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In the Bible church where I grew up the study style was pretty academic. The pastor was as likely to spend pulpit time dissecting the seven tenses of the indicative mood of Greek verbs found in Hebrews and Romans as he was to talk about the simple plan of salvation. Although it was never said, it almost felt as if discussing the basics of salvation was beneath us. I remember thinking in those years that John 3:16 was kind of a beginner's verse, good enough for kids maybe, but mature Christians should realize that the Gospel is much more complicated. So I began to look for complexities and more profound truths.
At some point, it was explained to me, by some theological cave dweller, that salvation came by begging for forgiveness of sins, and it would only work if I was truly sorry. I was supposed to be broken over my sin and experience true remorse. Only then could I be saved. What a shock. I hadn't done this when I first believed, so I had to make up for lost time.
I would lay in bed each night and repeat this phrase over and over, “Lord, forgive me for my sins.” This little bedtime liturgy left me confused about what it took to have eternal life. Had I begged hard enough, or been remorseful enough? I remember trying to harmonize the idea that I was saved by faith, with the idea that I could only be saved by doing this ritual. I guess the bitter root of legalism had grown in around my faith-alone haven.
So, do you have to ask Jesus for forgiveness of your sins in order to be saved? The answer might surprise you. Think about what John the Baptist said about Jesus:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
Notice that John didn’t say, “the Lamb who will take away the sins once you ask for forgiveness.” John doesn’t indicate that Jesus needs our help or our permission to take away our sins. Instead, it’s Jesus and Jesus alone that takes away our sins.
The second thing worth noticing is whose sins are taken away. It’s the sins of the world. Not just your sins, not just the sins of those who beg for forgiveness are removed. Instead, it’s the world’s sins that were paid for on the cross. The world, while still clinging to the old habit of sin, no longer has to pay for their own sins. Jesus has done that already. Consider how John put it:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
Jesus paid for sins. Sin no longer is a barrier between God and man. Jesus handled it. Jesus paid for those sins, which is why it’s such a shame that anyone would deny the gift of eternal life. Think about how Peter phrased it:
Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God… (1 Peter 3:18)
Step one: take care of the world’s sin problem. Check. Jesus did it. It’s done. Sins are paid for. This is echoed by the writer of Hebrews when he says:
When this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:12)
There are dozens of theories of how Jesus' atonement worked. They are complicated and varied. However, I have my own theory. Don't worry; it's not complicated. It's almost comical in its simplicity. I call it Got It Done Atonement. Whatever God required concerning propitiation and atonement was met by the work of Jesus on the cross. Thus no other requirement but faith in Christ remains for mankind to fulfill. My attempt at an atonement theory is simply to say, I don't know exactly how it works, but I know it does.
Somehow, someway Jesus paid for the sins of the world in order to pave a path back to God. Now that Jesus has demolished the roadblock of sin and built the bridge back to God, all we must do is believe in Him for eternal life. It is belief, not begging for forgiveness, that bestows eternal life.
Is it wrong to ask God for the forgiveness of your sins? No, it's not wrong. In fact, it's an excellent thing for believers to do. The problem is, the Bible doesn't tell anyone they can get saved by asking for forgiveness. It's not the way to salvation. This is why the habit scares me. If you think you're saved because you asked Jesus for forgiveness, you've misunderstood the Gospel message. You're saved because you believed, not because you asked for forgiveness. Remember what Paul said:
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Romans 4:5)
When you believe in Jesus you get a righteousness credit. You're seen by God as having Jesus' perfection. This is not because you felt sorry for your sin and begged for forgiveness. This is because you believed that Jesus is the Savior, the life giver and that he's given eternal life to you. When you believe that, one of the by-products is that you receive righteousness.
So if you’re like I was, laying in bed at night begging God to forgive you so that you can be saved, then you’ve misunderstood what it takes to be saved. You get forgiveness automatically when you believe.
Now, this comes with a caveat. If you are a believer, you ought to be asking God for forgiveness on a regular basis, but it has nothing to do with whether you are saved or not. It has everything to do with the quality of your relationship with Him, and with others.
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