by John Calvin
Lasting forgiveness for the members of the church!
Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once for all into the church, but through the same means he preserves and protects us there. For what would be the point of providing a pardon for us that was destined to be of no use? Every godly man is his own witness that the Lord's mercy, if it were granted only once, would be void and illusory, since each is quite aware throughout his life of the many infirmities that need God's mercy. And clearly not in vain does God promise this grace especially to those of his own household; not in vain does he order the same message of reconciliation daily to be brought to them.30x So, carrying, as we do, the traces of sin around with us throughout life, unless we are sustained by the Lord's constant grace in forgiving our sins, we shall scarcely abide one moment in the church. But the Lord has called his children to eternal salvation. Therefore, they ought to ponder that there is pardon ever ready for their sins. b(a)Consequently, we must firmly believe that by God's generosity, mediated by Christ's merit, through the sanctification of the Spirit, sins have been and are daily pardoned to us who have been received and engrafted into the body of the church.
22. The power of the keys
To impart to us this benefit, the keys of the church have been given. When Christ gave the command to the apostles and conferred upon them the power to forgive sins [Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23], he did not so much desire that the apostles absolve from sins those who might be converted from ungodliness to the faith of Christ, as that they should perpetually discharge this office among believers. Paul teaches this when he writes that the mission of reconciliation has been entrusted to the ministers of the church and that by it they are repeatedly to exhort the people to be reconciled to God in Christ's name [2 Cor. 5:18, 20]. Therefore, in the communion of saints, our sins are continually forgiven us by the ministry of the church itself when the presbyters or bishops to whom this office has been committed strengthen godly consciences by the gospel promises in the hope of pardon and forgiveness. This they do both publicly and privately as need requires. For very many, on account of their weakness, need personal consolation. And Paul mentions that not only in public preaching, but from house to house as well, he has attested his faith in Christ, and has individually admonished each man concerning the doctrine of salvation [Acts 20:20–21].
We should accordingly note three things here. First, however great the holiness in which God's children excel, they still—so long as they dwell in mortal bodies—remain unable to stand before God without forgiveness of sins. Secondly, this benefit so belongs to the church that we cannot enjoy it unless we abide in communion with the church. Thirdly, it is dispensed to us through the ministers and pastors of the church, either by the preaching of the gospel or by the administration of the sacraments; and herein chiefly stands out the power of the keys, which the Lord has conferred upon the society of believers. Accordingly, let each one of us count it his own duty to seek forgiveness of sins only where the Lord has placed it. Public reconciliation, which has to do with discipline, will be discussed in its place.
(Incidents illustrating forgiveness within the community of believers, 23–29)
23. All believers are to seek forgiveness of their sins
But since those delirious spirits of whom I have spoken are trying to snatch away from the church the sole anchor of salvation, we must fortify our consciences more strongly against such a pestilential opinion. Once the Novatianists stirred up the churches with this teaching,32 but our own age has certain Anabaptists (not very different from the Novatianists) who are lapsing into the same madness. For they feign that in baptism God's people are reborn into a pure and angelic life, unsullied by any carnal filth. But if after baptism anyone falls away, they leave him nothing but God's inexorable judgment. In short, to the sinner who has lapsed after he has received grace they hold out no hope of pardon. For they recognize no other forgiveness of sins than that by which they were first reborn.
Although no falsehood is more clearly refuted by Scripture, because these fellows find persons on whom to impose it (just as once Novatus had very many followers), let us briefly show how madly intent they are upon their own and others' destruction.
First, since at the Lord's command the saints daily repeat this prayer, "Forgive us our debts" [Matt. 6:12], they doubtless confess themselves debtors. And their petition is not in vain, for the Lord has laid down that they are to seek only what he will give them. Indeed, although the Father attests that he will hear every prayer, this absolution he has sealed with a special promise. What more do we wish? The Lord requires the saints to confess their sins—and that indeed continually throughout life; and he promises pardon. What boldness is it either to exempt them from sin, or, if they have stumbled, utterly to exclude them from grace? Whom, now, would he have us forgive seventy times seven? Is it not our brethren [Matt. 18:21–22]? For what purpose did he command this except that we should emulate his kindness? He therefore forgives not once or twice, but as often as men, stricken with the awareness of their transgressions, cry out to him.
