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CONDITIONAL FORGIVENESS

WHEN IT’S GOOD TO SAY “I DON’T FORGIVE YOU”

ETHAN E. HARRIS

Introduction

The thesis to this book is this: If a person does you wrong and does not repent, you don’t have to forgive them. Sounds shocking, doesn’t it? I know many people may be tempted to shout at this page whether out loud or in their minds, saying “Are you nuts? The Bible tells us to forgive everyone unconditionally,” slamming the book down on the nearest hard surface never to pick it up again.

If you still find a need to grow agitated, I completely understand after reading a few pages, please know that was actually my first reaction when a friend mentioned the idea to me. If you are offended at the suggestion and simply will not read any further, I apologize for creating that response in you. I really do. My goal is not to offend, but to present the Biblical portrait of true repentance and forgiveness and the relation between the two teachings.

I am convinced that with a better understanding of the obligations due in the process of repentance and forgiveness, we will be better equipped to deal with the breaks in fellowship that plague our families, communities, our churches and ultimately our society.

Yes, I used the word obligation. Scripture hands out obligations when it comes to our sinning against each other, whether willfully or accidentally. Both parties in the wronged vs. “wrong-ee” situation have a certain set of responsibilities that they must, in order to maintain godly love in our lives, fulfill.

That is the purpose of this book: A better understanding of repentance and forgiveness will inevitably lead to the healing of unnecessary fractures that we have created, and unfortunately, we have many times done so in the name of Christ. And yes, this also has implications and applications for church splits, charges of heresy in our midst, but most importantly, those little quibbles we often love to have with one another.

But why is this so important? There are other issues of guilt and suffering, grudges and hatred, broken marriages and complete breakdowns of many churches due to the often inadequate understanding of the Biblical formula of repentance and forgiveness. These are serious issues and should not be pushed into the realm of pseudo-science or pop-psychology to cure. We must take charge of our own body, the community of faith, and with God’s instruction, work on reconciling ourselves to one another. And we must do so even when we still disagree on the differences separating us.

But what is the will of God and why should we care what the “Biblical” teaching has to say? In short, the will of God means to follow after His wisdom. But what is His wisdom? It is His self-disclosure of His desires. It is what we ought to pursue. This is a moral distinction and does not give us the answers to the next winning lotery ticket, nor does the will of God expressly tell us who to marry.

In answer to caring what the Bible teaches on the subject, it goes to the heart of being called a Christian. In John chapter 15, by describing that behind God’s commandments is the idea that the joy of Christ may remain in us. Other passages speak to the idea that Scripture is necessary for rebuke, reproof and the correction of the believer, but this particular chapter, John 15, tells us the all the commands of God are designed for joy for all those who are considered “friends” of Christ. Also, from Psalm 199:97-104, we find that the Scriptural teaching is the wisdom of God which makes us wise. It is not a spiritual checklist by which we may enter the grace of God, but it is the very mind of God by which we may understand His character. To do that, we must know the written will of God.

Doing the will of God, contrary to popular writing, does not necessarily result in our own health and welfare. Our physical, temporal comfort may not be the result. Moses, Joseph, Paul and Christ all suffered while remaining solidly in the will of God.

The very nature of wisdom is a moral quality wraught by the intrusion of God into the decay of the soul to create a sense of purpose to emulate and glorify God.

When a person commits an act against another or is discovered to have done wrong, the offended party may feel tempted to lash out in reprisal to “get back” at the offender. They may even be tempted to dispense judgment without considering the cost to their ongoing fellowship.

It’s easy to adopt a feeling that someone else is undeserving of respect or benevolence all the while denying humility and overlooking the our own offensive behavior. It doesn’t enhance our spiritual stature nor does it result in the perfection of our character.

The Scriptures call us to proceed in a certain set of steps leading to the resolution of wrongs and restoration of damaged relationships due to sin. The hinge on which this restoration resides is confession, repentance and forgiveness.

Tertullian provides a nice chronology of confession:

  • By confession, satisfaction is settled
  • Of confession, repentance is born
  • By repentance, God is appeased
  • Repentance is part of the formal discipline of confession. It directly leads to “prostration and humiliation” which enjoins “a demeanor calculated to move mercy.” (Tertullian, 3:664)

This confession makes certain commands and demands of the penitent:

  1. To lie in sackcloth and ashes in order to cover the body in mourning
  2. To lay the spirit low in sorrows
  3. To exchange sins for severe treatment
  4. To feed prayers on the diet of fasting
  5. To groan, weep and cry out to God
  6. To bow before the feet of the elders of the church to enlist the church in the burden of supplications before God

    Proper confession does all these things. It is the bringer of enhanced repentance. It is an honor to God by admission of His right to bring judgment.

It is a teaching of contrasts:

  1. It debases, but it raises.
  2. It covers with squalor, but cleans.
  3. It accuses, but excuses.
  4. It condemns, but absolves.

Additional teaching on this topic appears very specifically in a particular text, in the writing of the early Christian Church from around 200 AD (but not newer than the 325 AD). Some commentators have claimed that the following statement is from Clement of Alexandria or perhaps even Ignatius. Regardless of its origin, the text demonstrates that our topic is not a new one.

  • Let him, therefore, who is condemned be rebuked, let him be separated, het him undergo the punishment of his hatred to his brother. Afterwards, when they have learned prudence, they will ease your judicatures. It is also a duty to forgive each other’s trespasses—not the duty of those that judge [heathen courts]; as the Lord determined when Peter asked Him, “How oft shall by brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times” He replied, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times, but until seventy times seven.” For so would our Lord have us to be truly His disciples, and never to have anything against anybody; as, for instance, anger without measure, passion without mercy, covetousness without justice, hatred without reconciliation. Draw by your instruction those who are angry to friendship, and those who are at variance to agreement. For the Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Various, 417)

The point is plain, when a brother violates the law, he is judged to be in the wrong. He or she is rebuked and when they become convicted (“learn prudence”), it will ease the punishment prescribed for that sin.

The Model

Wronged, Rebuked, Redressed, Reconciled

Communication is a key element of Biblical reconciliation. We must confront sin with love and be willing to remain the humble servant of those who have wronged us. By illustration, we present this short story:

Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to leave Italy. There was, of course, a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal. He would have a religious debate with a leader of the Jewish community. If the Jewish leader won the debate, the Jews would be permitted to stay in Italy. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave.

The Jewish community met and picked an aged Rabbi, Moishe, to represent them in the debate. Rabbi Moishe, however, could not speak Latin and the Pope could not speak Yiddish. So it was decided that this would be a “silent” debate.

On the day of the great debate, the Pope and Rabbi Moishe sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.

Rabbi Moishe looked back and raised one finger.

Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head.

Rabbi Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat.

The Pope then brought out a communion wafer and chalice of wine.

Rabbi Moishe pulled out an apple.

With that, the Pope stood up and said, “I concede the debate. This man has bested me. The Jews can stay.”

Later, the Cardinals gathered around the Pope, asking him what had happened.

The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us of our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community crowded around Rabbi Moishe, asking what happened.

“Well,” said Moishe, “first he said to me, 'You Jews have three days to get out of here.' So I said to him, ‘Not one Jew will leave.’

“Then he tells me the whole city would be cleared of Jews.” So I said to him, 'Listen here Mr. Pope, the Jews … we stay right here!”

“And then?” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said Rabbi Moishe. “We broke for lunch.”


Communication is essential to stabilizing, maintaining and growing any relationship. Without good communication, working through the process to restore a relationship is even more challenging.

The clearest demonstration of how we should reconcile ourselves in the face of controversy is found in Matthew 18:15-17:

  • “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

This instruction is quite clear concerning the course Christians must take to confront and correct sin in interpersonal relationships and the methods by which we must apply ourselves if the offending party is not convinced of wrongdoing or possibly denies any wrongful acts. Here is the process for interpersonal forgiveness given by Christ in unequivocal terms.

First, if the “brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” Jesus Christ Himself gives the command that if another Christian sins against another, the offended person is to confront that person in private.

