The question of forgiving one another has plagued me ever since I became a follower of Jesus. I heard many pastors and Bible teachers comment on this subject, but I did not feel they were teaching the message of the biblical text. Instead, what I was hearing was helpful common sense advice and psychological healthy ways to look at the way we should forgive one another.
Recently a good friend of mine whom I deeply respect, challenged me on my beliefs regarding the need for repentance as a condition for forgiveness.
Where I agree on this issue with my friend is that we both are in harmony that for a person to be reconciled with God, there must be a display of contriteness or repentance to experience the eternal forgiveness of God. This is designated “vertical forgiveness” because it takes place between man and God.
Where my friend and I disagree is whether or not repentance is necessary when we as humans forgive one another. If I offend another person, do I need to go to that person or have that person come to me so that I can confess my sin, state my intention to repent and ask for that person’s forgiveness?
My friend’s viewpoint is that we can forgive the other person through the forgiveness Jesus obtained for us through His death on the cross. The grace of God shown in the sacrificial death of Yeshua on the cross should so overwhelm us, that the natural outflow of our awe towards God’s love is to forgive others because God has shown His merciful forgiveness to us through His Son.
There is not always the need for repentance when there is “vertical forgiveness.” On the basis of the atonement we have in the Messiah, we forgive one another. with or without any display of repentance. In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12, we read, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (NIV).
Based on Jesus’ words in the Lord’s prayer the question of forgiving others appears to be answered. If someone sins against us, we are to forgive them even before we confront them with their sin. Those who see the freedom to forgive others before repentance or confrontation takes place, do not necessarily eliminate the confrontation process. However, they maintain forgiveness should precede the confrontation in order to avoid feelings of anger, self-pity and bitterness regarding the other person. Therefore, the confrontation itself will be void of all the negative emotions that usually spill out when we “go to our brother to call them to repent.”
This position makes a lot of good sense and is very attractive in light of the grace of the gospel message. It is a viewpoint that honors the Lord and most reflects His merciful character. I trust I am representing this position as correctly as I can repeat it. If I misrepresent this viewpoint, it is reflected of my inability to understand it or due to my bias of not holding to tis viewpoint.
The Popularity of the Forgiveness Without Repentance Position
I asked many Christians in the past months how they forgive people who sin against them.
I plummeted my audience with uncomfortable questions, “Do you go to the person who has offended you to give them an opportunity to repent before you forgive them? If they do not repent, are you now to be characterized as having the ‘spirit of unforgiveness’? If you do not forgive the individual who gossiped about you, what is your relationship to that person? Are you angry towards them? How long will you carry the burden of that anger? Shouldn’t you just forgive them and hand them over to God? Are you putting yourself on the same level as our Righteous Judge by not forgiving them? Who are you to withhold forgiveness from another human whether or not they repented?”
My questions were endless. I was a real pain in the neck towards some people and I drove me wife crazy as I tried to look at all sides of this issue using her as a sounding board.
What disappointed me the most was the fact most followers of Yeshua I spoke to had a response to my questions, but it was rare that they would support their position from the Bible. When I dug a little more, I would get answers such as, “Well, it makes sense to forgive someone even if they do not repent?” “I learned through many years of therapy that forgiving another person whether or not they admit their wrongdoing provides me the freedom to love them.”
Other responses, much like my friend who raised this issue, suggested great concern about their own emotional well-being if they did not forgive the other person. Many responders said they did not want to allow a root of bitterness to grow in their hearts and end up carrying a heavy and cumbersome burden of unforgiveness.
What I heard made a lot of sense. However, I personally have a major problem with all the common sense and pragmatic answers I received. I am quite convinced that the popular Christian view on forgiveness often preached from evangelical pulpits is not completely supported by the Bible.
Sure, it is tough to not forgive someone if they do not repent. It is the harder road to take as opposed to forgiving someone and handing the conflict you are experiencing over to the Lord. Are the only consequences of having a “spirit of unforgiveness” to be bitterness, divided friends and family, split churches, and angry, disgruntled people? Are there other options if someone refuses to forgive another because the other person will not face the seriousness of their sin?
The Unpopularity of Traveling the Tough Road of Unforgiveness
I have often been told, “Jesus forgave those who crucified Him while He was on the cross. So why can’t you forgive that person who insulted you? The people who placed Jesus on the cross did not show any signs of repentance.”
Good argument. It is precisely here where I have my main issues. Did Jesus forgive the people He spoke of as seen in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Lots of questions crop up when we read this prayer. Were the people who plotted and carried out the death of Jesus forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ prayer? Are we assuming they were pardoned or is there evidence provided by the Scriptures?
Since so many Christian use these words of Jesus from the cross as the basis for their beliefs that we are to forgive others who harm us even if they do not repent, it will be important to examine this verse. It is not far fetched to state that many people have beliefs based on Bible verses that do support those beliefs.
I will admit that the position I hold to is a much tougher stance to maintain. My position goes against the grain of popular Christianity. I have heard many times about the damage that unforgiveness does to individuals, families, communities and churches. Unforgiveness can cause physical disease and cause deep emotional problems for the person carrying the burden of an unforgiving heart.
I cannot deny that having an unforgiving heart can cause deep emotional hurt and potentially physical malady, James 5:14-16 teaches, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed>”
The connection between unconfessed sin and physical illness is maintained in the Bible. However, let us be careful to not teach that all sicknesses due to some sin we have committed. Then we are going beyond the boundaries of the biblical text to teach something the Word of God is not claiming.
The Right Way to Approach the Choice Not to Forgive
I would not be writing this column if I did not believe there are times when forgiving someone is the greatest way to show that you care for the other person. On the other hand, to forgive someone, choosing not to confront them with their sin and encouraging them to repent does not sound like we care for the person either. Can there be such a choice to not forgive someone because you do care for them and their spiritual growth?
These are the issue that will be discussed in this series of articles. Of course, I would encourage comments, both that are in agreement with what I say and those who don’t agree. I will try to address all contrary statements to my position in the posted articles themselves or in my comments.
The bottom line to this issue is twofold: we are commanded to forgive people who come to us and ask for forgiveness. But are we commanded to forgive people who do not come to, ask for pardon and don’t even think they have done anything wrong.
One other issue that grows out of these two options is whether or not the only way to not forgive someone must lead a person down the dark road of vengeance, anger and extreme bitterness?
Let’s face it. If you have an unresolved matter with another person and that person walks into a social event you are attending, the whole tenor of the evening changes for your both. A tension is immediately felt in the air. You both feel awkward. The disconnect you feel from that other person due to unresolved sin is very real.
How in the world could unforgiveness ever be appropriate for a Christian? How can God ever be honored when a child of His refuses to forgive another person because they refused to own up to how they sinned against another believer in the Lord?
I have my work cut out for me in dealing with this matter. I think people on both sides of the issue will gain something spiritually meaningful by going through this discussion and looking at both sides of the forgiveness controversy.