Passing Over Former Sins?

Peter famously observed that in the writings of the apostle Paul, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16).  We don’t know which passages Peter might have had in mind (no doubt students of the Bible could provide quite a list of Pauline passages which they’ve found “hard to understand”) but in this article we want to explore (and hopefully explain) some of Paul’s language which can be both “hard to understand” and which some have twisted “to their own destruction.”[1]

What Paul Says:

In Paul’s famous sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, he confronts the idolatry of the pagan philosophers of the day with the reality of the resurrection and reveals to them the true God of Scripture.  In developing his argument, Paul makes the following statement in Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”  Readers of Paul will hear an echo of a similar statement in Romans 3:25 where Paul declares that God put forth Christ as a propitiation for sin, “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins.” 

The “problem” which confronts the reader here is obvious.  What does Paul mean by using this language of God “overlooking” and “passing over” sin?  Is there some sense in which God is able to ignore sin?  Has God changed in how he deals with human sin since Christ’s coming?  Did he offer pagan peoples some sort of free pass prior to Christ’s coming?  How do we reconcile the justice of God with language that sounds like a transgression of justice?  How do we make sense of these “hard to understand” sayings of the apostle Paul?

Misinterpreting Paul:

Perhaps it’s best to begin by understanding what Paul doesn’t mean by this language.  Some have understood Paul as saying that God didn’t hold Gentiles guilty for their sin before Christ’s coming because they hadn’t had a chance to hear the gospel.  (We can find echoes of this idea in the theory of Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who argued that people could be “anonymous Christians” who could be saved by making the best use of whatever light was available to them – even if that meant they had never heard the name of Christ.)  Is that what Paul means when he talks about God “overlooking” and “passing over” former sins?  We can answer with a resounding “no” for at least two reasons. 

First, this cannot be what Paul means because the Bible tells us consistently that God holds all men accountable for their sin at all points in redemptive history.  Remember that the curses of Genesis 3 weren’t just applied to the Jews, but to all people by virtue of their shared humanity (see Romans 5:12-14 for Paul’s classic exploration of this truth). Genesis 6 tells us that God sees the sins of all people and holds them accountable for that sin “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. […] So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them” Genesis 6:5, 7).  Later in redemptive history, one of the key reasons why God brought Israel into the land of Canaan was to bring judgement on the wickedness of the pagan peoples who had previously inhabited it.  As God says in Leviticus 18:24-25, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.”  Romans 1 provides just one (of many) New Testament passages which show that God continues to hold all people accountable for their sin (whether they are Jews or Gentiles, and whether they have been exposed to the gospel or are ignorant of the gospel). 

Second, this cannot be what Paul means because that would make the coming of Christ something other than “good news […] for all the people” (Luke 2:10).  If Acts 17:30 is understood to mean that God didn’t hold pagan peoples accountable for sin before Christ’s coming, but that now they are held accountable because of Christ’s coming, then the coming of Christ and the coming of the gospel would not be good news of grace but bad news of condemnation.  No evangelical who takes God’s word seriously can conclude, then, that Paul is suggesting that God deals with pagan sin differently than the sin of his people or that God only held the nations accountable for their sins after Christ’s coming (John 3:36).  To suggest otherwise is to contradict the uniform testimony of the Bible and to turn the good news of Christ into bad news for the nations.  It is to twist the Scriptures to our own destruction.

Interpreting Paul:

That gives us some guardrails, but we still have to grapple with the key question: what does Paul mean?  In what sense did God “overlook” and “pass over” the former sin and ignorance of the world?  The key to properly interpreting Paul’s words is to understand them in light of redemptive history. 

Let’s go back to Acts 17 for a moment.  Paul is making a redemptive-historical argument to urge his Gentile audience to repent.  In Acts 17:24-27, Paul walks his pagan audience through God’s dealings with them as Gentile peoples and shows how God had created and guided them even as they gave themselves to the worship of false gods through idols (Acts 17:28-29).  But now something has happened which changes their relationship with God.  Because of the resurrection of Christ, they are now called to change their ways, to reject the idolatry of following false gods, and to turn in repentance to the one true God who made them.  The resurrection of Christ is presented as the redemptive-historical hinge which changes their relationship to God. 

But what exactly has changed about that relationship?  We’ve already seen clearly that the change is not about whether or not they’ll be held accountable for sin.  They were accountable before Christ’s coming and they remain accountable afterwards as well.  What has changed then is not their accountability for sin but the accessibility of salvation.  Before the resurrection of Christ (outside of a few notable Old Testament exceptions) the revelation of God’s grace was largely limited to the ethnic people of Israel.  Because of their unique covenant relationship with God, Israel was constantly confronted with its sin and called to repentance for that sin (just look at the prophetic books of the Old Testament to see this centuries long process playing out). 

