Forgiveness and Repentance
“Forgive us our trespasses . . .”
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . .
Van, a well-known Christian teacher, recounted an incident that took place at a large church where he had been invited. In a session with the church board, he explained a passage of Scripture and strove to get the point across to some of the men. Following his efforts to make the text clear, one of the board members blurted out, “I don’t care what the Bible says. Dr. So-and-so says thus-and-such!”
We must admit that many Christians reflect this attitude, not always in word, but certainly in practice. When speaking of forgiveness in these days, many Christians do not care to understand with clarity what the Bible says.
‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’—we learn this simple spelling rule as young students. Then, we must learn the exceptions, like “rein.” But no teacher ever instructs us that the exception is the rule. Rather, so the neglected saying goes, the fact that we find an exception proves the rule.
Also, we must keep this clearly in mind: Because something is an exception, does not mean that it is not true. We have rules and we have exceptions—each has its proper place.
Today, however, when the topic is forgiveness, we hear many Christians thoughtlessly citing the exception just as if it was the rule; it appears as if they have never heard and applied the true rule. (Shades of Murphy’s Law!) We hear the exception from Jesus on the cross (an exceptional circumstance indeed!) with reference to his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). But Jesus also teaches us the clear rule that forgiveness is conditional based upon the repentance of the sinner: “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).
Here, we note that Jesus’ exhortation to forgive rests upon the conditional phrase, “if he repents.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, “Jesus recognized that there are conditions to be fulfilled before forgiveness can be granted. Forgiveness is part of a mutual relationship; the other part is the repentance of the offender. God does not forgive without repentance, nor is it required of mankind.”1 (This aspect of a mutual relationship has been banned from today’s self-centered, therapeutic notions about forgiveness.)
In expositing Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47), F. F. Bruce states, “It would be a mistake to link the words ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ with the command ‘be baptized’ to the exclusion of the prior command to repent. . . . blotting out of the people’s sins is a direct consequence of their repenting and turning to God.”2
Regarding persons who harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit (a group very different from those unwitting soldiers who carried out their civic duty in executing Jesus), that faithful theologian, J. I. Packer, states that the “nonexistence of repentance makes forgiveness impossible.”3
These preceding few lines set forth the thesis of this chapter. Ahead, we will examine these verses more closely and seek to understand the reasons why this thesis is so shocking to many fellow Christians in our day. For those who are stunned by this, please give this chapter the opportunity to present its case, and all of us need to keep in mind two central questions: a) Does Scripture confirm or contradict this? And b) Am I obeying Jesus’ commands?
We have looked at how the winds of the Zeitgeist have made shipwreck of love and prayer for those who, in the fog, follow this world’s pseudo-moral compass. Can we have any doubt that, at the least, these winds have blown us into the shoals regarding forgiveness? Without the “holy conjunction” between forgiveness and repentance, our ship’s voyage will end on that rocky reef of heresy.
Spring was breaking the grip of winter as Easter approached. Jay said that his heart fluttered as he opened the card. It arrived with the day’s mail from his wife, Joy, who had deserted him and their children a few years earlier. It read, “Easter means to me a time of new beginnings. I have made some bad choices. I hope you will forgive me.” This first contact followed six years of Joy’s pursuit of a lifestyle of adultery. What had precipitated the sending of that card was the impending wedding of the couple’s eldest son.
Tim, the son, had told his mother that as she was a Christian who continued to live in disobedience to Christ’s commands, she would not be invited to the wedding. The biblical command which Tim followed was clear and simple, “not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral (etc.) . . . , not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor. 5:11).4
Thus, there had arrived in Jay’s mailbox that card with the plea for forgiveness. But it contained no hint of repentance, that condition of turning around toward God and fleeing from sin. And, in fact, the adulterous lifestyle had not been broken off. It continued.
In these days when tolerance is the hallmark of all that is held in high esteem, many well-meaning Christians would counsel Jay, “Forgive her!” By ripping some Bible verse from its context, they might even attempt to drag along Scripture as an ally. But that is not what God teaches us in his word.
We, American Christians, who live in the lap of luxury, who have the unprecedented leisure time and resources for an earnest study of God’s word, probably handle Scripture more carelessly than any previous generation. We have come a long way from the scene of the Puritan farmer reading his Greek New Testament by the fireside.
