Forgiveness According to Scripture

By Laurel J. Davis
See Laurel's blog at The Reluctant First Lady

A lot of us misunderstand forgiveness. We think it's an unalienable right of the offender, as though the victim, if he's really being "Christian-like" and "turning the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39), has to forgive. Quickly. Quietly. Unconditionally.

In contrast, the Bible treats forgiveness as an act of mercy and grace that, yes, should be readily given, but that also first holds the offender accountable.

The parable of the ungrateful servant at Matthew 18:21-35 illustrates what proper forgiveness really is, and why refusal to forgive is a sin in God's eyes.

First, a servant pleads for the king to forgive him of a fairly large debt, so the king has compassion on him and forgives him of it. But then this same servant turns around, goes looking for a fellow servant who owes him a mere fraction of what the king was owed, and refuses to have compassion on him even though this fellow servant likewise pleads for forgiveness. He even has his fellow servant thrown in jail. The king learns of this gross hypocrisy and then takes back his own forgiveness of the first servant.

Notice here that both servants asked for forgiveness first.

This is an important point, because so many Christians are in bondage about forgiving people. But Scripture draws a distinct line between readiness to forgive and actual forgiveness. Christians are not commanded or expected to forgive no matter what. Rather, we are commanded to:

1) be ready to forgive no matter what; and 2) actually forgive once the offender makes himself accountable, even if he repeatedly offends and repeatedly repents (Matthew 18:22).

Of course, the victim doesn't have to wait for his offender to acknowledge accountability and repent. But it is incorrect to demand forgiveness beforehand.

In fact, Jesus actually instructs us in Luke 17:3-4 (emphasis added) that, If your brother trespass against you, rebuke him. People don't talk about that "rebuke" part.

Then He says, and if he repent, forgive him. Those who insist that forgiveness should be unconditional and automatic, or who say that only God can expect repentance first, seem to overlook the fact that the "if he repent" condition is not just a description of how Jesus forgives but is an instruction for us on how we are to forgive. Indeed, He doesn't stop there: And if he trespasses against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to you saying, "I repent," you shall forgive him.

Clearly, God expects offenders to be accountable for their wrong before He expects their victims to forgive them. Offenders are in no position to demand anything and instead should plead their case with a truly remorseful heart.

Matthew 5:23-24, often misquoted, makes clear the offender's accountability. While the Luke 17 passage we just looked at applies to the Christian who is a victim, the Matthew 5 passage applies to the Christian who is the offender. It is the offender — not the victim — who is told to not even wait to be confronted before he is to go and try to reconcile with his victim before coming offering gifts at the altar of God.

We see how both these instructions in Luke and Matthew are dramatized in the parable of the ungrateful servant. In both instances, each offender first begged for forgiveness and promised to repent — that is, they acknowledged their accountability. The first servant was then forgiven. But when his fellow servant likewise made himself accountable, the first servant refused to forgive. The king therefore removed his forgiveness of the first servant because that servant clearly had not repented. If the servant had pleaded with the king from a truly remorseful heart, then he would have been equally moved to compassion by his fellow servant's remorseful pleadings.

God won't forgive us if we won't forgive others, but He doesn't expect us to forgive if the offender refuses accountability and repentance. We can if we want to, but we don't have to.

Let me hasten to say, forgiveness in response to true repentance is absolutely imperative. If you won't forgive others when they genuinely repent of their sins against you, God's not going to forgive you when you say you want to repent of your sins against Him.

Stated positively, God is ready to forgive anyone who calls upon Him (Psalm 86:5 cf. John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 2 Peter 3:9), and He actually forgives us once we hold ourselves accountable to Him and plead for His compassion with pure hearts (Psalm 32:5-6).

Christ is our example for all attitude and conduct in life, and His example and His commandments go hand in hand. That is why we are commanded both to seek forgiveness and to forgive (The Lord's Prayer, Mark 11:25; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).

For it is just as much a sin for the offender not to repent as it is for the offended not to forgive once accountability and repentance have been received.

Image Credit: Grant Hutchinson; "Sorry"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Personal-Relationships

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Published on 11-12-14