Theology in 3D

To Forgive, or Not to Forgive? (Part 4)

Layton Talbert | March 5, 2024

Here’s what we’ve discovered from the NT so far in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I’ll just rehearse the principles, not the passages. But it’s important to remember that these are not just psychological truths gleaned from human observation; each is grounded in specific scriptural statements.

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

Principle 2: I have neither the right nor the authority to pronounce forgiveness for sins committed against God or others.

Principle 3: Forbear and, if you can, overlook; make it your ambition to be hard to offend.

Principle 4: If you cannot overlook, you must graciously confront.

Principle 5: Be willing to dismiss personal offenses committed out of ignorance. 

But what if someone knows they’ve wronged you, but refuses to ask forgiveness. If I can’t express forgiveness because they won’t repent, isn’t holding a grudge and harboring bitterness my only option?

Principle 6: Forgiveness is “dismissal” and that can be exercised on different levels.

I’m admittedly wandering into territory here that is not explicitly charted in the NT, but I’m trying to get at a distinction that I think does have biblical warrant. The Greek word translated forgive in the NT literally means to dismiss. That can be done on different levels.

One level is dismissing an offense outwardly by granting forgiveness in response to confession. That’s what this series has focused on. We might call that formal, theological, or relational forgiveness. But it is possible, on another purely internal level, to dismiss an offense inwardly by standing ready to forgive and, in the meantime, refusing to dwell on the offense. We might describe this as an informal, personal, internal kind of “forgiveness”—that is, “forgiveness” in the sense of dismissing it from your conscious consideration. It is a choice to allow God, not the sins of others, to control your life and your spirit.

Consider the OT example of Joseph (Gen 37–50). Though the word forgiveness surfaces only at the tail end of the story (Gen 50:17)—in response to an earlier clear confession of sin—the Joseph narrative may be considered a classic illustration of personal “forgiveness” even prior to that confession. Joseph is grieved by the injustice of his betrayal by his own brothers. But he does not seethe. He does not sit in prison plotting his revenge. Believe it or not, what sustained him amid such sinful sibling betrayal was his theology.* It is your personal theology—what you think about God at that moment—that drives your actions and reactions, especially when you are wronged. Even in the face of such despicable human sin, he understood that the providence of God rules and overrules even such sinful actions (Gen 45:4–8; 50:19–21). This sets the stage for two final principles of forgiveness.

Principle 7: Even though the NT predominantly teaches that forgiveness is a response to confession, that does not give the offended the right to think and feel as they choose until the offender repents.

The Bible forbids harboring resentment and nursing grudges (Ps 37:8; Col 3:8). Bitterness is not a legitimate pastime until the offender owns up. The fact that numbers of medical studies have demonstrated the negative health effects of bitterness and anger is interesting, but the bottom line for the believer is that it is unbiblical.

Bitterness is a choice with personal as well as relational consequences. It is a choice to resist God’s grace, to sour your relationships with others, and to poison those around you (Heb 12:15). In the same breath, Paul commands both my tenderhearted forgiveness (just as God, in Christ, forgave me when I confessed my sin to him) and my renunciation of all bitterness, anger, and malice (Eph 4:31–32). Put another way, what may never be suspended—with or without confession or forgiveness—is love. The same context insists that we bear with one another in love (4:1), speak truth in love (4:15), and walk in love as Christ also loved us (5:2).

How does one do that? It takes growth in grace and sanctification. Yet there is another ingredient for victory in this regard. The Joseph story illustrates it, but I’ll spell it out in a way that may help us help others—others like “Anna,” that summer camper in my daughter’s cabin that prompted this whole discussion in the first place.

Principle 8: It is not scriptural to insist that another person forgive someone who has sinned against them (and has not repented); but it is scriptural to help them focus their attention on God rather than on the offender and the offense.

I can’t be someone else’s conscience, or presume to pontificate how someone else ought to feel. This is especially true when the offended party is a young person and the offense is deep, the betrayal of trust or abuse of power severe. But I can encourage them in a legitimate alternative direction.

No one in the NT talks more about suffering and how to handle it than Peter. When we unjustly suffer because of the sinful persecution of others, who is our model? Jesus (1 Pet 2:18–21). And no one knows more about suffering wrongfully because of the sins of others than Jesus—not by virtue of clinical omniscience, but by painful personal experience. If you want to compare your experience of suffering to someone else’s, compare it to his.

But another prong of Peter’s strategy is to focus our attention in the right place, to anchor our souls in a bigger reality and in the heart of a bigger Person. What did Jesus do when he faced sinful abuse? Christ, when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but committed himself to the One who judges righteously (1 Pet 2:23). There’s the secret. That’s our model. Therefore, let those who suffer according to the will of God (i.e., not because of my own sin or foolishness, v. 15) commit their souls to him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator (1 Pet 4:19).

You need not be paralyzed, or victimized, or embittered by the sins of others against you. Neither should you fall for some kind of fuzzy, feel-good, omni-forgiveness that diminishes the seriousness of sin and minimizes the importance of repentance. You can move your injured soul in the right direction while you wait to forgive those who haven’t asked for it, even if they never do. You do that by fixing your thoughts and attention not on the people who hurt you but on the God who heals and forgives and loves and leads you.

Repentance and forgiveness is a two-way street. I can see to it that my lane toward the offender is unclogged by my readiness to forgive and my refusal to harbor bitterness or to let sun after sun go down on my wrath. But for the relational road between two people to be unblocked, both have to be there.

These eight principles do not exhaust the topic of forgiveness in the NT. They are just some scripturally informed guardrails to help you navigate your way through a sinful world filled with sinful people, starting with yourself.

*Joseph’s theology, based on his own words about God, is as practical and penetrating as it is comprehensive. God is

  • HOLY in his character and expectations (39:9).
  • OMNISCIENT in his wisdom of our affairs and needs (40:8; 41:16).
  • TRANSCENDANT in his self-revelation and communication (41:25, 28).
  • INTERVENTIONAL in his activity in human affairs (41:25, 28, 32).
  • GRACIOUS in his healing of our wounds (41:51).
  • ABUNDANT in his blessing (41:52).
  • TO BE FEARED for his knowledge of our actions (42:18, context).
  • SUPREMELY SOVEREIGN in all the events of life (45:5, 7, 8, 9; 50:20).
    • He overrules in the evil experiences of life and turns them to his own purposes (45:5, 7, 8; 50:20).
    • He vindicates and blesses those who fear and serve him (45:8, 9).
  • FAITHFUL to keep his promises and DEPENDABLE to fulfill his word (50:24, 25).

Joseph’s practice of the presence of God is a model for us as well. His speech about God is so ingrained in his behavior and conversation that it affects those around him. Others who come into contact with Joseph begin talking about God, too, including his brothers (42:28; 44:16), his Egyptian servant (43:23), and even Pharaoh (41:38–39).

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