3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
1901 ASV Translation:
3 And he came into all the region round about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins;
I. John's Message of "Forgiveness".
A. What does it mean to be "forgiven"?
1. In Colossians 1:14 (and Ephesians 1:7) Paul equates "redemption" with "forgiveness". This is exactly the same as Luke in that he presented Anna as discussing "redemption" and introduced John as the forerunner of the "Redeemer" as saying that the issue is "forgiveness of sins".
a. In that Colossian context, Paul makes "redemption" and "forgiveness" the "method" of God in "making us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light".
1) This is in harmony with Acts 26:18 where Paul says that his commission was that "they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in Me."
2) In Acts 10:43 Peter said that everyone who believes in Jesus receives "forgiveness of sins." This makes the same result arise from "repentance" as well as "faith in Christ". This means that they are inter-connected in a way that makes them equivalents. We can say, then, that no one who "repents" does not "believe" and no one who "believes" has not "repented". When we look at the focus in John's fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 40), we note that the "mountains of arrogance" are more prominent than the "valleys of despair" and that may be because the "repentance" is aimed at "repentance from dead works" (Hebrews 6:1) -- which have to do with the 'productions' of the proud in their thought that they can qualify themselves for the inheritance of the sanctified -- while "faith" is aimed at the despairing mind which finds no hope in promises of redemption. Thus, the pride of man is addressed by repentance and the despair of man is addressed by faith. Both are involved in getting a person into the state of mind that allows God to "forgive".
b. Thus, we assume that "forgiveness" is the theological equivalent of "justification".
1) Justification looks at the issue from the perspective of what a person "gains" (a decree of righteousness from God).
2) Forgiveness looks at the issue from the perspective of what a person "left" (the pollution of sins).
3) The result, in both cases, is "redemption" (which presents both the departure from the bondage and the entrance into the freedom of the children of God).
2. In respect, though, to the state in which a "forgiven" person finds himself, what is the nature of that condition?
a. It is not, primarily, a condition of "privilege extended".
b. It is primarily a condition of escape.
1) The issue in the "forgiveness of sins" is addressed by John's opening words: "flight from the wrath of God".
a) In Luke 1:77 Zacharias claimed that John was to be the one who would prepare the way of the Lord by giving "knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins."
b) This focus upon "salvation" is directly connected to the issue of "flight from the wrath of God" because it is the "wrath" from which men need to be "saved" (John 3:36; Romans 1:16-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:9). "Salvation" is predominantly a "from" issue, not an "unto" issue -- i.e., men are saved from the wrath of God and delivered unto the Kingdom of His dear Son.
2) "Forgiveness" does not put the focus upon the obtaining of privilege; it simply puts the focus upon our escape from condemnation.
a) Privileges are extended to those who "believe", not, fundamentally, those who "repent".
b) Faith is God's method of producing "fruit" which can be "rewarded"; repentance is God's method of getting a person in the right frame of mind to begin to exercise "faith". In other words, "repentance" wipes the slate of accusation clean; and, "faith" begins to write new behavior on it.
3) This means that it is a great perversion for a person who claims to have "repented" to "expect" to be restored to his/her position of privilege, which was sacrificed by sinning.
B. What, then, does it mean to "forgive"?
1. Fundamentally, "forgiveness" is the personal absorption of the "cost" of the sinful activity without exacting that cost from the one who is forgiven.
2. This means that "to forgive" is, fundamentally, to reject the legal option of retribution.
a. When God "forgives" us, He puts "retributive vengeance" aside: there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus.
b. If God does not forgive us, He leaves the legal necessity on the table.
3. But, there is the "other" issue: the relationship between the "sinner" and the "forgiver".
a. "Forgiveness" is not, fundamentally, simply an "out of court settlement" which enables both parties to go on their ways with no further contact.
b. The issue of "forgiveness" is fundamentally relational.
1) In God's universe everything is determined by its harmonious/contentious relationship with/to God. There is no such thing as a creature "going its own way, never to have contact with the Creator again". The issue is not whether a creature can divorce him/herself from participation in the Creator's world; the issue is whether that creature is willing to be a harmonious contributor to the Creator's plan rather than being a contender against it.
2) Forgiveness opens the door to relational harmony and establishes a foundation for its exercise -- no condemnation. This is accomplished by virtue of God's flat refusal to "reckon" sin to the "forgiven". Luke 18:13-14 declares "justification" to be the result of humility in the pursuit of reconciliation.
3) The question this raises is one: does a one-time "repentance" establish a lifetime "justification"? In other words, in every relationship known to man, there are contentions that develop. What does God do about the irruption of those contentions? Does He, like Jesus declared in Matthew 18, rescind His forgiveness in respect to those whose "contentiousness" resurfaces?
a. The answer hinges, not upon biblical revelation regarding "forgiveness" per se, but upon the teaching that a person is "born again", "translated in the kingdom of light", put into the position of "the blessedness of the one to whom God will not reckon sin", and "is made an heir of God". In other words, the issue of whether an enduring relationship has been secured by an act of "repentance" is not answered by whether "repentance" has the ability to underwrite all future harmony, but whether "repentance" ushers one into a state in which future irruptions of disharmony are dealt with apart from Law as matters of child-discipline rather than vengeance upon the wicked. It makes little sense for Paul to extol the "blessedness" of the one to whom God will not "reckon sin" if the reason He won't "reckon" it is that the one has not "done" it. In other words, Paul's outburst regarding that "blessed" state is not on the basis of a lack of sin, but on the basis of God's refusal to apply "Law" to it. When David committed adultery with the wife of Uriah, the "Law" demanded his execution. God refused to deal with him on the basis of that "Law". This is the essence of the declaration of the blessedness of "justification": God has translated the "forgiven" outof the realm of "Law" so that there is no condemnation for sin.
b. Of this, there is no doubt: a "one time repentance" is never presented as an eliminator of all future development of contentiousness. Matthew 18 does present "repentance" as the normal response of the "forgiven" to legitimate rebuke. But it also indicates that there are some who will hold to their "innocence" in the face of all human effort so that the "normal" is not true of them. What is the situation in this case? Only God knows (2 Timothy 2:19). The church is instructed to reject the impenitent from its "membership", but it is not given the ultimate right to determine eternal destiny. The text says that the church is to let him be "as" the gentile and the publican. This is not the terminology of final determination, but of the demands of daily choices. The church cannot tell if the person is unregenerate, but in its daily choices, it is to "act like he/she is".