A falsehood spreading among the Christian church today is that at our conversion, Jesus forgives not only our past sins, but also our present and future sins—those we haven’t even committed yet.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll hear something along these lines, “Jesus has already forgiven all our sins—past, present, and future.” This is patently false.
Now to be clear, Jesus’ death was indeed a sacrifice given once for all sin. He is not sacrificed over and over again into eternity. However, just because Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient for all sins that ever were and ever will be committed does not mean that all sins are automatically forgiven. This would be universalism. No, rather it means that the opportunity for forgiveness exists for all mankind, with conditions for God’s forgiveness based on each individual’s response to the gospel.
As Christians, when we are born anew, Jesus’ death provides forgiveness for all the sins we’ve committed up to that point, while also creating a means of forgiveness should we sin in the future. Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice does not, however, mean that our future sins are already forgiven prior to being committed.
Forgiveness in both the Old and New Testaments is only for past sins. As born-again Christians, we are taught to regularly to ask for God’s forgiveness when we sin. We seek this forgiveness through coming humbly before God in true repentance and confessing our sin before Him. This is a foundation teaching of Christianity. One that has been taught in the early church through present time. It has been accepted by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants, showing it’s a core historical teaching of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination.
In this post, we’ll cover the following points:
- According to Scripture, God’s Forgiveness Is For Past Sins Alone
- Repentance and Confession Are Required for Continued Forgiveness
- These Conditions (Confession & Repentance) Limit Forgiveness to Past Sins Alone
- Historical Church Universally Taught Confession for Forgiveness of Past Sin
1. According to Scripture, God’s Forgiveness Is For Past Sins Alone
One of the clearest scriptures regarding what sins are forgiven when we become Christians is found in 2 Peter 1. Peter, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes that if we possess godly qualities, we will be “neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v 8) However, regarding those who do not have these spiritual traits, Peter writes:
He who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. (2 Peter 1:9)
Peter clearly specifies that Christians have been purified—not from their future sins—but from their past sins, the sins formerly committed.
James also makes it clear that saved believers can have sins that are not yet forgiven. He encourages elders to pray for those who are sick in the church, and “if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” (James 5:15) A saved believer can have unforgiven sins which, according to James, can cause sickness, proving that future sins are not already forgiven. The elders are instructed to pray over such person for them to receive forgiveness.
This foundational truth, that only past sins are covered, is woven throughout scripture. In Ezekiel, we read that God will forgive unfaithful Israel for all their sins they had committed in the past, establishing an eternal covenant with them.
Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done,” the Lord God declares. (Ezekiel 16:62-63)
Just as Peter and James both clarify that only our past sins are forgiven, Ezekiel states the same truth. God says that He will establish a covenant, “when I have forgiven you for all that have done.” He is not forgiving all that they will do in the future, but rather all that the have done in the past.
2. Repentance and Confession Are Required for Continued Forgiveness
The cleansing of past sins alone is reinforced by God’s requirements for forgiveness seen in all of scripture, in both the Old and New Testament. We are forgiven by the blood of Jesus—not by our own deeds or worthiness. However, in order to receive the cleansing benefit of Jesus’ sacrifice, we must abide by the conditions set by God himself—namely true repentance and confession of our sins before Him which accompany true faith.
Examples in the Old Testament. Repentant confession before receiving forgiveness was illustrated throughout the Mosaic Law, which was a shadow of the reality we now know in Christ. On each Day of Atonement, Aaron was instructed to “lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins.” (Lev. 16:21) Confession of sin prior to atonement was required for all guilt offerings.
King David writes of confession and subsequent forgiveness in the Psalms:
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalms 32:5)
Finally, in Proverbs, we read that, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” (Proverbs 28:13) In the Hebrew scriptures, confession and forsaking of sin (repentance) is a condition upon receiving God’s mercy.
Examples in the New Testament. The requirement of confession and repentance continues in the New Testament. We all know the words of the Lord’s prayer. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Mt. 6:12) This is another way of asking God to forgive our sins.
