Is forgiveness continual or just once and for all?

Home >  Full Study List >  Is forgiveness continual or just once and for all?
Question / Comment - Is forgiveness continual or just once and for all? 

I have an important question for you. This question is along the line of forgiveness. I am twenty-three years old, and all my life I have been around the Bible. I have been instructed in a Christian home, a Christian church, and a Christian school. I am also a recent graduate of a Bible college where I studied in preparation foreign missions. Here is my question: I know that when temptation comes, I have the power to choose whether I will act on that temptation so that it becomes sin in my life (James 1:15) or whether I will conquer that temptation through Jesus Christ (I Cor 10:13; Heb 2:18). According to the doctrine of eternal security, my choice at the time of temptation does not affect my salvation since I have already been saved. However, we also know that any person with unforgiven sin in his or her heart cannot go to Heaven. Jesus said in Matthew 6:15, "But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matt 18:35, Mar 11:25-26, and Luke 6:37 have similar statements.) So what happens if someone wrongs me and I choose not to forgive them after I have been saved? The doctrine of eternal security indicates that I have already been forgiven for my sin of unforgiveness, but Jesus Himself said that I will not be forgiven until I forgive the one who has wronged me. Could you please explain this situation to me? I would like some insight from your perspective.
Question: I get confused by the once and all forgiveness that some passages seem to offer, and the continual need for forgiveness that other passages seem to indicate. Any thoughts?

JPN Reply:


thanks for the email and question. It is obviously an important issue and one that confuses quite a few people. I would ask that you have a read of the following question already on the website as it is very important that you understand and differentiate between the once and for all forgiveness and our daily forgiveness. Or, in other words, judicial forgiveness and parental forgiveness. Or, to say it one more way, the difference between Peter being 'clean' but still needing his feet washed when they are dirty. (John 13:6-12)

I hope this question and answer (by the late Bible teacher and author William MacDonald in his book 'Here's the difference') does help you because from what you have written you don't grasp the difference yet. That is not meant to be a criticism so please don't take it that way. It is just a very important concept so I would ask you to look the passages up and think about the differences. Personally, I think I would be a wreck if I believed that I would go to Hell if I died with some unconfessed sin in my life. The reason being is that I'm sure it is going to happen!

Thankfully, in terms of my eternal salvation the Lord does not look upon His believers, His children, in those terms. Jesus is our righteousness. He is our standing before the Father and so we are spotless in His sight. And that is the truth of the amazing gospel... God's amazing grace. Yes we continue to sin, miss the mark, and their is a continual spiritual battle going on. When our Father puts his finger upon something we should acknowledge and confess it before Him and turn from it. But this is all 'in the family' stuff. This is a righteous and loving Father dealing wisely with an erring child. But they are always His child!

I must say that a lot of people's understanding on this issue of forgiveness is cloudy. The following is from a book called 'Here's the difference' by William MacDonald. I think it should help clear up any misunderstanding. Hope this helps! All the best.


Two different kinds of forgiveness are found in the Scriptures, and if we are going to be careful students of the Word, we must learn to distinguish them. We will call them judicial and parental forgiveness (though these names themselves are not used in the Bible). To put it very simply, judicial forgiveness is the forgiveness of a judge and parental forgiveness is the forgiveness of a father. The first term is taken from the courtroom and the second from the home. First let us go to the courtroom. God is the Judge and sinful man is the person on trial. Man is guilty of sinning, and the penalty is eternal death. But the Lord Jesus appears and announces, "I will pay the penalty which man's sins deserved; I will die as a Substitute for him!" This is what the Savior did on the Cross of Calvary. Now the Judge announces to sinful man, -if you will surrender to my Son as your Lord and Savior, I will forgive you." As soon as the man puts his faith in the Savior, he receives judicial forgiveness of all his sins. He will never have to pay the punishment for them in hell, because Christ has. paid it all. The forgiven sinner now enters into a new relationship: God is no longer his Judge; now He is his Father.
So now we move into the home for an illustration of parental forgiveness. God is the Father and the believer is the child. In an unguarded moment, the child commits an act of sin. Then what happens? Does God sentence the child to die for the sin? Of course not, because God is no longer the Judge, but the Father! What does happen? Well, fellowship in the family is broken. The happy family spirit is gone. The child has not lost his salvation, but he has lost the joy of his salvation. Soon he may experience the discipline of his Father, designed to bring him back into fellowship. As soon as the child confesses his sin, he receives parental forgiveness.
Judicial forgiveness takes place once-for-all at the time of conversion; parental forgiveness takes place every time a believer confesses and forsakes his sin. This is what Jesus taught in John 13:8-10: we need the bath of regeneration only once to deliver us from the penalty of sins, but we need many cleansings throughout our Christian lives to give us parental forgiveness.

