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Particulars of Christianity:
312 The Church Ethic


Forgiving and Forgiveness

Forgiving and Forgiveness
Part 1: Biblical Limitations on Judging
Part 2: The Bible Instructs Us to Judge



Whether we are talking about God's forgiveness of us or our forgiveness of others, forgiveness is of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. For the Christian both of these aspects of forgiveness are inherently connected to one another. But in an age where sin is excused and tolerated it is important to take a look at biblical protocols to make sure we are following God's will and not simply following after our culture. This is especially true in the area of forgiveness and sin. This study will examine the Bible for practical principles for how Christians should forgive.

At first glance this may seem like a no-brainer. The modern church's view seems to be that Christians should always be quick to forgive anyone and everyone of every sin. But is this scriptural or are there times when forgiveness is not called for?

To suggest that there may be times when Christians should not forgive may seem like a dangerous proposal. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is due to the many passages in the New Testament, which inform us that God's forgiveness of us is dependent upon our forgiveness of others. To be clear, let's look at the verses, which establish this crucial principle to see if we can understand what God expects from us and forgiving others.

Matthew 6:12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Mark 11:25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

Luke 6:37 Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:

Luke 11:4 And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

These four short passages are not the only ones that establish the principle that God's forgiveness of us depends upon our forgiveness of others. We will look at the others momentarily. For now it is important to note that these four passages all tell us that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others. But does this mean we must always forgive everyone of everything no matter what or is there more to this principle than that? Specifically, do these passages mean that God expects us to forgive others even when they are not repentant?

The following passages shed light on this principle and provide additional information on how it works. Notice, however, that they are addressing the same idea of reciprocal forgiveness as set forth in the four passages above.

Colossians 3:13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.

Ephesians 4:32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.

These two verses from Colossians and Ephesians supply a critical detail regarding our forgiveness of others and God's forgiveness of us. Our forgiveness of others is to model God's forgiveness of us. Or, we are to forgive others just as God has forgiven and forgives us.

This begs the question though, how does God forgive us? In order to know what God expects from us in forgiving others it is essential that we first understand how God forgives us. Once we understand the process of how God forgives us, we can then forgive others in like manner as we have been instructed to do.

So how does God forgive us? What is the process by which God forgives us? And also, is God's forgiveness unconditional? Or are there conditions that must be met in order for God to forgive?

Jesus' parable in Matthew 18 and his instructions in Luke 17 provide the answers to these important questions.

Matthew 18:21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. 28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? 34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

In Matthew 18 Jesus is answering a question posed by Peter regarding his forgiveness of others. Jesus explains with a parable, a parable which not only demonstrates the principle established elsewhere that our forgiveness from God is dependent upon our forgiveness of others, but which also explains how God forgives us and how we are to likewise forgive others.

In this parable Jesus portrays the sinner as a man in debt to his master. The servant's debt is forgiven by his master AFTER he asks for patience and mercy. Moved with compassion because of the servants pleading the master forgives the servant of his debt. Likewise, the servant is also owed a debt by another servant. However, when the second servant pleads for patience and mercy from the first servant in the same manner that the first servant had pleaded to his master, the first servant does NOT forgive the debt of the second servant.

Upon being informed of this the master of the first servant calls him to account. The master explains that he forgave the servants debt because the servant asked to be forgiven, and yet the servant did not also forgive his fellow servant who also asked to be forgiven. Therefore, the master reinstates the debt of the first servant and does not forgive him. Jesus concludes this illustration with the same principle that we have found in the above passages, explaining that "likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses."

In this parable that Jesus uses to explain how God's forgiveness works we find that ther are two conditions, which are required in order for forgiveness to be granted. One, which we have identified already, is that we must ourselves forgive others. But this condition is first predicated upon an even more fundamental condition. The fundamental condition for forgiveness is that the sinner be repentant.

This important prerequisite could not be more explicit in Jesus' explanation or in the message of the Gospel. Therefore, the command that we forgive others as God forgives us clearly implies that we are to forgive those who repent of their sin as God forgives us when we repent of our sin. This initial prerequisite is also clearly established in Luke 17.

Luke 17:3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. 4 And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.

In Luke 17 Jesus is again speaking of our forgiveness of others. In this case he clearly establishes that we are not simply to overlook sin, but to rebuke those who sin against us and only if they repent are we to forgive them. Indeed, even if they sin against us seven times a day, as long as they repent we must forgive them.

Clearly, the repentance of the offender is a conditional, fundamental prerequisite for the forgiveness of sin. This is true when God forgives us and when we forgive others. The obvious message of the New Testament is that only those who repent of their sin to God are forgiven. If we do not repent to God, he will not forgive us.

Likewise, the command that we are to forgive others as God forgives us, therefore, inherently indicates that we forgive those who are repentant of their sin. Nowhere in the scripture do we have any indication that we are to forgive others unconditionally or to overlook sin when there is no repentance. To do so, would be to deviate from God's model of forgiveness and would confuse the message of the New Testament. Make no mistake, God does not and will not forgive unless we are repentant. Therefore, He will only hold it against it us if we refuse to forgive those who are repentant. He will not hold it against us if we do not forgive the unrepentant, since neither does He forgive the unrepentant.

