I have spent plenty of blogs addressing the need to repent so this shouldn’t come off as me being light on such things, but there is another side of this idea. I keep seeing the notion that we as Christians are not supposed to forgive unless we see repentance first. But I don’t find that idea in scripture, let me explain.
As much as withholding forgiveness until a proper repentant heart makes amends constitutes logical sense, I don’t believe it always makes Biblical sense. We are taught to forgive, but forgiveness frees both of us, we know we were forgiven so we in turn attempt to as well. Walking in forgiveness is walking how the master walked. Now repentance does free offenders, it is seeking restoration. But if I hold my forgiveness until I sea sign of repentance, then how do I avoid fostering bitterness? Furthermore if I adopt a policy of refusing to forgive unless the evidence is clear, then I will end up being quite an ulcer filled old coot indeed.
Look at Jesus, he did not wait for the Romans who were murdering him on the cross to repent before he asked God to forgive them. Their ignorance to the grander scheme was enough for Jesus to have pity and pray for forgiveness. They certainly didn’t seek it. The kind of forgiveness that Christ modeled was one that was rarely prefaced with repentance. Jesus modeled for us a heart posture that is the very heart of actual forgiveness. I don’t think Jesus would have said he merely held the posture of forgiveness, but withheld actual forgiveness till the centurions actually repented. Did Jesus ever teach us to wait it out until it was clear?
Jesus was proclaiming forgiveness of sins when he healed people in Luke 5 without them having repenting, in fact this got him in trouble with the religions leaders. Jesus proclaimed the sins forgiven of the sinner woman who cried on his feet, and dried it with her tears Jesus forgave her without any formal declaration of repentance. (Luke 7) Jesus says that he who is forgiven much, loves much, teaching us a principle. The more I need it, the more I recognize his mercy and praise him for it! The story that Jesus tells about a king forgiving debts paints the picture of forgiveness as mercy. Matt 18.
I am not saying Jesus was declaring them sin free and welcoming them into the Kingdom at that point, so let’s calm down, but he was willingly relating to them apart from their sin by offering forgiveness. He wasn’t declaring them sinless and without culpability before God, but he was moving towards them relation-ally when they didn’t deserve it. This wasn’t exoneration, but mercy. This is the heart of the matter: if all sin is ultimately against God then I, we, don’t truly grant or release anything. They don’t get off because of my actions, but it is possible they gain ministry and testimony to God. This is grace.
Even the first Martyr Stephen from Acts 7:60 again cries out for God to forgive them of their sins because they still don’t understand. Was he really saying God I am in a posture of forgiveness only, but I don’t actually forgive them unless they change and stop this! Was he naive? Doesn’t he realize they needed him to create dissonance in their hearts so that they would repent? Do we feel this way when people respond offering forgiveness in this way to national tragedy?
What do we do with this? Do we say: Well that is what Spiritual people do, the rest of us wait it out till we see signs of repentance?
I wonder if this you first policy fosters in us a hardness that makes these acts by Jesus and Stephen seem impossible or naive? I don’t know, but I want to find out.
There are some categories here to address. First there is how God does it. Second there is how we do it. Then there is a Third area of a heart posture, and then there is the obvious separate category of actual salvation. I want to suggest that the second and third are one and the same, while the first is very much distinct.
I understand the timing of the thing and tactfulness. Like when people hold up signs for forgiveness at the execution of a violent murderer who weren’t connected to the victims. First thing here is our forgiveness doesn’t mean avoiding desert. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. Forgiveness is not exoneration when we do it. Afiamay is the Greek word for forgiveness. It has more of the root of a release of a prisoner or the leaving behind of a problem. But what we get hung up on, if we were to think about it, is that our forgiveness shouldn’t minimize the blood of Christ. But it doesn’t! It does not undo a sinner, my forgiveness does not make them clean, in other words what I release them from is their debt to me, I do not, cannot, release them from their sinful nature before God, and therefore their true desert, forgiveness from God is the only true exoneration.
