Counterfeiters do not spend a lot of time printing fake bills from failing economies. They seek to reproduce the US Dollar, perhaps the Euro or the Pound – stable currencies. They counterfeit what is real. There is nothing more real, more powerful, than forgiveness. My entire soul hangs in the balance with the reality of Christ’s forgiveness of me, and according to Scriptures – not just one or two, but many – my walk with Christ and the success of my Christian life depends on my obedience to Christ’s commands to love my enemies, return good for evil, and to forgive those who have sinned against me. Our enemy seeks to find ways to counterfeit the blessed and crucial doctrine of forgiveness so that we will reject it, or at least tone it down. It is not a new tactic. He seeks to pollute the pure waters of Christ and counterfeit the truths of God’s word.
A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of articles, (“Forgive as Christ Forgave” and “Forgiveness Is NOT Optional) which grew out of a sermon series I was preaching, on the biblical message of forgiveness. We who have been saved by the grace of God have no choice but to pass the grace we received on to others, even our enemies, those who have hurt us, offended us, or injured us. There are some understandable questions that arise when the subject of forgiveness arises, and in the discussion of both posts, my intent got lost in the maelstrom of those discussions. I contributed to that with one illustration I used, which I deleted. I hope to get this discussion back on track.
It had always been my intent to write a post about these questions AT THE END of the series, but it is clear that if I intend to continue the series, I need to deal with these issues now. In this post, I intend to examine three questions. If others arise in the discussion, I may address those in a follow-up post. I did give one-sentence answers to these questions in my previous posts, but clearly, that did not suffice. Here are the questions we will address.
- Does forgiveness negate consequences?
- Can the offender demand forgiveness?
- Should we wait until the offender repents to offer forgiveness?
Does forgiveness negate consequences?
If I forgive someone, does that mean that all consequences for that sin are removed? One of the posts in this series will be my attempt to define forgiveness biblically. Since I have not done this yet, I can only give you my conclusions. Forgiveness, at its heart, is releasing the person who has sinned against you from your vengeance and the need to pay you back for their offenses, and it is the decision to pray for that person and seek God’s blessings in that person’s life. This is based on the two primary words for forgiveness in NT Greek.
If I forgive someone, I refuse to seek vengeance, whether physical or verbal, and I pray for them and seek ways to bring God’s blessings into their lives.
Nothing in that definition requires that all consequences of sin be magically removed.
There is a biblical principle that is built into the very fabric of our world – you reap what you sow. “Life is choices and choices have consequences.” Just because I am forgiven of a sin does not mean that all of the consequences of that sin are removed.
Did God forgive David when he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah? Yes, he did. The Scripture is absolutely clear on that. God forgave him utterly and totally when he repented, as Psalm 51 expresses. Were all the consequences of that sin immediately washed away? Uh…no. Not even close. Read the second half of 2 Samuel. It is one consequence after another in David’s life, his family, and his nation. He was forgiven by God but he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
David’s relationship with God was fully restored, without hindrance. His life here on earth bore the marks of those poor choices for the rest of his days.
There are some sins that I can confess and be fully forgiven, but still lose my job as pastor. The failure to distinguish forgiveness and removal of consequences has put pastors back in pulpits when they were disqualified, or at the least unready to handle the job.
If a man commits a crime against me or my family, I am required to forgive him. That does not prevent me from taking part in the justice system’s attempt to seek justice. Justice is about bringing the consequences of actions to bear. I may not seek vengeance, but I may help with the application of justice.
A church that believes that forgiveness demands that they remove all consequences from someone who has sinned, who has failed, is acting foolishly. Wisdom and forgiveness are not enemies. Justice and forgiveness can coexist. Personal vengeance is prohibited. Hatred and grudges cannot be held in our souls, but legal justice and basic acts of wisdom do not violate principles of biblical forgiveness.
We must distinguish forgiveness from the release of the natural or spiritual consequences of our actions.
Can the offender demand forgiveness?
