Theology in 3D

To Forgive, or Not to Forgive? (Part 2)

Layton Talbert | February 27, 2024

The previous post established the first principle of forgiveness, based on the first time the topic of forgiveness surfaces in the NT (Matt 6):

Principle 1: Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely.

There are seven more principles to come. But this first one is the single clearest note struck in the NT on the topic of forgiveness. Just as God forgives me when I confess my sins against him, I am obligated to forgive others when they confess their sin against me. The previous post covered several of the passages that corroborate this principle.

But why is confession and repentance such a vital part of the forgiveness process? One reason has to do with God. God cannot just forgive our sins whether we confess our sins or not is because that would not be faithful to who he is, or just in his dealing with sin (1 John 1:9). Another reason has to do with us. Without confession, the operation of the grace of God in that life is short-circuited. God could, theoretically, simply dismiss everyone’s sin on the basis of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, and grant release from sin’s penalty irrespective of our acknowledgement of our sin. He does not do that. He requires the sinner to confront the weight and the reality, the cost and the consequences of sin, and insists on confession and repentance as the necessary prerequisite to his forgiveness. Only when I comprehend (however dimly) the offensiveness of my sin to the glory of God’s holiness do I begin (however feebly) to appreciate and praise God for the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace in saving me (Eph 1:7). That’s why the Spirit is sent to convict the world of sin (John 16:8).

The passages in the previous post require us to follow God’s example in the process of forgiveness. Confession and repentance are the indication that God has done a necessary work of grace in the heart. Don’t cheat the offender of experiencing the grace of God.

Some tell us that we should dispense forgiveness freely to all offenders, whether they ask for it or not. After all, “Jesus gets us.” He didn’t hate; he washed feet (a symbol of forgiveness, right?). Either they do not understand the basis (and cost) of God’s forgiveness, or they suppose that they are more magnanimous than God, or both. This is not about holding grudges until offenders come groveling on their knees. The idea that if you haven’t forgiven someone then you must necessarily be bitter against them is a misconception I’ll address in a future post. In the meantime, it is imperative to recognize that true godliness is following God’s example; and God requires confession and repentance before he forgives us because it is necessary for us as sinners to confront the sinfulness of our own hearts, and its consequences. Only then are we prepared to receive God’s gracious gift of forgiveness with the humility and gratitude and praise that it deserves.

Forgiveness is not about making myself or the offender feel better. When you casually absolve everyone of everything irrespective of their own attitude toward their sin, you make light of sin, cheapen the grace of forgiveness, and short-circuit the work of God in a person. Sin is ultimately against God not me (Gen 39:9; Ps 51:4), so forgiveness is bigger than me; that’s why I have to exercise it according to God’s rules.

To recap: Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely. We’ve talked about what that means. But what does it not mean? I promised some biblical caveats. Here are two.

Serious Forgiveness Requires Serious Repentance

The Bible ferociously condemns insincerity and hypocrisy. God desires truth in the inward parts (Ps 51:6). Apology is not always the same as confession. Regret that something happened is not repentance that admits “I was wrong.” “I’m sorry that happened” does not necessarily equal “I did it.” Feigned repentance on the part of the offender does not obligate the offended to extend forgiveness. Jesus requires multiple forgivings of the same person even on the same day (Luke 17:4); but he is clearly not countenancing insincerity on the part of the offender. How do you know if the confession is honest? You’ll have to decide that. The next caveat, however, suggests at least one evidence.

Forgiveness Dismisses the Past, Not the Future

Biblical forgiveness (like biblical love) is free and sincere, but not gullible, foolish, or lawless. Forgiveness is about redressing past sins and repairing present relationships, not erasing consequences. If the confessed behavior is a criminal act, personal forgiveness does not cancel out legal responsibility. And if the forgiven behavior is damaging or threatening, there is no contradiction between genuine forgiveness of the past and establishing certain boundaries for the future. Indeed, a mark of the offender’s sincerity is his willingness to accept the fallout of his failures alongside genuine forgiveness (see Gen 44:18–34). True penitents don’t try to wheedle their way out of the consequences of their sin.

Suppose a business associate displays a pattern of poor judgment; even if he asks forgiveness for each incident, forgiveness does not obligate me to keep him in a position where he can continue to damage my business or its reputation. If a church leader confesses to moral indiscretions and repents, the church is obligated immediately to forgive him and restore him to fellowship, but not to spiritual leadership. If a relative or acquaintance is guilty of a predatory act on a minor, and genuinely repents, forgiveness is required; but criminal actions also require legal redress. Moreover, setting precautionary boundaries for the future is not only prudent but also an act of genuine love for everyone concerned. If an offender protests that such measures contradict true forgiveness, that raises questions about the genuineness of his repentance.

Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely just as God in Christ grants it to me. It’s important to start here, where the NT is unambiguous. But that’s not all the NT has to say on the matter.

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