Reformed Imputation and the Lord’s Prayer
By Bryan Cross
According to the Reformed Protestant doctrine, on the cross Christ paid the penalty for all the sins of all and only the elect. And when those persons first believe in Christ, that redemption is applied to them such that all their past, present and future sins are forgiven, and Christ’s perfect righteousness is permanently imputed to them. But this raises a difficulty. When Christ taught us to pray, He prescribed a daily prayer in which we not only ask for our daily bread, but we also ask daily for the forgiveness of our trespasses. But if at the moment we first believe, all our past, present and future sins are forgiven, then why should we subsequently ask for the forgiveness of our sins? Here I will argue that praying the Lord’s Prayer is incompatible with the Reformed notion that all our past, present, and future sins are already forgiven.
According to Reformed theology, on the cross Christ paid the penalty for all the sins of all and only the elect. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf.”1 Those sins are all already punished, and they cannot be re-punished. According to the Reformed position, at the moment the sinner believes the gospel, Christ’s redemptive work is applied to him. “They are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.”2 At the moment the sinner believers, Christ’s righteousness is permanently and irrevocably imputed to him. All his past, present and future sins have all already been ‘laid on’ Christ on the cross two thousand years ago. Therefore at the moment he believes the gospel, all his past, present and future sins have not only already been paid for; they are all forgiven.
It is not as though at the moment he believes the gospel, God says to him,
All your sins have already been paid for, but I’ve only forgiven your past and present sins; I have not yet forgiven your future sins, even though my Son has already paid for them all. When in the future you commit sins (that my Son has already paid for), you’re going to need to confess and repent of them if you want to be forgiven for them. But, even if you don’t confess them and repent of them, I can’t punish you for them, because I already punished my Son for them. Therefore you can’t go to hell. And there’s no limbo, so the only place you can go is heaven. Thus even if you don’t confess these post-justification sins, you’ll enter heaven just the same, after the instant sanctification that takes place at your death. So, it really doesn’t matter for you whether I forgive those future sins of yours or not, because you go to heaven anyway. And therefore, it really doesn’t matter whether you confess and repent of your future sins. The thing you need to keep in mind, however, is that if in the future you find yourself not confessing and repenting of your future sins, that’s a possible indicator that you were never justified in the first place, and you might have been created to show forth my wrath.
That’s not the Reformed doctrine of forgiveness. In Reformed theology, all past, present and future sins are forgiven at the moment we believe. Nor, according to Reformed theology does God impute to Christ only those sins that the sinner has already committed, and then, when the believer later confesses subsequent sins, impute those subsequent sins to Christ. No. In Reformed theology the imputation is not piece-meal or successive. It takes place once and entirely, at the moment the sinner first believes. Once the double-imputation has occurred (i.e. all his past, present and future sins are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him) at the moment he believes, then he is permanently and irrevocably pardoned and forgiven for all his past, present and future sins.
One problem with this doctrine is that Christ enjoins us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray daily for the forgiveness of our sins. If all our sins are paid for and forgiven, then it makes no sense to ask daily for the forgiveness for our sins. If we are supposed to believe that all our past, present and future sins were already paid for on the cross and forgiven at the moment we first believed, then to ask daily for the forgiveness of our sins is to contradict the doctrine that at the moment we first believed all these sins were already forgiven. Believing that all our sins are already forgiven is incompatible with asking daily for the forgiveness of our sins.
Referring to the Lord’s Prayer, the Westminster Confession of Faith says
God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may by their sins fall under God’s Fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.3
So, on the one hand, in the Reformed view our past, present and future sins are all already forgiven at the moment we first believe. But on the other hand, in the Reformed view God continues to forgive our sins. The problem is that if our sins are all already forgiven, then there is no reason for God to keep forgiving them. If God is still forgiving them, this implies that they are not all already forgiven. So there is a contradiction here. The doctrine teaches that the sins are all already forgiven. The prayer teaches that the sins are not all already forgiven.
One way of attempting to resolve the contradiction is to make a distinction between God forgiving our sins, and restoring us to fellowship. According to this view, all our past, present and future sins are entirely forgiven at the moment we believe, and at that moment we are brought into fellowship with God. But, if we sin at any subsequent moment, then even though those sins are already forgiven, we lose fellowship with God, until we confess our sins and “beg pardon.” The idea is not that some sins are more severe than others, causing only loss of fellowship, but not causing loss of forgiveness. The WCF itself says “there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation.” (WCF XV.4) The idea, rather, is that after justification, no sin causes loss of forgiveness, but sin can cause loss of fellowship.