We all need to rekindle our desire to handle God’s word with diligence. Our devotion to it will be apparent by the time we give to it when we choose to esteem it highly. Do we desire to feed upon it, to know it, to obey it? This will mean that we do not just spout off Bible verses. We will care enough to examine them in context; to search out their meaning by disciplined study and openness to the Holy Spirit. And, like the Bereans, we will test all claims to see if they hold true in the light of Scripture.
Too often, we hear fellow Christians talking about “what this verse means to me.” And there certainly are verses that do have a special place in our hearts, which have given great comfort in times of crisis or direction out of aimless wanderings—this blessing , we may confidently hold unto. But if we become me-centered rather than Christ-centered, we quickly close the door to understanding as we quench the Spirit’s guidance.
Still, God in his great mercy bears with us in our immaturity. Let us look at the example of Erasmus. As a child growing up in the Ozarks, his parents forbade him to take part in any skinny-dipping in the local ponds. As a teenager, Erasmus felt the conviction of a verse in James (1:2) which, in the King James Version, speaks of “divers temptations.” Perhaps “divers lusts and pleasures” (Titus 3:3) served to strengthen his convictions, and “divers diseases” (Mark 1:34) might have instilled enough dread to keep this young man out of the pond! But, being unfamiliar with Scuba diving, what would he have thought about “divers weights” and how would “divers colours” fit into the scheme of skinny-dipping unless it was winter tide and he was thinking of the color, blue?
We may make light of silly interpretations to expose our weakness. We, however, must take care not to make light of conviction in a boy indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But his understanding of this particular Scripture verse is not to be an example that we strive to follow. Rather, the example highlights one pitfall along our path for which we must be on the lookout.
Though God bears with us, “the smoldering wick he will not quench,” immaturity is not our goal; nor are subjective interpretations of Scripture to be the guide that we follow.
If we continue on this post-modern path of subjectivism, of giving equal weight to each of our own opinions about what a verse of Scripture teaches, then we are reinforcing the secular claim that there is no absolute truth (which, of course, is an absolute claim and utter nonsense). If “what this verse means to me” becomes our standard, then we have nothing to say to the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses about their heretical teachings. After all, select verses of Scripture mean something different to them. And, in this new age, who are we to question their interpretations?
Against today’s subjectivism, we must clearly declare “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states, “no prophecy of Scripture is to be interpreted by any individual in an arbitrary way.”5 If we are ignorant of its full meaning and simply think of prophecy as limited to predicting the future, we will lose our way here. But prophecy encompasses bringing the mind of God to bear upon the present situation. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly reminded God’s people of what the word of God had already revealed to them. The prophets vividly reminded them and called them to return to God and obey his ways. They called them to repent.
When Peter wrote that warning quoted above, his concern centered on the parallel between “false prophets among the people” and “false teachers among you; who will secretly bring in destructive heresies . . .” (2 Peter 2:1).
Peter warned us about arbitrary interpretations of the prophecies of Scripture by any individual. This warning, as we see from the parallel that he drew, also applies to arbitrary interpretations of the teachings of Scripture. And the specific point we must see here is that we are not to interpret and apply the Scriptural teaching on forgiveness in some arbitrary way which is awash either in the philosophy of our own day. Nor is our own slothfulness to be an excuse when we lazily avoid key scriptural teachings about bitterness, wrath, and vengeance. Restricting our vocabulary to talk only about “forgiveness” is so much easier (especially when our talk shuns the twin topic of repentance).
The path that avoids that deep pitfall of arbitrariness lies alongside our familiarity with Scripture. (There can be none of this picking and choosing of verses without our awareness of their context.) To walk that path requires discipline, the life of a disciple. Step by step, we must regularly read God’s word. Therefore, let us here briefly examine some of those Bible verses about forgiveness and repentance (and commit ourselves to further study of them).
Following John the Baptist’s ministry and subsequent imprisonment, we read that “from this time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). As Luther wrote, “Christ, like his forerunner John, not only said, ‘Repent,’ but added the word of faith, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ We are not to preach only one of these words of God, but both.”6 Though Luther emphasized a different point than this chapter is making, the key which concerns us here is his point that we must hold onto “both.” Again, we hear the holy conjunction: “Repent and believe . . .” (Mark 1:15).
