QUESTION: We are taught that when we put our faith in Christ, all our sins — past, present and future — are forgiven. If this is the case, is there a need for us to ask God for forgiveness of our sins after that? Do we need to ask God to forgive us when in fact we are already forgiven?
ANSWER: Certainly, we are assured that in Christ, our sins are forgiven. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The reason is clear: Christ “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).
There is a difference, however, between the claim that our sins are forgiven and the claim that we are sinless. So we are warned, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves… If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins….” (1 John 1: 8-9). Even after we have put our faith in Christ, we continue to sin. Even though our sins — past, present and future — have been forgiven, we still need to confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness.
The issue may not be so much about sins and forgiveness, but about grace and guilt. It is easy to swing to one or the other extreme. Those who subscribe to the so-called “worm” theology (Ps 22:6; Job 25:6) see themselves as worthless and hopelessly sinful — they spend their time feeling guilty and confessing their sins. On the other hand, those who abhor such theology think of themselves as princes and princesses of the King — they simply rejoice that everything is fine.
A scene from the time of Nehemiah provides a balanced perspective. As the people stood listening to the Scriptures being read to them, they felt convicted of their sins. They realised how much they had strayed from God and fallen short of His commandments. They mourned and wept. Their leaders, Nehemiah and Ezra, exhorted them, “…do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10).
Conviction of sin took place first. Joy came, but only after grief. If we do not grieve for our sins, we will not know real joy. Today, we seem to swing between two extremes in our understanding of sin. There are those who emphasise guilt and there are those who emphasise grace.
Those who emphasise guilt make people feel guilty for their sins, but do not teach grace to show how the forgiveness of sin can bring freedom and joy. As a result their faith is marked by a long face and a heavy heart. The people always look serious and solemn, and they feel close to God only when they feel sad.
On the other hand, those who emphasise grace speak of God’s grace and forgiveness without speaking of the need for repentance and confession of sins. It is true that people need to hear the message of grace — since so many are burdened by guilt. But we cannot bypass the need for the conviction of sin, repentance and confession of sins — this is going beyond, indeed against, what the Bible teaches.
If we teach only guilt without grace, we do not go far enough — that is legalism. If we teach grace without guilt, we go too far — that is lawlessness (the technical term is anti-nomianism). So the Bible teaches both conviction of sin and the gift of grace. Joy comes after grief, as grace and forgiveness come after the conviction of sin and confession of sins.
Rev Dr David Wong is the General Secretary of the Bible-Presbyterian Church in Singapore. During his pastoral ministry spanning 40 years, he served at Mount Carmel and Zion Bishan BP Churches. He also served with Haggai Institute, overseeing leadership training in Maui, Hawaii, for Christian leaders from over 100 nations. He and his wife Jenny have two married daughters and four grandchildren.