"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Louis Berkhof, Justification and the Lord's Prayer

A discussion at De Regnis Duobus about justification and "forgive us our trespasses" in the Lord's Prayer prompted me to look up what Louis Berkhof says about this in his Systematic Theology. Berkhof was a Reformed theologian who taught theology for many years at Calvin College. The question is this: When we ask God daily in the Lord's Prayer to forgive us our sins, were these sins already forgiven at the moment of our [initial] justification? The Catholic answer is 'no'. For Catholics, all past sins are washed away at baptism, but not future sins; that is the purpose of the sacrament of penance. What does Berkhof say? Here is an excerpt from his Systematic Theology:

"The usual position of Reformed theology, however, is that in justification God indeed removes the guilt, but not the culpability of sin, that is, He removes the sinner's just amenability to punishment, but not the inherent guiltiness of whatever sins he may continue to perform. The latter remains and therefore always produces in believers a feeling of guilt, of separation from God, of sorrow, of repentance, and so on. Hence they feel the need of confessing their sins, even the sins of their youth, Ps. 25:7; 51:5-9. The believer who is really conscious of his sin feels within him an urge to confess it and to seek the comforting assurance of forgiveness. Moreover, such confession and prayer is not only a subjectively felt need, but also an objective necessity. Justification is essentially an objective declaration respecting the sinner in the tribunal of God, but it is not merely that; it is also an actus transiens, passing into the consciousness of the believer. The divine sentence of acquittal is brought home to the sinner and awakens the joyous consciousness of the forgiveness of sins and of favor with God. Now this consciousness of pardon and of a renewed filial relationship is often disturbed and obscured by sin, and is again quickened and strengthened by confession and prayer, and by a renewed exercise of faith." (p. 515)

Berkhof is claiming that in [initial] justification, God removes the penalty for all sin (past, present and future), but not the subjective feeling of guilt for whatever sins we continue to commit. Because we feel these guilty feelings, even though after our [initial] justification we are no longer subject to punishment for any sins we commit (past, present, and future) but perpetually stand entirely cleared by God's declaration, we still feel the need ("urge") to confess our sins and gain assurance of forgiveness. According to Berkhof, this urge we feel indicates that it is an "objective necessity" for us to continue to confess and pray for forgiveness, so that as we do so, the fact of our having been already forgiven for all our sins (past, present, and future) will sink more deeply into our consciousness.

According to Berkhof's position, after our [initial] justification, feelings of guilt are untrue; they have not yet caught up to what one knows by faith to be true about one's standing before God. Therefore, it would follow that we should welcome the overcoming or cessation of such feelings. We should outgrow them as our feelings conform to the truth. At least, if we can outgrow such feelings we should. Berkhof claims that the standard Reformed position on the purpose of confessing our sins and asking God for forgiveness after our [initial] justification is that it is not to gain forgiveness of sins, but to relieve the subjective urge we feel to confess, and to acquire the comforting feelings of assurance that our sins are forgiven. This seems to me to be a rather Freudian/Jungian psychologizing of the purpose of "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" which we pray in the Lord's Prayer, and of the Apostle John's statement, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)

What I find most strange about this notion is that in order to convince ourselves in our feelings that all our sins (past, present, and future) were forgiven at the moment of our [initial] justification, we are encouraged by Berkhof to do certain acts that imply that our sins still need to be forgiven. So it is good that we daily confess and ask forgiveness, and in doing so, comfort ourselves by making ourselves think that in confessing our sins daily and in asking God daily to forgive them, somehow that activity ensures that God has forgiven us, even though in actuality our sins (past, present and future) were all already forgiven at the moment of our [initial] justification. Doesn't this daily activity teach the exact opposite? If you were trying to compose a prayer that teaches that our sins still need to be forgiven, isn't something like the line in the Lord's Prayer what you would write? Wouldn't a better practice for teaching Berkhof's theology of justification be the replacement of that line in the Lord's Prayer with this one: "I thank you Lord that all my sins, past, present, and future were already forgiven when I first believed"?

If Berkhof is correct that this psychologized notion of the purpose of continued confession and asking for forgiveness is the standard Reformed position, then it seems to me that Reformed teachers and pastors would be urging all believers to try to get over this urge to confess and ask for forgiveness. The goal would be to get over the felt-need to say that line in the Lord's Prayer. True integration of mind, heart and feelings, that is, true spiritual maturity would be to get to the point where we would simply leave out that line when praying the Lord's Prayer, and feel no guilt or compunction in doing so (or in doing anything else). Pastors, being mature, would tell their congregations that they [the pastors] no longer confess their sins or ask God for forgiveness, because they don't feel those inaccurate feelings any more. They are fully convinced, in mind and feelings, that all their sins (past, present and future) were forgiven at the moment of their [initial] justification, and their sheep should all seek to reach that same mature state.

