Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Concerning the Meaning and Application of the Word Translated “Pardon” in the Concordant Literal New Testament

Note: The following article began as a footnote for an older article that I was in the process of updating (see part four of my study on the two evangels). However, the footnote began to get so lengthy that I decided it would make for a better stand-alone article. As it stands now, it could be considered an appendix to my articles on justification and the two evangels (which, for those who haven’t read the articles, may provide some helpful background information on the subject matter covered in this article).

According to A.E. Knoch (and those students of Scripture who have adopted his view on this subject), the word aphesis (“pardon” or “forgiveness”) and the word dikaiósis (“justification”) have mutually exclusive meanings, and refer to two irreconcilably different states or conditions. According to Knoch, “forgiveness” or “pardon” involves a blessing that is exclusively for saints outside of the body of Christ (e.g., those who constitute the “Israel of God”), while justification is a blessing that is exclusively for the saints in the body of Christ (at least, until the consummation, when all mankind will be justified). Although I do think there is an important difference between the pardon/forgiveness that is for believing Israelites and the justification of those in the body of Christ, I don’t think the difference is found in the inherent meaning of the word translated “pardon” and “forgiveness.”

Knoch seemed to assume that, because a believing Israelite could lose his or her “forgiveness” or “pardon” through unfaithfulness, the word aphesis must inherently refer to “a temporary respite which may be forfeited or withdrawn” (see, for example, Knoch’s remarks on Acts 13:38 on page 200 of his Concordant Commentary on the New Testament). Similarly, on pages 257-258 of The First Idiot in Heaven, Martin Zender contrasts pardon/forgiveness with justification by stating that, unlike justification, “pardon can be revoked” and “withdrawn,” and that its permanence “depends on the conduct of the one receiving it.”

I have tremendous respect and admiration for both A.E. Knoch and Martin Zender, and have greatly benefited from their teaching (having learned, and been confirmed in my understanding of, many important scriptural truths as a result of their labors). And although I think there is some truth to what both men have written concerning the pardon/forgiveness of believing Israelites and the justification of those in the body of Christ, I also think they have erred in seeing “pardon” and “justification” as mutually exclusive in meaning. I also believe that their understanding of “pardon”/“forgiveness” becomes highly problematic when we come to certain verses in which these words are applied to the saints in the body of Christ.

The main verses I have in mind as being especially problematic for the view referred to above are Acts 26:18, Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14. In each of these verses we find the word aphesis being used (which, again, is the same word used when the “pardon” or “forgiveness” of Israelites is in view). However, it is also clear that the sins and offenses which are said to be “pardoned” or “forgiven” in these verses are those which have been committed by saints in the body of Christ.

Let’s consider Acts 26:18 first (for context I’ll include the three verses preceding it).

Acts 26:15-18
Now the Lord said, “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting.But rise and stand on your feet, for I was seen by you for this, to fix upon you before for a deputy and a witness both of what you have perceived and that in which I will be seen by you, extricating you from the people and from the nations, to whom I am commissioning you, to open their eyes, to turn them about from darkness to light and from the authority of Satan to God, for them to get a pardon of sins and an allotment among those who have been hallowed by faith that is in Me.

Notice that the “pardon of sins” is spoken of by Christ as something which would be received by those among the nations who would be saved through Paul’s apostolic ministry (i.e., those destined to be in the body of Christ). Either Christ understood what he was saying and spoke truthfully when he declared these words to Paul, or he didn’t. If he did, then it follows that those to whom Christ commissioned Paul (i.e., the nations) did, in fact, receive the “pardon of sins” by their faith in the evangel which Paul heralded to them. And if that’s the case, then the “pardon of sins” that Christ declared would be received by believing gentiles as a result of Paul’s commission is perfectly consistent with their being justified by faith. Any perceived inconsistency or contradiction must, therefore, be due to a misunderstanding of what “pardon of sins” actually means. In A.E. Knoch’s remarks on Christ’s words here (see page 221 of his commentary), we find no explanation as to how Christ’s use of the word “pardon” in Acts 26:18 can be reconciled with Knoch’s understanding of the meaning of the word “pardon.”

