Pastoral Perspectives

To Forgive Or Not To Forgive

Church retreat was finally over and so I gave our camp speaker a lift back. As we were chatting during the ride home, I told Jose that he did not have to feel sorry for sharing something which he believed had been misunderstood by many Christians and might trouble some of the campers. Well, for those of you who had attended the camp and heard him, I guess you might remember how he insisted that God’s love is not unconditional. Yes, God is love but it does not mean that he loves unconditionally because God is also holy. I told him that I shared the same conviction and in that same breath, I asked him if God’s forgiveness is also not unconditional and he agreed. Well, if God’s love and forgiveness is indeed unconditional, I suppose there shouldn’t be any judgment awaiting the world when Christ returns again. So should Christians forgive others unconditionally?We ought to have a forgiving spirit and be ready to forgive but it does not mean that we must forgive unconditionally.

We may struggle with this conviction and you may disagree with Jose and me. Don’t we pray and ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us? Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 6:15 that if we do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will God forgive us our trespasses? And when Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive a brother seven times, how did Jesus reply him? Not seven times but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). So aren’t we supposed to forgive unconditionally according to Jesus? Well, as any good pastor would tell you, we need to look at the context to understand what those verses are saying to us.

First and foremost, let us remember 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. This verse comes with a condition that we confess our sins. Yes, there are some who insist that this only applies during our conversion and all our subsequent sins will be forgiven once and for all, automatically and unconditionally. I can agree that our subsequent sins will not cause us to lose our salvation, whether or not we confess them, if that is what they mean. However it will surely affect our relationship with God if we do not do so. Try it with your spouse if you disagree with me. And that is why the Lord taught his disciples to pray and ask God to forgive their trespasses.

When Jesus said in Matthew 6:15 that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others, he was warning against hypocrisy in prayers. And Jesus was talking about reproving another who sins when Peter asked how often he should forgive the brother. So what if the one who sins listens when reproved? We are to forgive him. And what if he repeats his sin and listens again and again? That’s Peter’s question and the answer is obvious. But what if he refuses to listen? Go and read the passage for yourself. Now what if he listens but we refuse to forgive? Read the parable that comes after it. So forgiveness is indeed commanded of but conditional upon confession, for when one sins against a brother, he has sinned against God.

Having said all these things, we need to remember that we are talking about forgiveness within the body of believers and that one party is clearly in the wrong. Most of the time, we hold grudges against a brother over issues and things that displease us and not because he has done wrong against us and hence sinned against God. Sometimes both parties are at fault but we insist it is the other and so create a conflict because we lack forbearance and grace. Well, it only shows that we still have a long way to go and to grow towards spiritual maturity. In such circumstances, we should learn to forgive and move on. But when one is clearly in the wrong, we should deal with it while surrendering the matter to God so that it might not cause resentfulness or bitterness to grow in us. As to whether the forgiven ought to make restitution, I trust it is up to the forgiver to exercise discretion and grace.

There will be some who choose not to confront the sin. They let it go and may even receive God’s peace when they do so. Hence they are convicted that we should forgive in the spirit and trust God to deal with the situation. I do not deny that they have received God’s comfort but we must be careful not to make such experiences instructive for all, i.e. that we should let go and let God. This popular phrase that preachers like to use is talking about us letting go of our desires or burdens and letting God take control. Scripture however is clear and consistent that God’s people ought to deal with sin in the camp. And let us remember that sin, like leaven, spreads and it will strain relationship within the body and ultimately with God. Therefore it is for the edification of the body that we deal with sin and not because we lack grace and are not able to forgive unconditionally.

As I have said earlier, we are talking about forgiveness within the body of believers. So what if the person who does wrong is not a believer and hence does not subscribe to biblical discipline? I guess it is a different subject altogether and beyond the scope of this perspective. Perhaps we can look to Jesus and learn from him when he uttered, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Perhaps that was what Stephen did when he was being stoned and uttered, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.

Pastor Ronnie

July 13, 2014