Here, we should recall that for John the Baptist, for Jesus and his hearers, and for the very first Christians, the Old Testament was their sole Scripture. Regarding the Hebrew verb for repent, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states:
The Bible is rich in idioms describing man’s responsibility in the process of repentance. Such phrases would include the following: “incline your heart unto the Lord your God” (Josh. 24:23); “circumcise yourselves to the Lord” (Jer. 4:4); “wash your heart from wickedness” (Jer. 4:14); “break up your fallow ground” (Hos.10: 12) and so forth. All these expressions of man’s penitential activity, however, are subsumed and summarized by this one verb shub. For better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good.7
This point sits at the junction where Murphy’s Law has wreaked the most havoc. While some theologians and teachers have attempted to prevent any confusion about man’s incapacity to merit salvation through works, repentance seems either to get lost in the process or hidden in the fog. To his generation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounced the gospel of cheap grace that lost this essential of repentance. This “grace” encompassed forgiveness minus repentance, and church membership minus church discipline. True grace encompasses the whole. It replaces “minus” with “and.”
Now, we must pursue this thought, keep it clear in our minds, and hold onto the resulting paradox: “Human action, including even repentance and confession of sins, is not a work of man to bring about and initiate reconciliation, to which God reacts. Rather is it the reaction of man and as such necessary and demanded.” 8
To try to put this as simply as possible, when we repent, God does not see that repentance as a merit on our part for which we deserve a reward, i.e. salvation. He does not react to our action. Rather, by his grace he causes us to react; our repentance is our reaction to his actions; we hear the gospel of reconciliation to which he has drawn us, and, by his grace, we repent—a reaction which he demands and which is a prerequisite to his forgiveness of us. (On the other hand, many reject God’s action, harden their hearts, and are lost.) As Scripture states, God “now commands (His action) all men everywhere to repent (our reaction) (Acts17: 30b).
“The demand for repentance clearly implies human free will and individual responsibility, but it is equally clear that God is represented as taking the initiative in repentance. This paradox reflects the mysterious relationship between the human and the divine personalities.”9 As in other areas of the human and divine relationship, our finite minds will run off the road of understanding unless we hold onto that paradox which results when we accept the whole of God’s word though we can not fathom the depths of God’s ways.
So, let us now take a quick overview of those verses in Luke which mention forgiveness and repentance (in Luke, we find both Jesus’ teaching about the condition for forgiveness and the great exception in his words from the cross) . Do they reinforce the thesis of this chapter? Contradict it? Or are they neutral, not adding anything that would allow us to make an assessment one way or the other? We should keep these three queries in our minds as we proceed to look at each of the following verses.
The first comes from the prophecy of Zacharias concerning John, whose ministry pointed the people to the Messiah’s redemption of them by “the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77b, RSV). And of John’s ministry, we read about his “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3b, RSV). Here, at the outset, we see the link between repentance and forgiveness.
When a few faithful friends refused to be foiled by the crowd and delivered a paralyzed man to Jesus by letting him down through a hole which they had opened in the roof, Jesus, seeing “their faith”(a faithful heart is a repentant heart. See Calvin’s Institutes 3.3.1 “Repentance, the inseparable attendant of faith—Beveridge.), said to the paralytic, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” The healing which followed Jesus’ next command was for a sign “that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (5:24).
Following this incident, the scribes and Pharisees continued grumbling, this time not about Jesus forgiving sins, but about Jesus eating and drinking with sinners. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘. . . I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’” (5:31, 32). In this incident, which mentions only repentance, it would be odd if forgiveness did not enter our minds, and even more odd (odder) would be our ruling it out of the picture a priori. (Would it not be just as odd for us to push repentance out of our minds when only forgiveness is mentioned?)
Just from this beginning of the Gospels and, of course, from the Old Testament, we should begin to see that, at least for disciples, who are steeped in Scripture, it is hardly possible to think of forgiveness without also thinking of repentance—that is simply a given in the context. And this is a key point that we ought to keep in the forefront of our minds throughout any discussion of forgiveness. Though analogies break down when pushed too far, we might think of forgiveness and repentance respectively as a cart and horse. Some Christians may get the cart before the horse, but, today, many among us seem to have a cart and no horse at all. Or we might think of those who fly the flag of forgiveness without the flagpole of repentance. Their forgiveness blows wherever the winds of the times go.
Now, let us continue in our survey of Luke. In chapter 6, we come to those familiar words, “forgive and you will be forgiven” (v. 37). We also remember those similar words in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (11:4). In Matthew, we read Jesus’ exhortation and warning that follows this model prayer: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14, 15).
