The following is what I know about forgiveness of others. When the evening news tells of the murder of a young college student, I know that a sin against man and God has been committed. I know that that sin has separated the killer against his God. He is lost and he will stay lost for eternity until he repents and appeals to God for salvation. Now in conjunction with this breaking news story, we see video clips of a candle light vigil with a larger gathering of people who are sobbing and praying all of which is led by the local Community Church pastor. And then this man takes the microphone and says that our job is not to condemn but only forgive. And so everyone says, “Amen”, and they forgive the murderer. What I know is that Community Church leader is a false teacher and doesn’t know a wit about forgiveness. Such a person should not be listened to. How arrogant to make himself more forgiving than God! He surely wouldn’t say that murderer is saved without confessing and being washed by God, would he?! Certainly not. And so while he would readily admit that that man is lost because he is a rebel with blood on his hands, he has the temerity to lay a burden on the victim’s families, telling them they aren’t Christian and they aren’t going to be forgiven if they don’t forgive the murderer.
CORRECTING THE NOTION OF “UNCONDITIONAL FORGVENESS”
With so many ideas bandied about, understanding what the Bible says about being forgiving is like trying to build on shifting ground. We haven’t yet decided if we are forgiving sins or just “offenses”. We can’t decided if we actually forgive sins. We are confused as to whether we are forgiving Christians or alien sinners, or both. We hear people say that we can’t forgive because we are not God. On the other hand we hear that we must forgive or we aren’t being Christ-like. We are being told that there is no hard and fast rule about expecting repentance. While at the same time it is insisted that Jesus established that we must forgive unconditionally: which is itself a hard and fast rule. We were assured by people that this principle of “unconditional forgiveness” leaves intact the church discipline described in Matthew 18:15-18 because it is dealing with real sin in the church. On the other hand we are to believe that the Jesus taught the principle of “unconditional forgiveness” by forgiving the most horrific sin committed by man. The Bible isn’t confusing, but it gets terribly confusing if an assumption about the meaning of Jesus’ words on the cross becomes the rule. I know from Jesus’ example that I can pray for the entire world be saved, but I also know that forgiveness will come if the world repents. Many people walk away from all of this in confusion. The Bible isn’t confusing. But this doctrine, which I believe is false, is very confusing.
Should we be forgiving. Absolutely we should be. We should be forgiving as God is forgiving towards us.
Before you reject this and cling to the mindless opinion of the Community Church leader, remember that Jesus said, “If your brother sins, REBUKE HIM, AND IF HE REPENTS, forgive him.” Lk 17:3,4. Let’s look at this more closely.
First, the misled person makes the point that Jesus is talking about a sinning brother, not a non-Christian murderer. True enough. Friend, do you think God wants you to extend MORE grace to the non-Christian than to the Christian? That makes no sense. You think it acceptable to extend your grace of forgiveness to a murderer when you see that God does not expect you to do this for a brother. “But Dan, we might be able to save the sinner.” If giving unconditional forgiveness to an unrepentant sinner was effective to save, why wouldn’t it be effective to save the Christian Brother? God is not telling us, “Give the gift and maybe the sinner will put away his sin.” That’s an example of casting your pearls before the swine and it doens’t work. Why would you think God wants you to extend more grace to the non-Christian murderer? He wouldn’t and many people are confused about this. The truth is, the Community Church leader would most likely tell his parishioners to forgive both the Brother or alien sinner without there being any sign of repentance. So let’s get back to the point then. Christian forgiveness involves addressing sin.
Second, Jesus says to “rebuke him”. This is a confrontation with the sinning brother to beg and warn him of his trespass. To ignore or leave out this command by Jesus to “rebuke him” is to pervert the truth. This I know is very hard to do and it’s why so many bypass the confrontation and move ahead to the forgiving part. This is misguided, confusing, and a downright perversion of what forgiveness is. Then comes the redirect….
You can’t forgive someone if it’s something you are doing only for yourself. “If you don’t forgive the murderer, you will be harboring hatred and you can’t let someone else’s sin control you. The forgiveness of an unrepentant murderer isn’t for him; it’s for you and for you own peace.” Friend, this is not forgiveness. Whatever is being counseled here is not forgiveness. It’s something else but it’s being called forgiveness. It’s good advice to not let others control you and a victim of a trespass needs to have God’s peace and comfort, but it’s a false doctrine say that this is forgiveness. Forgiveness is completely about the other person. It’s about restoring peace between people. It’s about giving a gift to the grieved sinner; which is what 2 Cor. 2 is describing where the man is grieved over his sin and Paul tells the church to forgive the man and love him, 2 Cor. 2:6,7. This idea that it doesn’t matter if the murderer is repentant or not, that I give forgiveness for me, that it’s something I have to do for my own peace, is a great perversion that must be from the devil. This is know.