But what are those offenses for which we must rebuke? Matthew Henry offers three categories based on Matthew 18:

  1. To persecutors, who offer any injury to the least of Christ’s little ones, in word or deed, by which they are discouraged in serving Christ, and doing their duty, or in danger of being driven off from it.
  2. To seducers, who corrupt the truths of Christ and his ordinances, and so trouble the minds of the disciples; for they are those by whom offences come.
  3. To those who, under the profession of the Christian name, live scandalously, and thereby weaken the bands and sadden the hearts of God’s people; for by them the offence comes, and it is no abatement of their guilt, nor will be any of their punishment, that it is impossible but offences will come. (Henry, 148)

If any Christian comes to a point where they believe they have been offended, it is their duty to pursue, at all costs, resolving the sin or misunderstanding.

The question that every Christian should ask themselves before even coming to the table of rebuke, is whether there was actually a wrong committed against them or not.

For example, if someone disagrees with you, it does not necessarily mean the person has sinned against you. They simply just don’t agree with you. Now if that person with whom you disagree slanders you or assaults you, then yes, that would be sufficient cause to come together and work things out. One way to avoid this is to head Proverbs 17:14: “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out.”

Too often, disagreement ends in bitter dispute. If you believe you are a person who cannot calmly, even with passion, debate another believer over an issue without loosing your temper or becoming irrationally angered, then you may not be the best representative for the issue.

There are some issues that need addressing when considering the rebuke of another for perceived sin. We must say “perceived sin” because to jump ahead and assume absolute wrong has been done may end us in error.

As Proverbs 25:8 instructs us, “Do not go out hastily to argue your case; otherwise, what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame?” Verses 9-10 tell us to “Argue your case with your neighbor, and do not reveal the secret to another, lest he who hears it reproach you and the evil report about you will not pass away.”

The Christian is to verify, in humility and love, that real wrong has been done. We should “not be a witness against our brother without cause” (Proverbs 24:28).

If we were to confront a truly guilty person on such an issue, and they listened, you would have “won your brother” from continuing in sin. And if they do not listen, we have an obligation, according to the Writ of God, to take others with us and confront the person in hopes of winning them back. If they still maintain their denial of wrongful actions, we are to go before the whole congregation. Which in itself is an indirect argument for church membership. 1) In the case where the individual is still unrepentant or will not confess their sin, they are to be disciplined with expulsion (“excommunicated,” or withdrawn from the privileges of membership including attendance at church).

The parallel passage in Luke 17:3-4 is much more succinct:

  • 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, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.

If another Christian sins, we are to rebuke him or her. This is not an optional charge; this is a Biblical mandate by Christ Himself! If you know another Christian is sinning, you have a God-given responsibility to confront that person, not out of spite, but out of love and humility. And no, it is not easy to bring controversy between two friends, but how much worse is it to let a wound fester and infect our relationships?

Definitions:

Sin

Christians use the term “sin” everyday in numerous circumstances to describe the error of one’s actions. The Biblical word hamartia, sin, implies missing the mark aimed at or a falling short of a particular target (violating God’s law). To sin is to be in error, to stray from the right path, to be without honor, or simply, to do that which is wrong.

There is the temptation of sin in every realm of daily living. There may be different assaults in trade, food, sight, hearing, touch. Whether tasks or senses, we are inundated with affronts to our sanctification. On a grander scale, there are murder, apostasy, fraud, blasphemy, adultery and idolatry. None of these are triffles. There are all badges of dishonor.

Being without honor, as an example, is the focus of Matthew 27:3-4. Judas says, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Judas falsely denied the Messiah, just as Christ prophesied in 26:75. The same word for betrayal is used in other places in the New Testament as a willful declining or withdrawal from the fellowship of others.

Sins may be remissable by another person or by God. Examples of daily sins, so called, might be: carelessly speaking evil, being angry unjustly, lying, stealing, cheating or any act that neglects honesty, charity, love and humility. It is a violation of holy ethics.

There is even at least one sin that is irremissable one: The Unpardonable Sin. And even in this case, it may be argued that this sin can be discharged through penalty; a penalty dismisses sin in the sense that it is now condemned and put out from the presence of God. In the ultimate sense, it is gone forever.

New Testament sin is always a wrong committed against someone, even oneself. It may only be discernable as a mind (spiritual) sin or it may be a crime of the body (physical), like stealing or adultery. And although there are subtle differences in the variations of the Greek words translated as sin, they all have one basic thing in common: A person has sinned when they have committed an offense contrary to the Word of God.

This person must be rebuked in accordance with the Scriptures in order to bring reconciliation. The sinner is released from sin either by pardon or penalty.

Rebuke

“With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered” (Proverbs 11:9).

There are two Greek words in the New Testament commonly translated rebuke, conviction or correction. Their meanings are closely related, but they imply completely different outcomes.

The first term, elegchos (as a verb, elegcho), is most significantly understood from 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Here, the sense of the Greek implies not just the confronting of the offender, but implies a resulting conviction of their actions. So in 2 Timothy 3:16, “reproof” is much more noteworthy than merely “rebuke.” The passage may also read, “All Scripture is inspired by God…for the reproval and resulting conviction of sins leading to an inward or outward change in the accused…” Truly, the Greek is a formidable tool when correctly understood.

This is the power of God through His Word—the proclamation of sin with a resulting conviction and change in the person “that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (3:17). The Scriptures are inspired by God to bring change in the person who is of God.

However, there is another term used when the outcome is not quite so certain. Epitimao is used when the effect of a rebuke is unknown, uncertain or ineffectual and carries with it the idea of evaluation, the showing of honor or even admonishment.

Clear examples of this form of rebuke can be seen in Luke 18:15 when the people brought their children to Christ and “when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them” or in Luke 19:39 where “some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, ‘Master, rebuke thy disciples.’” The outcomes may have been conviction, but they do not necessitate a change or following through on the rebuke.

In other passages, the rebuke does lead to a definite change as in Luke 4:35: “And Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Hold thy peace, and come out of him.’ And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not” and Luke 4:39, “And he stood over her, and rebuked the fever; and it left her: and immediately she arose and ministered unto them.”

In all the passages where either term is used, there is a precedent wrong that has occurred. Caution must be exercised in any case where we perceive a wrong to have been committed; there may have not been a sin and our rebuke only demonstrates our own hastiness to accuse another of wrongdoing, which is in itself, sinful.

As a general principle, an offense is to be followed by rebuke. Obviously, one cannot correctly rebuke another when no offense has been committed. Rebuke is only a response when the offending person is not willing to come to repentance of his or her own initiative. If repentance is not evident, we must rebuke in order to attain that repentance and begin our journey to restoration and fellowship.

Let us apply the wisdom of Proverbs 10:18: “He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander a fool” (Proverbs 10:18).

Repentance

Repentance anticipates the satisfaction of its error, being efficaciously assured through guaranteed forgiveness. Simultaneously, however, it can not presume pardon where there is a lack of cessation of sin. As an example, when we pray, we ask for forgiveness with the expectation that our confession and plea will not be frustrated.

Proverbs 10:17, “He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who forsakes reproof goes astray.”

The nature of true repentance can most easily, and rather simplistically, be described as an admission of guilt and a willingness to turn from that behavior in favor of restoring damaged relations.

It is an expectation of impending grace, yet is also an affirmation of guilt. It is overcome in mourning in the absence of pardon and in a recognition that one’s crimes may be justly punished. We just might not be the recipient of pardon; we may receive a penalty even if we ask for leniency/grace/mercy.

In Greek we find two forms of the word meaning repentance: One form refers more to a sense of remorse or regret, not out of a conviction of needing to restore relationships or heal wounds, but out of fear of the consequences of those actions. The other form is what most think of when the word “repentance” is used. The varieties of this type of repentance all deal with regret, but also a resulting change of mind and heart affecting behavior. For clarity, we will call this “true repentance” and the first type “regret.”

The first term, metamellomai, simply means regret or remorse. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 21:29 and 21:32 in the parable of the two sons. Judas’ reaction to his betrayal of Christ was not a true repentance, but merely regret (Matthew 27:3). Additionally, Paul regretted the sorrow his letter inflicted on its recipients in 2 Corinthians 7:8.

Occasionally, Hebrews 7:21 is quoted to demonstrate that God changes His mind or feels sorrow for His decisions. Yet, in this instance and with the use of metamellomai, the Lord is presented as making an oath and not feeling remorse or regret over His pronouncement.