The difference between the two types of forgiveness may be summarized graphically as follows:

Judicial Parental 
The Person's Status Sinner
( Romans 3:23 )
( 1 John 3:2 )
Relationship of God Judge
( Psa. 96:13 )
( Gal. 4:6 )
Result of sin Eternal death
( Rom. 6:23 )
Broken fellowship
( 1 John 1:6 )
Role of Christ Savior
( 1 Tim. 1:15 )
High Priest and Advocate
( Heb. 4:14-1 1 John 2:1 )
The Person's Need Salvation
( Acts 16.30 )
Joy of salvation
( Psa. 51:12 )
Means of Forgiveness Faith
( Acts 16:31 )
( 1 John 1:9 )
Kind of Forgiveness Judicial
( Rom. 8:1 )
( Luke 15:21,22 )
Consequence Averted Hell
( John 5:24 )
( 1 Cor. 11:31,32 )
Loss of reward at the Judgment Seat Of Christ
( 1 Cor. 3:15 )
Positive Result New relation-ship
(John 1 :12)
Renewed fellow-ship
( Psa. 32:5 )
Frequency Once (One bath of regeneration)
(John 13;10)
Many times (many cleansings)
( John 13:8 )

From now on, when we come to verses that speak about the once-for-all forgiveness that is granted to us as sinners through the work of Christ, we will know that the subject is judicial forgiveness. The following illustrate this:

  • In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace (Eph. 1:7).

    And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:32 RSV).

    And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses (Col. 2:13).

However, there are other passages of Scripture that deal with parental forgiveness:
  • For if ye forgive men their trespasses , your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14, 15).

    Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37).

    And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any, that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses (Mark 11:25).

Notice that in two of these verses God is specifically mentioned as Father: it is the Father's forgiveness that is involved. Notice also that our being forgiven depends on our willingness to forgive others. That is not true of judicial forgiveness; willingness to forgive others is not a condition of salvation. But it is true of parental forgiveness; our Father will not forgive us if we don't forgive one another.
In Matthew 18:23-35 The Lord Jesus told the story of a slave who had been forgiven 10,000 talents by the king. But that same slave wouldn't forgive one of his fellow-slaves 100 pence. The king was therefore angry with him and delivered him to the jailers till he paid all his debt. The Lord Jesus concluded the parable by saying, "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." Here again it is a matter of the Father's forgiveness. It is sin to have an unforgiving spirit, and God cannot forgive us parentally until we confess that sin and forsake it.
One of the thrills of Bible study is to see these basic distinctions and to be able to apply them in our daily reading. From now on when you come to the subject of forgiveness in the Word you should be able to say, "Oh, yes, that refers to judicial forgiveness" or else "that must refer to the Father's forgiveness of His child."
Question/Comment on the above from a separate reader: 

Kind folks,
I read your commentary on Judicial vs. Parental forgiveness and have a follow-up comment:

Many Christians today believe that "Asking God for Forgiveness" is the same as confession. By separating two different types of forgiveness I believe we water down what happened at the cross. Total forgiveness. "It is finished".

Perhaps shouldn't we approach this teaching that God's forgiveness was complete at the cross and when we put our faith in Christ we receive the benefits of that forgiveness. (eternal life, joy, peace and fellowship). Confession (seeing our sin as God sees us) allows us to experience the benefits of fellowship that we do not experience when we live in sin, but confession does not impart on us a different type of forgiveness for without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness - Hebrews.

