ was not the first chronologically to be resurrected from the dead, He bears the title of “firstborn from the dead”; Christ was not created, yet He bears the title of “firstborn of all creation.”

[vii] Westminster Confession of Faith, VI.2

[viii] I recommend Sande’s discussion of the progression of an idol ( with one modification.  For believers, I would insert I deserve into his sequence; long before I become demanding in my behavior, I find that I have embraced a lie as a premise—a lie about what I deserve.  I may have started with a righteous, God-given desire but the lie makes that desire sinful.  The sequence would read “I desire; I deserve; I demand; I judge; I punish.”  The I deserve step is where the sequence becomes sinful—where my idolatry begins; it is the reason why we are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5).  For the unregenerate, all desires are twisted and sinful because they are by nature children of wrath (Eph 2), unable to please God, and none seek God (Rom 8); see Westminster Confession of Faith VI.2.

[ix] Westminster Confession of Faith, V

[x] Westminster Confession of Faith, III.1; V.1.

[xi] The use of “knowledge” in Genesis seems to imply that the underlying Hebrew term carries with it not just cognition (of facts), but also willful choice and even affection.

[xii] The earliest uses do not reference any human victims of sin (Gen 13:13; Gen 20:6; Gen 39:9).  Abimelech, a pagan, is the first recorded person to use the phrase “sin against you” to indicate a man is among the ones sinned against (Gen 20:9).  The first Israelite to do so is Reuben (Gen 42:22).

[xiii] It is interesting to note that Thomas Hobbes, in chapter XIX of The Leviathan, attempted to explain Psalm 51:4 by means of both Uriah’s voluntary but comprehensive service to David, in which his life was always in David’s hands, and God’s kingly authority prohibiting sin of all kinds:

“For though the action be against the law of nature, as being contrary to equity (as was the killing of Uriah by David); yet it was not an injury to Uriah, but to God.  Not to Uriah, because the right to do what he pleased was given him by Uriah himself; and yet to God, because David was God’s subject and prohibited all iniquity by the law of nature.  Which distinction, David himself, when he repented the fact, evidently confirmed, saying, “To thee only have I sinned.”

[xiv] It is significant that the first recorded request for forgiveness (Gen 50:17, literally “please carry the transgression”) was addressed to one holding the temporal office of firstborn on behalf of a community: Joseph, who was in his day representing all Israel before Pharoah.  This is probably a prefiguring of Christ carrying the sins of the elect in fulfillment of the eternal office of firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), and the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15: 20-22, 45).

[xv] Romans 8 and Ephesians 2 reveal that the causality is actually the reverse of the first impression from the English translations.  Specifically, God’s initiative to forgive us causes us to behave differently: freely confessing our sins and freely forgiving others.  This means we can correlate between our behaviors and His actions with a profound assurance.  For example, I would contend that 1 John 1:9 should be read as asserting a certainty about what cannot be observed, as evidenced by our observable change in behavior: “If we [observe that we are faithful enough to] confess our sins, [we can know with certainty that the invisible, transcendent thing has happened:] He is [certainly] faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

[xvi] Barnes, L. P. (2011, February). Talking politics, talking forgiveness. Scottish Journal of Theology; Edinburgh, 64(1), 64-79. doi:10.1017/S0036930610001067

[xvii] Westminster Confession of Faith, XI

[xviii] In this view, “I forgive you” works much like the shorthand phrase “I’ll write you a check”, in that “write…a check” invokes sophisticated systems operating behind the scenes—a financial system of banks and bank accounts that functions to ensure money is transferred with high precision, all of which is governed by a judicial system of financial statutes and courts.

Scroll to top