I was debating with a knowledgeable Christian lady the other day about the subject of forgiveness and salvation. She asserted that Jesus had forgiven everyone at the moment of His sacrificial death on the cross, but that people were not saved until they acknowledged Jesus' gift and accepted it for themselves. I call this idea "pre-forgiven", and it is, from my experience, the dominating belief of Christians and evangelical ministries, but is it Scriptural?
It is of the utmost importance to make sure that we are teaching people correctly about salvation. That is the crux (pun intended), the climax, the entire point of the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity. I believe that in the interests of simplicity (and possibly to increase the number of "Christians"), many teachers have wrongly defined certain words pertaining to salvation such as forgiveness, repentance, and restitution.
Forgiveness: I have written before that contrary to what most people believe, I believe the concept of forgiveness in Scripture is the equivalent to reconciliation between parties (See: On Forgiveness). We are not merely to let things go (forgive), but actively try to settle matters (reconcile).
A quick study of the Hebrew words for "forgiveness" reveals there are actually three words: kaphar, is found around 154 times in the Old Testament and means "to cover"; naga means to lift up, carry, and take away a burden, and may be found a whopping 650 times; and salach is found only about 50 times and refers expressly to the divine forgiveness extended by God to sinners. (https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1963/04/forgiveness-in-the-light-of-the-hebrew-language)
These Hebrew words convey more than a cancellation of debt. That "forgiveness" goes above and beyond, can be seen in the Israelite celebration of Jubilee, an event prescribed by God and occurring every 50 years in which debts were not just "let go" and cancelled, but people were actually restored to their homes, property, families, etc. (Leviticus 25). This concept of restoration comes up many times in the Old Testament, and is the "shadow" or precursor of the Gospel message.
Reconciliation: To reconcile means to "settle a matter", and may involve some form of restitution (pay back). It is similar, but distinctly different from "restoring", and the Bible has much to say about it.
Matthew 5:23-24 has Jesus teaching people, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift."
The entire point of salvation is that people are reconciled (friends again) with God.
Romans 5:10 uses the term "enemies of God" to describe the Christians Paul was writing to, before they were Christians. He furthermore uses the term "reconciled" no less than three times in as many verses.
" But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."
Colossians 1:19-23 reflects a similar teaching,
"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. 21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant."
And Ephesians 2:3, tells us we deserved "wrath"
"All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath."
Repentance: The Southern Baptist Convention website describes repentance as "a change in thinking", but repentance is much more than that. It involves recognizing and admitting sin, feeling badly about what we've done (shame), confessing what we've done, apologizing, and desiring to change it or make reparations (restitution). Furthermore, the Bible states that without the help of the Holy Spirit, we are incapable of changing our thinking (Titus 3).
Restitution: This means to "restore" or pay back. It is not the same as reconciled/forgiven. The Gospel message is that are we incapable of making restitution to God for our sins, so Jesus paid it for those who call Him Lord (Christians). This is "the new covenant" or contract if you will, open to anybody and everybody if they so choose.
In my friend's assertion, salvation has already been obtained by everyone, but many choose to ignore this or reject it outright. The basic outline of the argument goes something like this:
Suppose a friend of yours wanted to give you a gift. What would he do? First, he'd go out and purchase the gift, selecting it and then paying the price for it. Then he'd offer it to you -- free and fully paid for. But what must you do? The answer is simple: You must receive it in order to make it your own. Until you did, the gift wouldn't be yours.
The same is true of God's salvation. On the cross, Jesus Christ -- who was without sin -- took upon Himself your sins and mine, and He endured the divine judgment that we deserve for our sins. He paid the price for our salvation, and now He offers it to us as a gift -- free and fully paid for. But we must receive it and make it our own, by opening our hearts and lives to Jesus Christ.
Don't turn your back on Christ. After all, He didn't turn His back on you -- and now He wants to receive you and welcome you into His family forever. Commit your life to Him today.
I do not see this idea of Jesus holding out the gift of salvation like a wrapped present reflected in Scripture, and we must be extremely careful how we present the salvation message to others. If someone gives you a gift, you are not obligated to give anything back.
A gift is given out of the goodness of someone's heart, but the above description seems manipulative, playing upon our natural human tendencies toward reciprocity (meaning I give you a gift, you are supposed to give me a gift of equal value). This message of salvation does not talk about sin, repentance, or forgiveness, and restitution is treated very lightly. The implications in this version are that God is a cruel and petty God indeed, who condemns forgiven people to hell for not taking His gift.
Many, many Christians advocate this idea, including the Southern Baptist Convention website (http://www.sbc.net/knowjesus/theplan.asp) and BillyGrahm.org. From my relatively brief stint in the charismatic movement, I know that they advocate "walking in" (also called "Affirming", or "Positive Confession") various aspects of life including health, wealth, and power. It sounds to me like salvation is also looked upon in this manner. It is (allegedly) already ours, we just need to "walk" in it.
What the Bible describes instead is that people are the offending party, and Christ is the injured party. He is willing to enter into a contract with us (if we choose to), having already paid (restitution) the cost of our sins (injuries against Him and God) with His death on the cross.
But we remain unforgiven/not reconciled/His enemy until we acknowledge who He is, what we have done to Him (repentance), what He has done for us out of love--paid the penalty when we could not--(restitution), and agree that He is worthy to be Lord of our lives that is, "being in Christ" or "in His" camp. Only then are we reconciled (friends with, and no longer enemies) to Jesus and God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21, " 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."