The problem with this position is that given the completed nature of the double imputation at our justification, there is no basis for God’s subsequent “Fatherly displeasure” and our loss of fellowship (i.e. losing the “light of His countenance”) with Him on account of our post-justification sins. If all our sins are already paid for, and when He sees us He sees the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us, then there is no reason for Him to be displeased with us, unless He is peeking behind the imputed righteousness. But if He is peeking, then we’re not really covered. And if we are not really covered, then since “there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation,” and because we sin every day in thought, word, and deed, then God is severely displeased with us every day. If, however, God is ever pleased with us when peeking behind the imputed righteousness of Christ, then simul iustus et peccator is false. But if after justification simul iustus et peccator is always true in this life, then if God peeks, we are always under His Fatherly displeasure until we are entirely sanctified in heaven. Given the truth of simul iustus et peccator, the Reformed position viz-a-viz justification entails that after justification either God is always entirely pleased with us on account of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, or God is always entirely displeased with us if He is peeking behind the imputed righteousness of Christ.
There is a third logical possibility, namely, that there are two qualitatively different levels of righteousness by which God is pleased. The first level is the forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness; attaining this pleases God in a sufficient but still incomplete way. The second level of righteousness presupposes having already attained the first level; this second level is the level of pleasing or displeasing God above and beyond the perfect righteousness of Christ, by our repentance, confession of sins, and good works. One problem with this dualistic conception of righteousness is that given the truth of simul iustus et peccator, and given that “there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation,” imputation makes God pleased with the believer only if God doesn’t peek behind the imputed righteousness. But if God is peeking behind the imputed righteousness, then given the truth of simul iustus et peccator, and given that “there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation,” it follows by necessity that the believer is doomed.
A second problem with this dualistic conception of righteousness is that it makes Christ’s work insufficient to please God completely. According to this position, God is only partially pleased with us by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He is at least pleased enough to let us into heaven, but He is not perfectly pleased with us. We have to work to merit the additional Fatherly pleasure that was not provided by the imputation of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. This situation is a bit like paying the penalty for sins in purgatory. Reformed theology doesn’t accept the notion of purgatory in large part because if we have to suffer in some way for our sins, it implies that Christ’s work was not sufficient to make us pleasing to God. So likewise, if we have to work, and confess, and repent, and do good works (and even suffer) in order to gain this additional Fatherly pleasure that didn’t come with justification, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, this implies that Christ’s work was incomplete.
In the section titled “Of Repentance unto Life,” the Westminster Confession of Faith reads:
III. Although repentance be not to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet is it of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.
IV. As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.
V. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.
VI. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof, upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy …4
Logically, either these statements are limited to the time of justification, or they also refer to the post-justification period. If they are referring to a time prior to justification, then it raises the difficulty of explaining how there can be repentance by those who are still “dead in their sins.” Since Reformed theology does not distinguish between actual grace and sanctifying grace,5 for Reformed theology there is no possibility of repentance prior to justification. But, if these statements from WCF XV are about the time after justification, then since the believer already knows that all of his past, present and future sins have already been forgiven at justification, it makes no sense to say that he should not expect pardon for his post-justification sins, without repentance. It makes no sense to state that he should be “praying for the pardon thereof” or that upon forsaking these post-justification sins he will “find mercy.” According to Reformed theology all these sins were already pardoned at the moment he first believed, and thus he already found mercy for all these sins at that moment. The Reformed teaching that all his past, present and future sins were already paid for on the cross, and that Christ’s perfect righteousness was already imputed to him at the moment he first believed, does not fit with the notion that he needs to pray for the pardon of his post-justification sins, and that if he forsakes them he will find mercy. Either his post-justification sins are all already pardoned, in which case he doesn’t need to ask pardon (because that would be an act of unbelief), or they are not all already pardoned, in which case justification isn’t what Reformed theology teaches it to be.
Regarding this problem Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof writes:
“The usual position of Reformed theology, however, is that in justification God indeed removes the guilt, but not the culpability of sin, that is, He removes the sinner’s just amenability to punishment, but not the inherent guiltiness of whatever sins he may continue to perform. The latter remains and therefore always produces in believers a feeling of guilt, of separation from God, of sorrow, of repentance, and so on. Hence they feel the need of confessing their sins, even the sins of their youth, Ps. 25:7; 51:5-9. The believer who is really conscious of his sin feels within him an urge to confess it and to seek the comforting assurance of forgiveness. Moreover, such confession and prayer is not only a subjectively felt need, but also an objective necessity. Justification is essentially an objective declaration respecting the sinner in the tribunal of God, but it is not merely that; it is also an actus transiens, passing into the consciousness of the believer. The divine sentence of acquittal is brought home to the sinner and awakens the joyous consciousness of the forgiveness of sins and of favor with God. Now this consciousness of pardon and of a renewed filial relationship is often disturbed and obscured by sin, and is again quickened and strengthened by confession and prayer, and by a renewed exercise of faith.”6
Berkhof is claiming that at the moment of justification, God removes the penalty for all past, present and future sin, but not necessarily the subjective feeling of guilt for whatever sins we continue to commit after we come to faith. Because we feel these guilty feelings, even though after our justification we are no longer subject to punishment for any sins we commit, but perpetually stand entirely cleared by God’s declaration, we still feel the need (“urge”) to confess our sins and gain assurance of forgiveness. According to Berkhof, this urge we feel indicates that it is an “objective necessity” for us to continue to confess and pray for forgiveness, so that as we do so, the fact of our having been already forgiven for all our past, present and future sins will sink more deeply into our consciousness.