The other term used through this book to mean true, heart-felt repentance with an accompanying change of mind is metanoia (with its root word, metanoeō).

Metanoeō, the root word from which metanoia stems, means to repent with remorse and a change of heart or mind. Technically, it comes from two other Greek words meaning to “know” and “after.” The sense it conveys in its combined form is more like “to comprehend and change one’s mind after an event“ rather than a simplistic reflection on past events.

It is used in Romans 12:17-18 where Paul says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” The Apostle is not just saying to be respectful of others, but he is calling the Christian to seriously consider what others may find offensive or pleasing with a fervent reverence and treat all with the utmost care.

The same Apostle uses the same term in a similar context in 2 Corinthians 8:21. The Christian is to regard what is honorable or give thought, with a heart that is willing to change, according to that reflection. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul uses the word to denote “providing for” so that if one does not reflect on the needs of their household, they have “denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The Christian must assess and be willing to change.

It is the term used in Luke 17:3: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” In the parallel passage of Matthew 18:15, the word in place of repent is “listen.” The thrust behind this means to hear with understanding or comprehension. So again, this form of repentance is one where the sinner knowingly analyses his or her deeds, feels remorse for their actions and willfully changes their attitude.

If we were to transform the definition of this word into a formula, it would look like this: Metanoeō = repentance = to know + regret + change of heart (toward an event, person or God).

Metanoia, as a formula, might appear as: Metanoia = repentance = to perceive + sorrow + change of mind (resulting in wisdom). This word implies and is used to express a revision of one’s mind with moral reflection. Hebrews 12:17 tells of Esau who sold his birthright for a meal. The consequences of his sin resulted in being rejected when he “desired to inherit the blessing;” though he shed tears of remorse, “he found no place for repentance.” He may have wished to receive the inheritance, but his mind was not changed. He perceived his error and felt regret, but an altered heart did not guide that regret.

John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance symbolizing, among other things, a change in the person from worse to better (Matthew 3:11). The same intent is echoed in Matthew 9:13 when Jesus says, “’I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This is the same emphasis with which Paul preached in his public message “testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).

This is the same “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18) as the repentance of 2 Corinthians 7:10 “leading to salvation without regret.” 2)

Even more to our purposes here is 2 Timothy 3:24-25:

  • The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of truth….

True repentance, whether metanoeō or metanoia, comprises a comprehension of wrongdoing, a looking back, an internal change with a desire to restore lost or damaged fellowship. In some cases, these two terms appear to be used interchangeably (compare 2 Timothy 3:24-25 and Luke 17:3), but most significant is the departure from a basic concept of mere dread or regret for wrongful actions. True repentance entails much more than base guilt.

Some theologians have chosen technical terms to describe the difference in Scripture between true repentance and the more superficial form, typified not by a change of heart, but by a fear of the fallout of one’s actions. Legal repentance is a term used to refer to the “regret” that some feel when confronted with the heinous nature of their crime and seek only to avoid the penalty due their actions or perhaps, they are frightened at the justice destined for their behavior and unwillingness to turn from their ways. Evangelical repentance contains the fear of Legal repentance, but goes much further in that the individual turns from that behavior and to God. There is a change of heart, mind and will taking place that characterizes the person in response to being confronted with their sin.

Cain and Judas may seen be fine examples of legal repentance or metamellomai, meaning selfish regret.

In Genesis 4:13, Cain utters what may be mistaken to be penitence. When cursed by God, “Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is too great to bear!” Cain neither admitted to his crime, nor did he repent of it. His sorrow resulted only from the severe punishment God decreed for the offense. Even in the broadest sense, this kind of repentance only measures up to a profound dread of the penalties of defying God’s law.

When Judas discovered that he had been condemned in the betrayal of Christ, “he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders saying ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood’” Matthew 27:3-4. Notice that although he admitted his crime, he did not offer true repentance, only regret and a realization that he would be held accountable. He felt guilty for his offense.

In contrast to the regretful feelings of Cain and Judas, other Biblical figures present a much different response to sinful behavior. Hezekiah, the Ninevites, David, the men of Judea and Peter are excellent examples of evangelical repentance, examples of metanoeō or metanoia, indicating regret and a change of heart from bad to good.

Hezekiah became deathly ill and was visited by Isaiah. Isaiah informed him of the conditions that he must meet in order to live (2 Kings 20:2-3 and Isaiah 38:2-3). Hezekiah responded to the prophet by turning to God and praying, “’Remember now, O Lord, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly.” The Lord responded to Hezekiah’s plea by restoring and healing him. Hezekiah was emotionally traumatized by the displeasure of God and was moved to come before the Lord in the most humble supplication.

In Jonah 3:5-10, the Ninevites believed in God and repented of their wicked ways. And “when God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.”

A very interesting point about this passage is that Jonah’s message was, at the foremost, one of judgment. Yet the Ninevites, unlike Judas in Matthew 27:3-4, responded not with anguished regret for the punitive consequences of their actions, they responded with a life, heart and mind change. They were changed from the inside out, turning from their wicked ways to the Lord God, repenting and mourning.

2 Samuel 24:10-14 offers an example of the consequences of sin lasting even after forgiveness is granted. David offered sincere repentance for going against the word of the Lord and in return, God offered David one of three afflictions as the just penalty even though God had forgiven the trespass.

Peter preaches a sermon to the “men of Judea” and all “who live in Jerusalem” in Acts 2:37 of the Gospel of Christ. In verse 37, the people of Israel respond to this message by being “pierced to the heart” and said to Peter, “what shall we do?” Peter’s response was direct: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (verse 38). Over 3000 people responded with true contriteness of heart at the hearing of this message, which, was not a threat of eternal punishment, but one of a conviction of neglecting the true Messiah and His work.

After Peter betrayed Christ, he “remembered the word which Jesus had said, ‘Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly” Matthew 26:75 and Luke 22:62. Comparing Judas’ betrayal with Peter’s, we find something strikingly different: Judas is in a state of fear over condemnation; Peter is crushed with the realization that he betrayed Christ. Peter is not threatened with physical punishment, nor is he confronted with any sort of penalty of any type. He is only confronted with the reality of his betrayal of His Lord. His response is not to try to fix the crime as Judas tried. Peter, with every ounce of strength, wept. He was torn to the core at his offensive treachery; Judas was in fear of justice. Peter’s response was exactly like Hezekiah’s at one very important point: They both wept bitterly. They were moved to their soul.

To paraphrase Tertullian, this is a grief that blushes not. There is no room for gossip around the coffee machine, no one giggling from the back pew. There is no shame in the admission, only mourning in the position.

Although more may be implied from these two categories of repentance, they do provide a practical example of the two very different Greek words that we translate as one: repentance. True repentance affects a change in behavior from within the individual as they turn toward the offended party, a new wisdom, and a willingness to restore fellowship. Insincere repentance (simple “regret”) is no more a life changing constitution in a person than is the statement, “I need to apologize for doing you wrong.” That is neither an apology nor a willingness to confess (it is an admission of guilt). It is a very popular evasion of repentance.

True forgiveness implies both deliverance and freedom. Further back in its etymology, it signifies an omission, laying aside or a sending away. Biblical forgiveness is, from our perspective, the deliverance from the influence or power of sin. When Christ forgives us our sin, He is achieving our freedom from the taint and influence of our sinful nature.

In Biblical examples of the practical working out of repentance, we find shared elements. Repentance involves:

  1. Realization of the offense and acknowledgment of sin. Ezekiel 18; Acts 3:19 and 5:31.
  2. Remorse for sin. 2 Corinthians 7:9-10.
  3. A willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of that sin. Luke 13:3.
  4. Turning from the behavior and humbly returning to the offended party. Isaiah 55:6-7; Ezekiel 14:6, 33:11; Acts 3:26, 26:18-20 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9.
  5. Exhibiting an attitude of repentance in lifestyle (bearing the fruit of the turning from sin). Luke 3:8 and Acts 26:20.

All of the above involve humility, a change in heart and mind and foremost, love. Without humility, there is no true sorrow; without a change of attitude, there is no practical application; without love, there is no underlying purpose for seeking or appreciating restoration.

And though discussed in a later chapter, the Gospel itself typifies the repentance first model of restoration. In Luke 24:46-47, Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Forgiveness demands a pre-existing, underlying repentance to make any sense.