If we looked at these verses with the same shallowness with which many Christians approach other Scripture verses, we would conclude that we earn our forgiveness by forgiving others. But Christian teachers and theologians would quickly cry, “Heresy”, with respect to any such claim. Biblical commentators take pains to clearly explain that the thrust of these verses is not an assertion that we can merit forgiveness by forgiving others, “rather it is evidence that the grace of God is at work in the forgiving person . . . to fail to forgive others is to demonstrate that one has not felt the saving touch of God.”10
But for those of us who have experienced that saving touch, it happened when we obeyed while hearing our Savior say, “Repent, and believe the good news.” That is the condition, which Messiah Jesus sets before us if we will enter his kingdom. Scripture gives us no reason whatsoever to believe that God forgives us who partake of eternal salvation without our repentance. If we receive his Word (“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God. . . . ” [John 1:12]), that includes receiving, accepting, his call to repentance. Scripture exhorts us to imitate our Father (Matt 5:48; Eph. 5:1) who is merciful, who is ready, willing and able to forgive us. He desires to forgive, “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9c), but here again is that condition—repentance.
A condition is a very different thing than a merit. We must avoid confusion at this point. A merit is something due to us; it is deserved; it is a reward we “earn by service or performance.” A condition, on the other hand, is “something established as a requisite to the doing or taking effect of something else” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). Christ declares the condition, “Repent and believe.” We did not deserve God’s salvation; we were lost in sin, headed in the wrong direction. But his grace drew us to himself, and by his grace, we repented, we turned around and changed directions and trusted Christ to forgive and save us.
Those verses above (Luke 6:37 and from the Lord’s Prayer) give us no reason whatsoever to shut repentance out of our minds and, thus, exclude this requirement of God from the whole process of forgiveness. These verses emphasize that we are commanded to be ready and willing to forgive like our heavenly Father—He readily forgives all who come to him in repentance.
We, in our fallen human condition, often reject mercy for others (as in Jesus’ parable of the servant whose King forgave him when he begged for mercy, but following that forgiveness, this same servant refused mercy to a fellow servant who begged for it). So corrupt are we that we seek revenge or cling to bitterness even in the face of our brother’s repentance, especially if he is a repeat offender!
Peter asked Jesus that well-known question, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus’ answer of “seventy times seven” should remind us that God has forgiven us innumerable times. But let us remember the immediate context of Peter’s query; it follows Jesus’ clear teaching in Matthew (18:15-17) where he tells us what to do in the face of sin–go to our brother; tell him what he has done wrong. And when we obey and seize the day, repentance may flow and forgiveness flourish.
A solemn assurance follows these instructions about forgiveness and discipline. Our translations do not carry the nuance. Dr. Alfred Marshall’s interlinear translation runs thus: “Truly I say to you, whatever things ye bind on the earth shall be having been bound in heaven . . .” (Mat. 18:18). In his forward to this interlinear Bible, Canon J. B. Phillips remarks (concerning the same assurance to Peter in Mat.16: 19), “Jesus tells Peter that ‘what he binds on earth’ will be ‘what has been bound’ in Heaven. There is a world of difference between guaranteeing celestial endorsement of the Apostle’s actions and promising that his actions guided by the Holy Spirit will be in accordance with the Heavenly pattern!”11
When the conditions do not warrant it (the absence of repentance), forgiveness is not granted, rather the congregation carries out discipline. This now becomes the order of the day, and this is in accordance with the pattern already established in heaven by God our Father.
As we continue in our survey, in Luke chapter 15, we find three parables, each one about something that has been lost: a sheep, a coin, and a son. And the point of all three parables centers on the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
Speaking about neighbors who had died by the sword or by accident, Jesus, with reference to future judgment, warned his listeners, “I tell you . . . unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).
And then we come to that teaching already mentioned (Luke chap. 17) where we are commanded to forgive our brother if he repents. We will look at that more closely up ahead. But right here we need to note the word, “brother.” Jesus speaks here about our relationship with our fellow believer. It is appropriate to ask, “What about all those other people?”