Let’s now consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14 (as with Acts 26:18, I’ve included some preceding verses for the sake of context):

Ephesians 1:3-8
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ, according as He chooses us in Him before the disruption of the world, we to be holy and flawless in His sight, in love designating us beforehand for the place of a son for Him through Christ Jesus; in accord with the delight of His will, for the laud of the glory of His grace, which graces us in the Beloved: in Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, the forgiveness of offenses in accord with the riches of His grace, which He lavishes on us; in all wisdom and prudence…”

Colossians 1:12-14
“…at the same time giving thanks to the Father, Who makes you competent for a part of the allotment of the saints, in light, Who rescues us out of the jurisdiction of Darkness, and transports us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in Whom we are having the deliverance, the pardon of sins…”

What’s interesting is that, in the immediate context of both Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14, Paul used two Greek words that were also used by Christ in Acts 26:15-18: the word translated “forgiveness”/“pardon” and the word translated “allotment” (see Col. 1:12 and Eph. 1:18). I strongly doubt that this is a mere coincidence, but I won’t press the issue here. What I do want to emphasize is that Paul used the word aphesis not once but twice in his “later epistles” in reference to the saints in the body of Christ. If the word aphesis really has the meaning that Mr. Knoch and others have claimed that it has, why would Paul so freely use it to refer to the present status of those who are in the body of Christ?

Knoch seems to be aware of there being at least a potential problem with Paul’s use of aphesis in Eph. 1:7, but I’m not entirely sure of what to make of his remarks on this verse. On page 289 of his commentary we read, “’Pardon’ of sins becomes forgiveness when associated with offenses” (emphasis his). It would appear that Knoch interpreted aphesis as meaning something different than “pardon” when associated with the word “offenses” (rather than “sins”) in Eph. 1:7. As I’ve agued elsewhere, however, I don’t think scripture supports the idea that “sins” and “offenses” are two separate (or separable) things; rather, they seem to be simply two ways of describing a single thing (Paul certainly seemed to use the words interchangeably in other contexts; see, for example, Romans 5:12-21). With no good reason to believe otherwise, I think it can be reasonably concluded that every “sin” is also an “offense” (in the scriptural sense of the word), and that every “offense” is also a “sin.” Apparently, whether Paul referred to something as one or the other simply depended on what he wanted to place the emphasis on. So for Knoch to try and give aphesis a different shade of meaning in Eph. 1:7 (by translating it “forgiveness” rather than “pardon”) simply because Paul used the word “offenses” rather than “sins” is, I believe, somewhat dubious and unhelpful (it's certainly not as "concordant" as it could've been!). Regardless of whether one wants to translate the word as “forgiveness” or “pardon,” the fact remains that Paul clearly had no problem with using the word aphesis in reference to those in the body of Christ.

Things get a little more complicated (unnecessarily so, I believe) when we come to Knoch’s comments on Colossians 1:13-14. Rather than taking the words of Paul at face-value and then simply reconsidering the meaning of aphesis in order to accord with its inspired usage by Christ and Paul, Knoch (working under the assumption that aphesis inherently and necessarily referred to a state that was “temporary” and which could be “withdrawn”) was forced to ascribe a figurative meaning to what Paul wrote. In his commentary on Col. 1:13-14 (see page 303), Knoch remarks as follows: “The kingdom of His Son is a figurative allusion to the kingdom of Christ. Messiah’s kingdom is literal and future and destroys and displaces earth’s kingdoms (Dan. 2:44). The kingdom of the Son here spoken of is a present spiritual power. We are not rescued from earth’s governments but from the powers of Darkness which direct and dominate them. The term “pardon” is borrowed from the kingdom phraseology to accord with this figure.”

In other words, Paul’s use of aphesis in Col. 1:14 was “figurative,” and simply an extension of his “figurative” usage of the word “kingdom” in verse 13. There are, I believe, a few problems with Knoch’s interpretation of Paul’s words here. First, it’s simply not the case that, when understood literally, the expression “kingdom of the Son of His love” (along with the expression “kingdom of God,” which refers to the same future kingdom during the eons to come) must refer exclusively to Christ’s kingdom on the earth (i.e., the kingdom which we’re told will be restored to Israel). Scripture is clear that, in addition to being on the earth, Christ’s kingdom will be established in the heavens and among the celestials, as well (Rev. 12:9-12), thus making the “kingdom of God” a future reality that pertains to the body of Christ just as much as it pertains to Israel (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50; Eph. 5:5; Col. 4:11; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:18).