24. God's abundant grace to sinful believers under the Old Covenant: the Law*
To begin with the very swaddling clothes of the church: the patriarchs had been circumcised, chosen to participate in the covenant, doubtless taught righteousness and integrity by their fathers' diligence—when they conspired to murder their brother [Gen. 37:18]. Here was a crime that even the most depraved thieves should have loathed. Softened at last by Judah's advice, they sold him [Gen. 37:28]; but this too was an unbearable cruelty. Simeon and Levi, illicitly avenging [their sister's defilement], an act condemned also by their father's judgment, raged against the Shechemites [Gen. 34:25]. Reuben fouled his father's bed with vilest lust [Gen. 35:22]. Judah, wanting to indulge in fornication, beyond the law of nature goes in to his son's wife [Gen. 38:16]. Yet far from being banished from the chosen people, these men were raised up as heads!
What about David? When he was chief administrator of justice, how wickedly did he open the way for his blind lust by the shedding of innocent blood [2 Sam. 11:4, 15]! He had already been reborn, and among the reborn was adorned with the Lord's excellent praises. Still, he committed that crime (horrible even among the Gentiles) and yet received pardon [2 Sam. 12:13].
And (not to tarry over individual examples) as often as promises of divine mercy are manifested in the Law and the Prophets toward the Israelites, so often does the Lord prove that he shows himself willing to forgive the offenses of his people! For what does Moses promise will take place when the people fallen into apostasy shall return to the Lord? "The Lord will lead you back from captivity, and will take pity on you, and will gather you from the people among whom you are scattered. If you were scattered to the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I shall gather you." [Deut. 30:3–4, cf. Vg.]
25. God's abundant grace to sinful believers under the Old Covenant: the Prophets†
But I do not want to begin a never-ending enumeration. For the prophets are full of promises of this kind, which offer mercy to a people though they be covered with infinite crimes. What graver iniquity is there than rebellion? For it is called divorce between God and the church; yet it is outstripped by God's goodness. "What man is there" (he says through Jeremiah) "who, if his wife prostitute her body to adulterers, can bear to return to her embrace? By your fornications all your ways are polluted, O Judah; the earth has been filled with your filthy loves. Return yet to me and I will receive you" [Jer. 3:1 p., cf. Vg.]. "Return, you who turn away, I shall not avert my face from you, for I am holy, and I will not be angry forever" [Jer. 3:12, Vg.]. Surely, there can be no other feeling in him who affirms that he does not desire the death of the sinner, but rather that he be converted and live [Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11]. Accordingly, when Solomon dedicated the Temple, he intended it also to be used so that thereby the prayers offered to obtain pardon of sins might be answered. "If thy children," he said, "sin against thee—for there is no man who does not sin—and thou in anger deliverest them to their enemies … and they repent in their hearts … and turn again and make supplication unto thee in their captivity, saying, 'We have sinned and acted perversely,' and pray to thee toward their land, which thou gavest to their fathers, … and toward this holy Temple, … thou wilt hear their prayers … in heaven … and be appeased unto thy people who have sinned against thee, and all their transgressions that they have committed against thee" [1 Kings 8:46–50 p., cf. Vg.]. And not in vain has the Lord ordained in the law daily sacrifices for sins [Num. 28:3 ff.]. For if the Lord had not foreseen that his people would be continually burdened with diseases of sins, he would never have established this remedy.
26. God's abundant grace to sinful believers under the New Covenant†
Has this benefit been so taken away from believers by Christ's coming, in which the fullness of grace was revealed, in order that they dare not pray for pardon of sins and, if they have offended the Lord, that they may obtain no mercy? What else will this be but to say that Christ has come for the destruction, not the salvation, of his people, if God's kindness, which in the Old Testament had been unfailingly ready for the saints for the forgiveness of sins, is now said to be completely taken away? But if we have faith in the Scriptures—which expressly proclaim that in Christ the grace and gentleness of the Lord have fully appeared, the riches of his mercy have been poured out [Titus 1:9; 3:4; 2 Tim. 1:9], and the reconciliation of God and men fulfilled [2 Cor. 5:18 ff.]—let us not doubt that the Heavenly Father's clemency flows forth to us much more abundantly, rather than that it is cut off or curtailed.
