My first post on this subject discussed what I see as the Biblical pattern for forgiveness – forgiveness is to be given after repentance is offered. I quickly covered how we can see this pattern in the Levitical law of the sacrifices, in the way God forgives us, and in the way Jesus instructs us to forgive others.
This is a very difficult concept for many to grasp, because our culture, over the last how-many-ever years has taught us WRONGLY that forgiveness means that we just “overlook the offense and get over it.” And the church has bought the lie – telling believers that this is the “Christian” way to respond to offenses. But my contention is that such an idea is not only wrong, but unBiblical and damaging to the church.
I’d like to spend this post responding to some common objections to what the Bible REALLY teaches about forgiveness…
OBJECTION: But Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Doesn’t that tell us that our forgiveness before God is dependent on our forgiveness of others? If we do not forgive, as you suggest, aren’t we putting our souls in danger?
RESPONSE: You are right in saying that there is some way in which our willingness to forgive others demonstrates whether we truly understand and therefore are able to receive our own forgiveness from the Father. But look closely at the verses in question (Matthew 6:9-15). Nowhere do those verses DEFINE what forgiveness is… it’s assumed that we know what it means, and that’s my main point – OUR MODERN CULTURE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT FORGIVENESS MEANS! We have to abandon our ideas of what it is and go to the scriptures for that definition!
Nowhere does the Bible even infer that forgiveness means “overlooking the sins of others.” Even God, the One with more mercy than anyone else, does not forgive by overlooking sins! He can’t because of His just nature – justice must be done, and to overlook a wrong would be an injustice!
So what DOES it mean when we pray that God will forgive us, as we forgive others? It means that we are asking God to forgive us WHEN WE REPENT (1 John 1:9, Psalm 7:12, Mark 1:4, Luke 13:3, Acts 3:19, 2 Corinthians 7:10, 2 Peter 3:9 ) as we forgive others when THEY repent! (the parable found in Matthew 18:21-35 is especially helpful here… notice that the forgiven servant was forgiven his debt to his Master WHEN HE REPENTED, but would not do the same for his fellow servant who also repented – THAT hypocrisy was what angered the Master). What Jesus is speaking to in the Matthew 6:9-15 passage is the very human tendency to hold a grudge even when a person is repentant! To say, “No, I can NEVER forgive you… even though you say you are sorry!” THAT is the hypocrisy of denying others the same mercy God has given to you, and the exact kind of unforgiveness Jesus is addressing.
OBJECTION: Jesus died “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8), so we should forgive just as He did.
RESPONSE: Yes, absolutely! Jesus died for us while we were still in our sinful condition. But He did not FORGIVE US of those sins until we turned to Him in repentance. If we imply by Romans 5:8 that Jesus automatically forgives us without our response of repentance, then we are saying that when Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2, 1 Timothy 4:10), He forgave the sins of the world at that moment also. That is much more akin to Universalism than it is Christianity. As Romans 5:8 clearly teaches, Jesus’ death “while we were still sinners” shows His love for us, by providing the only appropriate sacrifice FOR our sins – thereby opening the way to forgiveness which the Father is eager to give to the repentant soul.
OBJECTION: What if the person who has sinned against us never repents or is unable to repent (dead, or in a coma, etc.)? Then are we just stuck with it? How can we ever be free of it if we don’t “forgive” (overlook the offense)? RELATED OBJECTION: Aren’t you acting as Judge in the situation if you refuse to “forgive” (overlook the offense)?
RESPONSE: This objection misunderstands what we ARE to do with offenses against us when a person is unrepentant.
There is no way in which we are “stuck with” the offense and the pain of it, etc. when we follow the example of Jesus in the way HE handed the sinful behavior leveled at Him. 1 Peter 1:21-24 teaches us that Jesus is our perfect example of what to do when we are treated wrongly. There are 3 simple (not always easy, but simple) steps that Peter outlines:
- Do not respond in kind (i.e. insult for insult or injury for injury)
- Entrust yourself (and the offense) to God, who judges justly.
- Trust in the healing Jesus has provided through His own suffering and death on your behalf.
What is actually happening when we apply Peter’s instruction? First, we are not allowing a fleshly or self-absorbed retaliation to the injury or sin. In other words, we are being careful to be angry (at the sin, as God is because wrong has been done… in fact, God will pour out His WRATH on sin eventually – Revelation 19:15), without sinning (Ephesians 4:26). For the sake of clarity, let me say it again without the parentheses – The first thing we are doing by not retaliating is to be careful that our righteous anger over the offense does not manifest itself in our own equally sinful response.
The second thing we are doing is giving ourselves and our welfare in the offensive situation to God, the One Who will judge justly. This, like our initial faith in Christ, is an act of trust. We are trusting that God will take this, He will handle it rightly, and we no longer have reason or need to hold on to or harbor the offense. It is in God’s heavenly courtroom now, where He serves as Judge – and we have nothing more to do with it.
OBJECTION: When we refuse to “forgive” (overlook the offense) aren’t we allowing the sinner to control us and therefore losing our freedom in Christ?
RESPONSE: If we are following the pattern Peter lays out for us (1 Peter 1:21-24) as described in the previous response – then we are trusting God to be in control – of the situation and of us as His children. We are actually moving INTO the freedom Christ provides for us by releasing the offense to the righteous judgement of God and walking in personal victory over the feelings of hurt and offense. Only Christ can provide that, and He does it only through the cross.
FINAL THOUGHTS: A wrong view of forgiveness that flows out of our own disobedience?
I know this way of thinking about forgiveness is stripping the gears of many of you. But that’s what happens when we approach issues Biblically instead of how we’ve been taught to view them culturally. Our conditioned way of thinking that is unBiblical is challenged and tweaked by what the scriptures really say. Since the gears are already stripped, I might as well throw in one more related issue…
Our “waiting” for repentance from an offending person should not be done in a non-chalant, unconcerned way. In fact, we should be pursuing their repentance. Most have not noticed that the parable of the unforgiving/unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), which defines forgiveness, comes IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING Jesus’ instruction that we are to go to each other to work out conflict and offenses (read the whole passage here).
Could it be that we’ve defaulted to a definition of forgiveness that means “overlook the offense” because we are so fearful of conflict that we are being willingly disobedient to Jesus’ commands to go to those who offend us? After all, it’s easier, causes less turmoil, and looks so “nice” and “Christian” (as we’ve come to define it). But it’s not Biblical. Not in the least.
There’s no arguing, going to someone who has offended you IS a mess much of the time – Christian or not. So why would Jesus instruct is to do something that has the potential of blowing up in our faces? Why? – Out of love for each of us individually and out of love for us corporately as His church! When we refuse to approach an offense, we are in large part closing the door to the possibility of the offending person’s repentance – which is the very best thing for them! Through the loving confrontation they have the chance to become aware of a sin in their life, and as a result have the opportunity to confess it and be forgiven and cleansed from it (1 John 1:9). And the person being obedient to carry out the loving confrontation, may just find that THEY were not seeing everything completely clearly and then have the opportunity to confess THEIR OWN sins in the situation. That is SUCH a loving thing, and a great benefit and sign of health for the church overall! And should the person initially confronted refuse to repent, then the opportunity is open to follow Jesus’ instruction about church discipline, which opens new doors to the restoration of the sinner and the overall purity of the church!
Like it or not – our view of forgiveness carries HUGE ramifications for the health of the church, Christ’s body and bride. A wrong view will short-circuit Jesus’ intention for our purity and holiness. A right view will only strengthen it.