Apologizing to a friend when you have wronged them (one aspect of repentance) is not vastly different in process, by definition and application, from repentance to God by confessing your sins. Both involve an act of wrongdoing.

The person wronged confronts the person committing the act and offers a method of satisfaction for the trespass (rebuke and offer of restitution).

  • Offending Party
  • A1: The offender gives a confession
  • B1: Condition for reconciliation is met
  • Offended Party
  • A2: Forgiveness is granted
  • B2: Fellowship is restored

The offender, ideally, (A1) confesses or admits doing wrong and (B1) vows to correct, satisfy or redress the problem (i.e., “I won’t do it again” or “I’ll pay for the broken window”).

The offended party offers a reconciliation of the damaged relationship: (A2) forgiveness of wrongdoing and (B2) restoration of fellowship.

In the case of repentance toward God, addressed more in depth in a later chapter, we find the Fall of Adam as the first “act of wrongdoing” mentioned above. God then (2) confronts man with his sinful nature offering the Messiah as the condition upon which reconciliation rests. The sinner (3) confesses his or her sin (1 John 1:8-10) and commits himself or herself to a life characterized and described in Scripture. God assures us that we who turn to Christ for forgiveness (4) will not be turned away (John 6), but will have everlasting life with Him.

In our personal, human, and prone-to-sin relationships we are to follow the same outline in order to preserve our fellowship with each other. As Christians, we are obligated, in the name of Christ, to follow through with each of these steps.

Steps three and four have two elements to them. The third step is for the person committing the act to admit their error and to correct, satisfy the conditions for restoration with the pledge to turn from that error in the present and the future. The fourth step also has two components and both are the complimentary counterparts to the two items in the third step:

At its root, the Biblical form of repentance stems from the Hebrew for “conversion, or turning again; and in the Greek from a change of mind and purpose” and can be restated as withdrawing from ourselves and “laying aside the old, put on a new mind.” (Calvin, 513) In short, it is a turning away from one thing and turning to another.

Repentance is the goal of rebuke. When an offense is committed, the offended party must rebuke the offender. Ideally, demonstrating all humility, the offender is convicted of their offense, repenting and changing their hearts and minds in order to be reconciled to the offended person or persons.

One of the greatest writers in the early church, the group immediately following the Apostles, talked much on our topics. Tertullian was concerned about the willingness of sinners to commit themselves to public exposure of their sins due to fear of embarrassment. He supposed that most people are “more mindful of modesty than of salvation.” (Tertullian, 664)

Rebuke and repentance rely on a valid wrong being committed. Without sin, rebuke is meaningless. Some may falsely find blame without an offense actually having happened, but when no sin has taken place, the rebuke is in error. And it should be clear that repentance couldn’t possibly precede the offense. If there is no crime, there is nothing to change in the accused and thus, no need for repentance. If the rebuke is in error, true repentance cannot follow.

On the other hand, if there is true sin, rebuke must follow in order to preserve our accountability and obligations to one another. When rebuke follows true sin, repentance must follow, but of course, this depends on the hardness of our own hearts to accept our responsibility to restore the damage we’ve caused.

On a broader scale, the above is reflected in the classical understanding of the Just War and in Biblical criminal punishment (correction in the society, not retribution for a legal grievance).

Forgiveness

The single most important point we can make about forgiveness is that we are unable, from the light given us in Scripture, to ultimately make pure or remove actual sins. The final removing of sins from our account is a function of the office of God.

We may forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12) and we are called to “forgive him,” meaning our brother (Matthew 18:21; Luke 17:3-4).

Only God is able to cleanse sin through forgiveness as is evident in Matthew 9:2, 6: “Take courage, My son, your sins are forgiven…the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….”

That said, however, we must grant that there appears no secondary word in Greek for this distinction. This conclusion is only reached from the variety of texts of the New Testament when discussing forgiveness mentioned in this work.

The implication of this is for the Christian to petition the unbeliever with the power and influence of the Gospel of Christ for the ultimate forgiveness of sins. Christians have the ability to forgive others for wrongful actions, but not absolve their sins; this is a commission of Christ to His people in order to preserve His unity the best we can.

The New Testament uses the term charizomai to indicate being kind or being gracious to another. An explicit example of “being forgiving” shines through in Paul’s instructions to the Christian as to how they are to carry themselves toward one another in Ephesians 4:25-32 but this will be discussed in a later chapter.

In the case of “forgiveness,” different Greek words with different meanings and implications are interpreted with one single English word. For our purposes, we will address the two most basic terms translated by the word “forgiveness:” The laying aside of sin (aphiēmi) and the deliverance, liberty or remission of sin (aphĕsis).

Aphiēmi basically means to send away. It has a variety of applications in the New Testament, ranging from Christ “yielding” up His spirit (Matthew 27:50), the dismissal of a spouse (1 Corinthians 7:11-13), to the forgiveness of debts or debtors (Matthew 6:12).

Many Christians may be surprised at the meaning of the different uses of the terms used in Scripture translated as “forgive”.

Firstly, aphiēmi can mean to forsake or leave. This is most evident in Matthew 4:20, 22; 5:24, 40; 26:56 and John 14:18; 16:28, 32.

When Jesus “was walking by the Sea of Galilee,” He saw two men, Simon Peter and Andrew, his brother (Matthew 4:18). In verses 19-20, Jesus calls out to the men, “’Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” What is most interesting is the word in other passages translated as “forgiveness” is here translated as “left.” The men left their nets behind them; they left their boats too, forgotten and disregarded (verse 22). The nets and their boats still existed, but they were put out of mind. This is the forgiveness the Christian is called to emulate. We are to “walk away” or “leave behind” the sins against us.

Directly to this work’s thesis, is Matthew 5:21-26. In this passage, Jesus says that it is as severe an offense to commit murder as it is to remain bitter and unreconciled. He said “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty” and will be held accountable. Jesus uses the illustration of Old Testament law to emphasize His point on reconciliation.

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

We can extract the application to our own lives by suggesting that if we are holding grudges against another, we cannot come before God before we have resolved that bitterness.

It should also be noted that when Christ says “leave your offering,” He is using aphiēmi. The Christian is to leave all else to the side and seek reconciliation first.

One final place in Matthew where this particular sense of the word is applied is in 26:56. After a large crowd surrounded Christ during Judas’ betrayal, Jesus insists that He must be taken away. In John 16:32, our Lord foretells the very event fulfilled in Matthew 26:56 by declaring, “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone….” This “leaving alone” is the same word used in the conclusion of the confrontation in Matthew’s account of the betrayal. Jesus concludes the altercation, saying, “’But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets.’ Then all the disciples left Him and fled.” Christ’s followers “left Him.” They put the thought of Him away, forsaking Him and distancing themselves from Him.

In the book of John, Jesus tells His disciples that He will send a comforter to them, so they should not fear. Christ promises, “I will not leave you as orphans” but will come to them (John 14:18). In a related passage, John 16:28, Jesus informs His followers that He would be “leaving the world again and going to the Father.” The disciples were to seek comfort from Christ’s promise, that although it may appear that He would forget them, leaving them behind, He would send another to be with them; they would not be forgotten or left alone in the world.

Matthew 24:2 gives a slightly different rendering of aphiēmi, better translated as “remain” or “to leave behind” when Christ speaks of the destruction of the Temple: “Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” Another way of putting it is “not one stone will remain on another.”

Usage in other New Testament passages:

  • To leave or let alone Mark 14:6; Luke 13:8.
  • To omit or neglect. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42.
  • To permit, suffer, let. Matthew 3:15; 7:4; 8:22; 13:30; 19:14.
  • To remit, forgive debts, sins or offenses. Matthew 6:12, 14, 15; 9:2, 5.

Mark 2:10. God alone is able to forgive actual sins in a salvific (for the cause of salvation) sense.

Aphĕsis stems from Aphiēmi appearing in the New Testament to imply forgiveness with the sense of release, remission or deliverance.

During the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said the cup symbolized “My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). In this context, forgiveness is a divine prerogative for the ultimate deliverance from the power of sin. Through His atonement, Christians are delivered from the power of sin, but not the presence of sin. We await the final redemption of our bodies at the resurrection.

