If Justification Is Once-for-All, Why Do I Need to Keep Repenting?
Praying “Forgive us our debts” isn’t just a duty we have as sinners; it’s a privilege we have as sons.
When Jesus teaches Christians how to pray in Lord’s Prayer, one petition he tells us to offer is “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12; or “sins,” Luke 11:4).
This suggests we’ll never reach perfection in this life, but will always have debts demanding God’s forgiveness. No big surprise there (cf. 1 John 1:8). But it also raises the practical question: If I’m a Christian who’s been justified through faith, then hasn’t God already forgiven all my sins, past, present, and future? And if so, why do I need to keep asking? Wouldn’t that imply I doubted God’s promise?
Clearly Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray in a way that doubts our heavenly Father. How, though, do we relate the “It is finished” truth of justification with our ongoing responsibility to ask for forgiveness?
Justification and Once-for-All Forgiveness
Are all your sins forgiven—past, present, and future—if you’re a Christian? In one sense, the answer has to be yes. Note especially the italicized words:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col. 2:13–14)
According to Paul, all our trespasses were forgiven when we were made alive with Christ. Our entire record of debt was nailed to the cross. When Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree, he didn’t leave any unborne.
This is the glorious truth of justification. When we’re united to Christ in his death and resurrection, we not only experience God’s once-for-all verdict of “righteous!”—we also enter a permanent state of peace with God that guarantees our final salvation (Rom. 5:1, 9–10; 8:30). It’s not that everything we do in our justified state is acceptable to God (we still sin); it’s that we are acceptable to him, since he no longer counts our sin against us (Rom. 4:7–8; cf. Ps. 103:10).
This is a foundational part of the gospel, as witnessed in Romans 1–8.
Sanctification and Ongoing Forgiveness
Still, the New Testament authors apparently don’t think the once-for-all forgiveness (justification) conflicts with the need for ongoing forgiveness (sanctification). This can be seen not only in the Lord’s Prayer, but also in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
In context, John isn’t referring to a one-time confession resulting in a one-time forgiveness. He’s speaking of a forgiveness that’s both conditional (“ifwe confess our sins”) and ongoing (“the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin”). As we walk in the light, we see our sins more clearly; as we see them more clearly, we confess them; as we confess them, God is faithful to forgive, over and over again.
So in this sense if you ask, “Are my future sins already forgiven?” the answer depends on what you mean. If you mean, “Are my future sins already forgiven such that I’ll never need to confess them?” then the answer is no. But if you mean “Have my future sins already been decisively atoned for?” then the answer is a glorious yes. The blood that cleanses all our sins—past, present, and future—has already been shed, once for all. When we sin as Christians, we don’t turn to some Plan B; we turn back to Plan A: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
This is part and parcel of the normal Christian life, as seen in the Lord’s Prayer.
What This Means Practically
The reason we pray “Forgive us our debts” is not because we’ve lost our state of grace and need to be re-saved. Justification is permanent. Rather, confessing our sin reminds us there’s more to salvation than being justified. Salvation also involves being sanctified and treated as sons.
As a judge, God no longer sees our sin, because his “righteous” verdict removes all condemnation (Rom. 8:1). But as a Father, he’s quite aware of our remaining sin, and he wants us to be aware of it, too, so that we can fight it, kill it, and ask him to forgive it. But we must realize that God sees our sins as a loving Father, not as angry critic. That’s how the Lord’s Prayer begins: not “Our Judge,” but “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2). We pray this petition from inside the family of God, not from the outside trying to get back in.
It’s true that the normal way of receiving forgiveness is through confessing and asking. And yet at least when it comes to specific sins, it’s virtually certain we’ll all die with unconfessed sin, simply because there are so many sins we’re unaware of. Paul, for instance, knew that even though he wasn’t conscious of any hidden sin in his life, that didn’t make him innocent (1 Cor. 4:4).
You might think that would make him fearful of facing God in death, but it didn’t. Instead of condemnation, Paul expected “commendation” (1 Cor. 4:5; cf. Ps. 19:12). Because he knew that beneath all his incomplete confession and imperfect repentance there was a Father-son relationship between him and God, built on the solid foundation of Jesus’s blood and righteousness. That’s why he was confident that, even with all the sins that had flown under his radar, death would usher him straight into the presence of Jesus.
Every Christian can have that same confidence. Praying “Forgive us our debts” isn’t just a duty we have as sinners; it’s a privilege we have as sons. It doesn’t simply remind us that we still sin; it assures us that our Father is eager to forgive. He looks for opportunities to show mercy. And that’s why he gladly forgives our debts, time and time again.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.