(July 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 7)
There is no greater blessing than forgiveness. First and foremost, we need the forgiveness of God because we are sinners. God sent His Son to die on the cross in order that we might obtain this forgiveness. Secondly, many are in great need of giving and receiving forgiveness on a human level. It is this second subject that will be the object of this study.
Many are confused concerning forgiveness largely because secular, humanistic ideas and theories, contrary to Scripture, have been widely accepted as truth. Even Christians often buy whatever the world is selling at the moment, attempt to commingle it with some biblical principles and sanctify it with a few out-of-context passages of Scripture. The result is a strange assortment of ideas and philosophies that fall far short of the truth. Christian literature abounds with such unbiblical concepts as forgiving ourselves (impossible and lacking any biblical support); forgiving and forgetting (impossible and a misunderstanding of the biblical requirements); and forgiving God (pure blasphemy).
Additionally, the mood of the moment in both secular and Christian circles is acceptance and tolerance rather than confrontation, repentance, and forgiveness. Unconditional acceptance is the catch phrase, which followed to its logical conclusion means we don’t need to forgive people – we accept people. The world, at its best, is not a forgiving community; it is a condoning one. Acceptance is a nonjudgmental reception of a person as he is. Forgiveness, as we will see, recognizes sin for what it is, but gladly forgives it upon repentance. It is far easier to ignore or condone sin than forgive it.
Jay Adams has offered a definition for forgiveness that I believe is very helpful and, more importantly, in line with Scripture. It runs something like this: forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a promise – a promise to no longer hold something against another. This means that you will never again bring this offense up to the offender to use against them; nor will you bring it up to another, or even to yourself.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FORGIVENESS TO GOD
The teaching of the scribes in Jesus’ day was to forgive twice, but the third offense merited no forgiveness. Peter, no doubt, felt quite proud of himself when he suggested forgiving an offense up to seven times. Jesus stunned His disciples by saying, in essence, that there is no limit to forgiveness. Then He went on to give the wonderful parable of the unmerciful servant.
It is my observation that there are two grave errors, in this context, running around loose in Christian camps – one having to do with us, the other with God. On the one hand is the concept of God as a kindly old grandfather who winks at sin and looks the other way. Donald Carson offers this illustration from his own life. While a student in Germany he became a friend with another student who, while not a Christian, had been raised with Christian values. This friend, a married man, found it to his liking to occasionally visit the local prostitutes. Carson asked him what he would do if he discovered his wife (who was back home) did the same. His friend declared that he would kill her. Carson asked if that were not a double standard, the answer to which was that in his country such double standards were allowed. Knowing his Christian background, Carson challenged by reminding him that God does not have double standards. His reply was classic, “Ah, God is good, He’s bound to forgive us; that’s His job.”
I find this understanding of God increasingly in vogue today, even among those claiming to be conservative Christians. We can sin and rebel to our heart’s content and God will hardly flinch. After all, it is His duty to forgive – it is what He does. And so, the mercy of God is magnified to the exclusion of the wrath of God. This is dangerous ground on which to stand, for as Carson reminds us, “The price of diluting God’s wrath is diminishing God’s holiness.”
The other error has to do with the ridiculous notion that we can live in a perpetual state of unforgiveness and not have this condition impact adversely our relationship with God. We need to make clear that in this passage Jesus is not talking about salvation, but rather about a believer who has been forgiven an impossible debt by God (He is warning the disciples – not the unsaved.) This parable teaches that any offense against us is unworthy to be compared with our offense against God – an offense which He has forgiven. For us to be unwilling to forgive others shows how much we have taken God’s forgiveness of us for granted. In verses 34 and 35 we are informed that God will not overlook an unforgiving spirit; And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart. That we forgive is so important to God that our own forgiveness (not for salvation but for fellowship with Him) hangs in the balance. There will be a price to pay if we refuse to forgive others. And that price is huge, it is that “people disqualify themselves from being forgiven if they are so hardened in their own bitterness that they cannot or will not forgive others.” An old Puritan writer once said, “He who fails to forgive, destroys the bridge across which God’s forgiveness comes to him.”
THE RECONCILIATION PROCESS
When we have been offended (Matthew 18:15-20)
Once we have decided to do things God’s way, we must then begin to look at the particulars. What are we supposed to do if someone has sinned against us or offended us in some way? The usual response is to wait until the other person comes to us. After all, they were the ones who sinned. But Scripture does not give us this option, instead we are to confront the offender (Matthew 18:15-20). This involves 4 steps:
- Self–examination, where we first examine our own hearts and actions before we approach someone else (Matthew 7:3-5).
