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Forgiveness in eternity and in time

In your recent article “Antinomians? Without a doubt (7)” (SB, volume 99, July 2023), you remark regarding the eternal nature of the forgiveness of sins: First, “If we present ourselves to God for pardon, it is evident that pardon takes place in time and not in eternity” (p. 424). Second, “If seeking God’s forgiveness is to be a response to the experience of His heavy hand on us, clearly God’s forgiveness takes place in our lifetime and not eternally” (p. 425). Finally, “For if forgiveness takes place in eternity, what need is there for repentance in the lifetime of the Christian?” (p. 425).

Can you please explain how these reconcile with the historic position of the PRC as stated by Herman Hoeksema and Homer Hoeksema below?

We must understand, too, that in God this act of forgiveness is eternal. In him this act of mercy and grace whereby he ordained his Son to be the head of the church, so that he might represent them in the hour of judgment and might bear their sins and iniquities and take them away forever, is from everlasting to everlasting…. And therefore, there is, there eternally is, forgiveness with God.… That eternal mercy, the sovereign good pleasure of God, is the ultimate fountain of all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ…. Deny the truth of sovereign, eternal election, and you deny the truth of the atonement of Christ and of the forgiveness of sins. Deny the truth that the blessing of the forgiveness of sins is eternal in God, and you must also deny that there is remission of sins in time. (H. Hoeksema, I Believe: Sermons on the Apostles’ Creed [Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2023], 272)

In the second place, the article asserts that by such enormous sins the saints incur a deadly guilt. We immediately wonder, of course how this assertion can stand in the light of the fact that in the cross the saints are forever and perfectly justified from all sin, and that by the blood of Christ they are purged from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing. We probably wonder how this statement can stand in the light of the fact that the saints are justified from all eternity in the counsel of God. In reply, we state, in the first place, that whether we can explain this statement or not, we all know by experience that it is true. On account of our sins, we are guilty and feel that we are guilty. Otherwise, we would never pray, “Forgive us our debts.” In the second place, we hasten to add that the statement does not refer to our objective position before the bar of God’s justice: from this point of view, we are forever justified. But, in the third place, we must remember: 1) That all these sins are in themselves worthy of death. 2) That the saints feel the guilt of their sins before God. 3) That as long as the soul does not get rid of its burden of sin through confession and the seeking of forgiveness through the blood of Calvary, that soul must carry the burden of guilt. 4) That, therefore, in the case of gross sins for which the saints do not immediately come to repentance, sins in which they walk, sins which go unconfessed for a time, the result can only be that the saints feel themselves to be in a state of damnation. And when finally they come to the spiritual consciousness of these sins, the saints can give expression to this very hopeless feeling. In fact, we must remember that this is fundamentally true of any one of our sins. As long as it goes unconfessed, as long as we do not get rid of it in the prayer for forgiveness, we can only feel a deadly guilt. (H.C. Hoeksema, “Exposition of the Canons, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Of the Perseverance of the Saints” [SB, volume 35, December 15, 1958], 137)

I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, “…repentance is the way to the enjoyment of our reconciliation with God.” By renewed faith we lay hold again on that which is eternally real and accomplished at the cross; in heartfelt repentance we again experience the joy of being united with Christ in full fellowship with our God.

With love and respect, Your brother in Christ,

Doug Mingerink, Sr. Wyoming, M

Response:

Dear brother,

Here follows my reply to your letter.

1. It is worth pointing out that the “historic position of the PRC” does not begin with Herman Hoeksema. As Hoeksema himself frequently insisted, our tradition as churches goes back to John Calvin. Before we were Protestant Reformed, we were Reformed. And the Reformed tradition has its roots in Calvin. For that reason, the last several articles that I have written in the series, “Antinomians? Without a Doubt,” have been saturated with Calvin—what he wrote in his Institutes, his commentaries, his class lectures, and his stirring prayers. All your quotes of my statements in these articles are really only summary responses to what Calvin taught. If you have a concern, it would seem that your concern is with Calvin more than with me. Nonetheless, Hoeksema is in complete agreement with Calvin in his doctrine of repentance, and the relation between repentance and forgiveness, as my contribution in the following pages demonstrates. I encourage you to read it as part of my response to your letter.