This prayer was not given for the lost, but for Jesus’ disciples. It teaches us, as followers of Jesus, to regularly ask for God’s forgiveness, not only at conversion, but whenever we sin in our Christian walk. If we were already forgiven when we sin, there would be no need to pray this prayer. However, Jesus taught us that even born again Christians must readily acknowledge their sin before a Holy God in order to receive forgiveness.
The apostles and earliest church leaders also taught believers to confess their sins. James, the brother of Jesus, admonishes church members to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
Similarly, John writes:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Clearly, our forgiveness and cleansing from sin is contingent upon repentant confession before God.
3. These Conditions (Confession & Repentance) Limit Forgiveness to Past Sins Alone
These required conditions for our forgiveness—repentance and confession—also are clear evidence that God’s forgiveness is for past sins alone, not present or future transgressions. This is simply because we can only repent and confess sins already committed.
Present sins, by definition, are those actions of disobedience that are being committed the very same moments we are seeking God’s forgiveness. Since no one can be simultaneously sinning and repenting, this shows “present” sins are not forgiven by God. Only when a person ceases to commit the sin and confesses them before God can their wrong-doing be atoned for.
Regarding future disobedience, it is impossible to repent and confess of such sin, thus barring the possibility of forgiveness. First, we don’t know what those future sins are, so we can’t confess them. Secondly, we can’t truly repent before God for sin we plan on committing in the future, since repentance consists of truly turning away from sin. God, who knows our deepest thoughts, isn’t fooled.
4. Historical Church Universally Taught Confession for Forgiveness of Past Sins
In agreement with scripture, the church has universally taught from the early church until today that a Christian’s confession of sins before God is required to receive forgiveness, even after baptism. Different denominations vary on the particulars, but the foundational truths stay the same. The Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and various other Protestant denominations have all taught that confession of sin for the believer is necessary to continue to receive forgiveness of sin.
This requirement of confession, as we’ve shown, is based on the teaching that sin committed after conversion or baptism is not automatically atoned for. God requires the believer to recognize when they sin, repent, and confess for forgiveness.
Likely the earliest Christian document outside of scripture, the Didache (70 AD), mentions confession of sin twice. Describing the way that leads to eternal life, it says, “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience.” (Didache; 4.14) And later, describing a church service and communion, “On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.” (Didache; 14.1)
Ignatius (35-108 AD), a prominent Christian bishop on his way to martyrdom in Rome, wrote to many churches with final encouragements. To the church Philadelphia, Ignatius warned the Christians there to cease divisiveness and repent for forgiveness:
For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop. (Ignatius to the Philadelphians; 8.1)
In later years, after the schism in 1054 AD, both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions still taught confession for sin. After the Reformation, public and private confession was also taught in Lutheran churches. More recently, private confession has since ceased to be practiced, but the Lutheran liturgy still includes a call for confession prior to communion. While the more liturgical traditions often require coming before a spiritual leader to confess sin, many Protestant denominations teach that Christians can confess their sins directly to God without an intermediary.
I point out this historical evidence for the sake of perspective. Confession and repentance of past sin after conversion has been taught by nearly all denominations of Christianity. The idea that future sins are already or automatically forgiven is foreign to the Christian faith and is contrary to the clear scriptural evidence already presented here.
Scripture teaches us that when we are forgiven, whether at our conversion or later as Christians, this forgiveness is only for past sins—not those yet to be committed in the future. Should we sin after being filled with the Holy Spirit, we must repent from this sin and confess our sins to Jesus. He is our advocate with God the Father. (1 John 2:1)
Every day we must seek to live a holy life in Jesus, putting off all sin. If there is an area of disobedience, whatever it is, we must completely stop and confess it. This isn’t optional, but is a necessity as Christians. In Revelations, Jesus warned those believers in Pergamum who were living in sin, “Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.” (Rev. 2:16)
Eternity is at stake here, which is why repentance and confession is so important. We can’t presume upon God that our future sins are already forgiven, because they’re not according to His word.