In Luke chapter 6, where we looked at some of Jesus’ words about forgiveness, we should have taken notice of the preceding verses (27-36). Here, Jesus begins, “But I say to you who hear.” This is teaching given to those of us who follow him. And as his disciples, he instructs us as to how we ought to treat those who are outside of our Christian circle. Our Lord mentions all sorts of unsavory characters: enemies, haters, those who curse or despise us, strikers, takers, beggars, and sinners. What kind of response does our Savior tell us that we should give to such people?–The same response given by our Father, “the Most High, for He is kind to the unthankful and evil.” We are told to love, do good, bless, pray for, lend, and give. Caring out these actions will cost us more (the cost of discipleship) than any therapeutic “forgiveness” we can pronounce in the absence of repentance.
Did we take note, here, that Jesus says nothing about forgiveness with regards to these sinful characters? But if we obey and follow his teaching, as God’s instruments, we display God’s grace; we “become blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom (we) shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). And some of these enemies will see that light, come to the point of repentance, and receive forgiveness.
Just as they can not come without God’s grace, neither can we obey unless we stand in that grace of God. Many years ago, somewhere around the seventh of December, an older lady in Sunday school class remarked, regarding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “I can never forgive them.” But Christ, in his proper ordering of all things, did not call on her to forgive them; he commanded her to love them.
One of the amazing events to follow that era of tragedy was when Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the raid on Pearl Harbor, turned to Christ. And any Christian, who would not forgive such a brother, could not know the forgiveness of our Lord.
If, then, we are to avoid any misleading or arbitrary applications of forgiveness, we need to look carefully at the great exception, Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Does this mean that God forgives everyone and we, therefore, are to do likewise? Are we embracing the heresy of universalism, believing that everyone is forgiven and going to heaven? Or, are these words of the Messiah directed toward those in a unique, never-to-be-repeated, historical event in which the unsuspecting servants of the governing authorities carried out the execution of the Son of God?
When this verse is quoted out of context, the emphasis always falls on “Father, forgive them.” The remainder of the verse is all but forgotten. Who are the “they” who “know not what they do”? I. Howard Marshall explains the verse in this manner: Jesus, addressing God, “asks him to forgive ‘them’ (the executioners, possibly all who are involved in his crucifixion), on the grounds of their ignorance; their sin is unwitting.”12
When Stephen faced those who stoned him, his dying words reflected his Lord’s example. We should not doubt that many Christian martyrs through the ages have done likewise as their lives were snuffed out. When Auca Indians in the jungle of Ecuador speared five missionaries to death, we might well imagine that, before they entered the Gates of Splendor, they followed their Lord’s example–nothing could have been more appropriate.
But, then, there are all those other situations where forgiveness is not appropriate.
If the Apostle Peter had misapplied this verse, (Father, forgive them…) as many do today, Luke’s writing of Acts would have been very different. Instead of Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead by God for their sin, after Peter asked, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit . . .” (Acts 5:3), we would hear a tepid, twentieth-century-type Peter, saying, “Father, forgive them.”
Can we hope for an improved Christian understanding of the Sacred Text in the twenty-first century? Only if we seriously apply ourselves to rightly handling and understanding the word of God. Will we faithfully take in hand the whole of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness?
Our minds must dwell upon Jesus’ teaching, not on just one word, forgiveness. That word has become ingrained in our culture. But Christ’s teaching has not. No matter what the malady, some segments of our culture dispense the word, forgiveness, like aspirin. (Self-medication, rather than reconciliation, then becomes the goal.) We are encouraged to embrace forgiveness as a therapy for ourselves. We lose any true consideration of what it means. Today’s mindset has distorted it and removed it far from its context in Scripture. A Christianity Today editorial cites a study, which asked the “subjects about loyalty, self-discipline, honesty, and forgiveness. In the responses, it becomes clear that some of these virtues have undergone a metamorphosis that makes them nearly unrecognizable.”13
Our new age forgiveness seems to have evolved as something of a mantra to calm the wounded soul. Or perhaps if we all just hum the same tune together, a harmonic convergence will make it all so. Our therapeutic society grasps at any straw blown toward us by the seductive winds of today. Forgiveness might be useful as a mental transaction, a pragmatic technique, to give us inner peace, to make our heavy burden of sin just disappear—speak and it is so. Such a view is self-centered. The main question becomes, “How will forgiveness benefit me?” The Christianity Today editorial, quoted above, noted that some virtues “seem to survive more on their practical benefits; practicing forgiveness, for example, helps us get on with our lives.”
