“I am ready to forgive you and take you back”. Could there be any words more beautifully spoken in the English language? Every mediator and marriage therapist longs to hear these words because they signal a willingness, even an eagerness, to pardon an offense (or many offenses).
Surely this pleases and glorifies God the Father when his children seek to resolve their differences and reunite, especially in the marriage relationship. Yet, there are so many times this does not happen! Too often, differences are left unresolved, and the relationship is permanently broken.
For example, in the case of marital infidelity, the cheating spouse refuses to acknowledge fault, and apologize for being unfaithful. Even after repeated attempts to restore the marriage, there is no reconciliation because the guilty party insists on, “my way or the highway”.
No matter how much the offended spouse continues to love and pray for the offending spouse, no change of heart takes place. The sin continues and the two drift further and further apart. Should the guilty party still be forgiven, in spite of blatantly rejecting the offer of forgiveness? Is this even possible?
Must we forgive everyone, regardless of their stubbornness and continuous willful sin against us? Let’s take some time to examine what the Bible teaches about this vital matter.
KEY PASSAGES ON GOD’S FORGIVENESS
What is forgiveness? The Greek word, ἀφίημι (“aphiemi”, Strong’s G863) can be defined, “to forsake, lay aside, let go, put away, remit, suffer, yield up”. It is translated, “forgive”, forty-seven times in the New Testament.
So then, the act of forgiving is the laying aside of an offense. It is remitting from record whatever misdeed has been committed, putting it away for good in order to restore the relationship. The greatest example of this “letting go” is found in Christ. He made peace for us by going to the cross and tearing down the wall of separation between us and God, which was our sin (Eph. 2:13-14).
Through Christ, our sinfulness is not counted against us any longer, and we were reconciled to our loving Father in heaven (2 Cor. 5:19). If we confess our sins, he is always faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from them all (Col. 2:13; 1 John 1:9).
Although modern psychologists, and some religious leaders, claim that forgiveness is a one-sided attempt to free ourselves from feelings of bitterness and retribution, this idea is not found anywhere in the Bible.
True forgiveness is about freeing the offender from the guilt of his or her sin. Freeing the offended person from agonizing emotions post-offense is not the purpose of forgiveness. The same is true concerning God’s forgiveness. He does not forgive our sins for his own sake but for ours. We are the beneficiaries of his loving-kindness and mercy.
Intrinsic to forgiveness is reconciliation. One cannot forgive without the necessary result being reconciliation, and one cannot be reconciled without forgiveness having taken place. The two are inseparable.
This is the case because the issuing of forgiveness is always predicated upon the prior repentance of the offender. In reconciliation, both parties have resolved the dispute by (1) repenting of the sin which caused the dispute, and (2) forgiving the penitent for the sin which led to the dispute. In this way, barriers to the relationship are eliminated.
From the Greek word, μετανοέω (“metanoeo”, Strong’s G3340), repentance is defined, “to change one’s mind”, and “to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins”.
Per the apostles’ teaching, repentance is absolutely essential to being forgiven by God (e.g., Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 11:18; et al). The impenitent have no hope of receiving any forgiveness whatsoever. Paul wrote,
“But because of your hard and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”Romans 2:5
Simply put, there can be no relationship with God when one maintains an unrepentant heart, but there is good news for the sinful person in need of God’s forgiveness: Even though God is angry with sinners, he is patient toward all. He wants everyone to come to repentance and be restored to relationship with him before it is too late. Peter wrote,
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”2 Peter 2:9
We learn from God’s perfect example that righteous anger against sinful behavior is justified, but anger does not give us the right to be impatient toward those who sin against us. God’s justice does not outweigh his mercy and the same should be true for us. These points are crucial as we move forward to considering human forgiveness.
KEY PASSAGES ON HUMAN FORGIVENESS
Like God, it is imperative that Christians always love sinners and earnestly long for reconciliation with them, no matter how grievous the offense. Jesus used the hyperbole, “seventy times seven”, to teach us the importance of being repeatedly merciful unto others (Matt. 18:22).
Even after multiple infractions, “you must forgive them”, Jesus said (Luke 17:4). However, immediately before saying this, Jesus made it clear that forgiveness of the offender is always conditional.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him.”Luke 17:3
The word, “if”, found in this command, contains enormous implications. It necessarily implies that the brother who sinned against us is not to be forgiven when there is no repentance, just as it necessarily implies that the brother who repents is not to suffer rebuke any longer. “If” changes everything!
