Rightly Dividing the Topic of Forgiveness

By Hans Rasmussen 

The topic of forgiveness is a subject of intense emotional weight for most of us, if not all of us. Whether it be sin and harm that we have done or sin and harm that has been done to us, it is core to our being that we know forgiveness and grant it as well. Perhaps the reason that we take it so seriously, and rightly so, is that the forgiveness we grant others is linked intimately in scripture with the forgiveness that God gives us. The Lord’s prayer contains a request to be forgiven to the extent that we forgive others (Matthew 6:12). It is linked together elsewhere as seen in the example of these two quotes:

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32, ESV)

“…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13, ESV)

In both these quotations, Paul is making it very clear that as Christians, we are to forgive as we are forgiven. Further, Jesus models it for us. He calls God to forgive the Roman soldiers who had no idea that they were gambling for the clothes of the Messiah, let alone participating in his crucifixion (Luke 23:34). Jesus tells Peter that we are to be ready to forgive at any point in time and to the maximum extent (Matthew 18:22). He goes on to speak of a parable that states clearly that if we are forgiven by our master (The LORD) but hold back forgiveness from those who owe us (One another), then we are in sin and will receive the punishment we deserve. But is this all there is to forgiveness? Must Christians forgive and forget?

I believe that the parable at the end of Matthew 18, if fully understood, will give us the answer to many of our contemporary questions on forgiveness and, it seems to me, help us to understand the fullness of the gospel as well.

But before we delve into the parable, let’s take a look at how we are defining forgiveness. In most of our contemporary parlance, “forgiveness” is used to describe a kind of emotional or psychological freedom. In other words, if we grant someone forgiveness, we are basically communicating to them that we will not feel negative towards them any longer. For example, this is one of the definitions of forgiveness in our contemporary dictionaries: “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” The problem with this definition is that it is not what is usually intended for the great majority of biblical uses of “forgive”. For example, is Isaiah not being very godly when he says regarding the apostate Jews, “Do not forgive them!”? (Isaiah 2:9) What does he mean here? When Jesus says “Your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:21-23 for example), is he saying that he has stopped feeling angry and resentful towards the subject?” The answer is no.  

In a few cases, there are statements that seem to imply forgiveness has been granted without confession or repentance. But upon further study, we will see that these are not the full picture of forgiveness. Take for example, Stephen’s prayer that God would not hold the Pharisee’s sin of his murder against them in Acts 7:60. This is a statement that Stephen himself had no bitterness toward them and that his hope was that they would eventually find God’s forgiveness as he had. It is not, however, a completed transaction of confession and forgiveness as is seen elsewhere in scripture.

Biblical forgiveness as used in the majority of cases has to do with a lesser used definition in our contemporary language which is “to cancel a debt.” In the case of the relationship between man and God, the debt is referring to the debt of sin that we have earned in rebellion against Him. In the case of our relationship with one another, it refers to the debt of mistrust and harm we have accrued when we hurt one another. As Christians, the implications of this definition are weighty.

First, we must understand that when we are granting forgiveness as Christians, we are to be aligned with God’s granting of forgiveness as well. In a sense, we are to represent him as his image bearers. We do this both individually as Christians as well as corporately as the church body. This means that we have the ability to assure someone that their sins are forgiven or we have the ability to speak truth to someone when their sins are not forgiven. How do we know the difference? This leads us to the topic of repentance.

Take a look at the differences between Matthew’s recounting of how often we should forgive in Matthew 18:21-22 and Luke’s recounting in Luke 17:3-4. The same sentiment is expressed, a willingness to forgive, but there is one difference: repentance. The subject in Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ words comes back with an acknowledgement of the offense. Now he obviously is still learning about what repentance means in terms of putting practical change in his life because he has to come back to the one whom he has harmed seventy times in the day, but the key is, he acknowledges that he has wronged the victim of the sin.