This is why widows can forgive murderers. This is why the childless can forgiven the drunk driver who took away their son. This is why David said against you and you only have I sinned. Even though he did sin against another person, it was God whom he was accountable to. This is why the testimony of Christ can come through despite any lack of change from the guilty party. In fact it may just be that love and forgiveness that causes such a repentance to occur. This is why those stories of a mother forgiving an unrepentant sinner over a daughter’s death is so heartwarming. This is often why that unrepentant sinner repents, he is showed actual mercy, actual grace.
I believe we need to recognize that it is God who was ultimately offended. This is why the Pharisees got mad when Jesus forgave sins saying only God can do so. They were right, only he can. But we can pronounce and live in a reality that God can make possible. That is the responsibility and privilege of the church. This is why someone can come in confession, and we can respond that they are forgiven even if they haven’t as of yet, restored all the broken relationships left in the wake, that may take a lifetime. I believe this is what we are called to do as forgiven people, the way we conduct ourselves testifies that true forgiveness is possible.
But this pricks us doesn’t it? I can’t forgive, they must know what they did is wrong! Well they absolutely still have their part to play, but what does that have to do with our hearts? Remember I am not saying the guilty need not apply, I am merely switching emphasis here. Both sides are taught to respond, while one is taught to forgive the other is to foster fruit in keeping with repentance. Might I suggest that waiting on the other person for their part was never the deal? How are we any different from the world if we wait for the sinners to repent before we grant them respite?
I don’t see this taught. Some go to Luke 17:3,4 which says if a brother sins against you seven times a day and repents then we must forgive them. But I don’t see this as a chronological if/then statement meant to be a condition for forgiveness, as in don’t do it unless, but a requirement of us to forgive so that when repentance is sought our feelings of violation don’t prevent it. I think the onus of this passage is the forgiver to be forgiving. Because that is where the difficulty is. Else we can always find and justify a reason that someone doesn’t look sorry or changed enough.
I think part of the issue here is we are confusing our inter-species relationships and our human and God relationship. With God in regards to salvation he does wait for the repentant heart to come to him before he receives them and grants benefits of relational forgiveness. That is how salvation works, right? While we were yet sinners Christ dies for us drawing us to him. However, our relationship with man is not about a salvation transaction to occur. Our forgiveness is about our own heart before God and our relationships with men. Because God forgave us everything, we are to be forgivers. We are not allowed to hold unforgiveness in our hearts, we understand this because we are changed by the grace and forgiveness granted to us.
This is why we forgive, because we were forgiven. This is the parable of the King who forgave his servants debts, who was troubled when he didn’t in turn freely forgive the debts of others. (Matt 18) God is troubled when we don’t act in forgiveness. Do we not understand our salvation? What if instead of waiting out the justice tables to be leveled we were to forgive them, what if we did it in order for them to learn mercy and grace and be reconciled to God? We forgive because we are forgiven people, our part is not about righting cosmic justice.
Now of course repentance is always required for relationship to occur. Don’t misunderstand, forgiveness may not always grant restoration, I understand. A restoration does require repentance. In fact sometimes restoration is impossible because the person will not repent, so what then? Without a righting of the wrong, a restoration will be fraught and the relationship will be compromised for sure, but again this is still different from forgiveness. This is why the Bible very much allows divorce in the case of infidelity, there are absolutely consequences. But if a husband never repents are we not able to simply forgive for our part? This is how you counsel marriages, both sides have to move towards the other in love and forgiveness. We tend to end up in counseling because demanding and waiting the other go first landed us there. Should we be waiting in the background with a score card never letting go until it evens out? What if it doesn’t? If it doesn’t, and we can eventually just do it for our own peace of heart, why not spare us all the heartache and release that up front?