According to Berkhof’s position, after our justification, feelings of guilt are untrue; they have not yet caught up to what one knows by faith to be true about one’s standing before God. Therefore, it would follow that we should welcome the overcoming or cessation of such feelings. We should outgrow them as our feelings conform to the truth. At least, if we can outgrow such feelings we should. Berkhof claims that the standard Reformed position on the purpose of confessing our sins and asking God for forgiveness after our justification is not to gain forgiveness of sins, but to relieve the subjective urge we feel to confess, and to acquire the comforting feelings of assurance that our sins are forgiven.
This seems to me to be a rather Freudian/Jungian psychologizing of the purpose of “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, and of the Apostle John’s statement, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Instead of allowing these passages to revise the Reformed conception of justification, the Reformed believer uses the Reformed conception of justification to construe these passages as teaching not that we daily need our sins forgiven, but that we daily need to feel that our sins are forgiven. It sentimentalizes these passages in order to preserve its doctrine of justification. According to Berkhof, even though before God we do not need to ask forgiveness, and we know that we do not need to ask for forgiveness, nevertheless the human psyche has a primitive urge to continue to ask for forgiveness for continued sins. And this is why Jesus included this line in the Lord’s Prayer, because He knew that even though we would know that all our sins were already forgiven, we would still need to live and pray as though our sins were not all forgiven. In other words, it was on account of human weakness that Christ included this line in the Lord’s Prayer, much as it was on account of human weakness that Moses included the permission for divorce. (Matthew 19:8)
What I find most strange about this notion is that in order to convince ourselves in our feelings that all our past, present and future sins were forgiven at the moment of our justification, Berkhof encourages us to do certain acts that imply that our sins still need to be forgiven. So according to Berkhof it is good that we daily confess and ask forgiveness, and in doing so, comfort ourselves by making ourselves think that in confessing our sins daily and in asking God daily to forgive them, somehow that activity ensures that God has forgiven us, even though in actuality our past, present and future sins were all already forgiven at the moment of our justification. The problem here is that asking daily for forgiveness teaches the exact opposite; it teaches that our sins are not yet all forgiven. If we were composing a prayer that teaches that our sins still need to be forgiven, something like the line in the Lord’s Prayer is precisely what we would write. But if were composing a prayer for teaching Berkhof’s theology of justification, it would replace that line in the Lord’s Prayer with this one: “I thank you Lord that all my sins, past, present, and future were already forgiven when I first believed.” For this reason, the psychology explanation does not work; it reduces us to beasts governed by urges and instincts. If we are governed by reason, then we should speak and live according to the truth. And if the truth is that all our past, present and future sins were already forgiven when we first believed, then we should speak and live according to that truth. But if we should speak and live as though our sins daily need to be forgiven, and we should speak and live according to the truth, then it follows that at least our future sins were not forgiven when we first believed.
If Berkhof is correct that the standard Reformed position is this psychologized notion of the purpose of continued confession and asking for forgiveness, then Reformed teachers and pastors should be urging all believers to try to get over this urge to confess and ask for forgiveness. The goal should be to get over the felt-need to say that line in the Lord’s Prayer, or anything like it. True integration of mind, heart and feelings, that is, true spiritual maturity would be to get to the point where one would simply leave out that line when praying the Lord’s Prayer, and feel no guilt or compunction in doing so. Pastors, being mature, would tell their congregations that they [the pastors] no longer confess their sins or ask God for forgiveness, because they do not feel those inaccurate feelings of guiltiness any more; they are fully convinced, in mind and feelings, that all their past, present, and future sins were forgiven at the moment of their justification, and their sheep should all seek to reach that same mature state. But if that is not their belief, their practice or their goal, then they need to believe that sins are forgiven progressively, over the course of a believer’s life. But if our sins are forgiven progressively, then either our sins are progressively imputed to Christ on the cross, or the satisfaction doctrine of the Atonement is correct.
Our Father, who art in Heaven
Hallowed be Thy Name.
They Kingdom come; Thy will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.