Christians today are paralyzed by fear because they view themselves as responsible for "remaining clean" by asking God to forgive them. If they just realize that they have been forgiven and acknowledge sin as it occurs as missing the mark, the benefits of being forgiven are realized (joy, peace and fellowship) and they exists in all the glory of the eternal life that God provided through faith alone.

I John 1:9 is saying that because God is faithful to the forgiveness and cleansing provided at the cross (a past action with continuing consequence), confession allows us to live in the benefits of that.

I just have a concern that believing that we need to obtain a second type of forgiveness from God places a responsibility on us that God never intended. Grace is what provided forgiveness - We never need to ask for forgiveness to get it from God. Even when Adam sinned, it was God who went to Adam to restore the fellowship and by getting Adam to see his sin as God sees it (confess), Adam returned to the fellowship that he withdrew and was hiding from.

The issue is that when we blow it we should say "Wow, Christ died for that sin 2000 years ago and I don't want to live like this, thank you God for the forgiveness you have provided, please help me to overcome the lie that led me to believe that doing xyz was better for me than your doing it your way". A heart sown with gratitude through confession will reap joy and peace with God.

Just a few thoughts from a hungry Christian.

JPN Reply:


thanks for the email. I don't think we are too far apart but obviously we do see this point differently. I used to think exactly as you have described below. Especially after reading 'Classic Christianity' and 'Growing in grace' by Bob George. I am not sure if you have read those books... overall they are very good and I really enjoyed them and recommended them to others. (And I still recommend them on my website.) He says, as you have below, that we should not ask for forgiveness anymore. He emphasises the finished work of Christ and there is a lot in his book that will benefit Christians. But I now see things a bit differently concerning ongoing forgiveness and confession.

The reasons for this are (just briefly):

The Lord's prayer - Jesus taught the disciples to ask for forgiveness in the Lord's prayer. (Luke 11:1-4) There is nothing in the prayer that tells me it was meant to be a prayer up until the cross only. Everything in it seems like a great template for Jesus' disciples then and His disciples now. If Jesus taught us to ask for forgiveness from God wouldn't this contradict your comment that 'We never need to ask for forgiveness to get it from God.'?
John 1:9 - Both the forgiveness and cleansing in 1 John 1:9 are active as we confess. They aren't past tense. (I believe Bob George even says this verse isn't for Christians but the gnostics of John's time which I don't agree with).

None of this undermines the finished work of Jesus. All of it is based on that work! And this ongoing 'parental' forgiveness in no way undermines the believers justification or eternal standing in righteousness before God because of the cross. But just as we are 'clean' or 'made perfect forever' (Heb 10:14) so as we continue to walk in this world the dirt rubs off on us! We are clean as Jesus taught (because of the finished work of Christ) but we still need ongoing cleansing of our feet because of our walk in this world (which often results in worldly thoughts and actions) - this is what Jesus taught in John 13. I think it is a great example of how we can be clean once and for all but still require ongoing cleansing from time to time. Forgiveness I believe is the same.

John Macarthur has a sermon on this here if interested. I found it cos I was looking for Bob George's teaching on forgiveness (apologies if you haven't heard of him... it's just that your email reminded me of what I had read in his book):

For what it is worth, I don't go around wondering whether I am currently 'clean' or not. I know I am by the work of Jesus on my behalf. I know that I am righteous in Christ. But I also realise that there are times when God puts His finger on something and I do need to come before Him and confess it and ask for forgiveness for it. And I receive the forgiveness and cleansing mentioned in 1 John 1 as He has promised. My sin doesn't affect my standing or eternal relationship with God. But it can affect my daily fellowship with Him if I choose to live in it and not confess it. In my experience, the Christians today that are "paralyzed by fear because they view themselves as responsible for remaining clean" know very little about the fact that they have been made perfect forever and have been given the righteousness of Christ. They need to learn this. Then confessing and asking for forgiveness from their Father in Heaven is not going to cause such fears.

That's how I see it anyway. As I said at the start, I don't think we are too far apart on this. Both of us obviously desire to know and walk in the finished work of Jesus.

All the best as you continue to walk in His ways, and thanks for the email. Very thought provoking!