Third, Jesus said forgiveness of the sinning brother is conditional, that you are to rebuke and “if he repents”, then you are to forgive him. Once you have done the courageous and loving thing of approaching a sinner and once he has expressed his sorrow, then you must forgive him. And if you don’t forgive such a repentant person, you are in some serious trouble with Almighty God. Jesus said,
“14″For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15″But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Mt 6
Fourth, the business of forgiving is the work of God we do in our own lives. God wants relationships restored and for their to be reconciliation. So we forgive as Christ forgave us, Col. 3:12. Christians ought to be the most forgiving people in the world. We see how God forgives us when we turned from sin and determined we would walk by faith. He continually forgives us on the basis of our faith. “But Dan, God forgives you before you even ask.” This is the kind of confusion and obfuscation that people bring up to support their error of giving “unconditional forgiveness”. But while it’s true that God continually cleanses the soul of the person walking in the light (see 1 John 1:6ff), it’s forgiveness He gives to a person who has faith. This person has entered God’s covenant and so God continually cleanses this person of faith. But if this person turns back to the world by making a practice of sin, then God withholds forgiveness.
“But Dan, it’s not Biblical to withhold forgiveness.” Friend I want you to think about this for a second. Did Jesus not say that
“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Jn 20:23.
Sometimes sins are forgiven and sometimes sins are retained. Now Jesus has already told the disciples how forgiving they are to be, if the sinner repents forgive 7×70 times a day, and Jesus told them if they did not forgive others, God would not forgive them. But here Jesus tells them they will retain sins, which means to withhold forgiveness, and so grownups like the Apostles could understand that our forgiveness is not unconditional. The Community Church leader who tells the candlelight vigil crowd to forgive the unrepentant murderer is a person who does not understand Biblical forgiveness and he probably shouldn’t be trusted to teach much on anything – except for human philosophy, maybe.
Finally, Yes God alone can forgive. Only God can erase a person’s sins from the book of deeds. This He does by the blood of Christ. This person must repent, be buried with Christ in Baptism, and covenant to walk in the light. And yes, we do forgive sins. We are to forgive as Christ forgave us and we must do so if we wish to be forgiven by God. We pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We forgive Christians and we forgive alien sinners. If my non-Christian friend trespassed against me, and then he says he is sorry, I show the kind of grace God has shown to me, and I forgive him. In the church, because we judge one another (see 1 Cor. 5), we will not forgive but will retain the sins of a brother and will disfellowship him until he does repent. Failure to rebuke and retain sins of an erring brother is to allow the leaven of his sin to infect the entire church. So forgiveness is not unconditional. This I know.
I humbly admit that I only know what God has revealed. I pray that this lesson will help you to be more forgiving. But I hope that you will not suffer the excessive burden of being told you must forgive and unrepentant person.
I said this with love and humility. – Dan Mayfield
I was asked about how to deal with someone who won’t admit there was any offense. Here is my reply.
“But if the offense is real, in the church, home, workplace, and even in society, there is a process to take. In the church, we are striving for harmony in the soul, one that is eternal between brothers. So we have a high standard for correcting offenses. The same is true in the home as it is very much a spiritual institution with the care of precious souls. In the workplace, which is most often completely secular, the offense must be addressed as it relates to the goals of the workplace. Follow the process provided there. Even in society at large, which is mostly secular, there are rules for addressing an offense. Follow those. In all situations, as with the leaders in church and home, someone will judge and people will follow the advice and relationships will be mended. In the workplace, the profit motive is incentive to keep harmony. The soul of the offender in the workplace or in society may be unchanged, continuing to harbor the same meanness, but these environments manage the actions and not the soul. That’s not to say that the soul can’t be reached even in society, since that’s the influence of light and salt, but the authorities in these environments don’t regulate matters of the soul. In non-Christian institutions, the major concern is external harmony.
So there is a process to follow with all offenses. Just make sure you have a case. So do you have to forgive someone who won’t admit an offense was committed? No, just be wise, walk circumspectly about the person, gather evidence, approach at the right time, escalate the situation following the rules that apply (in church, home, work, society, fraternity, club, etc), and then move forward and let it not control your Christian disposition.”