In the verse just before the occasionally controversial “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” statement in Mark 3:29, Jesus makes a promise, “Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter….”

In a survey of Luke, we find the same application of forgiveness (aphĕsis) as the usage in Matthew and Mark above. Zacharias’ prophesied of the Messiah who would come “To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” John the Baptist preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Afterwards, Jesus preached from the book of Isaiah by referring to Himself as one who would “proclaim release to the captives” and perform miracles. Christ appeared to His followers after His resurrection and told them “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 1:77; 3:3; 4:18 and 24:47 respectively).

Perusing through the book of Acts, the same salvific implications of aphĕsis follow suit. Acts 10:43 informs the reader that “all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” The same emphasis on “forgiveness of sins” is retained in 13:38 and again in 26:16, 18, but with the further focus on turning from sin first:

But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness…to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.

Christ appoints His message bearer to preach the Gospel, so that “their eyes” will be opened, responding with a change of heart, turning from the darkness to the light, “that they may receive forgiveness of sins” and an inheritance.

It is in Christ that “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). And reminiscent of Acts 26:16-18, Colossians 1:12-14 calls us to give

thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

And so, in Hebrews 9:22 and 10:18, the audience is informed that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” and “where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.”

The passages cited above should indicate a marked difference between the use of ultimate, final remission of sins by God (with the use of aphĕsis) and the setting aside or putting behind of the offense so as not to interfere with our relationships (with the use of aphiēmi).

Aphĕsis should be distinguished from paresis, appearing in Romans 3:25, as a placing aside of sin where “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously commited” without implying actual remission as does aphĕsis or even aphiēmi. Romans 3:25 is the only place paresis appears in the New Testament.

The Christian is called to forgive, true, but that forgiveness is significantly different from the decisive and lasting forgiveness of God Who is able to cleanse the trespass and restore us to fellowship with His perfect standard of holiness.

The Argument:

Rebuke

When we confront each other, we do not have to present ourselves as arrogant tattle-tales bent on legalism. We do have the option of being humble, understanding, empathetic and compassionate. Instead of saying, “Why did you steal the book?” try saying, “May I borrow that book when you’re done, or is it yours?” Or a variation on the theme, “I thought that belonged to John” and see where the conversation goes. We do not have to be accusatory in our confrontation. We can present ourselves as knowing less than we think we might. And we also don’t have to set a formal meeting at a specific hour; it doesn’t have to be a grand show. That will do nothing, in many cases, but inflame and predispose the situation to negative results.

I remember an instance where a Christian man was involved in sexual sin and all his friends knew it. The thing was that he didn’t know that they knew and so, he continued in his actions. He lost his rapport with the entire group as a result. How much better for him would it have been for the first person who discovered his lustful desires to confront him with compassion and understanding? It may have had a tremendous effect on his peers and his relationship with them. A friend may have gone to him and said, “I would like to start a study on sexual addictions and I would like your input and involvement,” or something like, “Glen, I would like to talk to you about something private and personal and I think you would understand,” and maybe even “I noticed some things you’ve said and I wonder if there’s anything you’d like to talk about.” Of course, his friends could have just confronted him directly with “We’ve noticed this and you should knock it off. Let’s talk.”

It’s so common the resistance to reproof is a shadow of being outside group acceptance. Perhaps it’s a fear of being cast out or maybe it’s a natural reaction, rebellion.

When we are wronged, our admonition in 2 Timothy 2:24-25 is fivefold:

  1. “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome,”
  2. “be kind to all,”
  3. “able to teach,”
  4. “patient when wronged,”
  5. and “with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition,”toward the purpose that “perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of truth.”

We don’t have to dance around the topic and in many cases, direct confrontation may certainly be best, but we do have an obligation to address it in whatever form may be comfortable or easiest for you.

Predating the New Testament direction is the comfort we find in Leviticus 19:17. “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.”

The passage appears extremely clear. On further research, it seems that the word “incur” carries additional significance. According to Frank E. Gaebelein’s Expositor’s Commentary, Matthew Henry and others, the verse could read: “you may rebuke your neighbor, being acquitted of his sin.” The Hebrew carries a lot of weight when viewed in light of the topic of forgiveness. In short, if your neighbor sins and you rebuke him/her, then you do not become an accomplice, modern legal system aside, to that sin in the eyes of God.

But as Galatians 6:1-2 expands on that thought. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that we have an obligation to restore “a man caught in any trespass.” We are to restore them to the community in a spirit of gentleness, always being wary to guard against temptation. However, we are not off the hook; we are obliged to assist that person. It is the very nature of godly service.

There is a balance to be struck, however. 2 Thessalonians 14-3:15 is clear to instruct us that anyone “who does not obey our instruction in this letter” should not be associated with “so that he may be put to shame.” Yet, we are not to consider that believer as an enemy; they should be rebuked for their sin and, according to other plain Scriptures, be returned to the fold. As the Apostle Peter puts it in 1 Peter 4:8, “love covers a multitude of sins.” This same phrase appears in James 5:19-20; it is our function as believers to “turn back” those who have strayed from the truth. Christianly love covers a multitude of sins.

Repentance First (before forgiveness)

The passage from Luke 17:3-4, again, is: “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, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

If we do not confront and rebuke first, awaiting the admission of sin, there is no cause for repentance or forgiveness. Now, this does not account for knowingly erring against another person. Often a person will accidentally brush against another or hit them with an object, only to say a split second later, “Oops, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” It’s just a common decency evidenced in many cultures. It’s an automatic confession of guilt, with the express denial of evil intent. And the normal reply? “No problem.”

The example may seem a trifle, but the analogy should be plain: If a wrong act has been committed and confession does not follow, the injured party must bring notice to the offender. In other words, if they don’t say, “I’m sorry,” you have the responsibility of saying, “Hey, that hurt,” bringing all four steps of Rebuke to Reconciliation into play.

In the case where a friend sins and we rebuke them in love, we must also offer the method of restitution. If a friend broke a window out of anger, we might ask that he pay to replace it. That would be a condition for correcting the wrongful act. If that friend denied that form of restitution, we may consider alternates of course, but we may have also come to a point where the friend is not completely penitent.

Many times the words of an apology do not contain true felt convictions. This spurious repentance may just be regret shining through. When a person fears the consequences of their error, they may fear punishment without the complimentary contrition and humility accompanying true repentance.

Failing to demonstrate the severity of the damaged relationship to the offender can often lead to a mere presentation of cause and effect consequences. If a person wrongs another, the worst thing we could do is to only present them with the penalties due their crime. The reciprocating repentance will more than likely only be regret. In Biblical repentance, we are not only seeking regret, which is surely one element, but we are also looking for love, humility and a change of heart.

The sinning party does not impose conditions on the offended party. The sinner anticipates leniency and grace, but simultaneously admits the the distribution of justice and accepts that sentence if it is delivered. Confession and repentance are humbling and they are the expectation, the very hope, of mercy.

When a sin is committed by one person against another, more than “breaking the law” is at play. There is an injury to each other. For the offender, the damage may be unconscious, but quite harmful. The harm can drive away others from creating relationships. For the offended person, it can prevent further trust and honesty in future relationships. In both cases, it prohibits the unity of the body of Christ we as Christians are called to practice and enjoy.

By confession, satisfaction is settled. By concession repentance is born. By repentance, appeasement is made.

The Nature of Forgiveness

Repentance qualifies, heralds and necessarily precedes forgiveness. If the offending party repents, we are to forgive them, but only if. If we take it upon ourselves to forgive without the qualifying repentance, we have done nothing to reconcile the damage, but may in fact compound the problem. Repentance is the banner announcing forgiveness is soon to come; conditional pardon is an obligatory response to repentance, it is required by God (Matthew 18:21-35).

If we are to forgive before a person is convinced of wrongdoing, we have accomplished nothing in changing their hearts or minds. In many cases, all we have done is attempted to remove some type of misplaced guilt from ourselves. In other cases, all we have accomplished is to allow the person, still swimming in the depths of their sin, to continue thinking all is fine and right. We have corrected nothing and have restored nothing.

In the situation where forgiveness precedes repentance, we have just undermined the value and worth of the act of forgiveness. It is to say we are delivering them from something they do not feel the need to be freed from. It is to liberate someone from imprisonment when the individual does not feel imprisoned or does not sense a need to be released and may even resist that freedom.

