If a Christian has been personally wronged by another Christian, should he just forgive and forget? It’s a popular idea, fostered by a well-meaning but mushy social climate. This is a simple question, and it’s too bad many people are unable to offer a simple answer.
Ask the question, and you’re likely to see a whole lot of tap-dancing. There’s no need for that. I’ll tell you the answer:
- If the offender has been made aware of their offense
- and if the offender refuses to repent and ask for forgiveness
- the victim should not forgive him
There! I said it . . . uh . . . wrote it! How low can I go? How heartless can I be? Have I no soul left? Don’t I know that God forgives people unconditionally? Actually, He only forgives people if they repent, but anyway . . . behold this short passage (Luke 17:3-4):
Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him.
What is the situation?
One Christian sins against another. Matthew 18:15-19 deals with how a church should handle disputes among brethren. This passage addresses the individual aspect. This is about how you and the other Christian should handle the matter.
This is important, so get this straight in your head up front – when we talk about forgiveness, there is a difference between a believer and an unbeliever. These are completely different categories. How so?
- An unbeliever will act like an unbeliever. Expect it. Don’t expect repentance for sin, or even an acknowledgment of sin. Won’t happen. You’re not dealing with a child of God, but a child of Satan. Guess what? Unsaved people act like unsaved people. Big surprise, right?
- Believers are members of the same family, saved by the same Gospel, indwelt by the same Spirit, and baptized by the same Spirit (cf. Ephesians 4). There is a shared understanding of the Gospel, sanctification, and the concepts of sin, repentance, atonement and forgiveness. On that basis, you hold a believer to a much higher standard. You don’t “forgive and forget” a believer’s deliberate sin. You expect and demand repentance, confession and (above all else) restoration between the two injured parties. Nothing less is biblical or right.
If you don’t understand this category distinction, this entire article will seem mean-spirited to you. I was once told that I was being “unloving” for demanding a unrepentant Christian, in deliberate and terrible sin, repent and confess his sins. How did I reply? I said, “When I’m commanding you to repent, confess and make this right, I’m actually doing the most loving thing possible for you.”
The man didn’t agree, but anyway . . . you get the idea (I hope).
What should you do?
If your Christian brother or sister sins against you, you must confront him. If you decide to be childish, sulk in your pew, ignore the other person, and let your bitterness fester – then you’re in deliberate rebellion yourself. The other person may not know he did anything wrong. If you were sinned against, you have a duty to lovingly confront that person in a spirit of meekness.
It’s likely you’ll decide to sulk, instead. Or gossip to other people about it, telling them just how evil that person was to you. Too bad. You’re sinning yourself, at that point. Stop it, and confront the person. You have a duty to.
When should you forgive?
You forgive if your brother repents. There. I wrote it again. Black and white. Simple. Read the words again, if you don’t believe me. Check the Greek, if you’re really interested. I’ll tell you what it means. Get ready . . . Are you ready? Here is what it really means: “and if he repents, you must forgive him.”
Revolutionary. Now you know the truth. So simple. If the guy repents, you have a duty to forgive him. No tap-dancing necessary.
What is repentance?
God doesn’t want external, superficial change. He hates hypocrisy (read Zeph 1:2-6). There has to be an internal change, which produces outward action. That internal change is repentance – what is repentance?
Repentance is when you confess your sin, and forsake it:
He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy (Prov 28:13)
In practical terms:
- you realize you’ve sinned against God, your Heavenly Father
- you’re sorry,
- you truly mean it,
- and you prove it by stopping your sinful behavior
Repentance is the seed that produces action, that produces progressive holiness, in your life
Are you saying I shouldn’t forgive somebody!?
Yes, I am. Actually, Jesus said it. God never forgives anybody unless they repent. Never did, never will. Don’t you realize that? Look past the Jell-O rhetoric and Christian-ese you’re so used to hearing, and think about it. Does God forgive people if they refuse to repent? No. Neither should you.
But, what about believers? Doesn’t God forgive any Christian for sins they do?
Ah, now you’re getting closer to the heart of the issue. I still won’t start tap-dancing, but now is the time for some nuancing. This is an inter-family issue, now. We’re not talking about outsiders, we’re talking about brothers and sisters inside the family of God. We’re talking about maintenance of inter-family relationships. What does this text tell you:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 Jn 1:9-10)
I’ll tell you what it tells me:
- You have to confess your sins. That means you have to acknowledge them, realize they’re sinful, offensive to God, and contrary to His holy law. In other words (gasp), you have to repent.
- If you do that, God is faithful and just to forgive you for your sin, and be cleansing you from all unrighteousness.