As a rule, God did not engage the pagan nations in the same way.  They were lost in the ignorance and rebellion of their sin, but God sovereignly decided to “overlook” and “pass over” those sins temporally speaking.  That qualifier is key.  The sins of all people, at all times, and in all places have been subject to the righteous judgment of God.  No matter who you are, the following truths are inviolable: sin brings death (Romans 6:23) and death is followed by judgment (Hebrews 9:27).  So God’s overlooking of sin is not an eternal overlooking in which judgment is set to the side.  Rather, it is a temporal overlooking in which God generally chose not to confront and condemn the sins of the Gentile nations before the coming of Christ.  We can understand this lack of divine confrontation in two senses.  First, God does not always give individuals or nations the immediate earthly consequences which their sins deserve (though of course, there are times when sin’s consequences are obvious and immediate).  Second, God almost never confronted pagan nations with their sin with an eye towards calling them to faith and repentance until the resurrection of Christ had taken place. It’s this second sense that is particularly important to grasp if we are to understand Paul’s language. 

This is in contrast with the way God dealt with Israel as a nation.  God sent His prophets to constantly confront Israel with its sin and to call Israel to faith and repentance.  This was not God’s primary posture in dealing with the nations as a whole.  They often did not receive the earthly judgement their sins deserved and they almost never were confronted with a call to faith and repentance (God’s sending Jonah to Nineveh being the most notable exception to this general rule).  It is only in this limited, temporal, and redemptive-historically defined way that Paul says that God: “passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25).

It becomes easier to grasp Paul’s point when we remember the story of Noah and the ark.  After God had witnessed the sin of the world (Genesis 6:5-7), he raised up Noah as “a herald of righteousness” to warn the people of the wrath to come (Genesis 6:8-22; 2 Peter 2:5).  After that wrath was unleashed and the world was covered by the waters of the flood (through which the world was effectively “unmade” as creation was brought back to its pre-creation state of watery deeps described in Genesis 1:1-2), God made a startling declaration.  Genesis 8:21-22 tells us that: “the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.  Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.  While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

What God is saying is that he will no longer bring on the earth the temporal judgment it deserves (without in any way undermining or denying the ultimate eternal judgment which all sinners must still face).  What is so striking about these verses, however, is the rationale behind God’s statement.  The reason why God will withhold temporal judgment is not because the flood has taught man about the consequences of sin or because God expects this judgment to correct man’s wicked folly.  Rather, the reason why God determines to withhold temporal judgment is precisely because of the sinfulness of man’s heart. 

In other words, God decides to show forbearance to sin because the alternative would be to constantly plunge creation into a cycle of judgment over its unflagging rebellion.  The only way for mankind to be delivered from an endless cycle of rebellion and judgment (a cycle vividly and tragically portrayed in the book of Judges) is for them to be redeemed from that rebellion.  And the only way for that redemption to take place is for God to sovereignly stay his own hand of judgment so that redemption can take place in history.  In other words, God graciously determines to “overlook” the ignorance of the nations and to “pass over the former sins” of the pagan peoples.  Not in the sense that sin won’t be judged but in the sense that God reserves that judgment for eternity rather than executing that judgment temporally by wiping them from the face of the earth.  And judgment is reserved for eternity because after the resurrection of Christ, God now confronts all men everywhere with their need of faith and repentance through the gospel. 

As Paul declares in Acts 17:30, God is not content to leave men untouched in their rebellion and sin.  Just as God had faithfully called and confronted the sin of his people in the Old Testament, so now (with the resurrection of Christ in the New Testament) he calls all people in all places to repent for their sins.  What is changed is that people are now being graciously confronted with their sin, not that they are only now going to face consequences for sin.  And that confrontation is not expressed by immediate temporal judgment for sin but through the urgent call of the gospel to turn from sin to the resurrected Christ.

And here’s where wrestling with these “hard to understand” words begins to help us practically.  Not only are we guarded against misunderstanding Paul’s language (and falling into some sort of universalism or “anonymous Christian” idea) but the very mission of the church is profoundly clarified.  Because what Paul is helping us to see is this: we are back in the pre-flood days of Noah.  God is no longer content to pass over the sins of the nations but now graciously confronts them.  And he does that through the ministry of his people and the preaching of the word.  So just as Noah was a “herald of righteousness” so we too are to herald the righteousness of God through the proclamation of the gospel today.  Just as Noah (through his words and example) called people to take refuge in the ark which God had ordained and designed so we are given the task (through our words and example) of calling people to take refuge in the ark of the church which God has ordained and designed (1 Peter 3:20-21).

So Paul’s language in these passages, hard to understand though it may be, is ultimately given for our good.  And it serves to demonstrate how God can be both “the just” (as the certainty of judgment for sin is promised) and “the justifier” (as the gospel call of redemption for sin is proclaimed to all the nations) as Romans 3:26 says.  So taking the time to work carefully and biblically through this confusing language will ultimately help us to know and serve God better.  As Peter concluded when he urged his readers to wrestle carefully with the problem passages of Paul: “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.  Amen.”

Ben Franks is a licentiate in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is currently serving as a Pastoral intern at Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Purcellville, VA.  A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College, completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College, and earned his M.Div from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.

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[1] I’m deeply grateful for the keen insights of my mentor and colleague Rev. Charles Biggs for clarifying and stimulating my thoughts on these passages.