It has been an ancient question: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Genesis records God speaking forth birds on the fifth day, and my childhood pictorial Bible shows no eggs in the Garden of Eden. However, I suppose the Sovereign Creator could speak forth an egg that is immediately hatched. Frankly, I am not sure, but at this point I am going with the chicken before the egg, but I hope I do not end up with egg on my face.
Here is a much more important question to ponder: Which comes first, man’s confession or God’s forgiveness?
There are many who believe man’s confession must precede God’s forgiveness, and they do so with good scriptural support:
Jeremiah 36:3 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.”
Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,
Luke 17:3-5 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” ….
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.
There are also those who believe God’s forgiveness precedes man’s confession. I am one of these, and I believe we too stand on solid biblical ground.
Consider the attitude of Moses, the Old Testament type of Christ. He appeared to pray for pardon before the people requested such:
Numbers 14:19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
Consider the instruction of the wisest man on earth, the one who was inspired of the Spirit. According to his teaching, it was laudable to forgive and overlook an offense, whether or not one confessed his transgression.
Proverbs 19:11 A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.
From the cross, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness for those who had not yet admitted, confessed, or turned from their sin. While in the process of being harmed, Jesus forgave them.
Luke 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
As was Jesus, so was Stephen:
Acts 7:60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
I also believe this second position to be correct because I can’t help notice throughout Scripture the prevenient love of God. God loved us before we loved him. He chose us before we chose him. He is the one who drew near to us before we drew near to him, and he called us to him before we called upon him. God regenerated us before we repented. He granted us faith before we believed, and our Holy God pardoned and forgave us before we confessed and asked forgiveness. As a matter of fact, he has already pardoned and forgiven us before our next sin.
Then, it is to this prevenient mercy and grace that we respond. We love him who first loved us. We choose him who first chose us. Yes, we draw near to him that he might draw near to us, and we call out to him who first called us. By grace we repent before him who regenerated us, and we believe in him who granted us faith. With our lips we covenant with him who has eternally covenanted with us, and for the rest of our days we will continue to freshly confess our sins and ask forgiveness of him who has already pardoned and forgiven us.
Donald Matzat says, “The forgiveness of sins is not about you and what you have or haven’t done. If you are not sure that your sins are forgiven, look to the cross of Jesus Christ … The forgiveness of sins through the shed blood of God’s Lamb is a finished reality. Our faith does not accomplish our forgiveness nor does faith add anything to it. Rather, our faith graps and clings to the truth that God has forgiven us for Jesus’ sake … The forgiveness of sins is not about you. You are not forgiven because you prayed the sinner’s prayer or because you went forward to get saved. You are not forgiven because you have repented of all your known sins. You are not forgiven because you have pleaded with God to forgive you or have been sincere in your contrition and sorrow over sin. Your sins are forgiven for just one reason – the Lamb has died!*
Brennan Manning speaks similarly, “The saved sinner is prostrate in adoration, lost in wonder and praise. He knows repentance is not what we do in order to earn forgiveness; it is what we do because we have been forgiven. It serves as an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness. Thus the sequence of forgiveness and then repentance, rather than repentance and then forgiveness, is crucial for understanding the Gospel of grace.”**
Oh friends, I am not seeking to deemphasize confession, the asking of forgiveness, and repentance. Throughout the scriptures, we are commanded to come before God and do so. It ought to be a daily practice for us to lament our transgressions with the Psalmist. When we pray, Jesus has taught us to request forgiveness from the Father. He has also told us to do so in the presence of our brothers. It is good for us to read God’s Law, understand both the letter and the spirit, state the sins of which we are aware, and run to the cross to enjoy the reconciliation purchased for us there. In every Lord’s Day worship service, we ought to sincerely practice the season of confession of sin. Too few churches are doing so. No, let us not confess less but more. It is fantastic for us to run home like the prodigal son and proclaim our wickedness. Regularly we ought to fall prostrate like the Roman centurion and the disappointing Simon Peter. For the worshiping believer, repentance is never a one-and-done thing. Confession, the asking of forgiveness, and repentance is our honorable and pleasing worship. Let’s do it more regularly and deeply. However, when we do confess our sins, let us not imagine ourselves standing before an aloof judge or angry father. He hates sin, but he loves his children with an unalterable love. Let us confess our sins and jump into his arms. Let us imagine ourselves like Simon Peter on Easter Sunday. Let us not gravel long in the dust. Let us not act as if we must beat ourselves up before we can enjoy his grace. There is no timeout in God’s church. There is no purgatory or season of proving required. Our repentance as not a ritualistic duty to earn something from God, but as a worshipful response to the one who has already cast our sins into the Sea of Forgetfulness. Of friends, we know our sins well. Guess what? He knows our sins even better for he has already claimed them as his own and died for them on Calvary’s cross. Therefore, let us talk with God early and often. Let’s confess our sins and enjoy hearing God say again and again, “You are already forgiven; you are indeed forgiven; you can’t be anything else than forgiven; for I see nothing but My Son’s righteousness on your account.”
Then, consider this verse and act accordingly:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13)
We are to forgive like Jesus. According to his teaching, we are to forgive the same sins over and over again. We are to do our best not to remember them and to throw them in the Sea of Forgetfulness. And we are to have the posture of the waiting father and the risen Lord; we are to forgive those who have sinned against us and wait patiently for the day of their confession and our reconciliation. Let us be so quick to forgive that we do so even before confession is made. Let us be so quick to forgive that we do so even if confession is never made. This will free us from bitterness. This will be a powerful witness to the watching world. This will delight Jesus as he sees us loving after his example, and this will result in more joyous families and churches.
Perhaps a final illustration will drive home how we have already been forgiven by God.
There was a little boy visiting his grandparents on their farm. He was given a slingshot to play without in the woods. He practiced in the woods, but he could never seem to hit the target. Getting a little discouraged, he headed back for dinner. As he was walking back home he saw Grandma’s pet duck. Out of impulse, he loaded the slingshot, let it fly, and somehow he hit Grandma’s duck square in the head. He killed it. The little boy was shocked and grieved. In a panic, he hid the dead duck in the woodpile. He thought no one had seen his action. However, his sister was watching! Sally had seen it all, but for the time being she determined to say nothing and keep the matter to herself. After lunch the next day Grandma said, “Sally, please wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Grandma, Johnny told me he really wanted to do the dishes and help in the kitchen.” Then Sally whispered to Johnny, “Remember the duck?” So Johnny did the dishes. Later that day, Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing and Grandma said, “I’m sorry but I need Sally to stay and help make supper.” Sally just smiled and said,” Well that’s all right because Johnny told me he wanted to help.” She whispered again, “Remember the duck?” So Sally went fishing and Johnny stayed to help. This went on for several days — Johnny doing both his chores and those of Sally. Finally, the day came when Johnny could stand it no longer. He came to his grandmother and confessed he had killed the duck and hidden it in the woodpile. Grandma knelt down, gave him a hug. Then she smiled and said, “Sweetheart, I know. You see, I was standing at the window and I saw the whole thing. But because I love you, I forgave you. I was just wondering how much longer you would remain shy and distant, beat yourself up, live a lie, and allow Sally to make a slave of you.”
Beloved of the Father, go to him right now, eagerly confess your sin and be reminded of his entire forgivness. Then, take that which you have received and pass it along to others. Freely you have received; freely give. Freely you have been forgiven, freely forgive.
* Donald Matzat, Modern Reformation, March April 2004, 31, “Why Should God Forgive Your Sins?”
** Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 75.