Satan counterfeits the beautiful, powerful concept of forgiveness when he convinces people that it is spiritual (a form of corrective discipline) to force, demand, and even bully those who have been offended into “forgiving” those who have hurt them.
This is seldom a genuine attempt at coming to forgiveness, but an attempt to remove the consequences of the sin from the offender and protect the church from embarrassment. They seek to protect the pastor, the church leader, or the church itself and are not seeking the welfare of the one who has been sinned against. This has happened all too often.
A man showed up at my door late on a Saturday night, distraught that his wife had decided to shut down their marriage. For many years, she’d been begging him to change, to get help, to go to counseling with her. He told her repeatedly that he didn’t have a problem – she did. Finally, she snapped and was ready to kick him to the curb. (Found out later there was another man involved, but we didn’t know that at this time.) He was “truly repentant” at this point and expected his wife to forgive everything and take him back. He couldn’t believe that she was so ungodly that his words of repentance didn’t fix everything. He wanted me to demand she immediately and completely forgive him, disregarding well over a decade of mistreatment because he said he was sorry. I did not do that.
Forgiveness is a process. Was she biblically required to forgive him? I believe she was, if she wanted to walk with Christ in intimacy and power. Was she required to forgive him that Saturday night and act like nothing ever happened? Of course not.
Demanding someone forgive immediately and release the offender from consequences is an act of bullying and abuse, that short-circuits the work of God.
Forgiveness is a difficult process. It takes time and patience and the power of God. When church leaders demand someone immediately forgive an abuser or offender, are they seeking the glory of God or are they simply abusing the glorious biblical process of forgiveness to avoid consequences of sin?
Forgiveness is not optional, but it is seldom immediate. It is not demanded from a powerful person, but it is provoked by the love of God. Give God time. The practice of demanding mostly women or children to forgive those who have hurt them to protect institutions, churches, and powerful men from the consequences of their sins is evil. It is not a godly way to bring people to forgiveness. It needs to stop. Gently instruct the hurting person on the power of forgiveness? Of course! Bully them into acts of forgiveness or threaten them with if they don’t immediately forgive (and be quiet, don’t report, release all consequences, etc.) – NO!
Most of the angst about my previous posts came from people who assumed that when I said that forgiveness is not optional, I was endorsing the actions of people who pressure survivors and others into “forgiveness.” I do not. I reject that as ungodly.
Should we wait until the offender repents to offer forgiveness?
It is often pointed out that we only experience forgiveness when we go to God in repentance, and therefore, we are not required to forgive others until they come to us in repentance and seek forgiveness of us.
We should not use this concept to dodge biblical commands to forgive or to excuse ourselves for holding grudges and harboring bitterness. It misunderstands the it misunderstands the biblical process of forgiveness.
When I confess my sins, he is faithful and just to forgive my sins – immediately and completely. Jesus won my forgiveness at the cross 2000 years ago and he holds that forgiveness in his heart. He is seeking me by his grace, reaching out by the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t sit at the Father’s right hand harboring grudges, anger, and bitterness waiting on us to come to him, then grudgingly working up forgiveness. He seeks. He reaches to us by the Spirit. He holds out forgiveness and invites us to receive his grace all the time. We only experience forgiveness when we seek it, but it is there for us all the time.
Colossians 3:13 commands us to “Forgive as Christ forgave.” Our model for forgiving others is Jesus Christ. We cannot claim to be like Christ while holding grudges, harboring anger and bitterness, and saying, “If he or she truly repents, I will consider forgiveness.” That is not the way. He seeks and saves the lost and we must seek to be agents of God’s grace, even to our enemies.
Our model in all of this is Jesus Christ. He loved sinners, those who had rebelled against him, broken his heart, and offended him deeply. He seeks the lost to save us. We are to forgive others as Christ forgave us.
There may be other questions that need an answer, but these are the ones I see coming up all the time. I hope, before I leave for Africa in a couple of weeks, to post a couple more of these.