The Gospel of Matthew deals with forgiveness of sin in the community setting:
“If your brother sins against you, go, and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”Matthew 18:15 – 17
Once again, Jesus speaks using statements of condition. “If” the sinner “refuses to listen”, and is finally excluded from fellowship, how can we say there is forgiveness? There isn’t any.
The sin has not been let go, remitted, or put aside in any sense. On the contrary, the entire congregation continues to hold this sin against the offender, and they do so by the authority of Jesus Christ. We will have more to say about this passage later on.
WHY THIS MATTERS FOR VICTIMS
In the course of my counseling practice, I have ministered to the hearts of hurting people who have been betrayed, slandered, physically abused, sexually assaulted, or otherwise viciously harmed by others.
In most cases, the offender is impenitent and, if given the opportunity, would gladly continue the same cruel behavior against the victim. Some of these victims have been taught that the only remedy for their pain is to issue unconditional forgiveness to their abusers.
They are told that Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers (Luke 23:34), and Stephen prayed similarly (Acts 7:60). They are provided many other proof texts which teach the necessity of human forgiveness, such as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21 – 24).
By carefully reading these passages, however, we notice that none of them teach us to forgive the impenitent, and they certainly do not teach that forgiveness is a means of self-treatment for healing inner trauma.
Jesus and Stephen prayed for their offenders even while in the process of being killed by them. Yet, forgiveness was not actually granted to any of them until repentance took place. As discussed earlier, we know that God does not forgive impenitent sinners.
God loved the world enough to send his only begotten Son to save it (John 3:16). Yet, we know he will not forgive everyone in the world. In fact, most of the world will perish in eternal destruction because they refused his offer of forgiveness (cf. Matt. 7:13-14). Clearly, love does not always demand forgiveness.
This leads us to ask an important question: Why would God expect his people to do something that he, himself, would never do? Are we not supposed to be “imitators of God, as beloved children”? (Eph. 5:1).
Jesus taught, “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Notably, he never said anything about forgiving your enemies, or forgiving your persecutors. Peter instructed, “Do not repay evil for evil” but he did not say, “forgive evil” (1 Pet. 3:9).
Paul said, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm. The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). He did not say, “I forgave him according to his deeds”. By surrendering the matter to God, Paul got past the pain Alexander had caused him. He did not forgive him.
Where is the Biblical precedent for believer’s forgiving the impenitent? And, isn’t forgiving an enemy who is continuing to commit evil deeds just the same as excusing the continuation of their evil deeds, even inadvertently?
Since forgiveness is the pardoning of a crime committed in God’s eyes, “forgiving” them without repentance would be tantamount to justifying their sin and validating someone God has not validated.
Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” (Luke 11:4). Notice the word, “as”, which means, “in the same way”. Why, then, should we practice forgiveness any differently than God does? (See also Matt. 18:33, Eph. 4:32, and Col. 3:13; passages which similarly convey the concept that human forgiveness must always be granted “in the same way” God forgives).
“Forgiving” the impenitent is not forgiving like our Heavenly Father forgives. It is not “forgiving” like any New Testament believer forgave. It is something else entirely.
DISPELLING THE MYTH ABOUT FORGIVENESS
We each come to God with contrite hearts requesting pardon, knowing that anything less from us makes pardon impossible. Yet we are told to expect less from those who sin against us. Why?
Since we plead for God’s mercy and gratefully receive it with humility, why wouldn’t we think the same heart must belong to those who receive our forgiveness? It does not mean that we refuse to offer them forgiveness, but that we simply cannot rightfully forgive those who will not accept it.
We often hear people say that only God is able to forgive sins “judicially”. It is argued that his forgiveness is a different “kind” of forgiveness than ours. This was the belief of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus (Luke 5:21). They overlooked an important detail about forgiveness.
Like Jesus, who had been given power by his Father to forgive sins on earth (Luke 5:24), Christians have this authority, as well. Forgiveness is forensic, meaning it is entirely a legal matter in the eyes of God. He honors the decree of his children who forgive, and he welcomes the forgiven back into fellowship with himself. This arrangement is by his design.
As discussed earlier, Matthew’s gospel provides a clear path for addressing the sin of a wayward brother or sister in the local congregation (cf. 18:15-17).