John has a dog that keeps barking at night. His neighbor, Bill, can’t sleep through the racket. One day, Bill takes the dog to the local pound to get rid of the problem. John finds out, gets his dog, returns home and now is intensely angry with his neighbor. This sort of situation plays itself out every day in one form or another.

If John simply forgives his neighbor, what has he done to restore that relationship? If Bill does not go to his neighbor and inform John of the irritation, what has he done but antagonize his own bitterness toward John?

The answer to both: Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Forgiveness is also conditional. We must be careful in our wording, for there is an obvious error we can fall into by claiming that repentance is the condition for forgiveness.

We must realize repentance is not meritorious. Calvin said, “repentance is not made a condition in such a sense as to be a foundation for meriting pardon; nay, it rather indicates the end at which they must aim if they would obtain favour…” (Calvin, 526).

In order to receive or obtain forgiveness, repentance is the condition that must be met in order to be the recipient of forgiving grace. Forgiveness is a grace bestowed on the repentant and simultaneously, forgiveness is an obligatory response to the truly repentant. Repentance does not earn pardon, but is the necessary precondition for receiving mercy and grace.

If forgiveness is withheld from the unrepentant, it does not demand that we also withhold love. Too often many believe that if we don’t first forgive the offender, we somehow sow bitterness in ourselves for “not letting go” of the offense. This, however, is a completely different issue.

In the process of restoration when the offending party manifestly denies wrongdoing, as long as we have fulfilled our responsibility to rebuke them in love, we should not feel animosity against them or guilt for their unwillingness to reconcile. In another manner, as long as we have taken it on ourselves to confront our transgressor in a humble way, we have released ourselves from our obligation to our brother or sister. The feeling of guilt, anger or bitterness resulting from being wronged is natural–“natural” in the sense of sinfully wrong. We may be offended without manifesting hatred. We may rebuke without bitterness. We may never receive the repentance we seek, but we may not respond with resentment. That is an affliction that creates its own set of problems resulting in a need for repentance (creating a vicious circle of wrongs).

For those needing the “let go” feeling of forgiveness without true repentance, it is recommended that in the confrontation and rebuke of the offender, there is relief of the offense. When we confront the person who has wronged us with their offense, we have placed the responsibility for further restoration on them. We have fulfilled our mission to attempt to reinstate our fellowship. The fact that the other person does not return this attempt is now, quite frankly, their problem. We may continue to seek a change in heart in the other person, but ultimately, it is now “on them” to seek reconciliation. It is their mind and heart that need quickening. We can only help them, being a force for change. We cannot take the responsibility for their hardness; we are freed from any wrongful thinking or sinful contentiousness by following the Biblical pattern for reconciliation.

Forgiving the “brother” does not mean there will be no consequences for their actions. Someone who has stolen from their church may not be allowed to come into contact with the offerings, but may be completely restored to fellowship. An elder removed from office may be forgiven and receive full privileges of membership, yet never again hold the office of elder. A teenager who breaks curfew may not be allowed to go out with their friends without adult supervision, but may be forgiven for their original infraction. The list could go on and on, but the point remains, there may be consequences for the act and at the same time be fully forgiven for the transgression.

A penalty may even be part of the required demonstration of repentance. Breaking a window out of spite may require, as part of the restoration course, replacement or reimbursement for the window.

God requires the perfect obedience to His law, and for the Christian, Christ has supplied that substitution for their sins. Christ has fulfilled the law for us and has satisfied the demands of God’s law in our behalf. Christ’s atonement satisfies the requirements God has set forth. For this very reason Jesus Christ is said to be the only way to the Father. We cannot provide this satisfaction of such a high demand by ourselves.

It is completely at the discretion of the offended party to add conditions to the breach of fellowship and dictate the demands for receiving forgiveness.

And even if, for the sake of the objection, repentance is obligatory, which type of repentance would earn more mercy: 1. The apostate who leaves the church amidst agony and grief or 2. The one who has apostosized in delight or pride? Which one is truly the greater traitor to God? As Tertullian once argued, the scars of Christian anguish are glorious in the eyes of Christ. They are scars of grief which cause Satan to sigh in loss.

The whole process from rebuke to restoration is a “whole” process; it is a single set of many ingredients. In a way, it is like a molecule: many atoms of different types placed together to make one single, larger whole.

By offering up forgiveness before sincere repentance, we must be willing to realize that we have actually done nothing profitable to restore failing or damaged relationships.

Eleven days after the Allies stormed Normandy, von Rundstedt and Rommel, the Desert Fox, suggested to Hitler that they sue for peace with their enemies, except Russia. That is, they should make haste, pursue with all regard and strive with all their might to achieve a peaceful resolution with Britain, Canada, the Norwegian Navy, the Free French and the US.

The two men were motivated out of a realization of imminent destruction at the hands of the invading Allies. Hitler, on the other hand, did not see the distress which his military had fallen on. The Nazi and German Army front at Normandy was insufficiently prepared to repulse such a presentation of powerful forces. Paratroopers were littered over the area, supply trains were set up, tanks had landed and thousands upon thousands of Allied troops were assaulting Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Hitler could not unknot the error tying him to final destruction: he was arrogant, proud and unwilling to admit a better force had undone him. His advisors saw their error, too late, but nonetheless realized. They realized they could not place conditions on the relenting of the Allied onslaught; they knew they must “sue for peace.”

Rommel and von Rundstedt realized the need for grace, yet may have never considered the need for repentance or correcting their grievous errors. They may have sought forgiveness and even, perhaps, realized certain conditions would be impressed on them to achieve that peace. Whether or not the above conditions would have ever come about, Hitler was the responsible party to bring about the change. It was his decision to end the conflict.

Now, what if the Allies, in their struggle to liberate the German occupied countries, the assaults on Britain and the quest to discover whether the “rumors” of mass atrocities in Europe were true, simply called up Hitler and said, “I forgive you. I know you are not repenting of any crime, but we feel we have to get over our bad feelings for you, so we forgive you”? Would this have healed the enormous fracture that had occurred between our nations? Would this have stopped the destruction of millions of civilian lives? No.

“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.” (2 Corinthians 2:4)

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he argues, was not a letter to create sorrow in them, but a manifestation of the love of Christ in that rebuke. This is a very practical and real life situation where Matthew 18 comes alive. Paul applies the principle of addressing a wrong act or acts, not out of spite, but out of a need for reconciliation and fellowship in love. Paul tells the Corinthians, in 2:4, that he was not motivated out of creating sorrow in them, but that in their correction and rebuke they would find “the love which I have especially for you.”

Not to be misunderstood, Paul also makes very clear his feelings. He does not hide the fact that he wrote “out of much affliction and anguish of heart.” Often we may feel that we must feel “good” about the situation before we can address the problem. Yet, Paul admits quite boldly that he was afflicted and anguished. We do not have to hide our feelings of being wronged from others; we have an obligation to accurately inform our brothers and sisters how we are affected, not to create sorrow or pity in them, but to show our love for them to the degree that their act created “much affliction and anguish of heart.”

Forgiveness is not a mystical rite designed to gain passage to divine union. It is not an ancient tribal religious custom. It is not a human philosophical convention to increase the progeny of the clan.

The Apostles had the miraculous power of God to introduce plagues, raise the dead and heal the infirm. Christ Himself performed miracles by raising the dead, healing the disabled and feeding multitudes. Yet in of all these narratives, the concept of forgiveness shines through. Adam, Noah, Abraham, the prophets, the history of Israel, our salvation, Christ on the cross—all describe, expound and reemphasize the drama of forgiveness.

Forgiveness must be granted when true repentance is brought to us, this is our Christian duty. Forgiveness when there is no true sin is without content and is meaningless. We cannot forgive what has not happened. That would make no sense of the use of forgiveness in Scripture.

We are also not mandated to forgive when the offender is not sincere. True repentance is characterized by a desire to turn away from sin, returning to the restoration of fellowship with the offended person.