- If you pretend you haven’t sinned, then you’re making God a liar. John wrote this passage against some heretics who believed God freed us so that sin didn’t apply to us anymore – so we could do whatever we wanted. Nonsense, John said. Foolishness. Liar.
Your brother is making God out to be a lair, if you confront him with his sin, and he refuses to acknowledge it and repent.
What does it mean to “not forgive” a fellow Christian?
Now we’re really getting down to brass tacks. I’m so glad you asked. It means you treat them with kindness, respect and grace – but you realize there is a breach of relationship there that must be healed. You don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
You don’t “forgive and forget.” The Bible knows no such thing. If you disagree, show me where. Point to a passage (not an isolated verse), and explain from the context how it teaches this, and how it fits with the general theme of forgiveness from the entire Bible.
God only forgives people and adopts them into His family because He sent His unique and only Son in the likeness of sinful men to live a sinless and perfect life, and to die in their place, as their substitute. He didn’t forgive and forget.
If your brother can’t be persuaded that he committed sin, take it to your Pastor(s). Eventually, if it cannot be fixed, church discipline may be necessary.
Church discipline! Isn’t that mean?
A lady told me once, “church discipline is a Roman Catholic thing! It’s not a Baptist idea.” How silly. Of course, it’s not entirely her fault. She’s never seen it in action. It sounds mean. Rude. Not Christian. Unloving. In our current culture, we don’t want to be unkind. That would be, like, the eighth deadly sin . . .
Christians are part of God’s family. We’re saved from bondage to Satan, and adopted into God’s household. We’re organized into local congregations; our local families. Sometimes, family members act silly. They do stupid and sinful things. These things need to be dealt with, so things can be healed.
In your biological family, people also do silly things. Eventually, things might get so bad it’s time for a “family meeting,” where everything is laid out on the table, and mom and dad call for a resolution. Enough is enough, they’ll say. Time to settle this, say you’re sorry, and move on.
Exactly. That’s what church discipline is about, in the church family. Settle this. Say you’re sorry. Admit you did wrong. Bury that hatchet (no, not into the other person’s head). The dispute is now over. Depart with the relationship healed and fixed. As long as the issue festers, there will be problems in the family.
What attitude should I have?
You should be living a life worthy of the adoption you’ve been called by God to. Your attitude, demeanor and conduct in your congregation, with the people in your congregation, should be characterized by meekness and lowliness. You must be patient with people, putting up with them because you love them. They’re not perfect, and neither are you. By the way, I just paraphrased Ephesians 4:1-2 . . .
Are you looking for something to be angry about? Yes? Sin.
Are you eager to maintain the spirit of unity in the bond of peace? No? Sin.
Are you willing to be patient with other Christians in your church, just as others are patient with you? No? Sin.
Does this mean you should just sweep everything under the carpet and pretend nothing is ever wrong? Sounds like a great idea, right? Isn’t that the “loving” thing to do? Sure it is. Because, ignoring problems always makes things better, right?
Wrong. Re-read Luke 17:3-4 again.
Family strife is often the hardest. But, as the saying goes, they’re family – so you have to find a way to make it work. Why go to all that effort? ‘Cuz it’s family. It’s the same with your church family.
Doesn’t the passage from Matthew 18:21-22 contradict this?
No; repentance is assumed by both parties in that passage. Jesus had just finished explaining how a congregation should handle sin between two Christians (Mt 18:15-19). If the offender doesn’t repent, after all lesser means are exhausted, then he is removed from the congregation and treated as a functioning unbeliever. This is done to shame him and drive him to repentance (see also 1 Cor 5).
After that, Peter asks how often he should forgive somebody. Repentance is assumed. Either Jesus changed his mind about repentance, or it is assumed. It is an integral part of the Mosaic Law, and the efficacy of the trespass offerings and the burnt offerings depended on it.
How often should I forgive?
An unlimited amount of times. Jesus made that clear. He didn’t mean, literally, “77 times.” He meant, “over, and over, and over, and over again.” He forgives you every day for your sin, doesn’t He? And, He’ll do the same tomorrow.
What about bitterness?
Pray for the person. Pray for the ability to love him, yet not pretend all is well. Pray for the Holy Spirit to heal the relationship. Pray for the Spirit to give a spirit of repentance and godly sorrow to the person.
Sounds easy. It isn’t.
No kidding. This isn’t easy. It’s very hard. The apostles responded to this by asking Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5)! This is very, very hard.
Each situation is different, and each context is different. People are fickle, and we’re all very good at lying to ourselves, at making ourselves think the other guy is the real bad guy. Of course he is. We’re good, they’re bad. If people would just agree with us, things would be so much easier! I understand.
Nobody’s disputing this is hard. It’s easy to write about. Harder to implement.
But, still . . .
The text says what it says, and it means what it means. What are you gonna do about it?