This worldly, dominant philosophy infects our Christian thinking today. In one Christian magazine, we read about a minister who “recommended forgiveness as the most effective way of restoring inner harmony and balance: ‘There is a mental treatment guaranteed to cure every ill that flesh is heir to: Sit for half an hour every night and forgive everyone against whom you have any ill will or antipathy,’ he wrote.”14
(That guarantee aside, how does this sitting while making some transaction about forgiveness in our minds, fulfill our Savior’s command to go to our brother who has sinned and call him to repentance? Jesus did tell us to pray for those who persecute us and love them. He also told us to pray that we do not fall into temptation.)
This same article goes on to quote a psychologist who “stresses what true forgiveness is not.” His list of those things not included in forgiveness states: “Reconciling. You can forgive the offender and still choose not to re-establish the relationship.”15
(Whoops! Have we misunderstood God? Maybe when he forgave us he really didn’t choose to re-establish the relationship, or at least not with some of us.)
Is this thinking only found in one magazine? Sadly, it is not. This theme bombards us from many directions. (I heard the same theme from a nationally known preacher on a Christian radio station while working on this chapter. And again, later, another well-respected, sincere Christian leader had a guest who taught for three consecutive days on forgiveness. Not once did I hear the word repentance.) Other Christian magazines declare the same notion. One faithful organization redistributes its magazine article in a pamphlet. It declares, “Many people resist forgiveness because they have a mistaken view of what it means. Let’s clarify: . . . Forgiving is not reconciling . . . . Forgiveness is something we can do to heal ourselves . . .”16
(Looking out for old Number One—where have we heard that before? Didn’t that start in the Garden of Eden?)
Yes, let us clarify: Behind the scenes, the Zeitgeist wrote the script and produced the self-centered, one-man play which under-girds this widespread attitude among Christians. Do we really resist forgiving others because of a “mistaken view”? (All we then need is a little new knowledge from these enlightened teachers.) Or is it because of our sinful, graceless nature that wants nothing to do with anyone who has hurt us? Thus, how freeing (from God’s constraints) this thought that we could forgive and still have nothing to do with that offender we dislike. Ah, but we have peace with ourselves.
Peace with God (Rom. 5:1), however, casts a different hue over this topic of forgiveness which embraces reconciliation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. . . . Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-19).
(So, where today, are so many Christians finding all these blasphemous, “irreconcilable differences”? Maybe, instead of following Christ, they are following those, like that psychologist who was previously quoted.)
As we look at reconciliation, we need to take note here as a shift in terminology is made. While reading the New Testament, we see that the Apostle Paul almost always uses the language of justification/ righteousness rather than the language of forgiveness. One exception is in Romans chapter 4 when he quotes the Psalmist. Having described justification by faith through grace, Paul writes, “So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.’” (Rom. 4:6, 7, RSV).
When before King Agrippa and his court, Paul described the appearance of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and quoted Jesus’ commission to him: “I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17b, 18, RSV).
The “turn” described in this verse stands before us as the essence of repentance, that condition for—“that they may receive”—forgiveness. But as we now look at comments on Romans 5:1-11, where Paul speaks of reconciliation, he is using the language of justification. We just need to be clear: “Paul rarely uses the term ’forgiveness,’ but in its place prefers ’justification.’ They are to his understanding practically synonymous. “17 Now, here, we listen to the key point. As C. E. B. Cranfield notes: “justification necessarily involves reconciliation.”
Whereas between a human judge and an accused person there may be no really deep personal relationship at all, the relation between God and the sinner is altogether personal, both because God is the God He is and also because it is against God Himself that the sinner has sinned. So God’s justification of sinners of necessity involves also their reconciliation, the removal of enmity, the establishment of peace. . . .18
The close connexion that there is between reconciliation and justification—and indeed their inseparability—is shown by the parallelism between vv. 9 and 10. . .19
Where it is God’s justification that is concerned, justification and reconciliation, though distinguishable, are inseparable.20
Why? Because “between God and the sinner there is a personal relationship, and God’s justification involves a real self-engagement to the sinner on His part.”21 (Here, Cranfield comments in a footnote, “It is not surprising that this sub-section contains a statement about God’s [love].”)
The key focus of this Scripture emphasizes the reality of personal relationships. In the Old Testament, “the prophetic call to turn presupposes that the relationship of the people and the individual to God must be understood in personal terms.”22 Thus we hear God’s commission to Hosea, the laments of Jeremiah with the metaphor of the faithless wife, God’s pleas to his people to return to him.
