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An Overview of the Forgiveness of Believers

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In the New Testament there are a number of key passages which cover the subject of sin and forgiveness for the child of God. These passages are John 13:1-17; Acts 24:16; 1 Corinthians 4:3-4; 11:28-29; Hebrews 4:12; and 1 John 1:5-2:2; 3:19-22.

The Old Testament is also not silent on this subject and adds to our understanding of forgiveness for the believer. Some key passages are Genesis 3 and the responses of Adam and Eve who tried to cover their sin by blame and their own solution of fig leaves. Compare also Psalm 32:1-7; 51:1-13; 66:18; 139:23-24; Proverbs 20:27; 28:13; and Jeremiah 17:9-10 to name a few.

There are three needs involved in forgiveness:

    1. Examination (1 Cor. 11:28)

    2. Self judgment (1 Cor. 11:31)

    3. Confession (1 John 1:9).

The above passages from the Old and New Testaments amplify and clarify this whole element of forgiveness and our responsibility regarding personal sin. From these passages, a number of important principles emerge.

The Problems We Face

    1. Inherent sinfulness with a bent for foolishness or the disease of self-management (Prov. 4:23; Jer. 17:5; 1 John 1:8; cf. Isa. 2:6-8 with 1:3-4).

    2. The delusions and temptations of Satan to temp us to sin. Note the key goal of Satan, regardless of the sin or the temptation, is to get us to act independently of God.

    3. Defilement as we walk in an evil world using human solutions (John 13:1f; 1 John 1:9)

    4. This defilement and the use of human strategies form a barrier to fellowship, growth, and honest change from the inside out (Isa. 2:6; 30:1-2; 50:10-11; with 59:1-2).

Unconfessed known sin in the life constitutes negative volition to the leading and control of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ja. 4:17; Rom. 14:23). It grieves His person (Eph. 4:30), quenches His power (1 Thess. 5:19), causes God to ignore our prayer requests (Ps. 66:18), and cuts us off from God's blessing and power (Prov. 28:13).

Our bent for self-management and control, and our failure to recognized this and deal with it, not only creates a barrier to fellowship with God but it creates a barrier to real inward change. We devise methods by which we can appear and act religious on the outside (cf. Isa. 29:13) while we seek to manage our own lives by handling our fears, insecurities, and frustrations with our own strategies (our man-made fire brands) rather than with God's resources (Isa. 50:10-11; Jer. 2:13).

The Needs We Have


We each need, not a morbid preoccupation with self, but a daily inside look at our lives, our patterns of behavior, our strategies for living, and our feelings, fears, and attitudes (Ps. 139:23-24; Pro. 20:27; 1 Cor. 11:28f).


An inside look is useless without honesty with God and with self. Duplicity or deceit by way of self justification or just plain denial through which we seek to cover up our attitudes and behavior is the enemy of spiritual growth and fellowship with God (Ps. 32:2b; 51:6; 15:1-2; Prov. 24:12; 21:2; Luke 16:15).


Honest examination is needed for the purpose of confession in the form of genuine repentance--specific acknowledgment of all known sins with a commitment to change by God's grace through faith.

But what is confession? “It is saying the same thing about sin as God does. It is having the same perspective on that sin as God does. This must include more than simply rehearsing the sin, for God's perspective would also include forsaking that sin. Therefore to confess includes an attitude of forsaking that sin.” (pp. 302f, Basic Theology, by Ryrie.)

Vital to self-judgment and confession is the need for a commitment to allow God to change us from the inside out or at the core of our lives through faith, not in our own strategies or even for our own purposes, i.e., to make life work so we can be happy, but by faith in His resources, the Word, the control of the Spirit, prayer, and even the trials of life (James 1:2-4).

Also crucial to biblical change through confession and dependence on the Spirit of God is a biblical view of sin, particularly, we need to understand that the root of sin in all its various shades and colors is the sin of self-management. Self-management is the culprit that sprouts up like a weed and produces the other categories of sin with which we deal. Here is an issue that is often either not understood or ignored because the hardest thing for all of us to do is to relinquish control.

We tend to confess the surface sins, the obvious, but we fail to see them for what they really are, the fruit of a deeper problem of sin that we typically want to disregard, indeed, one that we want to overlook, one that is at the heart of man’s sinfulness--the desire to run our own lives, to live independently through our human strategies for life.

Categories of Sin

  • Sins of Commission--doing what we should not.
  • Sins of Omission--failing to do what we should.