Since those in the body of Christ will, in fact, be enjoying an allotment in the kingdom of God (which, again, is the “kingdom of the Son of His love” during the eons), the only figurative language being used by Paul in v. 14 is his use of the present tense. But this can simply be understood as an example of the figure of speech prolepsis (which is fairly common in Paul’s letters, especially when Paul has in view the eonian allotment of those in the body of Christ). In any case, the mere fact that Paul’s “kingdom phraseology” in Col. 1:13 need not be understood as having anything to do with Israel completely undermines Knoch’s reason for ascribing a figurative meaning to Paul’s use of the word “pardon” in v. 14.

So if there’s no good reason to believe that Paul had in mind the kingdom of God on earth in Col. 1:13, was Paul’s use of the word aphesis in v. 14 merely a figurative, rhetorical flourish, thrown in as a somewhat random allusion to Israel’s “salvation program?” I don’t think so. I don’t think Paul intended his readers to understand his use of the term aphesis in a figurative way, because I don’t think Paul believed that the word aphesis meant what Knoch understood it to mean. Instead, I believe that the meaning of the word aphesis is simply neutral with regards to whether one’s deliverance from the consequences of one’s sins/offenses is to be understood as conditional and “probationary” in nature, or as unconditional and permanent. But if that’s the case, then what is the meaning of the word?

The word from which aphesis (FROM-LETTING) is derived is aphiemi (FROM-LET). Like aphiemi, the word aphesis conveys the idea of a person’s sins or offenses being “sent away” from them, and of God’s no longer reckoning their sins and offenses to them. Thus, for people’s sins/offenses to be “pardoned” or “forgiven” by God can simply be understood to mean that God is not reckoning their sins/offenses to them. He is, in other words, relating to them as if they’d never committed them. 

In support of this understanding of what it means to be “pardoned,” consider David’s words in Psalm 32:1-2: “Happy he whose transgression is lifted away, whose sin is covered over! Happy the human to whom Yahweh is not reckoning depravity, in whose spirit there is no deceit!”[1] When, in Romans 4:7-8, Paul quotes these verses from Psalm 32, he follows the Septuagint (LXX) and translates the Hebrew nâśâ' nâsâh (“lifted away”) with the word aphesis. It’s evident, then, that these verses refer to David’s happiness following the pardoning, or forgiveness, of his transgressions by God. What, exactly, this pardoned status involved is clear from the ideas that David linked together. It involved (1) a person’s transgressions being “lifted away” or “pardoned”; (2) their sin being “covered over”; and (3) Yahweh’s not reckoning depravity to a person.[2]

We find the same general idea expressed by David in Psalm 103:8-14:

Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 85:2-3 also seems to covey the idea that the pardon of sins involves God’s ceasing to reckon a person’s sins to them, and his ceasing to relate to them as if they had sinned: “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah
You withdrew all your indignation; you turned from your hot anger.”

It’s clear from other verses that for God to pardon/forgive someone’s sins involved his “blotting out” their sins from his sight (Neh. 4:5; Ps. 51:1, 9; Jer. 18:23; Isa. 43:25; 44:22; Acts 3:19) and his no longer remembering their sins (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 43:25; Ez. 33:16; Heb. 8:12). And this, I believe, involves nothing less than a deliverance from the negative consequences, or “penalty,” of one’s sins/offenses (which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is ultimately death). 

The pardoning or forgiveness of sins has nothing inherently to do with a conditional state or status that can be “revoked” or “withdrawn” based on one’s conduct. The word aphesis does not, in itself, tell us why God is not reckoning one’s sin and offenses to a person, or whether or not there are any conditions that must be met by the one pardoned in order for them to stay pardoned. When used in reference to a believing Israelite (whose salvation is conditional, and depends on their present perseverance in faith and good works), “pardon”/”forgiveness” is a conditional state dependent on their own conduct (at least, relatively speaking). However, when used in reference to those in the body of Christ, “pardon” or “forgiveness” is to be understood as unconditional and permanent, and as having nothing to do with our conduct. Our pardon/forgiveness takes place when we believe Paul’s evangel, and (like our justification) is a “once for all time” deal.

