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by Brock Beauchamp
Forgiveness – one of the most vital parts of a godly life and yet one of the most difficult to understand. I think that there is a sense in which it is a fundamentally elusive idea, a theme which will come up later. Closer to home, it can also be very difficult to understand in experience. It is well and good to speak of the virtue in the abstract, but there is something about being hurt that makes us want to lash out in anger, to stew in bitterness, to forsake any last vestige of love for the offender. Because of this, we must take great care in our study of the topic, lest our emotions obscure the truths of Scripture.
With fuzzy subjects such as this, it sometimes helps to say what something is not. First and foremost, forgiveness is not simply overlooking an offense. Pretending as though no harm was done or downplaying the gravity of the injury does no service to anyone. Also, there is nothing distinctly Christian about that kind of “forgiveness,” and yet our forgiving of others is to be in light of our own forgiveness in Christ, as will soon be seen. This kind of faux-forgiveness not only attempts to ignore the real issue but also to disregard the sinfulness of sin. If a genuine offense has occurred that transgressed against the law of God, who is able to say that that transgression is an unimportant thing? Remember the words of David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed: “Against you, [God,] you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4, cf. II Samuel 12:13). Though David clearly violated others in his sin, he recognized that it was ultimately God’s law that he had rebelled against and that to trivialize this would be to deny the right judgements of God. Secondly, forgiveness is not cheap. Real forgiveness is costly to the one who forgives and is a gift of love given to the one who bore offense. Any notion of forgiveness that reduces it to a temporary cease-fire in hostilities in which the offended lets go of nothing is no forgiveness at all.
Having looked at what forgiveness is not, let’s begin to look at what it is. If forgiveness is costly to the one forgiving, it is also free to he who receives it. To see this, let’s turn to one of the most poignant passages on the subject, Ephesians 4. In this great passage about life in the Body of Christ, we read in verse 32, “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (cf. Col. 3:13). The word translated “forgiving” comes from the Greek verb charizomai, which is based on the root charis, meaning “grace.” It means “to give graciously, to give freely, to bestow.” This should come as no surprise, really, as the motivation for our forgiveness is said to be our forgiveness in Christ. This analogy is so rich and deep that we would be remiss to quickly pass over it. Certainly in the case of our forgiveness there was no mere overlooking of sins; God had to purchase His church with His own blood (Acts 20:28). The sins of all who would believe were laid upon Christ on the cross, and He bore the full penalty for their guilt as a substitute. And likewise, the gift of forgiveness He gave to His people was free and gracious — it came with no strings attached, left no unremitted guilt, demanded nothing in return. This is pardon, not parole.
At this point in the analogy, however, we come to an interesting question. While God’s decision to show mercy to the sinner is unconditional and based on nothing in the object of His grace, the Gospel message of forgiveness nonetheless says “repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). Contrary to the teaching of “easy believe-ism” that says one can cling to Christ as Savior without turning from sin, we read in the Proverbs, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Prov. 28:13). Is it then the case that we should likewise only forgive those who repent of their wickedness? Or ought we to forgive in any case? I will make a case for the former and then temper my conclusion with some balancing truths.
There is one sense in which forgiveness is something that should only be accorded to those who have repented of their wrongs. For example, the Lord says in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Note that this is the same pattern we see in Matthew 18, which does not encourage forgiveness before repentance. In fact, it encourages confrontation, to the extent necessary, to bring about reconciliation. In part, this is because forgiveness is to be complete — it is to be a promise not to bring up the offender’s sin in the future or to hold it against him. If he has not yet repented, however, the Lord says that he is in need of rebuke, which requires confronting him with the wrong he committed. As Dr. Jay Adams, author of the acclaimed book From Forgiven to Forgiving, writes,
Apart from repentance, the matter must be brought up to an increasingly larger number of persons. Why? Through their aid to win the offender. In love, true forgiveness seeks not to relieve the forgiver, but to deliver the offender from his burden of guilt. Out of concern for the other person, the offended party pursues the offender until the matter is settled before God and men.
Therefore, it is seen that in a very important sense, forgiveness is to be reserved for those who have demonstrated repentance. It must be said that this is more than “accepting an apology.” An apology (as anyone familiar with apologetics is aware) is a formal justification or defense of something. This can sometimes carry a connotation of regret, but its principal use is as an excuse. The apology says, “I did do this, but there were these circumstances, and it could have been worse... But, anyway, I’m sorry... [that I got caught? that I feel bad for having done it?]” By contrast, true repentance involves a forthright confession of having violated the law of God as well as the person wronged and begs forgiveness by sheer grace. This attitude produces certain noticeable consequences – John the Baptist commanded that fruit be produced in keeping with the claim to repentance (Luke 3:8, cf. II Cor. 7:10-11). At this point, it is up to the one offended to decide whether or not restitution will be asked of the one offending. Finally, the process concludes with reconciliation of the relationship, if possible, in light of the desired unity in Christ.
However, I suggest that there is another kind of forgiveness worth considering, or better said, a broader way of looking at forgiveness. This perspective stops short of full reconciliation and emphasizes the duty of the offended in this process, which we have not yet considered. This is a significant oversight, as it is easy to allow the emphasis on repentance to overshadow the need of having a pure heart even when wronged. Some rightly point out that the “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 that grows up to cause trouble and defile many likely references a person who has apostatized from the faith. However, just before the previously quoted verse on forgiveness, the Apostle Paul writes, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Eph. 4:31). Why? Because it is easy to harbor all these things in our hearts when we have been wronged by another (and perhaps even feel justified in it). The fact that the same image is used of a malicious heart as of apostasy should indicate the destructive potential involved here. Even if the one bearing offense has not repented, there is no occasion for ignoring the command of the Apostle Paul to live at peace with everyone, insofar as we are able (Rom. 12:18). To that end, someone has suggested a definition of forgiveness from this broader perspective:
1. I free myself by the power of God from all bitterness, hate and vengeful motives toward the brother. I receive this ability through the meaning of the cross of Jesus.
2. I release the offender to God so that it is no longer a matter of my mental preoccupation and a hindrance to my joy in God. If the person will not be accountable to due process in the church, or due process is impossible because of the substandard situation of the church, I need not have my life ruined by another’s sin.
3. I receive love and compassion for the offender. My heart and prayer for the offender is for him to be fully redeemed or restored. Therefore, in compassion, I desire that the person come to true repentance (see II Tim. 2:25-26).
4. Because my heart is loving, if the person repents, I will fully receive him back in the transaction of forgiveness.
Notice that “transactional forgiveness” (in step 4) is still predicated upon repentance. However, the goal in all these steps is the same: love for the offender and a right heart in the offended. At this point, some may share the sentiments of skeptic Bertrand Russell, who said that such goals are admirable but impossible to put into practice. However, those following after the example of Christ ought not share that attitude, but rather aspire to follow the pattern set out in I Peter 2:19-25. It is surely much more difficult to practice this than to write it, but through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit of God, it is not impossible!
Of course, there are many complications to all of this — some people are given offense when none is intended (in the language Paul uses of the “weaker brother”), and some people take offense when none is given (as in the case of the Pharisee). And, in the case where repentance cannot be secured, the process listed above falls unnaturally short of its desired conclusion. Ideally, the transaction of forgiveness among believers leads to reconciliation and hence a reflection of the unity to which we are called. This is a noble goal, one well worth working past the emotional hurdles that will inevitably be strewn along the way.
Scripture references are from the NIV.
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