2. From a certain point of view, my answer could simply be the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” When we pray the fifth petition, are we thanking God for a forgiveness we already have in eternity? Or rather, are we petitioning God to supply some great need that we have in the present, at the time that we pray? The latter is undoubtedly the case.

3. There is no question that justification and the forgiveness of sins have their source in God’s eternal decree of election. About that there may not be any disagreement. Calvin taught this and this is the teaching of our Reformed creeds, resting as they do on the foundation of Calvin’s teaching. For this reason, Herman Hoeksema writes that God’s sovereign good pleasure “is the ultimate fountain of all spiritual blessings.” And for this reason, if you deny “the truth that the blessing of the forgiveness of sins is eternal in God,… you must also deny that there is remission of sins in time.”

4. The justification and forgiveness that I am concerned with at present in my articles is justification in time, what is referred to in Reformed theology as justification in foro conscientiae, that is, in the forum of the sinner’s conscience. This is the justification illustrated by our Lord in His parable of the Pharisee and the publican. About the publican who was repentant over his sins before God, Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14). In the quotation in your letter from H.C. Hoeksema, he speaks of the sinner’s need for forgiveness during his lifetime: “That as long as the soul does not get rid of its burden of sin through confession and the seeking of forgiveness through the blood of Calvary, that soul must carry the burden of guilt” through life. In Lord’s Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which deals with justification, we are taught that although our conscience accuse us, God testifies in our consciousness that out of mere grace He “grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had nor committed any sin.” That “granting and imputing” clearly take place in the lifetime of the believer. Over and over again, the Scriptures teach that we are justified by faith. That underscores that forgiveness (justification) takes place in the lifetime of the believer. Prof. D. Engelsma says in his book, Gospel Truth of Justification, “Faith is the means by which God grants, and the sinner receives, the righteousness of Christ by imputation in the sinner’s own consciousness, so that the sinner is himself aware and assured of his forgiveness and righteousness” (127). A little later he says, “When the elect but guilty sinner believes, God pronounces the verdict, ‘Not guilty!’ into the sinner’s soul by means of the sinner’s faith, thus changing the sinner’s state, or legal standing before the heavenly judge, from guilt to innocence in the sinner’s consciousness” (128). And later, in a chapter in which he contrasts justification and sanctification, he says that “justification is a legal act in the consciousness of the believing sinner, declaring him righteous before God….” (448. In every instance the emphasis is mine.)

5. If I understand your letter correctly, you are raising the issue of eternal justification over against what Calvin taught regarding forgiveness in time. Everyone should be clear what the teaching of “eternal justification” is. It is not the teaching that our justification is eternally decreed. Among Reformed and Presbyterian brethren there may not be disagreement over this truth. But those who defend “eternal justification” teach that the sinner’s actual justification before God takes place in eternity. Those who deny eternal justification appeal to Scripture’s oft repeated phrase that we are justified “by faith.” Justification by faith is temporal justification— justification in the lifetime of the believing sinner. Among Reformed theologians, there has always been brotherly disagreement over whether or not it is proper to maintain eternal justification. Francis Turretin, a successor of Calvin in Geneva, refers to some who teach that justification is actually executed eternally. While he agrees that justification was decreed eternally, Turretin insists that the actual execution of God’s decree occurs during the believer’s lifetime. The two nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed stalwarts, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, disagreed over eternal justification. Kuyper maintained the doctrine, whereas Bavinck rejected it. Herman Hoeksema maintained eternal justification, although his contemporary, Louis Berkhof, rejected it. Among Protestant Reformed clergy there is difference of opinion on what has always been viewed as a non-confessional issue. For further reading on eternal justification, I recommend Prof. Engelsma’s book, Gospel Truth of Justification, chapter thirteen, “Justified, When?”

I hope that I have answered your concerns. Thanks for your letter.

Cordially in Christ, Prof. R. Cammenga