The diagram below depicts visually what many of us are taught about our Christian walk. The two vertical red lines represent the strait and narrow path (Mat 7:14 KJV) between which the Christian must walk in order to remain saved. A person begins this journey (represented by the black curvy line) as a new creature after baptism. Of course, the walk ends at death.
As you can see, there are lots of times when the black line goes outside the red lines and then turns around and comes back inside again. This is because it is frequently taught that every time a person sins they are lost until they repent and pray to God asking for forgiveness. Others have concluded that you don’t lose your salvation after each sin is committed, but only when you relapse into sinful behavior for an extended period of time (a.k.a. backsliding). Regardless of which of these positions is favored, the diagram looks the same. The “fix” is to repent and pray to God asking for forgiveness just like (as is supposed) Simon the sorcerer was instructed to do in Acts 8:22. This process is called “The Second Law of Pardon” which implies that the first law of pardon was your initial salvation.
We also use the phrase “lose salvation.” This implies that our salvation can be easily lost – accidentally even. The idea is that when I emerged from the waters of baptism my sins were completely taken away and I’m as saved as can be. However, a little time later I did something that I shouldn’t have; perhaps I told a lie. When I lied I lost my salvation (went outside the red lines) and if I die in that condition then I will go to hell. It was not my intent to rebel against God or to reject my salvation, it just happened! The same idea applies to the backslidden variation of this idea. In either case, once I decide to repent of the sin(s) and pray to God begging His forgiveness I’ll be saved again via the second law of pardon and back between the red lines.
The doctrine of intermittent salvation
It seems that in arguing with our religious friends against the teaching of “once saved, always saved”, we’ve swung to the opposite extreme of “if saved, barely saved.” Some believe they are constantly moving in and of salvation on almost a daily basis. This doctrine is just as false as the idea of “once saved, always saved” and leaves those who believe it in a state of constant misery.
Some say we only lose our salvation if we commit a “major” sin, or if we sin for a really long time without repenting. These ideas bring up several questions. How is a “major sin” defined? How long can we persist in sin before we have entered a backslidden condition? What happens if I am committing an act that is sinful, but I don’t know it’s sinful? For example, was the person who engaged in the sin of legalism for 20 years lost the whole time before repenting of it?
We believe that we are moving in and out of salvation, but we can’t always define when exactly it takes place. Because we are unsure of when it happens, many of us never feel saved! We can’t honestly answer, “Yes”, when asked if we know for certain that we are saved and going to Heaven.
This doctrine of on again, off again salvation makes God out to be someone who reneges on His promises. On the one hand He promises to save, but on the other He takes away the gift of salvation when we mess up. This is not the God of the Bible. God keeps His promises even when we don’t keep ours. This idea of intermittent salvation is not generous and therefore it is not grace.
Where does this idea of intermittent salvation come from?
There are just a few passages where prayer and repentance are mentioned which the “second pardon” folks derive their teaching from. These passages are misinterpreted in a way that renders their meaning inconsistent with the overall message of redemption and grace found throughout the Bible.
Simon the magician
The primary text where this idea of a second law or pardon comes from is Acts 8:13-23. Peter recognizes that Simon the magician’s heart is not right and gives him this advice:
Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. Acts 8:22 ESV
Does this passage really teach the so called “second law of pardon”? Was Simon really a Christian? If not, then this idea of the second law of pardon can’t be learned from this passage – it wouldn’t apply. If Simon hadn’t really been converted, then this is not a case of a wayward Christian repenting and praying his way back into grace. Even among those who embrace the idea of intermittent salvation, some do not believe Simon was saved to begin with. For the sake of argument let’s assume that he was a true believer who was saved, but had “lost” his salvation because he’d sinned. Let’s look at a glaring problem with the traditional application of this passage.
Peter said that if Simon repents and prays that “perhaps” or “if possible” (depending on your translation) he would be forgiven. God will only perhaps forgive? Where does the Bible ever teach that God will maybe forgive those who are truly penitent? God always forgives those who come before Him in repentance! Those who use this passage to teach a second law of pardon certainly believe that God always forgives, but they don’t teach it the way the text reads. If they were consistent they’d have to tell those backslidden Christians that God might forgive them if they repent and pray. They don’t teach their “second law of pardon” the way the text actually reads.
The second law of pardon advocates are assuming something the text doesn’t actually say. Notice that Peter never tells Simon that he has lost his salvation (assuming he had it in the first place). Certainly Peter uses harsh words to rebuke Simon, but he never said he had lost his salvation. Evidently Simon didn’t conclude that his salvation had been lost either because in verse 24 he says, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Simon clearly didn’t believe that God had imposed any consequences upon him yet since he is begging Peter and company to pray for him so that he wouldn’t face the consequences Peter spoke of.
As you have probably already concluded, the “perhaps” is on Simon’s part. If he was truly penitent, God would forgive him. Therefore, the word “perhaps” was used because Peter had doubts that Simon was really penitent. While we may “perhaps” repent, God does not “perhaps” forgive. He forgives when our repentance is genuine! This passage can’t really be applied to a Christian who has sinned and is truly penitent. The passage is about one (Simon) whose penitence possibly was not authentic.
The Lord’s Prayer
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation. Luk 11:4 ESV
In this example prayer, is Jesus teaching that our sins are forgiven only if we ask forgiveness? Was this Jesus’ point? No, he is teaching that if we expect our sins to be forgiven, we must forgive others. We are to forgive, just as God forgives; this is one way we are to be like Jesus. This teaching is exemplified by the parable below.
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ (29) So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ (30) He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (31) When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. (32) Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. (33) And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (34) And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (35) So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Mat 18:28-35 ESV
Confess sins in order to be forgiven of them
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1Jn 1:9 ESV
This verse is pulled from its context and used as a proof-text in an attempt to teach that unless we confess our sins to God in prayer, He won’t forgive us. Here is the full context:
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 Jn. 1:8-10 ESV
Is John really saying that we need to confess each sin we commit in order to be forgiven? No, he is saying we must acknowledge that we do commit sin as opposed to those who would say they have no sin.
The word translated “confess” (Greek homologeo ὁμολογέω G3670) means to declare, acknowledge, etc. Consider these passage where homologeo is translated with other English words which are synonymous with the word confess.
And then will I declare (homologeo) to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Mat 7:23 ESV
So everyone who acknowledges (homologeo) me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, Mat 10:32 ESV
They profess (homologeo) to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. Tit 1:16 ESV
The opposite of claiming to be without sin is to admit (confess) that we have sin. Denying that we have sin is lying and not relying on God’s generosity (grace).
There are a few problems with the idea of the second law of pardon to consider.
- What happens if I fail, due to an oversight, to ask for forgiveness for some particular sin?
- What happens if I fail to ask forgiveness for a sin I don’t realize I’ve committed?
- If my continued salvation depends on the quality of my prayer life, does that mean my salvation is based on works (prayer in this case)?
- Am I lost until I get these things right?
- Can I ever get these things right?
Our version of the Sinner’s Prayer?
Nowhere does the Bible make prayer a condition of forgiveness for a Christian. Although we should talk to God about everything, including our sins and failures, the Bible doesn’t make our prayers of repentence a condition of continued salvation. If you think about it, this idea of the second law of pardon differs very little in application from the concept of the sinner’s prayer.
This series of articles is not meant to be a rigorous or complete study of the subject, but merely a starting point. For a much more comprehensive study on grace I highly recommend Jay Guin’s free book, “The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace.”