Article by John Piper, Founder / Teacher desiringGod.org
If God has “forgiven us all our trespasses,” and if all our sins were “canceled” at the cross, why do we need to continue to repent?
Maybe the most important thing that I could do to help with this question is to point us to the all-important distinction between redemption as something that is already accomplished and finished, once for all — never to be repeated or added to — and redemption that is applied to us when we’re saved, when we’re converted, and then in an ongoing way, now and forever.
And in making that distinction, we will see that forgiveness of sins can be viewed in these two way: accomplished and applied. So let me unpack this understanding of redemption for just a moment and then look at the question specifically.
4 Once-for-All Victories
Here’s what I mean by the once-for-all, finished, complete, never-to-be-repeated, never-to-be-added-to redemption. When Christ died on the cross for his bride, the church, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:25–27, he accomplished at least four decisive, once-for-all things.
First, Christ offered a perfect sin-covering sacrifice to God — so perfect that, unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, it never needs to be repeated; it cannot be repeated. “[Christ] has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27). In other words, a perfect, once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice for sin — that happened decisively on the cross.
Second, this sacrifice accomplished what the New Testament calls propitiation. “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood [in other words, when he died], to be received [when you come into existence two thousand years later] by faith” (Romans 3:25). This means that the sacrifice of Christ provided a holy and righteous satisfaction for the demands of God’s justice in the punishment of sin, and so his condemning wrath is removed forever from his people.
Third, positively the New Testament calls this reconciliation. From God’s side, the hostility of wrath is removed toward his Son’s bride.
And fourth, by this sacrifice, God decisively purchased — paid the finished price for — the liberty of his people from sin and wrath and death and Satan. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). That’s finished; that’s done; the price has been paid.
So these four realities are what I mean by a once-for-all, finished, complete, never-to-be-repeated redemption. It happened in history, before we ever existed. It was outside ourselves. I can remember 45 years ago, sitting in a seminary class where for the first time I heard the Latin phrase extra nos (“outside ourselves”), because of Luther, and it had just never hit me before that all the decisive things had been done already for me.
So God did this for everyone who would be united to Christ: a perfect final sacrifice, an all-satisfying propitiation, a glorious reconciliation from God’s side with the removal of all divine condemnation, a full purchase of our liberty from wrath and sin and death and Satan forever, a finished price paid.
Forgiveness Accomplished and Applied
Then the question becomes, how does this once-for-all redemption get applied to actual people — us, individuals in real life? Of course, we could write books — I mean, books and books — on the answer to that question.
He calls us out of darkness into light. He regenerates us by the Holy Spirit. He unites us to Christ so that everything Christ accomplished is made ours in him. He gives us the gift of faith. He justifies us. He adopts us. He sanctifies us over a lifetime. He causes us to persevere to the end. He intercedes for us continually in heaven. He glorifies us with life and joy forever in his presence. All of that is the application to us, individually, of what was decisively secured two thousand years ago, once for all, when Christ died and rose again.
And our opening question relates now to the forgiveness of sins and the ongoing act of what we call repentance. So let’s put forgiveness of sins into this understanding of redemption accomplished and redemption applied — which, by the way, is the title of a very important book by John Murray that I recommend to everybody to read if you want to go deep and get a lot of help about these things: Redemption Accomplished and Applied.
Ephesians 1:7 says — so I’m focusing now on forgiveness of sins and trying to see whether the Bible puts it into this framework — “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” In other words, in the shedding of Christ’s blood, once for all in history, all who are in Christ have forgiveness for all their sins. We have it — he says we have it. We have it absolutely secure. We have it purchased for us. That’s what the blood accomplished and secured.
Colossians 2:14 says that the record of our debts was nailed to the cross. That’s what I would call forgiveness accomplished: price paid, redemption offered, nails driven, forgiveness secured. It is accomplished.
Then Acts 10:43 says, “Everyone who believes in [Christ] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” When we believe, we receive the forgiveness Christ purchased. That’s forgiveness applied. So when we become Christians, we are united to Christ so that the forgiveness he purchased becomes the forgiveness we experience. And since the purchase was complete, and he nailed the whole record of our debt to the cross, therefore the whole purchase will be experienced — it will be. God doesn’t lose any of his own.
How to Handle Daily Sins
Here’s the final question, then. Since we are conformed to Christ progressively and not all at once, therefore Christians are going to sin. There are no sinless Christians in action. “If you say you have no sin, you’re a liar,” John said (see 1 John 1:8–10). What should our attitude be, then, toward our ongoing acts and attitudes and words of sin?
No genuine Christian who loves Christ can be cavalier about the very thing Christ died to abolish — namely, our sin. That would be one mistake we could make: we could be cavalier in our attitude. “Well, he died to forgive them all, so they don’t really matter, because they’re all covered by blood.” No true Christian talks like that about his own sin.
“Confessing is not a payment. It is simply an agreement with God that this was an ugly and unworthy thing for me to do.”
But the other mistake would be to panic and feel that with every sin, there needs to be a new redemption, a new sacrifice, a new penance. And I mention penance because that might be what some people feel or believe must occur.…“I have to pay something, right? I have to pay something. I have to make this right.” That would be a great mistake. The payment was perfect. You can’t add to it at all. You can’t add to your sin-covering at all.
Instead, what the New Testament says, in 1 John 1:9, is this: “If we confess” — and I’m underlining that word confess. Repentance or penance might not be the most helpful word here. Just stick with John’s word. Confess means “agree with,” “see it the way God sees it,” “feel about it the way God feels about it.” So John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
So confessing is not a payment. It is simply an agreement with God that this was an ugly and unworthy thing for me to do, and I’m ashamed of it. I’m sorry for it. I turn from it. I embrace the finished, complete, perfect, once-for-all work of Christ afresh. I rest in it. I enjoy the fellowship that he secured.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.