Heath: This week we’re gonna talk about forgiveness on the podcast. And I have often said that one of the most controversial teachings in the Bible is the teaching on the command to forgive. One particular example of this is in Matthew 18 where Jesus gives the most extensive teaching on forgiveness in the Bible. And he tells the story of an unforgiving servant. He tells the story about a man who has been forgiven a massive debt but will not then turn around and forgive his fellow servant’s comparatively smaller debt. And he is punished for his lack of forgiveness by being thrown into prison by his master until, the text says, that he should pay the last penalty. And the haunting words that come at the end of Jesus’s parable come from Jesus himself and in Matthew 18:35 it says, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” So this is a command to forgive and not to forgive even superficially but to forgive at a profound level in the heart.
I say that this is controversial because as people living in a fallen world we can be sinned against in profound ways. And so we must forgive. We’re commanded by Jesus Christ to forgive but knowing that we are commanded to forgive does not answer all the questions, does it, Amy?
Amy: No, and I think many people wonder: Okay, Jesus wants me to forgive but should I only forgive someone if they’ve asked for this forgiveness or should I forgive those who aren’t sorry over their sin?
Heath: This question is the one Christians spend the most time talking about. We know as Christians who have been forgiven of our sin by Jesus that we must forgive others but the real practical questions is: should I forgive if someone’s not sorry that they sinned against me? Should I forgive if someone has not asked for forgiveness?
The issue is actually raised even by texts of Scripture. For example: you’ve got a text like Mark 11:25 and Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying forgive if you have anything against anyone so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.” So this sounds like Jesus is saying we forgive whether someone has asked for forgiveness or not, whether they are sorry or not, we just forgive. If we’re standing there praying we forgive. But then you’ve got a text like Luke 17:3-4 where Jesus also says, “Be on your guard if your brother sins rebuke him and if he repents forgive him and if he sins against you seven times a day and returns to you seven times a day saying I repent forgive him.” So you have these two teachings of Jesus. Jesus on the one hand saying, if you’re standing there praying and you realize there’s a problem with your brother then forgive him so that you will be heard in your prayers. And then you’ve got this statement of Jesus that says forgive your brother when he repents. And so how do we solve this apparent dilemma?
I think it helps us to think in two categories. I think we can think of forgiveness, on the one hand, as an action that transpires in relationship. And we can think of forgiveness, on the other hand, as an attitude that we cultivate in our soul. Jesus in Mark 11 is talking about forgiveness as an attitude that we cultivate in our soul. When he says if you’re standing there praying forgive. He’s saying release that person from your anger, from your bitterness, from the penalty of your sin right there. He’s talking about cultivating an action in our heart. We might say that it is the willingness to extend forgiveness. But we settle the matter in our heart whether or not they are sorry, whether or not they are repentant, whether or not they have asked, or whether or not they have remained silent. We cultivate that attitude.
The action of forgiveness is what Jesus is talking about in Luke 17 where we have someone who has come to us and has asked for forgiveness and that is when we extend forgiveness, when someone asks for forgiveness, when they confess their sin we say, “Absolutely. I forgive you,” which action is only possible at the level of depth if we have previously cultivated the attitude of forgiveness in our heart. When we put these two things together I think we can conclude this: that we should be cultivating the attitude of forgiveness in our heart whenever we realize that we have something against our brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against us. But I also think that this teaches us that we should not extend that into an action until they have asked for forgiveness. Because we’re cultivating the attitude of forgiveness whenever they would ask for forgiveness, whenever they would express brokenness over their sin whether its because we confront them with it or whether its because someone else does, we would be ready immediately to extend that forgiveness but we should not extend it until they have asked. I think this is important for two or three reasons.
The first reason comes from Ephesians 4:31, it says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you along with all malice.” This is a command to get rid of bitterness and all the rest that goes along and is listed there in Ephesians 4:31. We have to fight bitterness and if we’re not willing to cultivate an attitude of forgiveness than that is by definition a clinging on to bitterness and anger and that is a sin that will erode our soul, will damage our relationship with the Lord, will damage our own soul, and will damage our relationships with others. And so we need to let go of bitterness. Its interesting that Ephesians 4:31 goes right into Ephesians 4:32 and it says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other just as God and Christ also has forgiven you.” The second reason this is important is because we need to forgive others. This is a command that comes to us throughout the New Testament.
Here’s another place in Ephesians 4:32. Its the command to forgive but its interesting that the command to let go of bitterness and anger and malice and all the rest precedes the command to forgive. I think what we’ve got here is the cultivation of the attitude of forgiveness is what leads to the extension of the act of forgiveness in relationship. And so the first reason this is important: we need to let go of bitterness.
Second reason this is important is because we have to forgive. There’s never an exception to this. We have to forgive all the time and the first one of those leads to the second. But here’s the third reason this is important. We need to not undercut the requirement that people who have sinned have to confess. If we have our attitude of forgiveness flow out into an action of forgiveness before that forgiveness has been sought then we undercut the need of a sinful person to repent of their sin and that’s not good. That’s why when you watch on the news sometimes and you’ll see, and I just saw this the other day, you’ll see a family saying to a criminal, “I forgive you,” but that person hasn’t said they’re sorry, they haven’t even admitted to the crime. To hear, “I forgive you,” makes it irrelevant for the person to confess. Just as true as it is that we have a command to forgive those who have sinned have a command to confess and repent of their sin from all involved parties, including you if you’re the one they’ve sinned against. And so we need to withhold that extension of the action of forgiveness until the person has done what God wants them to do by confessing their sin. So that is actually a way to serve them and to be kind to them and to help them honor God’s law even as we want it.
If you’d like more information about this topic you can read a book by Robert Jones, a counselor certified by ACBC, called “Pursuing Peace,” where he deals with this topic in very helpful detail. And you can also read Heath Lambert’s book, “A Theology of Biblical Counseling,” where he addresses this issue of forgiveness in the chapter on the theology of sin.