It involves going to the offender alone. Then, if there is no repentance, the offended party goes to the offender with one or two witnesses. If that fails to bring about reconciliation, the offended party brings the matter before the whole congregation. Then, if there is still no repentance, the offender is considered outside of fellowship.
In the very same context, Jesus stated,
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”Matthew 18:18 – 19
According to Jesus, God delegates and honors the “binding” and “loosing” of fellowship by his people. The Father stands in agreement with Christians who determine to forgive and reconcile with penitent brethren. He also stands in agreement with their withholding of forgiveness from impenitent brethren.
Christ’s instruction to believers agrees with God’s own policy on forgiveness. He agrees with it because it is the same. There is only one kind of forgiveness!
Certainly, it is Christ-like to forgive indiscretions that sully the marriage relationship. Like Hosea demonstrated, a husband should forgive his unfaithful wife even if she has fallen into the sin of adultery.
Yet, there are many instances of an unfaithful wife or husband never repenting of illicit sexual behavior. They enjoy the sin and wish to continue sinning. In some cases, the unfaithful spouse even calls for an “open marriage”. This has recently become fashionable in American pop culture, but how can a faithful spouse forgive such behavior?
Jesus permits divorce as a last resort to resolve the problem of infidelity. After having offered forgiveness, praying fervently, and failing to elicit any repentance from the sexually immoral spouse, reconciliation seems to be impossible. There is no sin in divorcing him or her (cf. Matt. 5:32; 19:9).
If God can approve the withholding of forgiveness under such circumstances, who are we to condemn? Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce proves that forgiveness, even when freely offered in love, is sometimes impossible. This example alone dispels the falsehood that Christians must always forgive, regardless of the offender’s repentance.
CONSEQUENCES OF ISSUING FALSE FORGIVENESS
It is important to understand why falsely forgiving a wayward spouse or brother is not a harmless mistake. False forgiveness (forgiveness without repentance and reconciliation) vainly offers a quick fix to a problem which cannot be resolved instantaneously.
Not only does issuing false forgiveness make us less like God, but it also promises us an empty peace. It undermines the true healing process God designed for us to experience after we have been harmed by others.
In spite of what some are saying, forgiveness is not the answer to being freed from carrying the weight of an offense. Many victims who claim to have forgiven everyone will also tell you that they continue to struggle with feelings of bitterness, anger, and hatred.
Why is this so often the case? As they are told to forgive their offender and be healed, their faith is damaged because that promised healing doesn’t immediately happen. So, they struggle even more.
They don’t realize that forgiveness, whether it is legitimate or issued prematurely, is not a cure-all for the residual pain of trauma. True healing is found in committing to God all of the suffering and hurt inflicted on us by abusers. Giving up on judging and condemning the people who hurt us is very difficult but very rewarding. It is a process requiring faith, spiritual maturity, and time.
Had victims started by turning it over to God, instead of trusting their own decision to “forgive”, they may have already arrived at a better place spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. False forgiveness bogs them down, delaying the healing process.
Although some who “forgive” prematurely still experience healing, it happens in spite of their faux forgiveness, and not because of it. It would seem that adjusting their attitude away from judging the offender helped them to relinquish their hurt to God. Their “forgiveness” is credited for all the mental and emotional progress they enjoy, even though spiritual pardoning of the crime never really took place.
We accept by faith that God will handle every injustice on the Day of his glorious appearing. In his own time, he will grant full “relief” to those of us who are afflicted by the sins of evil people (2 Thess. 1:6-8).
In the meanwhile, we allow all condemnation to belong to him alone. In this way, we are set free from the anguish and heavy weight of rage, resentment, and grudge harboring. The healing process takes longer for some than for others but surrendering everything to God will gradually take us all to the place we need to be.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”Romans 12:19
While it is true that we must lovingly pray for those who sin against us, we cannot grant forgiveness to the unrepentant. Our Heavenly Father does not do this, and neither can we. From his example we learn that reconciliation is the entire purpose of issuing forgiveness to others. It is not a self-help strategy. It does not make all the pain suddenly disappear.
It is one thing to offer forgiveness to sinners with a heart eager to forgive them. This is admirable and God-like. It is another thing entirely to falsely claim someone is already forgiven. A marriage cannot thrive under such conditions – no relationship can.
– Michael A. Hildreth