Their Reply:

I believe you hit the nail on the head if I understand this right. Cleaning is fully of Christ not of ourselves. It is our response of confession of sin that allows that cleaning to result in joy, peace and fellowship.

I thank you for your thoughtful response. It is extremely helpful.

JPN Reply

Thanks for the reply. You are right that it is Christ who cleanses and we simply need to be honest and confess as He puts His finger on something.

I'm glad you were helped by my response.

May God Bless.
Someone else's email comment:

This is the most beautiful explanation on forgiveness that I have ever seen!I am no longer confused, but confident!God bless you!

Another email comment:

The cross is the dividing line between law and grace, before the cross Jesus was teaching under the old covenant were forgiveness is conditional Matthew 6:14,15.

At the cross, when Jesus died He ushered in the New Covenant through His death, burial and resurrection.

The grace message of what Paul preached, that God reconciled us 2 Corinthian 5:19 no longer counting our sins against us ( good news ) Its not that we ask God to forgive as but He has already forgiven us. Ephesians 2:8 the gift of God. Its not us asking for forgiveness but receiving Him Jesus as Lord and Savior through faith. In Him (Christ )we have redemption through His blood the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace ( not according to our asking for forgiveness ) Ephesians 1:7

Forgiveness is in Christ, It is finished once and for all. Our sins will not break our fellowship with God because God is He that called us into fellowship and He is faithful 1 Corinthians 1:9

God is not relying on us to keep ourselves in fellowship because he knows e can't. Sin is the result of not living by faith in the Son of God. For whatever is not of faith is sin. The just shall live by faith.Forgiveness is not the issue. The issue is are we living by faith. Sins only indicates we are not.

JPN Reply:


thanks for the email and the thoughts on this issue. I appreciate you taking the time to do so. I used to believe basically exactly as you have described below, and would still agree with most of it but not all. Believe me... I love grace! Always have and desire to teach Christians about their position in Christ because of what happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

However I don't agree that when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He taught them a prayer that was only good for 3 years and then would no longer apply! Though I agree that we have been forgiven of all sins, we have been justified from all things and cleansed once and for all, there is still an ongoing entering into that as we confess our sins and yes, ask for forgiveness as the need arises. Though we have been forgiven of all sins, we can still grieve the Spirit of God and that shouldn't be taken lightly. Concerning the need for repeated 'washings' this is what Jesus taught with the washing of Peter's feet in that He said Peter was clean (the once and for all), yet repeated washings where still necessary for his feet as he walked in this world. And it is what we see in 1 John 1:9 which is for Christians. Concerning this verse, the Bible Knowledge Commentary (which, being associated with Dallas Theological Seminary has a good grasp on grace and the believers position in Christ) states the following below which is relevant...

All the best.


Bible Knowledge Commentary: 

In modern times some have occasionally denied that a Christian needs to confess his sins and ask forgiveness. It is claimed that a believer already has forgiveness in Christ (Eph_1:7). But this point of view confuses the perfect position which a Christian has in God’s Son (by which he is even "seated… with Him in the heavenly realms" [Eph_2:6]) with his needs as a failing individual on earth. What is considered in 1Jn_1:9 may be described as "familial" forgiveness. It is perfectly understandable how a son may need to ask his father to forgive him for his faults while at the same time his position within the family is not in jeopardy. A Christian who never asks his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the ways in which he grieves his Father. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus Himself taught His followers to seek forgiveness of their sins in a prayer that was obviously intended for daily use (cf. the expression "give us today our daily bread" preceding "forgive us our debts," Mat_6:11-12). The teaching that a Christian should not ask God for daily forgiveness is an aberration. Moreover, confession of sin is never connected by John with the acquisition of eternal life, which is always conditioned on faith. 1Jn_1:9 is not spoken to the unsaved, and the effort to turn it into a soteriological affirmation is misguided. It may also be said that so long as the idea of walking in the light or darkness is correctly understood on an experiential level, these concepts offer no difficulty. "Darkness" has an ethical meaning (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "skotos," 7:444). When a believer loses personal touch with the God of light, he begins to live in darkness. But confession of sin is the way back into the light.

Related Series Posts