I can forgive and I can move on, and it may be hard to treat you as if your violation doesn’t affect me at all, but restoration is not the same as forgiveness is, but it certainly is the first step. Think about it, restoration happens from a heart change, from God’s work, this is why I can forgive and then wait out God to make them whole again. I can’t restore and repair a heart in a sinful condition, God does that, all I can do is release them from their debt to me. Surely for a good or righteousness person a man might die, but what about a regular old sinner? Think about who it is easy to forgive and who it is not, and then why that is? It is easier to forgive someone we are closer to and desire relationship with, it is easier to do it. We say things like “it’s all right”, “no big deal”, “no problem”. We often forgive people right away in order to relieve their pain from guilt. It is only as the violation grows and our sense of betrayal grows that the relationship becomes tenuous and optional. That is why this becomes difficult, but we are now talking about is restoration of trust, God’s work, not necessarily if we can release and forgive.
This is the only place, where the verbiage of a posture of forgivness helps. This should be a rule to help us discover the destination of such a problem. I want to be forgiving so I move in that direction. The key is I move. I don’t simply say I am in a posture of forgiveness and then wait it out. This takes humility. This is not easy or else we would all do it. That is a lot of what being a disciple is, that is why there is church discipline for example. Being a disciple means we do certain things because they are right and true and what we are asked, not because of ease.
Forgiveness is about embodying the person and behavior of Christ, and extending grace and mercy. The very idea of mercy is meaningless unless we consider the story where the disciples ask Jesus “how many times should I forgive a man, up to seven times? And Jesus responds with “No I did not say up to seven times but seventy times seven.” In other words it is on us to be forgiving not necessarily on them to be believed of repenting. I think by the 76’th time I would stop believing them, but if my believing them isn’t the point, then might it be possible to simply embody forgiveness beforehand? This doesn’t mean God isn’t leaning on them for it, don’t hear that, he absolutely is. It means when God speaks to the offended, their job is to offer forgiveness. When he speaks to the offender, their job is to repent. Some of the times we offer forgiveness can be for the very reason of an unrepentant heart to soften. But would we be willing to suffer that injustice of it seemingly being out-of-order?
Now how would that happen with a you first policy?
Part of this is the verbiage we use: I was seeking forgiveness but they weren’t up to it, so it wasn’t possible. That is crazy of course it is. We can grant forgiveness whether they are repentant or not, that is part of what they may need it for! I know this sounds loco, but what else are we supposed to be doing except testifying about our own amazingly forgiving God? It is marvelling that he does this for us!
I don’t recall the Lord’s prayer saying the words and “And Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven others, apart from those whom I am holding onto until the guilty come and grovel at my feet“. This is simply not what we are taught. What we are taught is that the merciful will receive mercy, and blessed are they. (Matt 5) Might this be the heart of what Jesus means when he says I desire mercy and not sacrifice? (Matt 9:13)
I know the problem is justice. We think if we preemptively forgive them then somehow they are let off the hook or get away with murder. Now we must always be willing to grant forgiveness to anyone whom seeks it, but do we really want to hold onto it until they do? How long should we wait? This is what God is for. Talk to him, forgive them to God, and release it to him to handle. This is that distinction between a posture, and actual forgiveness that I want to break down. Sometimes we will not get the opportunity to speak it to the person, so we instead change our hearts and minds about them. Don’t worry, God will not pervert justice. Do you believe that?
I am also not saying do not seek out the person and attempt reconciliation of course you should, but should the person refuse, what do we lose by not still forgiving? It doesn’t have to become a catch-22. Well I tried so I guess I can’t in good conscience forgive them now. This is choosing to engage the person as if they are redeemable, that is sharing the Gospel. This doesn’t mean automatic restoration, but it does break down the possibility that they are irredeemable.
This also doesn’t mean pretending that the violation isn’t a violation. Let them know it is very much a violation, seek forgiveness, seek restoration. But if they aren’t interested, there is no reason for the offended to carry anything away from the interaction. Forgive them anyway and let God handle the working it out. We may have residual pain, but we needn’t compound it with residual unforgiveness. God can help us with the pain, but not so much with our unwillingness to release people.