  • Overt Sin--murder, fornication, theft, manipulating others, sins of the tongue--lying, criticism, murmuring, nagging, foul language, gossip.
  • Subsurface or Mental Attitude Sins--resentment, anxiety, hatred, fear, pride, sinful desires like coveting.

Tap Root Sins--Self-management sins, failing of the grace of God, human substitutes (religionism, secularism, materialism, human strategies for handling life, defense and escape mechanisms, etc.).

Therefore, in the light of the effects of sin and self-controlling strategies on our fellowship with the Lord and our capacity to change, we need to:

    1. Examine our lives regularly in the light of God's Word through study and meditating on the Word.

    2. Confess, acknowledge specific sins, as they are revealed to us by the tools God uses (the Spirit, the Word, failures, people, trials).

    3. Trust God's promise to forgive us when we confess sin and know that our sins are forgiven.

    4. Draw upon our resources in Christ to enable us to deal with our sinful nature and those areas of foolishness that produced the sin, draw near to God, to make Him our refuge and source of life.

The Purpose We Need to Embrace

Personal examination or a look inside followed by confession of sin is designed to stop sinful behavior, but it really only does so when it draws us to God in such a way that it increases our dependence on Him and His solutions for life and our sin. Confession is never to excuse sin until next time, nor is self-examination to make us aware of ourselves for a better identity. It is to move us toward God and change our character. This is the point of 1 John 1:8-2:2; Ps. 119:59; 139:23-24; Prov. 20:27; 28:13 and Jer. 17:1f.

Proverbs 28:9, 13-14 He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, Even his prayer is an abomination. . . . 13 He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion. 14 How blessed is the man who fears always, But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.

Verse 13 says, "he who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion." The word "transgression" certainly includes any sinful pattern, and "conceals" includes any of the tactics people use to ignore, justify, or deny sin. One excuse we often hear and we are all perhaps prone to use is: "That's just the way I am." The implication is that the weakness, etc., is someone else's fault and we can't change because this is problem is a part of our makeup. But God says we can change because He has provided for us in Christ.

Note how a broad and sweeping "forgive me of all my sin" can be a means of ignoring or concealing specific sin in one's life. Such a prayer may be a means of accepting some sin as part of one's lifestyle. When we fail to identify our sins first by examination and then by honest, sincere confession, we conceal them.

The person who conceals his sin, our verse tells us, "shall not prosper." The Hebrew text means that he habitually cannot prosper. So long as he continues to ignore or make excuses for his sin, he will not find the peace of God, nor real happiness, and certainly not spiritual success. The Hebrew word for "prosper" is tsaleach. In the Old testament it is used of the person who finds prosperity through the work of God in and on his behalf because he has sought the Lord and followed Him (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:3; 2 Chron. 26:5, 31:21). On the other hand, when we hide or ignore our sin, we cut ourselves off from God's purpose, blessing, and strength. This means we forfeit deliverance, peace, rest, and spiritual prosperity, the abundant life, regardless of our external religious behavior (cf. Ps. 50:16-23; 66:18; Prov. 28:9).

The second half of Proverbs 28:13 gives us a special promise if two things are done.

The Conditions

We must confess our sin. As explained above, this means we must honestly acknowledge all known sin or admit to ourselves and to God that what we have done and are doing (the sinful pattern for instance) is wrong, sinful, and hinders our fellowship with God.

The sinful pattern is also to be forsaken, and, according to the analogy of Scripture, this means replaced with godly alternatives (cf. Eph. 4:24-32). In the Hebrew text, "forsakes" is a participle of continuous action which would include the process of learning how to overcome and leave the sinful pattern behind. It takes time and growth to be able to deal with some of our deep-seated patterns, but we must be committed to the process and the pain involved.

The Promise

God promises such a person will "find compassion." The words "find compassion" in the Hebrew mean "to love deeply, have mercy, be compassionate." It connotes a special love, mercy, or compassion for the helpless, for those who, because of their special problem or weakness, need the uplifting love and aid of another. This has in view our natural helplessness and sinful condition which causes us to stumble and sin, even when, as Paul stresses in Romans 7:15, we do not want to sin. So this promise of compassion means not only forgiveness, but the blessing of divine love and provision: the supply and power of God to overcome and to change.

We must see, therefore, that the purpose of confession is change, deliverance from sin, and this requires being specific about the sin in our lives. Dealing with known sin and discovering these self protective strategies, etc., is critical to our spiritual health, to real change, and our daily well being. It removes guilt, gives peace, is a means to restoration to fellowship with God, the filling of the Holy Spirit, effective prayer (Ps. 66:18), spiritual illumination, and a loving and ministering relationship with others.

Related Topics: Forgiveness

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