And just as we are not bound to forgive when repentance is not true, we are not obliged to forgive when repentance is absent. As far as affecting our relationships, it is no better or worse to offer false repentance than to offer none at all. Where repentance is absent, forgiveness achieves nothing, it restores nothing, it heals nothing, it puts nothing behind. In short, forgiveness in the face of a lack of repentance is self-serving and masquerades the damage that exists. It’s a lie.

When forgiveness precedes repentance, it only hides the hurt and pain that has taken place between two parties.

The Act of Forgiving (it’s a spirit of love)

Fritz Müller was a medic in the German artillery, posted in Azeville, France during the “D-Day” invasion of Normandy. His commanding officer had sent him out to wander in the forest to find wounded, whether German or American it made no difference.

Müller believed what he had been told by his superiors, “Americans do not take prisoners. If they see you, they will kill you.” When he fought the Russians, neither side adhered to the Geneva Convention resolution not to fire on paratroopers. The same officer sending him wandering through the woods told him not to take a weapon. Fritz was stunned, but complied commenting that he felt like he was going into a den of lions while being told the lions wouldn’t bite him.

But to Müller, being a humanitarian meant to more him than the protection of his own life and so he went into the dark jumble of trees, infested with the enemy.

Fritz Müller, the medic, soon came upon a German soldier rifling through the pockets of a downed American. Fritz had no idea whether the American was still alive, but rebuked his fellow soldier for his indecency. The other German said some choice words to Müller, stole the ring off the American’s finger, stood up, walked away a few paces and suddenly, with a piercing report, was shot down.

Fritz walked to the downed German only to discover that he had been unquestionably killed. After hardly any consideration, he went back to the American paratrooper and began to apply his medical training on the enemy. Engrossed in his task, somewhat unbelievably, he hardly noticed the downpour of US government-issued packs of cigarettes raining down on and around him.

It was not until some time later that Fritz Müller realized what had actually occurred in those woods that night. American paratroopers had still been imprisoned in the branches of the trees from their misdirected airdrop. They had dished out retribution on the robber-soldier and had done the best they could to reward Fritz for his incredibly kind act of caring for their friend and brother airborne companion by dowsing him with the only gifts with which they had access: Their coveted Lucky Strikes. They were saying, “Thank you for your graciousness.”

There is, however, a sense in which we are to be “forgiving” even in the face of unrepentance or hostile denial of wrongdoing. Fritz Müller made the conscious decision to show grace, unearned and unmerited, in the face of imposing death. A fellow countryman was killed right in front of him, yet Fritz stayed and administered life-saving techniques, fully knowing the risk. His attitude of gentile kindliness saved two lives: His own and an injured American, a stranger to him.


The Apostle Paul uses the term charizomai to indicate being kind or being gracious to another. An explicit example of “being forgiving” shines through in Paul’s instructions to the Christian as to how they are to carry themselves toward one another in Ephesians 4:25-32 and is applicable to our situation.

In verse 32, Paul calls the Christian to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you.” On the surface, this passage may seem to fly in the face of our thesis, in short, forgive an offender only when they repent for their offense.

The English language is a limited language when confronted with the Greek intent of many New Testament passages. This is the case in verse 32. When Paul calls us to “be kind,” we accurately interpret him to mean “obliging, gracious or gentle.” Yet, when Paul writes that we should be “tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you,” he does not mean “forgiveness” in the sense of freedom or deliverance that we saw earlier in this study.

“Being forgiving” should be the character trait of the person who has been wronged. In this passage, “forgiving” someone means to be gracious or obliging. It means that we should be tender-hearted and willing to pardon, not holding grudges and certainly not withholding the forgiveness leading to restoration for any offense or any offender.

When wronged, the Christian is to:

  1. Be kind toward one another, gracious to those who have wronged us.
  2. Be tender-hearted, not willing to be bitter, but manifesting a spirit of love.
  3. Maintain a forgiving heart, be pleasing in nature and willing to forgive.

    We should not manifest hate toward our transgressors as is also clear from the use of charizomai in Colossians 3:13. We should be willing to be forgiving, with that still same gracious love and with a mind toward unity, not just those we would be happy to re-establish fellowship with, but “whoever has a complaint against anyone” is to seek out restoration with anyone who has done wrong against us.

The same Greek word that Paul uses for “forgiving” in Ephesians 4:32, charizomai, is used in many other contexts, giving further insight to our understanding of the Christian’s behavior in the face of the unrepentant offender.

Galatians 3:18. The promise of inheritance was granted to Abraham “by means of a promise.” God graciously bestowed the promised inheritance on Abraham as a gift. In this text, God is gracious to Abraham; this does not carry the typical implication of forgiveness of sins frequently misunderstood from Ephesians 4:32.

In Luke 7:21, Jesus “granted sight” to the blind. When Paul was about to be shipwrecked in Acts 27:24, an angel told him that God “has granted you all those who are sailing with you.” The Apostle Paul asks the question, in Romans 8:32, if it is true that God, “who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” Here, the word charizomai is translated as “freely give.” And lastly, in this particular usage of charizomai, in Philemon 22, Paul hopes “that through your prayers I shall be given to you.” In these passages, grace is not withheld, but directed to a person from a willing attitude. It is not forgiveness in the way we would normally understand, but it is an attitude of grateful giving of a thing (sight, safety of companions, blessings, visitation of another person) to a particular person or persons.

In Acts 25:11 and 16, Paul uses our key word in a similar style as the previous texts, but with a minor variation. Here, Paul says that if he is a wrongdoer, he does “not refuse to die,” but since none of the things which are claimed against are true, “no one can hand me over to” Caesar’s tribunal. Again in verse 16, Paul reminds his accusers of the Roman custom that a person cannot be handed over before the accused has met the accusers face to face. Paul’s employs charizomai to indicate a yielding or giving over to another’s will. If we were to use this interpretation to Ephesians 4:32, it would read, “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, yielding your will to each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you,” once more indicating that the concept of formal forgiveness of wrongdoing is not in view when this word is put to use in the New Testament.

When requesting the murderer “to be granted” to them in the place of Christ (Acts 3:14), they were not seeking forgiveness. Instead, they were looking for a granting of their request.

In one of the few occasions where charizomai might possibly be understood as a remission of transgressions, Colossians 2:13, God Himself is said to have “forgiven us all our transgressions.” Before the assumption is made that this passage overturns the proposition of this work, it should be noted that 1 John 1:9 is a necessary addition to the Colossians passage. If we believe that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture, then we must see the correlation between the two.

The Apostle Paul is not promoting the idea that God forgives in the absence of forgiveness, but that God is the One who made us alive in Christ, having forgiven us our sins and canceled the decrees of God against us. When this is placed beside 1 John 1:9, we discover that the means that God uses in this process is to bring us to a place where we confess our sins so that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The Apostle John uses “forgive” (Greek: aphiēmi) as a putting away or the laying aside of sins from our account.

In Colossians 2:13, God granted and is willing to grant the putting away of sin and in 1 John 1:9, He is faithful and just to put away that sin and does so after our confession.

2 Corinthians 2:10 and 12:13 appear to be the only places in the New Testament, other than Colossians 2:13, where the use of charizomai can be thought to be close to implying the laying aside of sin (aphiēmi) or even the deliverance, liberty or remission of sin (aphĕsis). Paul informs the Corinthian Church, “But whom you forgive anything,” he will also forgive (2:10). Although this passage is covered in the objections in a later chapter, it should be mentioned that Paul is only instructing the Corinthian believers that he will be as gracious and forgiving toward anyone who causes sorrow in their church as they are. If they are willing to comfort one of theirs, Paul will also imitate their loving response. In 12:13, Paul is asking for a repentant attitude from the Corinthians from some misperceived slight against them, not necessarily confessing scandalous sin.

For further insight, please read 2 Corinthians 2:7; Luke 7:42-43; Acts 3:14; 1 Corinthians 2:12; Philippians 1:29 and Philemon 22.

The Biblical themes of creation, the Fall, the Messiah, Evangelism and Glory are all a “meta” teaching of how we should understand repentance and forgiveness.

It is the Model Applied in 1 John 1:8-10: If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

God has set forth this standard in a large scale, encompassing all of history, from beginning to end.

Repentance must exist before forgiveness is granted.. In Luke 24:46-47, Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”.

If Scripture teaches that repentance necessarily precedes forgiveness, how is it that some will still insist that forgiveness must come first? Our standard cannot be assumed to be greater than the standard set forth by God.

Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:46-50 is yet another demonstration of the Biblical model of the forgiveness of sins.

This teaching is stated and repeated throughout the Scriptures. As it is recorded from creation through our resurrection to Glory, Genesis to Revelation, repentance must come before forgiveness.

Objections

Often, those who argue against this thought cite passage after passage instructing the Christian to forgive and to keep forgiving, with the likely intent that these types of passages (1) overrule the more clear instructions to wait for repentance before forgiveness is granted, (2) somehow nullify supposed contrary passages or (3) deny our basic premise. All three would leave us in an irreconcilable quandary concerning how to apply forgiveness and how God would have us pursue restoration. (Also see Mark 11:25; Matthew 6:12,14,15)

Some may argue that we may show some sort of outrage, but that we should not be vengeful, therefore we must forgive before repentance is demonstrated. (Also see Luke 6:27-36; Romans 12:19-21; Or from the prayer of Christ on the Cross)

Luke 23:24. “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Christ Himself has met the condition for forgiveness; He appeals to the Father on their behalf. Otherwise, the exegetical possibilities with the passage don't influence the clearer. If your brother sins against you, go to him. If he repents, you are to forgive him. The condition of repentance is clear in the “teaching” passages. The passage of the crucifixion is neither normative nor does it inform how we are to proceed in the restoration of fellowship. In short, this passage does not affect how we are to proceed with forgiveness and repentance.

Until that person repents, there is going to be something obstructing our relationship. People like to say that they can forgive someone, but they'll never forget what that someone did.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that we must forget, in the sense that remembering continues to obstruct our relationship and thus there has not been true forgiveness.

God does not allow my sins to obstruct the relationship I have with Him, as long as I recognize that I am sinful and need His grace. And so I cannot allow another's sins to obstruct the relationship I have with that person.

2 Corinthians 2:4-8

This passage does not deny repentance, but speaks to the punishment of the affliction and sorrow they caused. So, sufficient to the crime, the person is punished by the congregation through a form of church discipline; the affliction they caused is not glossed over, but addressed and disciplined accordingly. Paul is expressly informing the Corinthians not to overindulge their feelings of vengeance, creating even more suffering.

The punishment is “sufficient” for the crime and the majority is called to “forgive and comfort” the offender in order that the person is not overwhelmed by their own suffering.

An unrepentant person hardly suffers from their neglect of admission to their fault, so Paul’s teaching would not be applicable. We are told not to increase sorrow, but to diminish it through the affirmation of love. Inflicting discipline on an individual is not a sign of a lack of love, but an affirmation of love and a desire to hold relationships together that may have been otherwise damaged, and just because a person is held accountable for their offenses does not mean that forgiveness, comfort and love are withheld. Withholding forgiveness from the unrepentant does not necessitate the denial of love.

Other Arguments:

  • 1. God always forgave Israel their sins even when they were disobedient, as we see in Psalm 78.
  • A: God’s guidance of Israel’s unrighteousness is a perfect model of showing love in the face of unrepentance. The final lines of this Psalm summarize God’s beneficent actions: “So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, And guided them with his skillful hands.” That is, God guided Israel, even through periods of unfaithfulness, in the “integrity of his heart” to guide them for His purposes.

We can take a lesson from His goodness: When we are wronged and confront our brother or sister and they do not repent, but continue in their path, we have the responsibility to guide them to the truth. We do not give up on them and discount them, we must, in our love for them, persevere in order to reestablish that fellowship that has been damaged.

  • 2. If forgiveness is conditional and is to be pursued in love, then where is the unconditional love?
  • A: Forgiveness is conditional and forgiveness is to be pursued in love. But our end in this process is not forgiveness in itself; it is restoration of fellowship. Forgiveness is only one stepping stone to the ultimate end (goal). Working backwards, it is conditioned on the act of repentance, which is only brought about by confession of guilt.

Confession grows out of one of two things: 1) The individual realizes they have done wrong and admits their actions, or 2) They are confronted (rebuked) and offered a method of recompense.

Another important point, which we will not address at length here, is that love, if it is meant “the saving love of God toward us,” is not unconditional. God saves us only through faith in Christ. He manifests his “saving love” only on those who believe in His Son. I have struggled with this question and cannot find a call to unconditional love in Scripture. The true Christian’s love is based in Christ whether love of self, family, friends or enemies, our love is based in Christ and without Christ, there is no true definition of love.

  • 3. We are commanded to repent and to forgive. If there is a repentance which lacks pardon, then that repentance is in vain. If you withhold the pardon of sin, then you practice your love in vain. And we are to do nothing in vain.
  • A: We can not know for certain whether we will be forgiven of a crime against another person. We can only strive to restore ourselves to those who we’ve offended. It is godly to seek forgiveness, not solely for the sake of gaining pardon, but because it is a virtue to attain.

Forgiveness or pardon are not a compensation/reward for repentance. The discipline (penalty) of a sin assumes no power of divine forgiveness and is therefore not in vain. It is a legal judgement for an actual crime. It realizes that the mortal repentance of our practice is only a foreshadow of the final prize of restoration with God. It realizes that temporal discipline is godly for the purpose of chastisement and for the sake of seeking mercy. To impose a penalty on sin (yes, to judge someone else as an interpersonal or community criminal) in the church is to stand up that sin at the front door as an example to all who enter fellowship as an admonishment in its stigma.

On the other hand, pardon and restoration should not be thought of as merely superficial compliments intended to make the grievous feel better about themselves. Forgiveness is not in vain when practised with the understanding that past grievances, while they may be used as learning tools or Christian testimonials, should not be a hindrance to godly love or fellowship.

Peace is concerned with obtaining compassion through communion. On a human level, we should seek after the emulation of the love of Christ with each other. On a Divine level, we must realize that the Lord instills the ultimate and chief peace in the penitential, not the remission of guilt feelings of the pagan pragmatist.

Conclusion

Restoration of a relationship is at the heart of repentance and forgiveness. Does that mean that I should forgive the screaming atheist who berates me for belief in Christ? Well, that depends on if you consider forgiveness a concept that merely means to renounce vengeance or a hateful response. Salvific repentance is something offered only by God Himself. We can only pursue broken relationships.

At the heart of evangelism lies the concept of tending to broken relationships. We are called to preach the Word of God. Our duty is not to get caught in the trappings of an unbeliever’s animosity toward God (Romans 1) and the call to make disciples (Matthew 28).

Rebuke, or evangelical confrontation, is meant to bring about a change in an unrepentant person’s heart. If they repent, that’s great. But it is not on the believer’s shoulders to account for the sin of the unbeliever.

There is also some discretion called for here. We may feel wronged many times by the same people. A personal peeve is not necessarily a sin. Someone might shrink at the sound of potato chips being eaten, but we can, and have, a tendency to consider any insult an assault on our persons.

Forgiveness is not the renunciation of vengeance. It is an attempt to restore a relationship.

Rebuke is not getting upset at a coworker who spilled coffee on the sports section of the New York Times. It is a serious calling, mandated by Scripture, to inform another Christian that they have stepped outside the bounds of fellowship.

Repentance is not simply a feeling that you misplaced the last utility bill and you have guilt feelings. It is an honest attempt to restore something that is broken.

Works Cited

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.

Henry, Matthew. A Commentary on the Holy Bible. Vol. 5. London: Funk & Wagnalls Company.

Tertullian. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. III. Ethical, On Repentance. American. Edited by A. Cleveland Coxe. Vol. 3. 9 vols. Peabody, Massachussetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Various. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries. Edited by A. Cleveland Coxe. Vol. 7. 9 vols. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.


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Christianity

1) How is it possible to correctly pursue discipline and accountability without some form of greater Christian community involvement?
2) 2 Corinthians 7:10 offers at least one of two interpretive possibilities. Translators have interpreted the passage as godly sorrow producing “repentance without regret, leading to salvation” and “repentance, leading to salvation without regret.” Either way, other New Testament examples of metanoia do not necessitate the sense of regret, although one could certainly find the implication of regret behind its use. Perhaps a better phrase, without the negative undertone, may be the use of “godly sorrow.” Just one verse later, Paul emphasizes a “godly sorrow” without the connotations of remorse or dread.

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