The expression remission of sins is found eight times in the New Testament. With the exception of Rom. 3:25, every place it occurs is a literal translation of the exact words of the original. The usual word for remission is the Greek word aphesis, but in the passage in Romans, the Greek word is paresis. According to Trench, the two words differ from each other in that the former describes a forgiveness so complete,
…that unless he brings his sins back upon himself by new and further disobedience (Matt. 18:32, 34; 2 Pet. 1:9; 2:20) they shall not be imputed to him, or mentioned against him any more. The paresis, differing from this, is a benefit, but a very subordinate one; it is the present passing by of sin, the suspension of its punishment, the not shutting up of all ways of mercy against the sinner, the giving to him of space and help for repentance. If such repentance follows, then the paresis will lose itself in the aphesis, but if not, then the punishment, suspended, but not averted, in due time will arrive.
Sins Formerly Passed Over
During the many centuries prior to the advent of Christ into the world, God’s extreme indignation against sin was not adequately revealed. These were the times when God suffered the nations to walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16); they were the “times of ignorance which God winked at” (Acts 17:30). Sins committed during these ages were not forgiven; they could not be forgiven except through the propitiatory death of Christ on the cross. Hence the passage in Romans 3:25 does not and cannot refer to the forgiveness of sins to one under the new covenant; it refers rather to the passing over of the sins of the people under the previous covenants under the forbearance of God.
What is Remission?
When we stop to consider that this thing called “remission of sins” is so important that it could not be had save through the blood of Christ, we can understand how very serious a view God takes of it, and how seriously we ought to regard it. But what is remission? What do we mean by it? What happens when sins are remitted?
In his Great Texts of the Bible, James Hastings quotes a section from one of Bro. J. W. McGarvey’s sermons on the subject of remission which, I believe, sets forth clearly what is meant:
Remission literally means to ‘throw back’, or ‘throw away’; and the term is used simply because, when God forgives us our sins, he is contemplated as throwing them away, tossing them clear off, outside of all subsequent thought or concern in regard to them. There is another expression used in Scripture for the same thought, which is also figurative: “Repent and turn that your sins may be blotted out.” Sins are contemplated in that expression as having been written down in some book of God’s remembrance, as it were, and God in forgiving them is figuratively represented as blotting out that writing. Blotting out with the ancients was a little more complete than it is, usually with us. When we write something down with ink, and blot it out, there still remains some marks to indicate that once there was writing there. If you write on a slate and rub it out, some marks are often left. The Ancients used a wax tablet. A sharp-pointed instrument made the marks in the wax, and when they wished to blot it out, they turned the flat end of the stylus and rubbed it over, and there was an absolute erasure of every mark that had been made. That is the figure, then, used by Peter for the forgiveness of sins—indicating that when God forgives sins, they are not only thrown away, as in the expression remission, but they are blotted out, the last trace of them being gone, and gone forever.
To Whom is Remission Promised?
We can say with assurance that the promise of remission is to all men. All men need it; for all of us “have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The wicked or sinful person will go away into everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46). It is not to a select group of Jews, or to any other single race or nation, that the promise is given. But the promise comes to every mortal on this earth. Jesus commissioned the apostles to preach the message offering remission of sins, in his name, to all nations. He said, “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Wherever the Gospel of Christ is preached, remission of sins is offered.
But the remission is not promised unconditionally. While the promise is to be to the whole world, there are certain conditions that must be met, certain requirements that must be fulfilled. The first of these is faith. Peter stated in his sermon to Cornelius, “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
Some men assume that faith is the only condition of remission; that once a man has faith, remission is assured. Such an assumption is in error. If no other conditions had been mentioned, then we might indeed suppose that faith alone was enough. But such is not the case. There are other conditions which are definitely set forth. In other passages where remission of sins is promised, both repentance and baptism are listed as prerequisites. Luke says that John came “into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). These conditions are also the same as those of the message of Christ’s apostles. When Peter stood up on Pentecost, he said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).
Those who wish to eliminate baptism from the plan of salvation have advanced many false theories concerning Peter’s words in this passage. They recognize that the words, as they are written down, very plainly make baptism one of the conditions of remission of sins and they have spared no effort to seek to destroy the force of the passage. Their most persistent attack has been on the word for in the verse. They have tried to make it retrospective rather than prospective, looking backward to the sins already forgiven rather than forward to the promise of forgiveness. They fail to understand that both repentance and baptism are governed by the word for. Whatever it means for one, it means for the other. Both repentance and baptism stand in the same relationship to remission of sins. If baptism is because of, then so also is repentance.
There is not a recognized lexicographer in the world that defines eis in Acts 2:38 (the Greek word from which we have for) as bearing the meaning “because of.” On the contrary, all of them, from Thayer on down, say plainly that the word means “in order to.” Of that there can be neither mistake or misunderstanding. God’s word is clear and plain. Remission of sins is promised only to those believers in Christ who repent and are baptized.