Now, take this back to the parable at the end of Matthew 18. One servant who owes a lot of money goes to the Master of the house and asks for mercy and acknowledges the debt. He is forgiven this giant debt. He then turns around and calls in the debt of another servant, a peer, on a much smaller debt. The second servant responds by falling down in submission to him and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” In other words, he acknowledges his debt, submits himself to the one to which he owes the debt, and asks for the ability to bear the responsibility. The same as the first servant did to the Master. This is the perfect time for biblical forgiveness. This is when we as Christians should grab the perpetrator of the sin in our arms and say, “Absolutely, just as my sin is forgiven me, I forgive you your sin!”  Repentance is at play and so forgiveness is granted. Unfortunately, the first servant acts in opposition to this principle of immediate forgiveness in the face of repentance and his forgiveness is then revoked by the ultimate Master of the house…a perfect picture of what Christ will do to us if we refuse to forgive the repentant.

But what about when repentance is not present? For this, we simply go back a bit in Matthew 18. Jesus addresses the situation of sin between brothers within the family of God. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus says that when sin occurs between siblings within the family of God, that the one who has been sinned against is to go to the perpetrator and communicate that sin has occurred. If he listens, it says, we have gained our brother. In other words, if the one who committed the sin acknowledges the hurt, empathizes with it, and acts in repentance, then forgiveness should immediately be granted as Peter is so clearly taught in the next parable. And we should do this until the end of days with one another in covenant commitment to each other.

But if the perpetrator of the sin does not admit the need for repentance, the next step is to bring in someone else as a witness to the harm that was done. Again, if repentance suddenly becomes present, forgiveness is granted. If repentance is still not present though, it moves to a higher level of pressure in which the members of the church state clearly that the brother or sister that is the perpetrator of sin is not forgiven by God or man because of their lack of repentance. The church is to act as the final word on this because the members of the church body have with them the authority of Christ in their midst (this is the proper understanding of “where two or three are gathered in my name”) to keep the person “bound” in their sin or “loosed” from their sin. This is not because they innately have the power to do so, only God has the power to ultimately grant forgiveness or deny it (Luke 5:21), but they do have been given the power to state clearly that unrepentant sin is not forgiven by God.

Let me phrase it by way of a question…At the end of days, will God forgive those that are unrepentant? If you answered “No”, then you are correct. This is the point of the entire Bible when it comes to the topic of judgment. For the debt of sin to be forgiven, Christ is ready and willing to do it for any and all who desire to be forgiven, but he requires repentance on our part. “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 3:9, ESV)  Notice that it says “should reach repentance” rather than “should reach forgiveness.” Repentance is a heart, mind, and action stance in which we turn away from all that was opposed to God in our life prior to knowing him, and turn towards him with our mind, emotions, and actions in a way that shows that we submit to his rule and Lordship in our lives. In doing so, we accept his position as our Savior as well, dying on the cross for the weight and responsibility of our debt of sin.

To not require repentance for forgiveness is to create a universalist gospel in which all people, regardless of their repentance or rebellion, will be saved by Jesus’ death. Whether they desire it or not. This would be a false gospel through and through. Cheap forgiveness is a product of cheap grace which creates a side-effect of delegitimizing the need for the weighty sacrifice of cross, and making sin “no big deal.”

Now just to be clear, as Christians, we never use forgiveness as a tool of manipulation to get others to play to our whims or desires. This power as ambassadors of Christ is to be used wisely only in affirming for a repentant believer that their sin has already been dealt with or, in the case of an unrepentant believer, that they need to repent for Christ’s sacrifice to become effective for their sin. It is there for the taking by the grace of God, but they must come humbly to the cross.

If we are too loose with this responsibility that God has given us and we allow an unrepentant believer to think that God has no problem with their unrepentant sin, then we have, in essence, inoculated them to the need for the gospel. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 5 where a member of the church was acting in blatant, unrepentant sexual immorality.  The implied situation is that the church was acting in opposition to Christ’s command in Matthew 18:15-20 by keeping this unrepentant person in the midst of their church body because they were practicing a false notion of “grace” and “love”.  This is why Paul calls them out, “You are arrogant!” They were misrepresenting God by creating their own version of cheap grace and love. Paul instead directs them to remove him from among their number. Look at his words: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5, ESV)  Paul’s goal was not punishment but reconciliation.  His hope was that by using the relational capital of the church and removing it from the individual, turning them over to their sin (represented by Satan here) that it would shock them into repenting from this horrific sin of sexual immorality. Why? So that he might ultimately be reconciled to God. Not for the purpose of manipulation for manipulation’s sake, but that they might understand the weightiness of sin, the need for Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the required response of repentance. Cheap forgiveness leads to a cheap view of the cross and it mischaracterizes our righteous Judge and Lawgiver who desires to also be our Savior.