Now that we have established how forgiveness works, let's take some time to examine how we should apply this principle.

We have stated that God's forgiveness is conditional upon our repentance. And this is true, but surely we aren't aware of each sin we commit. And surely, in our ignorance we do not repent and ask God for forgiveness for every sin, especially those we may commit unintentionally. Yet God does forgive us of sin that we are not aware of and that we may commit unintentionally. But why?

What God requires is a repentant heart, an attitude of repentance. And this is what we mean when we say that we are not expected to forgive those who do not repent. We do not mean that we should not forgive those who are unaware of their offense or who sin unintentionally. We mean that we are not expected and not supposed to forgive those are aware of their sin and refuse to repent of their sinful behavior. This would include those who refuse to acknowledge the sinfulness of their behavior. We are not expected to forgive those who do not have an attitude of repentance for their sin, but persist in it without remorse. (Indeed, that is why passages like Luke 17:3 indicate that we have a responsibility to make ourselves and others aware of sin, so we can repent and change.)

Also we might consider those who persist in sin as surely all of us continue to do in some way. Should we forgive those who persist in sinning over and over? The answer is yes, if they are repentant just as God forgives us for our persistent sins if we are repentant.

In Jesus' example of the person who sins against his brother seven times a day (Luke 17:3-4), Jesus instructs us to continue to forgive others of their sin as long as they continue to repent. The idea that Jesus is expressing is that no matter how many times someone sins against us, even if it's the same type of sin over and over, as long as they are truly repentant, we must forgive them. And of course, this is what we see in God's forgiveness of us, since none of us are perfect.

One final comment, however, on this last statement. It is clear from scripture that sincerity is the key to true repentance. We do not have a license to sin as long as we repent afterwards. The expectation from God's point of view is that true repentance inherently requires that we intend to change our ways. The very definition of the Greek words used in the New Testament for "repentance" imply the intention to change.

3340 metanoeo {met-an-o-eh'-o}
from 3326 and 3539; TDNT - 4:975,636; v
AV - repent 34; 34
1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent
2) to change one's mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one's past sins

The conclusion that we must draw from the New Testament's instructions on forgiveness is that in order to be forgiven of our sin by both God and man we must be sincerely repentant. Likewise, just as God forgives those who are repentant and not those who are unrepentant, God expects us to forgive the repentant, but does not expect us to forgive the unrepentant.

The following is a summary of the scriptural principles regarding forgiveness.


What is the Divine Model of Forgiveness? (How does God forgive us?)

1. God requires a repentant heart (including repentant behavior) Matthew 3:8, Mark 1:15, Luke 3:8, Luke 13:3,5, Acts:2:38, Acs 3:19, Acts 8:22, Acts 11:18, Acts 17:30, Acts 20:21, Acts 26:20, Romans 1:32, 2 Corinthians 12:21, Hebrews 6:1, 1 John 1:9.

2. Likewise, God requires us to forgive IF/WHEN the other party repents Luke 17:3, 4.

3. How to approach the "offending party" (Matthew 18:15-18)
a. (if they don't repent on their own) go privately, just one on one, us and them
b. (if they still don't repent) take two or three others back with you
c. (if they still don't repent) bring them before the whole church
d. (if they still don't repent) excommunication.

4. If we know of another's sin, we ought to petition God for their forgiveness, unless the sin they commit is the unpardonable one (1 John 5:14-18) (presumably, if they do not repent, we are to pray they would come to repentance).


What if the other party does not repent?

1. Should we forgive the unrepentant?
a. YES, if they ask for repentance and yet sin again and again. (Matthew 18:21- 22, Luke 17:3, 4).
b. If they do not ever acknowledge their sin, their need to repent, or never even ask for forgiveness? NO. (Luke 17:3, 4, Matthew 18:15-18).

2. We should not remain angry, because that gives the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:26, 31-32, Hebrews 12:14-16 - "root of bitterness (4088)").

3. We should simply "mark" (or take note of) them in some circumstances (Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 John: 9-11).

4. In some circumstances, church leadership should exercise excommunication (Matthew 18:15-18,1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Timothy 1:20, 2 Thessalonians 3:14).

5. The goal of excommunication is the repentance of the excommunicated. If the excommunicated repent, they should be forgiven and welcomed back so that the devil will not gain an advantage over us. (2 Corinthians 12:7,10-11) How does the devil gain an advantage in such circumstances?
a. If the church (as a group or as individuals) fails to forgive those WHO REPENT AND SEEK FORGIVENESS, then we endanger ourselves that God might not forgive our sins (Matthew 6:14-15, Mark 11:25-26).
b. The excommunicated person remains in danger of the devil, particularly endangering their belief and their right doctrine if they remain excommunicated (1 Timothy 1:20) - for the church was INTENDED as a form of protection for our faith and doctrine (and our behavior through accountability).

6. *We are always to speak the truth in LOVE, to build up and not to tear down. (Ephesians 4:2, 14-20, James 5:19-20)