But if that is not their practice or their goal, then they should consider the possibility that sins are forgiven progressively, over the course of a believer's life, through the application of the work of Christ to the believer through prayer and the means of grace offered to us by the Church. That conception of justification is closer to the Catholic notion of justification.


Anonymous said...


Have you encountered the notion, among Reformed Christians, that the Lord's Prayer and 1 John 1.9 might be referring to the need for ongoing forgiveness with respect to the temporal punishment due to our sins? That sounds like a Catholic kind of distinction but I have heard Evangelicals make use of it in exegeting these passages.

In this case, because of initial justification, we no longer need to fear eternal punishment, but we might very well be afraid of God's temporal judgment (whatever form that might take); hence, the ongoing need for confession and reconciliation without resorting to the psychologizing explanation offered by Berkof.

Bryan Cross said...

Hello Andrew,

The WCF seems closer to that view than does Berkhof. The WCF (XI.5) says that justified believers, by their sins "fall under God's fatherly displeasure", and do not have the light of His countenance restored to them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance. That's not temporal punishment, but there's a vague similarity. (I hope to post something about temporal punishment in the near future.) To answer your question, no, I have not encountered that notion among Reformed Christians.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jared said...


I have been enjoying your recent posts to a great degree. I was just curious as to the constant theme of Justification. I'm wondering as to why you have chosen to explore this topic? Is this the fruit of personal study, or is there another occasion? One reason I ask these things is that I am curious as to how, as a blogger, one chooses topics to write on. Are these topics you are exploring the product of research for your Phd?



Bryan Cross said...

Hello Jared,

Except for news items, I generally (though there are exceptions) pick blog post topics for one of two reasons. Either I am responding to a question or objection that someone has raised regarding what I (or the Catholic Church) have said regarding how Christians should be unified, or I am seeking to remove what I think is an obstacle to that reunion, and so in that way facilitate reunion. There are three fundamental principles that divide Catholics and Protestants. (I mentioned these at the beginning of one of my recent posts.) In the previous year, my blog posts focused mostly on the issue of authority. I did not write much about justification. Some Protestants are sympathetic to the authority argument, but think that the Catholic Church got justification wrong at Trent. So, it seems to me that in order to reconcile Catholics and Protestants, we can't just talk about authority. We must also talk about the justification issue. It is one of *the* most important doctrines dividing us. I think I quoted John Gerstner somewhere saying that if he discovered today that he is wrong about sola fide, he would be on his knees outside the Vatican tomorrow, asking for forgiveness. If you think the Church has abandoned the gospel, then you cannot in good conscience come back to her. Hence my recent focus on justification.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Ragamuffin said...

I enjoy these kinds of posts because I find myself pondering the same kinds of questions.

The way I have heard this described from various Protestants (particularly of the Baptist and Reformed varieties that believe in "once saved, always saved") is that though our sins do not cause us to forfeit our ultimate salvation, they do break fellowship with God. The results of this broken fellowship can be manifested in various ways (though not all at once) such as the torment of a guilty conscience, the loss of a sense of God's presence, the hindering of our prayers being heard and answered, removal of God's blessings or protection to one degree or another, various means of Godly chastisement/discipline, etc. So we ask forgiveness to restore this fellowship with Him.

It would be looked upon as similar to what happens perhaps when a child disobeys his or her parents. The parent will be upset and disappointed. They may impose some kind of punishment depending on what it is. There will be feelings of guilt or shame for having disappointed your parents and depending on how old the child is, something of a hindrance in communication and closeness they may have felt before. But the parent doesn't kick the child out of the house or disown them. They don't have to move out into a tent in the backyard until they confess and apologize.

Anyway, that's the idea. I've never quite heard it explained the way that Berkhof does.

Matt said...


Great post. I've long said that one of the biggest differences between Catholics and our separated brethren is the question of whether there will be people in hell who were actually forgiven for some of their sin.

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks. I may, if I get a chance, write a follow-up post that discusses the sort of position you are describing.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Nick said...

Brilliant topic and post.

The reason why Reformed Protestants believe this is because they are the most consistent of all Protestants in their theology. Since they believe in Penal Substitution, it only logically follows that all future sins are forgiven at the moment of justification.

I'm having a Penal Substitution debate right now where I made this very "future sin forgiven" objection in my debate on last months essay.