Our relationship to God is all-important but it does not negate our relationships with each other, rather, it reinforces them. Again, we should recall the two great commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—which are “like unto” each other (Matt. 22:39). “Just as the fact that man is a sinner has destroyed his relationship with God, . . . so forgiveness takes the central place in Christian proclamation as the means whereby this relationship is restored” (emphasis added).23
Contrary to the Christian psychobabble, which was quoted above, sound Christian teaching shows us that forgiveness equals a restored relationship. But where anyone refuses to repent, forgiveness is not yet an issue. And the one who has been sinned against need feel no guilt or burden regarding forgiveness. (The Pharisees of our day require the victim of sin to carry the heavy burden of unbiblical forgiveness where there is no repentance. But God does not require such a burden.) The key issues at this point involve loving our enemies, and, in the case of fellow believers, holding the sinner accountable, calling him to repent, and obeying Christ’s commands about church discipline in the case where no repentance follows.
Romans 5:10 tells us that we were enemies of God. “Reconciliation means the restoration of a good relationship between enemies.”24 This occurs when we turn, repent, and accept God’s forgiveness. In our relationships, we are to “be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1). “Since we are thus made active in reconciliation we can now initiate reconciliation in our relationships with others, either seeking forgiveness or extending it.”25 (Because the confusion wrought by the Zeitgeist is so strong and we are so easily lost in the fog of it, let us keep it clear in our minds that in extending forgiveness we do freely for others what God has done for us—we lovingly grant forgiveness to anyone who is repentant, even to seventy times seven. And when we have sinned against someone, we turn away from that sin and turn to him, asking his forgiveness.)
About the high priority of seeking forgiveness, we remember Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapter five. “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift” (vv. 23, 24).
“Leave your gift is a sharp command. . . . The interruption of so solemn an act emphasizes the overriding importance of reconciliation. First has a time reference: ‘in the first place, before doing anything else.’ It is important that the worshipper get his priorities right, and the first thing to do is to effect reconciliation.”26 How bright would Christ’s light shine in today’s world if Christians obeyed him! Any worshipper standing before God in the congregation who has sinned against his brother and has not repented and sought forgiveness, lives a life that is out of whack with his Lord’s teaching. “Out of whack” (if we can use technical terminology here) is another way of stating that corollary to Murphy’s Law—hooking up things backwards–which was cited in the Introduction.
The holy conjunction holds together a host of Scriptural principles, those addressed in the previous chapters and more, including repentance, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation. As we have heard from faithful scholars of God’s word, the heart of Scriptural forgiveness is inseparable from reconciliation. And without repentance, reconciliation cannot take place.
Thus, Jesus tells those of us who are his disciples to forgive our fellows who sin and repent. In the saying recorded in Luke (17:3, 4), he begins with a warning: “Take heed to yourselves,” showing us that we are in danger when we see a fellow Christian sin. One danger facing us is that we will remain silent—maybe because we harbor an unforgiving spirit or because we have made some mental transaction, saying, “I forgive him”—and thus we disobey Jesus our Lord who commands us, “If your brother sins rebuke him . . .”
This is our first step toward reconciliation. Here, we should recall the immediate context of the second great commandment, regarding love of neighbor, which begins, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). Of this verse, the Bible Student’s Commentary states, “It was not sufficient to remain free from (hatred or rancor), since this was also to be transformed into an attitude of love. This attitude was never to lead a person to remain silent in the face of another’s (sin, but) . . . called one to ‘frank rebuke,’ i.e., to openly tell a neighbor in what respect he had wronged someone, something that the Lord Jesus also commanded (Matt. 18:15-17; cf. Prov. 19:25; Amos 5:10).”27
Jesus commanded this as the first step in the disciplinary process. But when we well-meaning Christians excuse ourselves from his lordship and from participation in this process with words like, “Well, we’ve just got to love them and forgive them . . . judge not . . . God is love, who am I to cast the first stone,” we may be assured that the love and forgiveness of which we speak and that of which Scripture speaks, stand as far apart as do heaven and hell.
