Although sin separates us from a holy and sinless God, we can be grateful that our sins can be forgiven and forgotten (Ps. 32:5; 130:3-4; Heb. 10:17). Before answering the question, we should realise that there are two main types of confession and forgiveness in Scripture. One is when an unbeliever comes into faith in Christ and the other is when they confess sins committed subsequently as a believer.
In the first case, we face Jesus Christ as the judge and the penalty of our sins is spiritual death, which leads to hell. When this person confesses their sins they are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for their sins – past, present and future. Their destiny changes from hell to heaven and they can enjoy daily fellowship with God. This can be called judicial, unconditional or positional forgiveness, which happens once in a believer’s life (Rom. 8:1-2; Heb. 10:14).
In the second case, the person has sinned, but is spiritually alive. This is the situation in the case of the question. As part of God’s family on earth, they are separated from God the Father in terms of daily fellowship, but they are not separated from going to heaven as the penalty for their sin has already been paid. When this person confesses their sins they are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for all their sins and their daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. This can be called parental, conditional or practical forgiveness, which should occur regularly in a believer’s life (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2). This is the kind of forgiveness that the Lord’s disciples were to practise: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12, 14-15NIV). It includes forgiving others: God cannot forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive one another (Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37). If we fail to forgive one another, we will miss being rewarded when we get to heaven (Mt. 18:35).
The two types of forgiveness were illustrated when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13:2-10). As they wore open sandals, the disciples needed to wash their feet regularly after walking on dusty roads even though they may have bathed recently. The bath was like judicial forgiveness and the feet washing was like parental forgiveness.
William MacDonald summarized the differences between the two types of forgiveness as follows:
|Judicial forgiveness||Parental forgiveness|
|Person’s status||Sinner (unbeliever)
|Child of God (believer) (1 Jn. 3:2)|
|RelationshipTo God||Judge (Ps. 96:13)||Father (Gal. 4:6)|
|Result of sin||Eternal death (Rom. 6:23)||Broken fellowship (1 Jn. 1:6)
Prayers hindered (Ps. 66:18)
|Role of Christ||Savior (1 Tim. 1:15)||High Priest (Heb. 4:4-16)
Advocate (1 Jn. 2:1)
|Means of forgiveness||Faith (Acts 16:31)||Confession (1 Jn. 1:9)|
|Consequence averted||Hell (Jn. 5:24)||Discipline (1 Cor. 11:31-32)
Loss of reward (1 Cor. 3:15)
|Outcome||New relationship (Jn. 1:12)||Renewed fellowship (Ps. 32:5)|
|Frequency||Once (Jn. 13:10)||Many times (Jn. 13:8)|
Therefore, although a Christian’s unconfessed sins affects their relationship with God, they are still a child of God whose ultimate destiny is heaven.
Written, February 2012