I love a good systematic theology. Benjamin B. Warfield reminds the preacher that systematic theology is indispensable to the preacher. So, being a preacher, not long ago I took Robert Letham’s Systematic Theology off the shelf for a consultation. I have read it with profit, and I like many of his discussions on the various loci. However, on this occasion I turned to his section on justification and forgiveness. There, I read something I don’t remember on the first reading.
Letham is faithful to point out that justification means the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. However, Letham explains, moving to pastoral theology, that when a person asks for forgiveness we often “have a real tussle to follow through, particularly if the offense is serious.” Letham then raises the Scriptural issue of forgiving a person seven times seventy times. However, Letham narrows the focus and reminds us that when thinking about forgiveness we are often caught up with consequences resulting from the offense. But aside from concerns related to practical theology, what is forgiveness?
According to Letham, we sometimes speak of pardon in contemporary terms. But Letham does not like this word because “it is the eradication of a sentence, not the removal of a crime or its resulting guilt.” According to Letham, remission is not much better because it “refers to the curtailment of a penalty and implies the continued existence of guilt and thus the reality of objective offense.” So, it looks like we are 0 for 2! But fear not, says Letham! There is one word that “sums up better” what the Bible means by forgiveness and that word is absolution. What? Did we read that right? Absolution? Yes, says Letham, you read it correctly, and he goes on to say that “many evangelicals fear this word, supposing it to be redolent of Roman Catholicism.” Yes, well, what about that? “Too bad,” says Letham. And that’s pretty much the end of it.
On the surface that sounds good. There is a finality to God’s dealing with our sins in Christ. What Protestant doesn’t want to emphasize that stupendous reality. However, as much as I like Letham, and I do, there is a bit of sloppiness to his simple, “too bad, I’m ending the discussion” statement about forgiveness. So, I decided to ring up Franny Turretin to see what he might say to Bob. Turns out, he had a lot to say. He even begins a section by asking, “Does the remission of sins consist in the absolute removal of them?” His answer is worth a look.
First, Turretin reminds the reader that remission of sins does not consist in the removal of corruption but in "the pardon of criminality and guilt arising from it." In other words, remission of sins means there is a removal of guilt and punishment. But why are we not able to use absolve without qualification? To use the word, absolve, as the Roman Catholics use it, means that by the infusion of grace corruption is really removed. This, says Turretin, is repugnant to Scripture, “which testifies that sin always remains in us and belongs to the experience of saints.” Strikingly, this is the very thing Letham affirms. Though we are no long under sins dominion, says Letham, “there are ‘remnants of corruption,’" which remain in the believer.
This brings about a second point. According to Turretin, “sins are said to be covered before God not because they are absolutely taken away (as they are not), but because they are not allotted to punishment.” In other words, our corruption is not absolutely taken away. However, there is a sense in which we may talk about the remission of sins as total or absolute. In other words, remission of sin is total and absolute with respect to guilt as well as to punishment. For example, when the Scripture refers to a “not imputing” of sin (Psalm 31:2) it means that we are not punished as we deserve. And when the Scriptures speak of God “turning away” his face (Psalm 51:9) it speaks of a pardoning of guilt and not a removal of corruption.
So, what does Letham have in mind? Well, he makes it plain,” Not only is the penalty of sin remitted, the guilt of sin absolved, but sin itself has been definitively removed.” If Letham means corruption is definitely removed (“sin itself has been definitely removed”) then he contradicts himself by saying that remnants of corruption remain. However, if he simply means that remission is total and absolute he stands with Turretin, but he says it carelessly. As I read Letham, my own view is that he wants to go further than reformed theology has been willing to go (and for good reason!). However, I can certainly understand his desire to see the immensity of the pastoral implications.However, pastoral implications built on good (biblical) theology will always serve the church. We just need to be sure that our theology doesn’t leave good behind. And if someone says differently, then “too bad.”
Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2019), 700.
Francis Turretin, The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2 (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 660.