And proofs of this are not lacking. Peter, who had heard that anyone not confessing Christ's name among men would be denied in the presence of the angels of God [Matt. 10:33; Mark 8:38], denied him thrice one night and not without cursing [Matt. 26:74]; yet he was not deprived of pardon [Luke 22:32; John 21:15 ff.]. Those who lived disorderly among the Thessalonians are chastised in such a way as to be invited to repentance [cf. 2 Thess. 3:14–15; also ch. 3:6]. Not even Simon the Magician is cast into despair, but is rather bidden to have good hope, when Peter urges him to take refuge in prayer [Acts 8:22].
27. God's abundant grace toward delinquent churches†
What of the fact that, while the most heinous sins have sometimes possessed entire churches, Paul has nevertheless gently freed them from these, rather than cursed their leaders? The defection of the Galatians was no slight transgression [Gal. 1:6; 3:1; 4:9]. The Corinthians were less excusable than they, for they abounded in more and not less heinous misdeeds. Still, neither were barred from the Lord's mercy. Indeed, the very ones who, in uncleanness, fornication, and licentiousness, had sinned more than the others are expressly invited to repentance [2 Cor. 12:21]. For the Lord's covenant remains, and shall remain forever inviolable, which he solemnly ratified with Christ, the true Solomon, and his members in these words: "If his children forsake my law and walk not in my judgments, if they profane my righteousnesses … and keep not my commandments, … I will visit their transgressions with the rod, their iniquities with stripes. But my mercy will I not utterly take from him" [Ps. 89:30–33, RV, cf. Vg.]. Finally, by the very order of the Creed we are taught that continual grace for sins remains in Christ's church. For once the church has, so to speak, been established, forgiveness of sins is added to it.
28. Are only unconscious sins forgivable?
Certain men, somewhat more prudent, when they see the teachings of Novatus refuted by the great clarity of Scripture, do not deem every sin unpardonable, but only voluntary transgression of the law, into which one knowingly and willingly falls.35 Now those who speak thus allow pardon for no sin, except one that is an error of ignorance. But in the law the Lord commanded one sort of sacrifice to be offered to atone for the voluntary sins of believers [Lev. 6:1 ff.], another sort to redeem their acts of ignorance [Lev., ch. 4]. Consequently, what depravity it is not to grant any expiation for voluntary sin! I say that nothing is more apparent than that Christ's sacrifice is alone sufficient to forgive the voluntary sins of the saints inasmuch as the Lord has attested this by carnal sacrifices as seals.
Again, who can excuse David on grounds of ignorance when he clearly was so well versed in the law? Did not David, who daily punished adultery and murder in his subjects, know what great crimes they were [2 Sam., ch. 11]? Did murder of a brother seem a lawful thing to the patriarchs [Gen. 37:18 ff.]? Had the Corinthians profited so ill as to think lust, impurity, fornication, hatreds, and contentions pleasing to God [1 Cor., ch. 5]? Did Peter, so carefully warned, not know what an enormity it was to renounce his Master [Matt. 26:74]? Therefore, let us not by our unkindness bar the way to God's mercy, which manifests itself so generously.
29. The question of "second repentance" in the ancient church
Indeed, I am aware that the ancient writers interpreted the sins which are daily remitted to believers as rather slight errors, creeping in from weakness of the flesh; the solemn penitence then exacted for more heinous crimes, it seemed to them, should no more be repeated than baptism.36 We must not interpret this opinion to mean that they wished either to cast into despair those who have fallen away from their first repentance, or to make light those other errors as if they were small in God's sight. For the church fathers well knew that the saints often totter in unbelief, sometimes give vent to superfluous oaths, now and then flare into anger, indeed, even break out into open railing, and besides are troubled with other ills that the Lord thoroughly abominates. But these writers called them "slight errors" in order to distinguish them from public crimes, which with great scandal came under the church's cognizance. Moreover, they made pardon very difficult for those who had committed anything deserving churchly correction. This they did, not because they considered pardon for their sins hard to obtain before the Lord; rather, with this severity they intended to deter others from rashly plunging into iniquities that would merit their being cut off from the communion of the church. Albeit the Lord's Word, which here ought to be our sole rule, surely prescribes a greater moderation. For it teaches that disciplinary rigor is not to be pushed so far that that man for whom it ought to be chiefly concerned becomes overwhelmed with sorrow [2 Cor. 2:7]. This we have discussed more fully above.
Source: Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin