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What Are Repentance and Forgiveness? Dr. Michael Thigpen

Home » What Are Repentance and Forgiveness? Dr. Michael Thigpen

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen about repentance and forgiveness.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The distinction between the corporate blessings and curses in the Mosaic Covenant and individual salvation
  • The anticipatory, partial, and pedagogical aspects of God’s forgiveness in response to repentance
  • How sin was forgiven in the Old Testament
  • God’s role in our repentance
  • Resources for further reading on repentance and forgiveness.

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society and the associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College and is the author of Divine Motive in the Old Testament: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis (Gorgias Press, 2015).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

Repentance and forgiveness are common themes across the entire canon of Scripture. In fact, in the first words that Jesus spoke in the Gospel of Mark he said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent and believe. But what does it mean to repent? And how does our repentance condition forgiveness? In other words, what is the relationship between repentance and forgiveness? And what role does God play in our repentance and forgiveness? And what role do we play? Well, repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of our greatest need. And so understanding how these themes play out across the storyline of Scripture is essential if we are to rightly know God and the gospel. Well, to help us with these themes today, we have Dr. J. Michael Thigpen, who is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. He’s the author of Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis, as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College. He’s been on our podcast several times before. Welcome back, Dr. Thigpen.

J. Michael Thigpen (01:29):

It’s great to be with you.

Brian Arnold (01:30):

So as you know, we ask our guests one big question every week. This week our question is—what are repentance and forgiveness? So maybe just to begin, you could give us some background on what led you, as an Old Testament scholar, to this topic of the nature of repentance.

J. Michael Thigpen (01:49):

Sure. A few…almost a year ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a volume that was exploring a new work that came out, and the work was both controversial and it was generally new, in that it was a scholar who was suggesting that almost everything we have in the Old Testament is not really repentance. Meaning it’s not an inward sense of contrition and regret over sin and an inward change and move towards God, but that it’s all things that we can measure in terms of power and relationships. So they are…simply, we’re seeing people try to motivate God to do things for them by adopting the right postures, by doing the right rituals, and that that’s all that we have in the Old Testament. And so there were a number of folks who began to look at this, and I was asked in particular to explore this in the Book of Kings, because Kings is a place where we wrestle with the people’s repentance—or lack of it—and the nature of God’s response to them.

J. Michael Thigpen (02:48):

And so I was really motivated to think deeply about what we have. I think most of us would define repentance as an inward change, motivated really by contrition and regret over the nature of our sin, the greatness of God and who we are in light of him, and that it is a move towards him. And forgiveness, most classically, is that forgiveness of sin. But all this is a little complicated in the Old Testament, because we have both issues of sin and forgiveness, but we also have issues of the covenant blessings and curses. Things that are corporate in nature and not individual, not related to salvation in terms of the eternal state, but related to what’s happening here and now with the nation of Israel. And all that makes these conversations a little bit complicated.

Brian Arnold (03:36):

It does. And maybe you can expand on that one part of the blessings and the curses that come in the Mosaic covenant and how that really plays into…as we see in the Book of Kings, I mean I’ve been reading through Second Kings recently, and you do have all these stories of—this king did not please God, this king pleased God—over and over. And the way that their lives beared that out, oftentimes in terms of repentance. So kind of maybe dive into that a little bit deeper.

J. Michael Thigpen (04:07):

Well, we have this picture of salvation that’s given to us in the nation of Israel, where they enter into the promised land, which is a kind of symbol of entering into the rest of salvation. But it’s entered into as a group, and it’s a mixed group in that some are genuinely followers of God, and some are not. Some are obedient and responsive, and some are not. And the group as a whole is both going to gain benefits from being in the land and God pouring that out on them, and he’s going to give them the blessings that he promised in the covenant if they’re walking with him as a nation. They will also experience—if they walk away from him, away from the covenant that he established—he will give them the judgments, the curses of the covenant, and it will come on the people as a whole.

J. Michael Thigpen (04:56):

So it’s not just that the wicked are removed in the exile, but it’s the entire nation is removed in the exile, because the nation is being judged. The Law itself gives us a look—both in Deuteronomy, and then most particularly in Ezekiel 18—that we’ve got really two things going on. We have the nation being blessed and judged, but we always have individual judgments for salvation. It is a man, and not a son, who dies for a sin. It is the individual, and no one else, who dies for their sin or lives in righteousness, as we would have it in Deuteronomy and in Ezekiel 18. So when we hear language of repentance, blessing, forgiveness, we’re always having to ask the question in the Old Testament—are we talking about just the blessings and curses of the covenant? Or are we talking about salvation, the way we would typically talk about it in the New Testament forward? Meaning—is that person rightly related to God? Are their sins forgiven? Are they in Christ, and are they going to be in heaven?

Brian Arnold (05:57):

That’s a really important way that I think you’ve shown how in each kind of half of our Bible, if you will, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, how these are understood in a little bit different ways, especially from the dealing with the corporate to the individual level. And I want to unpack that a little bit. But first I want to highlight something you said in your book, or in this chapter, which I think really deserves to be analyzed a little bit deeper. And you said that in the Old Testament books, like Kings, “the merciful acts of forgiveness with which Yahweh responds to acts of repentance, are anticipatory, partial and pedagogical.” Wow. Okay. So that’s going to take some unpacking to do. So these three kind of concepts that you have for repentance and how Yahweh is actually responding to repentance as anticipatory, partial, and pedagogical. How are we to understand that?

J. Michael Thigpen (06:54):

Well, anticipatory, meaning that they aren’t all of salvation. We haven’t had the cross yet. We haven’t had the resurrection. We haven’t had the giving of the Spirit. So salvation is still…God’s doing all of those great acts in the future. But right now he’s doing things that’s teaching Israel—and therefore teaching us, as Paul will say, these were written for our instruction. So he’s teaching us about what is going to come. And essentially what he’s teaching us is that God is merciful as he is just, and that he will move towards his people. Even in their sin, that he’s going to reach out to them. So we have things like a king like Ahab, who is completely wicked, he does nothing that is honoring to God. But he does humble himself in the face of judgment, and he turns towards God in that way, and God recognizes it. And this is in anticipation. There are a whole series in the Book of Kings of wicked kings who move towards God in response to judgment. They turn, they pause, they humble themselves. And all of these movements anticipate what God is going to do in the future, in being gracious to his people.

Brian Arnold (08:06):

Okay, so let me stop you there and ask this question. So I can imagine somebody asking this, as they’re hearing you talk about the anticipatory nature of it. So were sins forgiven? So if I’m an Old Testament Israelite, and I live in the year 1000 BC, and I’ve got these sins, and I’m seeking forgiveness—is repentance or forgiveness just totally anticipatory, so that I’m not forgiven of sin?

J. Michael Thigpen (08:32):

Sin is actually forgiven. But what we end up getting here is that God is forgiving them, knowing what he’s doing, that he’s already going to accomplish in Christ, that he’s already laid this out. So sin is being forgiven, but the way that’s accomplished is…the way Hebrews will put it, it’s shadow, not substance yet. So if you’re an Old Testament believer, it’s got to weigh on you that every year you’ve got to go back and make that sacrifice again. Because God forgave you at the Day of Atonement and your sins are forgiven, but you’ve got to go back and have them forgiven again. And you’ve got to go through these repetitive cycles. All of those anticipate that, at some point, we need that cycle to end. And that’s what we’ve done with a Great High Priest, with a different sacrifice, a once-and-for-all sacrifice, and that we’ve done in the coming of the Spirit to indwell his people. In all those ways, we stop anticipating, and now we accomplish all of that. So he’s done it looking ahead to what he’s doing. So sins really are forgiven, and there is genuine salvation, but the mechanics that accomplish that are yet to come in history, as we wait for the cross and the resurrection.

Brian Arnold (09:44):

Yeah. And just one specific place where the author of Hebrews mentions this, Hebrews 10:4—the blood of bulls and goats couldn’t take away sin. And so there is that anticipatory nature to it. And even the reflection back of the author of Hebrews, saying—all those things were merely pointing forward. And yet God knows, because it’s coming, his people can be forgiven. The saints of Old Testament are in heaven. Their sins have been forgiven, but it was in Christ.

J. Michael Thigpen (10:08):

Absolutely. So you might think here of Romans 3:25. That God presented him—Christ—as an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood. And he did this in forbearance. He had passed over the sins that had come previously, knowing that this once-and-for-all sacrifice is coming.

Brian Arnold (10:24):

So then let’s unpack those other pieces, then, right? The partial, which we’ve kind of hit on a little bit, and then pedagogical.

J. Michael Thigpen (10:31):

Yeah, it’s partial. And here in particular what I’m going to lay out—and what I lay out in this chapter—is that most of what God does is to mitigate punishment, not to actually take it away. So whether it’s Ahab, when he humbles himself, God doesn’t undo his just punishment, but he does push it out in time. And with other kings, he’ll move the punishment into the reign of their son, or he’ll shorten the punishment a little bit. But it’s not a complete undoing of sin and punishment. It is rather a mitigation of it. And I think what’s significant about that is that although God can respond positively to repentance, repentance can never bring about justice on its own. That sin still has to be punished in full measure. And so he can be gracious, he can pull it back, but justice must still be had. So the sacrifice for that sin is still going to be needed. So here the idea that the punishment is partial—that it’s mitigated, in a way—helps us see that there’s still an act of justice that’s going to be required before forgiveness can be issued.

Brian Arnold (11:38):

So I want to keep asking this in a little bit different ways, because this can be new for some people listening, that it goes against what they’ve kind of naturally thought. So how would we say that what you’re arguing for repentance and forgiveness differs from the way that people think of it today? If you could kind of succinctly give us a thesis statement on it.

J. Michael Thigpen (11:58):

I think what’s different about it is when we’re talking about the Old Testament context and the people of God as a whole—not individual believers, but we’re talking about the nation and what’s happening to them—God has used blessing and curses as a way of getting us to see what it looks like to live rightly or far from him. But that’s distinct and unique from actual acts of salvation where he brings about a final forgiveness of sin and brings people into relationship with him. So these are pictures. They’re ways of us seeing and talking about it. And we sometimes slip and use language of forgiveness and salvation, when what we’re really talking about is things going well with them. I might put it this way—if I was talking with my children, and talking about the time when they were little and they might get punished or they might get rewarded for something—none of that made them my children. They didn’t stop being my children because they had to be punished, and they didn’t become my children because they did something good. But they could see what it was like to live well with us as their parents, or with their sister.

J. Michael Thigpen (13:02):

They could understand what that was like. But it was just a picture for them. The underlying thing is that they were my children. And they are my children. And that’s what we’re getting at here. This is looking at what it means to have a right relationship or not. It’s pictures of that. But ultimately what brings salvation and forgiveness is God’s acts that he’s going to do. And that’s really what I mean by the fact that this is all pedagogical.

Brian Arnold (13:26):

So then help us really understand that from the New Testament perspective, because it sounds like it’s kind of a corporate idea in the Old Testament and more individual in the New Testament?

J. Michael Thigpen (13:36):

It is corporate with Israel as a whole, but we’ve always had these little places where God is teaching us that this is actually, when it comes to salvation, it is individual. So the nation’s going to get treated as a whole, but each individual is also there. So we have great passages like Ezekiel 18 that’s going to tell us that everyone dies for their own sin, or everyone lives alone. So you’re not going to punish a father for the son’s sin. You’re not going to punish the son for the father’s sin. They’re going to stand before God on their own and be judged. So he is always giving us these little clarities, but for the most part he was working through this big picture, this metaphor, with the people that he was working with, the whole nation. And he gives us a picture of what it looks like to live that life.

J. Michael Thigpen (14:22):

And so this is what it’s teaching us and moving us towards. Now what we get on the other side is in the New Testament you sort of begin as an individual and you get brought into the people part of it. You’re baptized into the body, and you’re brought into that corporate relationship. Israel had the corporate relationship and then had to decide—well, do I really want to be a follower of God or not? Whereas on the New Testament side, no, no, no—at the time that Christ saves you and the Spirit baptizes you, you’re brought into the corporate world. So you start out individually and move into corporate. Whereas on the Old Testament side, you start corporately, you’re born into the nation, which is just how you begin. But you as an individual have to choose whether or not you want to be rightly related with God.

Brian Arnold (15:04):

And Paul will make this even clear in the New Testament—that not all Israel is Israel. Well, what does he mean by that? Well, not all of them had a relationship with God. And I like how you’re…it’s almost like it’s own little chiasm in some ways, right? Of corporate to individual, individual to corporate, across the covenants. And God does care about the corporate people of Israel and the church, and he also cares about the individual. Every man will stand before God on his own, and like you said from Ezekiel, and answer according to sins and what they’ve done with Christ through that. So how do we then understand repentance, forgiveness, even on individual levels today—or corporate levels today? So one thing that I hear that’s pretty common is corporate forgiveness, if you will, in the Old Testament, by the people of God. And that’s being used today as well to say—how do we offer forgiveness corporately? Are you familiar with how people are using that?

J. Michael Thigpen (16:07):

I am. And what it really misses here, I think, is that it’s usually really linked with that you need to repent in order to be forgiven. And what’s really clear here, part of the pedagogy, part of what God is teaching us in all these passages, is that he’s not motivated because of our repentance to save us. He’s motivated to save us, change our hearts—and in that change of hearts, then we are capable at that point of repenting and moving forward. So this is the language of Ezekiel 11 and 34 and 36, and Jeremiah 31 and 32, where God is about the business of changing hearts. And so there seems to be a sense today where we’re really looking for…really, not salvation is what’s being talked about in the world at large for these corporate events, but wanting people to act nice. And then if you act nice, you’ll be accepted.

J. Michael Thigpen (17:01):

And that’s not what this passage is, and that’s not what these passages are teaching us. They’re teaching us that repentance always fails. It’s not enough. It won’t bring justice. What you need is an act of God. And God is motivated—not because we repented—to save us. But he’s motivated to grant it to us, that he’ll change our hearts so that we can walk with him. So that we can obey, so that we can hear him in the way that we should. That’s the language of the prophets, and the way that they talk about the nation. So when we talk about that today, what’s missing is this idea that God has to act and change the heart. That’s really the message of salvation. And that’s what all of these Old Testament texts are really trying to teach us. So that when you get even a passage like Luke 24, it’s repentance for the forgiveness of sin is to be preached. But what is it? It’s repentance for the forgiveness of sins—in his name. In light of what Christ has accomplished on the cross, and all that he’s doing. That’s where repentance comes from—because he’s changed us, and he’s moved in us through his Spirit. Now we can actually respond appropriately to God.

Brian Arnold (18:06):

So God initiates even our own act of repentance. So God must grant the heart of repentance in order for us to even approach him, repentantly. And then we get forgiveness through the work of Christ that has been accomplished on our behalf. I think that’s revolutionary for some people, in terms of how they think this goes about—that God is somehow just waiting for us to come to him in repentance, but in humility, recognizing that the only time we can approach him in repentance is because he’s granted us a heart to do that. Is that what you’re saying?

J. Michael Thigpen (18:38):

Yes. And what’s really interesting is if you read through a book like Kings, and you look at all the little statements that say, “God did this, for this reason or for that reason, this is why he did this.” None of those say he did this because they repented. He does things because he chose them. Because he loved them. Because he made a covenant with them. That’s what motivates him. That’s what…his desire is driven by his own choices and that way to love us. And then out of that, his intention, what he wants to happen for us, is that he’ll be able to give us repentance and to give us forgiveness because of his acts. And that’s always the ordering of it in the Old Testament. And that’s where we get in the New Testament, right? Christ is going to say it at the most basic level—you have to be born again. This is what has to happen for you to have this relationship. And then notice it, right—even when he talks to Nicodemus, it’s—how can you be a leader of Israel and not understand that the change has to happen first? That’s his way of saying—this is the way it’s always been taught in the Old Testament. You should know this by now—that you must be born again.

Brian Arnold (19:43):

And really the language, I think, that he’s using there of water and spirit to be born again of, is out of the prophets. He’s quoting from Ezekiel, and what that new birth is going to look like. So yes, Nicodemus should have recognized that piece beforehand. And that God is the one who granted repentance. So there is a pastoral word, I think, that needs to be spoken here to people, of the humility then that it takes to recognize—if you’ve been given the opportunity to repent, it is that God has stirred that up within you. And that God is using, then, repentance to reconcile us to God in Christ. So you’ve pastored, and how have you seen this idea, particularly—when the light bulb comes on for people that really kind of warms their heart and shows them something unique about God?

J. Michael Thigpen (20:38):

I think it is…people put off coming to God because they know inherently—I haven’t cleaned myself up enough. I’m still not acceptable. I still don’t have everything together. And to go to them—and I love this baptism imagery, that you went to, like a John three, right where he is talking about the baptism of forgiveness, because the Old Testament image of that is that he says, “I will sprinkle water on you, and I will cleanse you.” It is always his movement towards us that brings acceptability and cleansing, not that we get ready. So to have someone go, “Wait a minute—you mean I don’t have to fix myself, but God loves me and wants to move towards me, and I need to be open and receptive to that?” changes everything for them. Whether it is someone who’s not yet a believer and doesn’t know how to approach God, or the believer who is stuck in their sin and feels like I’m not good enough yet to go back to him, I’ve got to clean up more. First to go—no, no, no. This is what he wants to do for you. And he is moving towards you. That makes all the difference in the world. And taking the weight off of knowing that I will never be good enough.

Brian Arnold (21:46):

All the difference in the world, it really is. I loved the illustration you used earlier with your girls—that was even impactful for me in the moment you were saying it. Because if I’m a child of God, I am his child. Like—that is a fact. And now he’s going to treat me as a child, even if that’s through discipline because of sin or whatever. But he has already brought me into the family and I’m his. I belong to him. And now we’re going to work through these things in a relational way, and that’s just a beautiful picture of the gospel. Well, Mike, where would you point some people if they wanted to read a little bit further on this idea of repentance and forgiveness?

J. Michael Thigpen (22:25):

I think one great resource that—it’s lovely, goes through all of the Old Testament, is A Severe Mercy by Mark Boda. And it’s a wonderful look at judgment, salvation, promise, and forgiveness throughout all of the Old Testament, and just kind of goes book by book and looks at the way that God deals with us mercifully. He deals severely with sin, but with great mercy. And what the nature of that interplay of forgiveness is in the Old Testament. I think it’s one of the best works to go to.

Brian Arnold (22:57):

Well, that’s excellent. I hope people will take advantage of that, just to recognize that we have such a great God who, you said, deals harshly with sin. He must. He’s holy. That is his character and his nature. And yet his character and his nature is also love and mercy and forgiveness, and he’s going to bestow that on people, and he’s going to grant us even repentance. Well, this has been a really helpful conversation. I hope our listeners will take that next step and read something like this so that they can have a better, fuller appreciation for how the Bible lays out repentance and forgiveness, both in the Old Covenant and in the New. Mike, thanks so much for joining us today.

Outro (23:35):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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