- Private reproof. There are a number of reasons why the offended must go to the offender: the offender may not even know what he has done, we may have misunderstood him, we may be judging his motives, he may not realize that you are hurt, and he may not be wrong. Therefore, to wait for the other person to come to you only complicates the situation. We should go privately and gently (Galatians 6:1) to the offender and get to the root of the matter. The purpose behind this whole procedure is to be reconciled to a brother. The majority of problems between people are solved on this level and nothing further needs to be done.
- Small group reproof (Matthew 18:16). If a sinner refuses to admit his guilt and repent, we are not to immediately give up. Talk to the sinner in the presence of two or three witnesses – ideally, spiritual people.
- Church discipline (Matthew 18:17). When a believer refuses to turn from sin, we are not told to overlook it or to forgive them but to bring them before the church. If they will not listen to the church, then the church must remove them from the fellowship.
When we are the offender (Matthew 5:21-24)
Once we recognize that we have wronged another, it should immediately become our top priority to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the one we have wronged. It matters not whether we feel guilty, or whether the other person is partially to blame. It is incumbent upon us to remove the barrier between them and us. So, in the biblical picture, we are never to wait for the other person to come to us. Whether we have sinned against another, or been sinned against, we are to go to our brother or sister and seek reconciliation.
Why is forgiveness and reconciliation so important? We are given at least two reasons in the Scriptures. The first is to have proper fellowship with God. According to 1 John 4:20, you cannot be in wholesome fellowship with God and be at odds with your brother – if there is anything that you can do about it. The second is to bring relief to the other person. Modern views on forgiveness focus on the relief of the offender. We are told to seek forgiveness so that we will be relieved, so that guilt won’t eat away at us. We are even told to forgive our dead parents so we will get over it. But the Scriptures always focus on the other person. God never suggests that we forgive in order to find personal relief (although that is often a wonderful side-benefit). Rather, we forgive in order to do good to others out of gratitude to God. It is only when we stop thinking about the hurt and injustice others have done to us, that we turn instead to the great need of the other person.
WHO SHOULD BE FORGIVEN?
At this point we come face to face with another sticky issue – one that does not submit itself to an easy solution. This is partly because the Bible seems to teach two different things when it comes to whom we are to forgive. In many Scriptures we are told to forgive those who repent. Luke 17 is a good example of this very thing. Here the Lord is teaching His followers some valuable lessons concerning forgiveness. He starts by pointing out that it is our responsibility to rebuke a sinning brother (17:3b). This one phrase alone could revolutionize the Christian community if it were obeyed. “Jesus does not allow you to go tell others about it; to sit in a corner and feel sorry for yourself, to take it out on others, or even to tell the elders. He says go to the one who stepped on your toes and talk to him about it.”
The word for “rebuke” here means “rebuke tentatively.” That is, you go with caution, giving the brother an opportunity to explain any misunderstanding. Galatians 6:1 says it is to be done gently. We are not trying to destroy people or get our pound of flesh. We are trying to love them enough to help them recognize the seriousness of sin in their lives and deal with it God’s way.
If a person repents of sin we are required by God to forgive – refusal to forgive is not an option (17:3c, 4). But someone may complain, “How do we know if their repentance is sincere?” We don’t. Jesus said, If he says he repents. It is not our obligation to decide the sincerity of the individual declaring repentance, it is our obligation to obey the Lord and forgive.
Refusal to forgive is a decision for vengeance. Carson writes, “The person who forgives quietly surrenders vengeance, the right to get even.” While this forgiveness is not an option, it is conditional. Repentance is a prerequisite to forgiveness. God does not require forgiveness where there is no repentance (we will qualify this in our next paper).
At this point Jesus emphasizes that obedience will be necessary if this process will be completed to His pleasure (17:5-10). Upon hearing this, the apostles cry out, “We need more faith if we are to forgive in this manner.” Jesus’ answer is simple. He says, “No, you don’t. You already have enough faith – what you need is to obey.” What Jesus had done was expose their real problem, which was not lack of faith, but lack of obedience.
This teaching on forgiveness, taught throughout the Scriptures, and particularly in Luke 17 is clear enough, so why do we struggle to obey in this matter? Some honestly admit that they just don’t feel like it. Forgiveness is often hard work, besides if we forgive too easily people will just take advantage of us. Because we tend to think this way, our Lord provides us with an illustration of a hard-working and obedient slave. At the end of the day, Jesus says, his master does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:9, 10). Obedience to our Master is not predicated on how we feel.
An equal number of believers resist the forgiveness process as outlined in Scripture, because they believe “it won’t work.” They reason that if they approach people in this manner they will just make them mad, or they will think we are being judgmental, or maybe they will leave the church. These things may or may not happen. Our task is not to anticipate results and thereby determine whether or not to obey God. Rather, we obey God regardless of the outcome.
But what are we to do if forgiveness is not possible? We will discuss this next time.