Now, before we go to much further, let’s clarify a few common misconceptions that arise when I have taught this before.

1) Withholding forgiveness does not mean that we are to be unkind to the unrepentant person. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10, ESV)  In fact, they can be our full enemy in blatant sin and we are still supposed to treat them with kindness.  Look at Christ’s command to love our enemies in Matthew 5:44. Look at Proverbs 25:21 which tells us to give our enemies a glass of water. Both of these are in the midst of also calling them to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). So we can still be kind to our enemies or those that have harmed us. And in addition, we must recognize that to love them is to speak truth to them in the midst of our kindness and state that they need to repent from their sin.

2) Hearing the above statements about repentance, some have then asked, “What about unrepentant sin in my own life that I am not aware of?  Does this mean that I will not be forgiven for those things I don’t even know about?  As disciples of Jesus, we do not need to worry about having an unrepentant sin in our lives that will keep us away from Jesus if we recognize a few things:

a) Any sin that we know of, we are to take to Christ in confession and to those that we know may have been harmed by the sin or could help us in fighting the sin.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, ESV) “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16, ESV)  God will give us forgiveness as will a brother or sister that is obediently following Christ.

b) Any sin toward God that we are not aware of should come to our understanding as we spend time in prayer and the Word and give room to the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). If we are still unsure, we can follow the example of David to regularly pray that God would forgive us of our hidden faults (Psalm 19:12). God is ready and willing to forgive even those if we are acting and living in an attitude of true humble repentance and dependence on Him.

c) If we have sinned against another person and are unaware of it, it is the responsibility of the offended party to bring it to our attention. “If your brother sins against you, ‘go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (Matthew 18:15, ESV) There is a great evil in the church today which is the lie that it is unkind to bring someone’s sin to their recognition. In doing so, we are knowingly keeping them from walking in repentance and wholeness. I see this often: One person is harmed by another and rather than telling them about the harm, they bottle it up thinking they are being righteous in not creating division. But all the while, bitterness and division is growing below the surface. Slowly but surely, they then go and speak slander against the person who harmed them to third parties and thus, create more division and sin than in the first place. This is a great evil and it must be stopped. If a brother or sister in the church does not have the courage and obedience to go and speak to their brother or sister that has caused harm, then they need to acknowledge that they are using the situation for their own emotional and sinful ends.

3) Another question I get asked is “How do you keep this from spiraling out of control for someone who has a victim mentality and blames everyone for everything?”  This is why the second level of human interaction is present in Matthew 18:15-20. If someone brings something against me as an elder, let’s say they feel I said something hurtful in a sermon, I may rightfully disagree with them. I would then encourage them to get a second witness to validate whether or not it was actually hurtful. Often, when people with a victim mentality engage in this process, the people they go to for validation clear up the air that they are being too sensitive and there is no sin present. Over time, this is the most loving thing to do for that person so that they might repent of their victim mentality. This is why in 1 Timothy 5:19 Paul tells Timothy to not admit any charges of sin against an elder without at least two or three witnesses. Paul knew that elders are more prone to being scapegoated by a lone congregant that is convicted and so the safety check of a second or third witness must be present.

Let me also give some definitions of things that are sometimes wrongfully attributed to forgiveness:

1) Forgiveness is not forbearance. To patiently endure a slight or sin is totally different than forgiving.  We often have to do this with non-believers that have no desire to know the way of Christ. Forbearing does not mean forgiving and it does not mean that we need to intentionally put ourselves in their way in the future.

2) Forgiveness is not forgetting. These two are often connected in Christian circles. Hebrews 8:12 says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”” Our God is omniscient, he knows all. It is that he knows our sin but chooses to remember it no more. True forgiveness is to always know that we were harmed, yet to not hold the debt against the person any longer. This has the true weightiness of mercy, grace, and love behind it. Forgiving and forgetting often puts vulnerable people in the way of abusers as I will talk about further on in this writing.

