Fundamentalists, Repentance and Forgiveness

An important part of the recent Iris Robinson affair has been the part played in it of her very open evangelical Christianity and the apparent breach of a number of God’s Laws. This has been followed by the explanation of God’s forgiveness by a number of leading churchmen including Senior Pastor of Whitewell James McConnell and David McIlveen (a very highly regarded Free Presbyterian Minister). The concept of forgiveness in fundamentalist Protestantism is possibly worth outlining in a little detail. I would stress I am no theologian but I have shown this blog to a number of people with a greater understanding than myself.The first and most fundamental concept to be understood is that of being “saved”, “born again,” “converted” or whatever other term one uses. This is the idea that at a point in their life a person realises their own sinfulness; accepts that there is nothing they themselves can do to please God or atone for their sins; and gives over their life to God; asking God’s forgiveness wrought for them through the blood of Christ shed on Calvary and then receives the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells in their life from then on.

That may all sound utterly bizarre and ludicrous; to others abstract or bring back youthful memories of boring Sunday sermons long half forgotten and ignored. Essentially it means that at a certain defined point the person changes the direction of their life and becomes a Christian. The majority of evangelicals would argue that this occurs at one defined point though others would regard it as a somewhat more gradual process in some cases.

It is important to note that to fundamentalists the term Christian does not denote goodness of itself: it is a technical term like say ‘medical doctor’ used to define a specific fact: in a doctor’s case the fact that they have completed a medical degree; in a Christian’s case that they have done the above accepting of Christ. However a Christian as a follower of Christ should lead a life in keeping with their profession of religious faith. A person’s Christian faith should lead them to adopt a good life: a good life in itself does not make one a Christian. The crux of Christianity is faith in Christ.

Clearly fundies believe that at the point one is saved one’s sin has gone: Micah 7:19 “He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”

This leads on to the self evident fact that often Christians commit sin. Since God is completely opposed to sin this represents a problem. However, fundies believe that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Hence if the sinning Christian confesses their sin then that sin is forgiven. However, this leads to the problem that surely Christians can sin just as much as they like in the knowledge that a quick “sorry” will fix it?

I have heard this seemingly very valid criticism of evangelical Protestants by amongst others Catholics. The explanation is in Romans 6. This is a complex passage which as with many parts of Paul’s writing is fairly heavy going. The first two verses are the most pertinent, the rest is a complex theological explanation. Verses 1,2: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” This idea of staying away from sin is further covered by the following verse: (1 John 1:7) “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Walking in the light means that once one is aware of the wrongness of a given action, behaviour or thought, one will keep away from it.

Hence, although it is accepted that all one’s sins are taken away when one is “saved,” Christians will continue to sin, but those sins are forgiven as soon as forgiveness is sought. This leads on to the concept of repentance. As mentioned above from Romans 6 sin by the Christian is very serious. Hence, one should repent of one’s sins. Repentance means turning decisively away from the sin. Clearly one may have to repent repeatedly if one keeps sinning and there are sins (like say loosing one’s temper) which one commits frequently and has to try to turn away from time and again. Incidentally lust is similar since Jesus states in Matthew 5:28 “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” The question in repentance is: Has the person decisively turned away from the sin and are they making a positive attempt to avoid it. It very frequently also means accepting the consequences of the sin and trying to make restitution. An example is Luke 19:8 “And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

To accept that a Christian who has sinned has indeed repented, people will expect to see that they have changed their behaviour. This is especially true in the case of sins which are initially hidden and involve deceit. As an example: even evangelical Christians who do not regard alcohol as sinful per se; regard drunkenness as a sin. Hence if someone is drunk and the next day, filled with remorse repents, then that should be accepted immediately. However, if one finds that a person has been stealing your coal for a year and the sin and has only been found out by chance, then it would be fair to expect a longer duration of avoiding that sin before completely accepting the sinner’s repentance. It is much easier for God, who, knowing everything, knows a person’s heart and therefore can tell instantly whether or not the person who committed the sin has truly repented.

Repentance and forgiveness are of course related in that forgiveness is dependent on repentance. God can see the sinner’s repentant heart instantly and of course forgives the sinner instantly. This is never better illustrated than on the cross and Jesus’s conversation with the dying thief (Luke 23: 39-43) “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Clearly here the thief repented and received instant forgiveness: again Jesus (being God) could tell that the thief had truly repented and hence, had been given the assurance of forgiveness.

I am a little reluctant to bring this back to Mrs. Robinson but to fundamentalist Protestants she has clearly sinned. However, if she has repented and sought the Lord’s forgiveness she has already been forgiven and to God her sin has gone. That does not mean that fundamentalists would feel that she can avoid the practical ramifications of what has happened; nor can she avoid responsibility for her actions. Hence, there is no contradiction for fundamentalists to say that Iris has received God’s forgiveness but that she should stand down from her political positions and indeed face the legal consequences of what has happened.