(August 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 8)
WHAT TO DO IF FORGIVENESS IS NOT POSSIBLE
Racing through our minds at this point may be all the situations in which forgiveness, in the sense described in our previous paper, is not possible. The first scenario concerns a believer, who, despite all of our efforts in compliance with Scripture, refuses to seek forgiveness. The biblical course of action, according to Matthew 18:15-20, would be church discipline. We cannot forgive this person because to do so is a promise to no longer recognize this sin as a barrier between us and them – when clearly the sin is still on the table. A person who has a heart filled with vengeance, bitterness, or resentment, isn’t ready for forgiveness because he is holding onto his sins refusing to confess and forsake them. For such a person the process of church discipline may be necessary. Remember reconciliation is the goal.
But we can think of hundreds of situations in which church discipline is impossible, or the biblical process of reconciliation cannot be carried out. For example, what if the person is not a believer and has no interest in forgiveness or reconciliation? What if they attend a liberal church that does not practice discipline (which by the way is a good incentive to be a member of a church that believes the Bible and practices its teachings, for without church discipline reconciliation is often impossible)? What if church discipline is practiced and still the offender does not repent? What if you are not getting along with your spouse or teenager? And what about all those times when we are offended in the course of a week by someone’s rudeness or impatience or unkind remark? What does God’s Word offer by way of instruction during times like these?
I can think of two possible courses of action. Often we can simply cover the offense with love. I Peter 4:8 commands, Keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. And Colossians 3:12-13 reads, Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. The implication is that we don’t have to go to the mat over every issue and offense. We all sin in many ways, and while often the loving thing to do is to confront, sometimes the best course of action is to recognize the weakness of those around us, refuse to be offended by their sin, and bathe them in love. We must be careful that this option is not used as a loophole to avoid the biblical pattern described above, for our goal should be the good of the other person. But surely on many occasions the best action to take is to cover their sins with love and refuse to let those sins affect us.
The second course of action may overlap to some degree with the first, but it is broader in scope. Romans 12:14-21 speaks of a situation in which we are facing a true enemy. Someone is sinning against us and has no intention of turning from that sin. As a matter of fact they may rather enjoy the grief they are causing us. What are we to do then? In general, the teaching of Romans 12 is that we are to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. Bless those who persecute you, Paul writes, bless and curse not (v. 14). There is never a time when we are to be unkind, snub someone, or be bitter toward another. Instead we are, Never to pay back evil for evil to anyone. We are never to take our own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God (vv. 17,19), who has promised to repay when injustice has been done. On the positive side, we are to feed our enemy if he is hungry and give him a drink if he is thirsty (v. 20a). Why? Because by doing so, You will heap burning coals upon his head (v. 20b). This is a curious statement that has elicited two very different interpretations by serious Bible students. Many take this passage to mean that our acts of kindness will put unbearable pressure on the sinner to repent. This view would seem to be in line with our goal of reconciliation with those at odds with us. Conversely, some see this type of action as facilitating the judgment of God on those refusing repentance. This seems a better fit with the use of the words burning coals, which in most Old Testament usage symbolizes God’s wrath (II Samuel 22:9; Psalms 19:9,13), or punishment (Psalms 140:11), or an evil desire (Proverbs 6:27-29), but not always (see Isaiah 6:6-7). The natural flow of the context seems to demand this understanding, since the vengeance of God, rather than the transformation of the sinner, is the dominating subject. On the other hand, by calling on us not to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (v. 21), Paul seems to point to a victory over the sinful activities of others by use of the weapon of good.
It is possible that the Holy Spirit intended both interpretations to be true. We are reminded that, when speaking of his own ministry, Paul spoke of himself as a fragrance of Christ that resulted in far different consequences among the saved and the unsaved. Concerning the unbeliever, he said that his preaching of the gospel was like an aroma from death to death (II Corinthians 2:16), that is, the good news is the very proclamation of their spiritual death because of their rejection of Christ. But to the believer it was an aroma from life to life – it was the fragrance of life. The very same action, in this case the declaration of the gospel, both condemned and brought life to the hearers, depending upon their response. Perhaps the same idea is being communicated in Romans 12:20. We are to do good to our enemies; we are to overcome evil with good. Those who are won by our kindness will enjoy the favor of God and reconciliation with us. Those who continue in their mean-spirited activities will face the vengeance of God, apparently in increased intensity because they have continued in their sins even while being treated with goodness.
This passage, however, would have us focus, not on the other person and their sins, whatever they might be, but on our actions and ourselves. Whether the one intending our harm responds well or not, is beside the point. We are commanded to do right no matter what the other person does. If the offender refuses our kindness and attempts at reconciliation, the rest is in the hands of God. “The difference in result between forgiveness that responds to repentance and forgiveness independent of the repentance of the offending party is, of course, that the former pattern issues in reconciliation while the latter does not.” Reconciliation has been our goal and desire, but at this point it has not materialized. Still we treat those who have offended us with a Christ-like attitude.
Things get a bit more complicated when our “enemy” is a Christian. I Corinthians 5:9-13 is clear that we are not to associate with any so-called brother who is living in open sin. Using the weapons of love and good deeds, we are always attempting to draw back to a biblical lifestyle those who have strayed. At the same time, we are not to socialize or fellowship with professed believers living in known, unconfessed sin. This can become a tricky balancing act as we seek the good of someone but at the same time refuse to socialize with them. If our refusal to fellowship with this individual is an act of hatefulness, we are exhibiting an unloving attitude and denying the principles found in Romans 12. But, if in obedience to I Corinthians 5 we separate from such a person, the very act of refusing fellowship is an effort to bring them to reconciliation with God and His people. While these efforts to win back our brother may very well be misinterpreted as unloving, nevertheless, they are in accordance with Scripture and may prove to be a powerful method of drawing them to repentance.
If, by God’s grace, the person comes to repentance, we are commanded to forgive. We are not to hold them at arm’s length, avoid them, treat them as second-class citizens, or withhold love. We are to forgive and restore fellowship. To ignore God’s teaching on this matter is to set ourselves up in the place of God, who says that vengeance is His. That is not a position in which anyone should want to find themselves.
In all the passages that we have studied, forgiveness is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end reconciliation.
But what if reconciliation does not happen? What if no rebuke takes place and church discipline is not administered? What if the sinning one even refuses to admit that their sin is sin? Have they gotten away with their sin? No! As a matter of fact a much worse thing happens. If a child of God does not do what is right, God Himself gets involved (1 Corinthians 11:30, 31; Romans 12:19). Living in unconfessed sin is a losing proposition. May we be diligent to help one another walk in holiness before our Lord.