3) Forgiveness does not mean that a person does not have to deal with temporal consequences. Too often in counseling I have seen a spouse skip over the need to empathize and enact true repentance in changing their actions to get their spouse to “hurry up and forgive”. If a spouse has stolen money, for example, then a consequence might be a time where trust is rebuilt before they are given access to finances. This consequence can exist even with the statement of forgiveness in place. To not have this necessary consequence would be ignorance and naïveté on the part of the one who was harmed, not love.

4) If we do not grant forgiveness, it does not mean that we can seek vengeance, hold on to bitterness, grudges, or the potential for retaliation. All of these are contrary to the heart of Jesus. Even if we don’t grant forgiveness for unrepentant sin, we must turn the potential for vengeance and judgment over to the Lord.

The reason that this topic is so important to me is because I have seen cheap forgiveness used in so many situations that enable abuse that I want to scream from the mountains that God’s heart is to help the abused and oppressed, not keep them enslaved and in the way of harm. Let me give you two real world scenarios. First is the wife who is being emotionally and verbally abused by her husband. Well meaning Christian friends misquote scripture from a bad translation and say, “God hates divorce.”  But they are misquoting Malachi 2:16 because the context is that the men of Judah were divorcing their wives to grab the next younger model of wife. They were utilizing divorce as a way to go against covenant faithfulness, and in so doing, sinning against their wives, children, community, and God. So again, well-meaning Christians grab this, misquote it, and tell the abused wife to stay in an abusive marriage and that she is just to forgive her husband. Meanwhile, she now carries the guilt of the debt of sin because that is how sin works. Someone must carry the weight of it. So she is asking, “What is wrong with me that my husband can’t treat me well.” A healthy pastor, elder, and church should be involved in that family’s life to the extent that they know what is going on, rescue the wife from the abuse, explain to her that the burden of sin is on his shoulders for the abuse and that he must repent. Once he does, the church can then begin the hard work of reconciling and restoring trust which will take a long time in most cases. If there is sin present in both people’s interaction with the other, then what better way to get them to recognize the harm they have caused than to get them to agree that forgiveness only comes when there is an effort toward repentance on both their parts?

The second situation is when I am sitting in front of a person who has been molested, raped, or physically abused by someone close to them. Maybe it is not even to that extent but they have just had an overly aggressive, authoritative father that has caused great emotional and mental abuse in their lives. In any of these cases, well-meaning Christians have told them to forgive the assailant. Now what they are really trying to do is help the person to be free of the power of that trauma in their lives. But telling them to forgive the assailant will then cause them to carry the burden of the wrong done to them. And worse yet, it could force them to feel that they need to stay in relationship with this abusive person so that they can be “loving”. But what intelligent Christian would ask my wife to stay with me if I were constantly and regularly causing physical harm to her? No one. So why do we tell children of emotionally, mentally, and verbally abusive parents that they need to forgive their parent and stay in close relationship with them? The most loving thing we could do to those parents is communicate their sin to them, express that they need to repent and pursue the way of Christ, and if so, then we would be happy to engage in relationship with them.

Is this not what the LORD did with Israel? Over and over, through the prophets, He stated clearly that if they did not stop abusing the covenant relationship by way of idolatry that He would remove them from the land. “She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.” (Jeremiah 3:8, ESV) But they did not repent, so he handed them over to their sin by way of exile. Then, as there was a remnant that repented, He brought them back. What was he asking for? Repentance. “Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, “ ‘Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 3:12–13, ESV)

As a pastor, my heart breaks when I see the misunderstood and theologically inaccurate call for forgiveness raised above the need to free the oppressed and the abused. We must understand that God is always ready to forgive the repentant, and so must we be. Anything short of that, however, causes the work of Christ to be minimized and the call to repentance to a sinful world to be muted. Let’s be Christians who know our scripture well within the context of the full biblical narrative so that we can rightly reflect the heart of God to a world that so badly needs to repent before a holy and righteous God. If we can reflect that rightly, we will be helping them to fully understand His loving call. May we all be quick to confess our sin, quick to repent, and quick to grant the same forgiveness we have been granted when repentance is presented to us.