Forgiveness is a popular theme in Christian teaching. We are reminded how God has freely forgiven our sins and encouraged to forgive others in the same way. We are told to forgive others unconditionally and automatically. It is even possible to forgive someone without them knowing it!
Forgiveness is also presented as the key to our personal health and happiness. We should forgive anyone who sins against us in order to move on and remain unaffected by others’ actions. As a popular song about forgiveness says, “The prisoner that it really frees is you.”
A Flawed Trend
This approach to forgiveness has several serious flaws:
- It contradicts itself. We forgive with conditions. We say, “I’ll forgive them, but I won’t trust them again,” or “I’ll forgive them, but we won’t be friends anymore.”
- It requires nothing. People who sin against us are not asked to apologize or repent. This is why we forgive with conditions – because nothing has been done to rebuild our trust.
- It produces no result. Our relationships with people who sin against us remain the same. If they do not repent and we merely forgive them privately, our fellowship is still broken.
- It isn’t how God forgives. God is our example of how to forgive because He is more forgiving than anybody! But He does not unconditionally or automatically forgive every person who sins against Him.
Forgiveness Requires Repentance
God requires us to repent before He forgives our sins. In preparation for Jesus, John the Baptist preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Jesus says about Himself, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Peter tells the Jews to repent “for the forgiveness of your sins” and “so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 2:38, 3:19).
Similarly, we must require people who sin against us to repent before we forgive them. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault” (Matthew 18:15). Unfortunately, many Christians settle for a forgiveness that requires nothing because it lets them avoid the difficult task of asking someone to repent. But Jesus is clear: you must not forgive them until they repent, and you must forgive them when they repent. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).
This does not give us permission to harbor bitterness, hatred, or vengeance toward people who sin against us. Nor does it allow us to withhold forgiveness from those who ask for it. Rather, we must be willing to forgive anyone who sins against us and repents. As Jesus goes on to say, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:4).
Forgiveness Results in Reconciliation
God reconciles us to Himself when He forgives our sins. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). He forgives without conditions – when we repent, He restores us to full fellowship with Him. He does not selfishly “forgive” us for His own benefit; rather, He selflessly forgives us for our benefit. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Similarly, we must be reconciled to people who sin against us when we forgive them. We must not pretend to forgive them and withhold fellowship from them; instead, we should restore their full access to a relationship with us. This only sounds dangerous if you forgive them before they apologize and repent of their sin.
Forgiveness that requires nothing and produces nothing is itself nothing; it is a myth and not biblical teaching. Just as God forgives us for our benefit when we repent, so we forgive others for their benefit when they repent. Let us cast aside thoughtless attempts at forgiveness and devote ourselves to the hard work of forgiving like God forgives.
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