I am staring at four books written by well-known Christians, all on the topic of forgiveness. I have read three of them and surveyed the fourth. Many more have been written, as a search on Amazon will reveal. I suspect, however, that a person could read them all and only be more in the fog about forgiveness than before. These books do not agree with one another. At least the ones I have looked at. As has been said, “a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” If Christian pastors and teachers are unclear what forgiveness is, well – the blind are leading the blind.
You may have had the unpleasant opportunity to see this fog work itself out in your own life or in your church. Someone sins. Grievously, let’s say. This blog is about abuse, so let’s assume the sin is classic domestic violence and abuse. The perpetrator has been caught. He says he is sorry. The discussion begins. Those folks over there say he must be allowed to remain in the church (where his victim is a member too). Others say he cannot. Here is a group that insists the victim must reconcile with him in her marriage because forgiveness without reconciliation is not really forgiveness. God hates divorce (a phrase not in the Bible by the way). Forgive seventy times seven. Christ tells us we must forgive just as God in Christ has forgiven us. And since that includes reconciliation, then this fellow’s relationships with the church and with his victim must all be continued. The heat increases. When the dust clears, the victim has had to leave the church. There is division in the ranks and another party departs. Everyone else stares at one another – “What happened?”
What happened is the expected result of a church not having a firm, clear, biblical understanding of Christ’s Word on forgiveness. In fact, most professing Christians don’t even want to have a true understanding of forgiveness. That would cause them too much trouble. Isn’t it incredible? The most forgiven people in the world – Christians – don’t understand what forgiveness is. We are much like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – “Rabbi so and so says this….yes, but Rabbi such and such says something else.” Put into today’s terms – “Jay Adams says….but John MacArthur teaches….Ken Sande tells us….”. Something is really wrong with this scenario. Is it really that difficult to figure out how we are to forgive one another? I don’t think so.
Consider for instance this whole matter of reconciliation. Very, very often when the subject of forgiveness comes up, you will find people quoting the following Scriptures (in addition to seventy times seven of Matthew 18)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:12-13
These verses are then very often absolutely and mechanistically applied so that forgiveness is something that, point-by-exact-point, must correspond to God’s forgiveness of the sinner. AND, this line of thought goes, since God reconciles the sinner to Himself in Christ, then forgiveness MUST include reconciliation with the offender in ALL cases, EVERY time OR ELSE we are guilty of unforgiveness.
Abuse serves as a very good test case for our interpretations and applications of Scripture. In this case, this interpretation causes all kinds of suffering and hardship for victims. They are told that unless they reconcile with the abuser, then they are still guilty of unforgiveness. But can you see that the Apostle Paul never intended these verses to be taken as absolute, rigid measures of the essence of forgiveness? What is he telling us? Simply – you are a forgiven people in Christ, so be a forgiving people. And notice the “one another.” He is not specifically teaching us here about forgiveness of enemies, but of the forgiveness that is to characterize our relationships with one another in the body of Christ, the church.
This is a very large topic, and I do not intend to deal with it exhaustively here. But let me share with you my “theory” of what the essential elements of forgiveness are. In fact, there may be only one essential element. Forgiveness is a decision made by the person offended (the victim) to not seek personal vengeance against the offender, thus not insisting that the debt incurred by the offender’s sin be paid. It is a resolve to not hate the offender, but to love him and do good to him when opportunity to do so arises. And that is ALL. It does not include in its essence, reconciliation. Once again, I would direct you to Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith. I think we can safely conclude that Paul treated Alexander in accordance with Christ’s (and Paul’s own) instruction. In other words, I think Paul was operating within the sphere of Christ’s command to love our enemies when he wrote this –
Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 2 Timothy 4:14-15
We may reconcile, but that is not part of the essential, basic definition of forgiveness. Paul was not going to reconcile with Alexander. Neither does forgiveness preclude requiring payment of temporal debts, or of requiring that certain temporal consequences happen (a jail term for example).
At this point in my study, I do not think that this kind of forgiveness (ie, not seeking personal vengeance) requires repentance on the part of the offender every time in every case; reconciliation, however, certainly does require it. This means then that –
- A victim can divorce her abuser and still forgive him
- A church can forgive an abuser and still not permit him to be in that particular church where the victim attends
- I can forgive a person and yet, because I deem them to be unsafe for relationship, choose not to have a relationship with them.
- I can tell the molester of my children, when they repent, “I forgive you, but you can never be around my children again.”
- I can choose to not have a relationship with a person who has hit me seventy times seven but who has said they are sorry every single time!
If I come across such a person I have forgiven and their car is broken down – I can stop and call a tow for them. If they are beaten up lying along the highway – I can be the Good Samaritan (and I should). I MUST forgive! It is Christ’s command. Forgiveness is a characteristic, in fact, of a truly regenerate, converted heart in Christ. This is why Christ says that if we are not a forgiving person, He will not forgive us. BUT we are laying an unduly heavy and unbiblical burden on one another when we turn the traditions of men into the Word of God, and I think that is what is happening with this subject of forgiveness. We are making it out to be more than it is.
I have not addressed another important topic – namely, that God’s forgiveness of a repentant, believing sinner may well NOT be the entirely the same as the forgiveness we extend to one another. In fact, I don’t see how it can be exactly the same. But we seem to assume that it must be. Think about what differences might exist between my forgiveness of someone who has sinned against me, and God’s forgiveness in Christ of someone who calls out to Him for saving mercy.