When we understand the word aphesis as being inherently “neutral” with regards to the conditional or unconditional nature of a believer’s deliverance from sin’s penalty, it does not need to be understood as being in necessary conflict with the meaning of “justification.” Being pardoned and being justified need not be understood as mutually exclusive states or conditions, but rather as “two sides of the same coin.” As noted earlier, David described the state of those who have been pardoned as one in which God is not “reckoning depravity” to them (Ps. 32:2). Significantly, Paul used similar language in 2 Cor. 5:17-19 to describe the status of those who have been conciliated to God: So that, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the primitive passed by. Lo! there has come new! Yet all is of God, Who conciliates us to Himself through Christ, and is giving us the dispensation of the conciliation, how that God was in Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, not reckoning their offenses to them, and placing in us the word of the conciliation.”

Moreover, there is, I believe, indisputable scriptural evidence that justification is just as “neutral” in meaning as is the word “pardon,” and that it can apply to both saints in the body of Christ and to saints outside of the body of Christ (I go into more depth on this subject in my study on justification). Many who see justification and pardon as mutually exclusive terms seem to forget the fact that Paul was not the only inspired author to use the word “justified” when writing to a group of saints! James, in his letter to the twelve tribes, used the word three times (2:21, 24, 25). However, the justification he had in view was a declared righteous status that is based on the faith and works of those to whom he wrote, and was something that could be lost if one’s conduct ceased to involve the faith and works that are necessary to receiving eonian life in the kingdom of God. In contrast to this, the justification of which Paul wrote is a declared righteous status that is based solely on the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 2:15-17).

For one to be “justified” simply means that one has been declared “just” or righteous by God. The word “justification” does not, in itself, tell us why (i.e., on what basis) a person has been declared “just” or righteous by God, or whether or not there are any conditions that must be met in order for someone to stay justified. Like the word “pardoned,” the word “justified” is neutral in this regard. For saints outside of the body of Christ (e.g., those constituting the “Israel of God”), both pardon and justification are conditional blessings that are based on one’s own faith and works (and which can be forfeited and lost if one does not continue to meet the requirements that must be met in order to be saved). However, for those in the body of Christ (and, eventually, for all mankind at the consummation), pardon and justification are unconditional blessings based solely on what Christ has done on our behalf, and, as such, can never be lost or forfeited. Unlike the present justification of believing Israelites, our justification does not involve our own faith and our own works; rather, our justification is “through the faith of Christ.” And insofar as our “pardon” or “forgiveness” is also based on this fact, it is just as unconditional in nature. The sins and offenses of those in the body of Christ will never (and could never) cease to be pardoned by God; there is nothing we could ever do or not do that could ever result in our sins and offenses being reckoned to us by God.

[1] By referring to a pardoned individual as one “in whose spirit there is no deceit,” David was not claiming to be (or implying that others were) without sin, or absolutely pure and righteous. Rather, he had in mind those who refused to deny or hide their sins, and who honestly confessed their sins to God (see verses 3-5).

[2] Some have argued that the way in which Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in Romans 4:8 conveys a stronger idea than that of “mere” pardon. Paul’s quotation of this verse reads, “Happy they whose lawlessnesses were pardoned and whose sins were covered over! Happy the man to whom the Lord by no means should be reckoning sin!” It is the words “by no means” that some point to as evidence that Paul had in mind something distinct from (and greater than) the idea of “pardon.” However, this presupposes that pardon could never be (or refer to) a permanent state, and thus begs the question against the position for which I’m arguing in this article.

As I hope to make clear, the “pardoning” of one’s sins/offenses can be either conditional (and thus possibly lost) or unconditional (and thus permanent in nature). Whether “pardon” is to be understood as conditional or unconditional simply depends on whom it is being pardoned, and the basis on which their pardon rests (the word “pardon” is, in itself, neutral in this regard). The context in which the word appears is, therefore, of the utmost importance in determining the exact nature of the “pardon” in view. Thus, insofar as the words “by no means” in Rom. 4:8 are to be understood as referring to a permanent, unvarying state, it simply follows that the “pardon” that Paul had in view here is not something that he believed could ever be revoked or withdrawn. 

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