“The design of the atonement was not to furnish a ground on which God would save men, but rather on which He could save men.“ [i]
I have had a few people ask me about the idea that God has forgiven sin—past, present, and future. If this is true, how can God hold a person accountable for sin that is already forgiven? The statement that God has forgiven sin—past, present, and future may be true, but it needs to be clarified. For example, what about those who are not Christians? The Scriptures say that Christ died for the sins of the world (John 1:29). Therefore, all men have had their sins forgiven in the atonement. However, few Christians would say that all non-Christians are going to be saved. But why not, if all sin is forgiven by the atonement (1 John 2:1, 2 Cor. 5:19)? We must conclude from this that it takes something more than the forgiveness of sin to be saved. The atonement simply opens the way to God and keeps the door open; it does not guarantee salvation. The atonement simply allows one to approach God. This was symbolized at the death of Christ with the tearing of the temple veil, which showed that the way to God was now open. If we go to Scripture, we find a number of things other than forgiveness that are required to be saved. The main requirement other than forgiveness seems to be faith. “By grace are you saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). And again, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
A biblical example of the above is the story of the lost son. The son went into the far country, which represented sin and a nonexistent relationship with his father. However, his father had forgiven him, but even with his father’s forgiveness, he was out of relationship and was still dead in his sin. The father’s forgiveness was only a part of the equation; it was not the total. It only opened the way for his son to return. The son had to recognize his state and return to the father (repentance). If the son would have stayed in the far country, he would have had his father’s forgiveness, but he would not have been saved. Salvation was in the father’s house and not in the far country (Luke 15:11-24).
If forgiveness of sin is a gift of God in the past, present, and future, it seems it must be accepted through faith in the past, present, and future. Again, if God is the eternal “now,” i.e., outside time, it would seem logical to believe that faith must be maintained in the now in order for a person to accept the forgiveness of sin for past, present, and future sin. This simply means that one must stand or abide in faith or Christ to remain in a forgiven state. Being in Christ is being in the Father’s house.[ii] Those who say you can live in the far country and be saved by the finished work of Christ, simply do not know what they are talking about. Does not the Bible say that Christ died once and for all for sin? Yes, everyone’s sins are forgiven—believers and unbelievers. However, that does not mean they are saved. The atonement means they now have access to the Father through their faith relationship with Christ. Through faith and baptism they are put into Christ (The Fathers house) where there is forgiveness of sin and salvation (Rom. 6:1-3, Gal. 3:26-27, Acts 2:38).
In view of the above, we should be cautious how we use the expression that “our sins have been forgiven—past, present, and future. This teaching is not expressly taught in Scripture and needs much clarification. Because of the fuzzy thinking in the Christian movement, I personally would avoid using it.
[i] Rom. 3:25-26 Elect in The Son by Robert Shank page 37. Robert Shank is a Bible scholar who has written two fine books, which I highly recommend: Elect in The Son and Life in The Son.
[ii] John 15:5-8 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” NIV