I recently read a book by Brenda Colijn titled Images of Salvation in the New Testament. The author argued that God’s saving work in Christ was so expansive that it required the utilization of many different images in the New Testament to help us begin to grasp it. She further argued that the images overlap and all shed fresh light on the work of God in Christ. We see this type of overlap with the themes of cleansing and forgiveness.
Take for example the classic text, 1 John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The juxtaposition of forgiveness and cleansing is unmistakeable in this passage. To be forgiven of sins is to be cleansed from all unrighteousness. Forgiveness is cleansing and cleansing is forgiveness here in 1 John. When God cancels out unrighteousness and wipes it clean that individual has experienced the grace of forgiveness.
Hebrew 9:22 points us in a similar direction. It states, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Purification and forgiveness overlap in this passage. The writer of Hebrews is tapping into the OT theme of purification. The entire sacrificial system pulls together the themes of purification and forgiveness of sin. Isaiah 1:8 captures this blending of themes well: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
There are a few important implications that follow from these truths. First, both forgiveness and cleansing have a definitive element to them. At conversion, forgiveness and cleansing happen once for all. This means we always stand clean before God. Second, both forgiveness and cleansing have an ongoing element to them. We stand in need of forgiveness and cleansing every day. This is the reason behind the call to daily repentance. Both of these together create a tension in which we constantly live—clean and yet in need of cleansing. Third, cleanliness and purity do not come from our actions. They come as a gift of grace in the form of forgiveness. Before we are called to be clean we are called to be cleansed. God’s work of purification always precedes any pursuit of purity.