This is partly why the government’s job is justice. I can forgive a murderer, but justice demands that they serve time. I forgive and move on with my life, and they can sit and stew or possibly be ministered to because someone has shown them mercy. In fact mercy is meaningless if everyone always fessed up first, no one would be undeserving. Understand our forgiveness doesn’t pardon their debt to society, nor to God, but it can grant peace in a tumultuous heart planting the seed for the gospel to take root.
This idea that a Christian should not forgive unless he is repented to, is not very Christian sounding and has more to do with our rights. That is how the world operates. They reserve their good gifts for only those whom give in return. But what better gift is there to give to a sinner than our forgiveness? What better way to actually show love and testify that we believe God is merciful and forgiving? Of course they don’t deserve it!
This is why we are taught that love covers a multitude of sins. It is not, well my love only covers as many sins as have actually been repented of. How would we possibly know? How does love do its work when it is so conditional? How are we to truly love our enemies, and pray for those who spitefully use and abuse us, if we refuse to forgive just because we don’t see it in their lives yet?
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
22 for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you. (Proverbs 25)
Just because God forgives us conditionally, though his offer is unconditional, doesn’t mean that all my corresponding forgiveness is the same by osmosis. God and I are not in the same boat. He gets to unconditionally offer conditional forgiveness, while command that I unconditionally offer it to others. The debt owed me and the debt owed him are vastly different, not at all the same. He is God I am not. In fact part of my debt of being forgiven means, I must adopt that posture towards others. This is what the story of the unforgiving servant is about in Mathew 18. Maybe I am reaching here, but I see part of the problem in this parable is, that the man wanted restitution before he forgave the debtor, rather than recognize his own forgiveness meant he should have changed his mind about it.
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. (Mark 11:25)
Does this passage include those who haven’t repented? Or are only those not worthy of forgiveness? Again in Mathew 18:35 Jesus teaches us that likewise we will be in trouble with God if we do not forgive others from the heart. Paul makes the point in 2 Corinthians 2 that he wrote to them about addressing the sin of the man and church, but it was not to overwhelm the person in sorrow, it was to test for obedience, and for the purpose of not being outwitted by Satan. The way to accomplish all this was to forgive. This was the restorative process. The man had to be kicked out in order for the weight of the violation to be displayed, but the goal was forgiveness and getting the man back into the congregation on good Christian terms.
Satan outwits Christians by causing us to believe that we needn’t forgive unless we are properly repented to, creating a dissonance of time. Instead of the welcoming and loving and ministering body of Christ, we become the IRS who first demand a balancing of the books happen.
What I am trying to get at is I don’t see the Bible building a foundation for our forgiveness to be conditional upon others’ response. It the same with repentance, what if a person said I would love to be reconciled, but those jerks are just not very forgiving? He doesn’t get to wait it out either. We are completely different from God in this aspect. But Just as his call is unconditional and the response conditional so should our offer forgiveness be, and whether the restoration or repentance actually happens is up to them.
Think about how life might be different if we backed away from a you first mentality? I can forgive people, and it doesn’t somehow mean they don’t need forgiveness from God or even need to be reconciled to people. I can fully recognize violation, and forgive people ministering and pointing to a truth that could be a more excellent reality for that person. It is when you ask the question why not that some things start appear in our hearts. If something in your heart pricks at the idea of offering forgiveness first, then chase it down and see why.
My offering forgiveness doesn’t somehow unravel the sin nature of another, they still have business to do with God. Justice doesn’t pervert if we forgive. Perhaps as a fisher of man, my forgiveness helps them along the line to him? I don’t know, but maybe think about trying it out?
Shouldn’t Christians be known as forgivers? Now go listen to Personal Jesus:
Feeling alone and your all alone, Flesh and blood by the telephone, Pick up the receiver I’ll make you a believer, I will deliver you know I’m a forgiver, Reach out and touch faith
What will you actually lose, and better yet what might you and the receivers of your mercy actually gain?