In my sermon on January 31, I made an impromptu statement that we are to forgive someone only after they have repented and asked for forgiveness. Those folks who have been with us from the beginning most likely were not taken aback by that, since I preached a message on that issue when we covered Ephesians 4:32 a little over one year ago. However, our numbers have doubled since then and I’d like to take the opportunity here to give a more detailed explanation for our newer family.
For a long time, the modern church has taught a very self-centered view of forgiveness. Most often you will hear forgiveness taught or described primarily as a benefit to the one offended. “You let go of your animosity, your bitterness, your right to retaliate so that you can enjoy a sense of freedom from those things. Those things are weighing you down and you need to release those for your own good.” In that teaching, whether it is explicitly stated or not, forgiveness is about the forgiver.
The problem with that is that God’s forgiveness is to be the pattern for our forgiveness. Paul writes in Eph 4:32, Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. If we are going to forgive as God forgives, we need to know how and when He forgives.
First, is God’s forgiveness a self-centered forgiveness that primarily benefits Him? Never in Scripture do we find God being portrayed as the primary beneficiary of His own acts of forgiveness. Rather, those whom He has forgiven are the beneficiaries, so that His forgiveness is a completely selfless act. But if we forgive, seeing it as primarily benefitting us, not only have we made unforgiveness self-centered, but we have made forgiveness self-centered.
Jay Adams, who is one of the pioneers of the biblical counseling movement, says it very well, “Forgiveness is primarily for the sake of the offender and, secondarily, to reestablish proper relationships; only as a by-product does it benefit the one who forgives…. Love impels us, like God, to do all we can to bring the wrongdoer to repentance and reconciliation—for his sake.” As God’s forgiveness is for the benefit of the one forgiven, so ours should be also.
So what is forgiveness? Remember, God is to be our pattern, so we answer that question by discovering what God does when He forgives. According to Isaiah 43:25 and Jeremiah 31:34, when God forgives sins, He promises to remember them no more. Therefore, that is what it means for us to forgive. Now, not remembering doesn’t mean we scrub it from our memory. What it means is I will not bring that sin up to you or anyone else in the future. I will never use that sin against you. I will never dwell on that sin. It’s in the past, and it stays there.
This is not at all the popular conception of forgiveness. Because we have viewed it from a self-centered perspective for so long, we have equated forgiveness with getting rid of our bitterness and anger. But biblical forgiveness is not about me getting rid of my junk toward someone else. That becomes clear if we look at Eph 4:32 in its context. The previous verse says, Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. It is after that that the exhortation to forgive comes. In other words, putting away all bitterness and anger should take place before the act of forgiveness. Putting away the bitterness and anger is not synonymous with forgiveness. They are two different acts.
Now, if you hold the popular view of forgiveness, that it is synonymous with releasing your anger and bitterness, then it would make perfect sense that you would be taken aback by my statement a couple of weeks ago. Most Christians today would have thought that I meant, “We are not to release our anger and bitterness until that person has repented and asked for forgiveness.” Let me be clear: All bitterness and anger over how someone has sinned against me is to be dealt with in short order. In that same Ephesians passage, v26b says, do not let the sun go down on your anger. If I am harboring any anger or bitterness towards someone, I myself am sinning and I should repent and ask the Lord’s forgiveness.
Withholding forgiveness does not mean harboring bitterness and anger. It means withholding the promise not to bring that sin to the offender’s attention or not to bring that sin to the attention of others. [I know that sounds really loaded, but please hang in there.]
That begs the question, “If we are to deal with our anger and bitterness in short order, at what point are we to forgive, that is, at what point are we to promise that we will not bring that sin up?”
If God’s forgiveness is to be our pattern, then the above question can be answered with a question, “When does God forgive?” 1 John 1:9 tells us, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We may not like how this sounds, but biblically, we cannot deny it: God’s forgiveness is conditional. His forgiveness is conditioned upon confession and repentance.
God does not forgive unconditionally. If He did, there would be universal salvation. There would be no need for confession, repentance, and faith. All would be saved, everyone would go to heaven, and no one would go to hell. But we know biblically that that cannot be the case.
If that is to be our model, then our forgiveness should be conditioned upon confession and repentance also. Now, it might be natural to think, “Isn’t there a qualitative difference between God’s forgiveness and my forgiveness? God’s forgiveness removes from me the stain of sin and the penalty of sin, but my forgiveness doesn’t do the same thing. So isn’t it going too far to say that because God forgives conditionally, that I should forgive conditionally?”
That is a reasonable objection until we come across Luke 17:3-4. There Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him." There simply is no way around this text. Jesus here is commanding conditional forgiveness.
A further objection: “What about all the places in the Bible – including Eph 4:32 – where we are commanded to forgive without any mention of repentance being a condition?” There are two responses to this. (1) If we have a biblical definition of forgiveness, that is, that it is conditional (as God’s is [2 Chron 7:14; 1 John 1:9] and as Jesus teaches in Luke 17:3-4), then the condition of repentance is understood. (2) A key principle in interpreting Scripture with Scripture is that more restrictive passages should be used to understand less restrictive passages. In other words, a less restrictive passage cannot be used to nullify the restriction in another passage. All of the passages in the Bible without the repentance condition cannot make the condition disappear from Luke 17:3-4. The other passages must be interpreted in light of it.
And here is why this is so important and why it is unloving to forgive unconditionally: when I forgive unconditionally, making the promise not to bring up that sin to the offender or to other people before he has repented, I am then unable to obey Matthew 18:15-17, which says, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Unconditional forgiveness denies the possibility of biblical confrontation and church discipline because I will have promised not to bring the sin up to the offender and not to bring up the sin to others, both of which are commanded at the different stages of the process of church discipline. I will have allowed that person to remain in a broken relationship not just with me, but with God. If I love that person, I need the ability to confront them and, if necessary, tell others about that sin, so that the offender might be restored and reconciled with man and God. Conditional forgiveness is not only biblical, it is more loving than unconditional forgiveness. It seeks restoration and reconciliation for the other person, not freedom for me.
For those who have not repented and sought forgiveness, we are to seek them for the purpose of restoring them, having already rid ourselves of any bitterness or anger against them. We are to seek them out of love for them.
Posted by Greg Birdwell
Posted by Greg Birdwell