By David McClister
When one believes the gospel, repents of his past sins, confesses his belief in Christ, and is baptized in water for the remission of his sins, he is then placed into a relationship which the apostle Paul refers to as “in Christ” (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27f). It is in Christ, and only in Christ, that man has numerous spiritual blessings available to him, one of which is the forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:3,7). Outside of Christ there can be no salvation (2 Tim. 2:10).
Yet the baptized believer is also placed into another relationship, viz. in God’s grace. Although God’s grace is available to all men (Tit. 2:11), its benefits in the spiritual realm are reserved only for those who are His children. One of the benefits of God’s grace enjoyed by the Christian is the plan, often referred to as the second law of pardon, whereby, if obeyed, the Christian can be cleansed of any sins he may have committed since his baptism. That plan requires that the erring Christian realize his sin (1 Jn. 1:6,8, 10; cf. Gal. 6:7f), repent of it (Acts 8:22), confess it to God (1 Jn. 1:9), and ask for His forgiveness (Acts 8:22). Also involved in God’s grace is the giving of time and opportunity for the erring Christian to obey that plan of pardon.
The apostle John speaks of yet another relationship: “in the light.” John speaks of walking in the light, meaning a walk (life) of obedience to the will of God. He says in 1 John 1:7, “but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light . . .” The “he” refers to God in v. 5, where John had stated “that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” It is my understanding of this verse that a walk in the light is obedience to the will of God. If one sins he is out of the light, for walking in the light involves walking as God is in the light, and there is no sin with God. Hence, there is no sin in the light. A sin, whether it be a willful sin or a sin of ignorance or weakness, results in our being out of the light.
But just because a Christian is out of the light does not mean that all hope is lost. We may leave the light and still be in God’s grace. The parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates this fact (Lk. 15). The son left his father’s house and in so doing left that close relationship with his father. Yet all the while his father was willing to receive him back and was anticipating the day when he would return. So it is with the Christian. A child of God may sin and thus leave that close relationship with God which is called “in the light,” but being out of the light does not mean that we have lost all favor with God.
Now how long one may stay out of the light and yet remain in grace is not revealed in the Bible. That is up to God to decide. We do know, however, if one persists long enough in sin that it will result in his being out of grace. Paul told the Galatians, “. . . ye have fallen from grace” (5:4). Also, Hebrews 10:26 says, “If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins,” which I believe is referring to the fact that one may persist in sin to the point where he is no longer an object of the grace of God. It is also apparent that sooner or later one will become aware of his sin and realize his need to repent of it and confess it. If he persists willfully in such disobedience he will, when God so decides, fall from grace. The Jews of Jesus’ day are a good example here (cf. Matt. 22:1-8).
The reason I make the distinction between being in the light and in grace is because it seems that some brethren have confused the two ideas. Some would have us believe that when one is out of the light he is also out of grace. I do not believe that such is the case. The Christian does not lose all hope of salvation when he sins. There is hope left in the realm of God’s grace in that God, by His grace, has provided a plan whereby the erring Christian can be restored to a right relationship with God, and it is our experience that God graciously allows sufficient time and opportunity for such Christians to obey and be restored.
The following chart explains much of what I am trying to say. As a Christian “walks” in life, as he obeys God’s word he is walking in the light. If he sins he is no longer in the light, yet he still remains in God’s grace. If he will take advantage of the opportunities and the plan for restoration that has been provided by God’s grace, he can be restored to that relationship called “in the light.’ If, however, he persists in his sin, he will eventually, but when only God knows and determines, fall from God’s grace. Yet note that he will never get out of Christ (the New Testament does not tell that one can get out of Christ. The New Testament does, however, speak of apostate Christians [e.g. 1 Tim. 4:1]. These are those who are Christians, yet have fallen out of the light and from grace).
Are an erring Christian’s sins automatically forgiven as long as he remains in grace? We must always remember that “in the light” is where God wants us to be (1 Jn. 2: 1), not outside of it. The Bible teaches that we must confess our sins (1 Jn. 1:9) and repent of them (Acts 8:22) and ask God for forgiveness. When one is aware of his sin, he must confess and repent of that sin itself (or as some have said, specifically). Yet some may ask, what about sins of ignorance or sins of weakness? In the case of ignorant sins, which may also include a sin of weakness, one obviously cannot repent of them nor confess them. I believe that every Christian can and must confess to God that there may be sins he has committed of which he is yet unaware, and he may ask God for the forgiveness of these sins thus expressing what others have called a penitent attitude. What else can he do?
Of course, every Christian is to continually grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). The Christian should mature to the point that sin is a rare occurrence in his life. There is no safety in ignorance.
If some should press, asking, “What if one dies having committed a sin of ignorance of which he never became aware?” I will answer: God will decide his lot, and He has not revealed the “rules” by which that decision will be made.(1) Since man is not judge, God has not revealed to man the laws of judgment in such cases. The same holds true for the one who died knowing his sin and never repented of it, yet who otherwise lived in the light (i.e., he was about to repent when he died).
Certainly these few lines are not the final word on the controversy among us. These thoughts are offered in an attempt to show the difference between the obedient Christian and the erring Christian, and to show the difference between the erring Christian and the apostate Christians. I do believe that the Christian has security in Christ, and that security is in the form of God’s grace which has provided a plan for a continued right relationship with God. it is up to the Christian to avail himself of this expression of grace and obey the plan for pardon should he sin. Hypothetical situations which extend outside of the scope of God’s revealed word will be judged by God. I will not venture to say that God’s grace will automatically forgive a sin of ignorance or a sin of weakness, much less a wilful sin. Yes we have security in Christ, but we must also realize the danger of every sin.
1. Perhaps a word of clarification is in order here. I refer here to the faithful Christian who strives with all of his might to know what is required of him and to obey God and who is striving to walk in the light to the very best of his ability, yet who dies ignorant of some sin in his life. This decision is God’s to make, and I do not know the “rules” by which he will make it.
I certainly do not mean to include those who are engaging in unscriptural and sinful practices, embracing and defending them. I cannot agree with the grace-unity advocates who fellowship errors such as the use of the mechanical instrument in worship, the sponsoring church arrangement, or other such practices as are current among liberal churches of Christ, on the basis of the sincerity or ignorance of those who practice them.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 15, pp. 466-467
August 2, 1984