When we choose disobedience and embrace silence, we cultivate that soil in ourselves in which the seeds of our sin will grow (e.g. resentment, gossip, etc.). As I. Howard Marshall states regarding Jesus’ command (Luke 17:3), “The saying implicitly forbids, the nursing of grudges and criticism of the offender behind his back.”28 A second witness concurs. Christ’s disciples “must first rebuke the guilty one, call attention to his wrong behaviour (and not slander him behind his back!)”29
Today, as we look around us at the family of God, who stands out: a) Faithful Christians seeking out their brethren who have fallen into sin and lovingly reproving them, or b) Silent Christians who say nothing to the sinner about his sin, but pray for him or gossip with their neighbor?
Silence is a sin. As a sin of omission, it is just as wrong as any sin of commission. Rebuke is the first step on the road to repentance and forgiveness. It, however, stands as glaring evidence against us if it stands alone. Jesus’ clear command to rebuke a brother is unequivocally coupled with this command: “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns saying, ’I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:4). Our readiness to forgive rests upon our Redeemer’s forgiveness of us. We will appear as ungrateful, spoiled brats (not heirs to the Kingdom) if we refuse to be ready to do for others what God in his infinite mercy does for us.
Let us not forget how, by his grace, we came to him. When we turned to him, we did not just continue to live as we pleased. We exercised our faith in his offer. We trusted him and turned away from our sinful course. We heard and accepted his words, “Repent and believe the good news.”
Just to add one more reinforcement against the confusion of our day, let us remember the Proverb: “He who covers his sins will not prosper; But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (28:13). Note here, again, the holy conjunction: confesses and forsakes. Here is the heart of repentance. This change of mind is a matter of the will, a decision that results in action. So, “repentance is now obedience to a person. The call for repentance becomes a call to discipleship.”30 But we cannot be a disciple and cling to our sin; a choice must be made. We cannot have our sin and Christ, too.
John Wesley gave great words of exhortation and comfort when he wrote
Where the sickness is, there is the Physician,
Carrying on his work within,
Striving till he cast out sin.
Christ indeed cannot reign where sin reigns; neither will he dwell where sin is
allowed. But he is and dwells in the heart of every believer, who is fighting against all sin.31
Part of that fight includes the Christian care for our brother. If we become aware of sin in another’s life and say to ourselves, “I forgive him,” we have betrayed both our Lord and our brother. In our disobedience, we leave him in his sin just so we can be comfortable. Our “forgiveness” is a false piety put forward for our own sakes. We think we can now forget about it and rest in peace.
This, again, is an element of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the gospel of cheap grace, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”32 If this is the broad road we take, it is because we do not care to pay the cost of discipleship by following Christ’s command.
“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” When we truly care about our fellow disciples we hear here “the theme of helping them when they fall into sin.”33 As I. Howard Marshall continues, “The disciple has the duty to admonish an offender so that he does not remain guilty of sin but has the opportunity to repent; the willingness to forgive that is inherent in the admonition is to be limitless.”34
Duty remains anathema in our day. We have cut ourselves off from the voices of those loyal Christians who, through the centuries, extolled duty. Despite the success of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, some preachers whether in the local pulpits or on Christian radio actually belittle duty. Whether following these examples or simply because “it’s in the air,” many other Christians diminish duty by their remarks. The spirit of the times finds duty constraining. Duty does not fit into the feel-good mentality of our day. Why, it smacks of discipline, one of the essential ingredients of discipleship. Duty gets in the way of our spontaneous desires, of our push for limitless freedom, and of our self-centeredness.
It is our self-centered sin that holds us back from a readiness both to confront and to forgive. Jesus emphasizes the unrestrained readiness to forgive. Even if our brother sins against us—that makes it deeply personal and more difficult—seven times in a day, and returns to us and repents each time, Jesus still commands us to forgive. (To put it in proper perspective, though, we need only remember how many times we have to go to God and seek his forgiveness.) We again recall Jesus’ words when Peter asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Jesus’ reply, “seventy times seven,” highlights another point which we need to keep clear in our minds: unlimited forgiveness. And, here, we need to dispel any confusion: unlimited forgiveness is not unconditional forgiveness.
Again, forgiveness is granted when there is repentance. “When this condition is fulfilled, forgiveness is to be granted”(I. Howard Marshall).35
Forgiveness is not a magnanimous offer on our part. It results from our obedience to and love for our Savior who has granted such forgiveness to us. In gratitude to him, we forgive our brother. Why should we do any less?
Jesus tells us the end result, “. . . you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). Reconciliation results. What could be more beautiful or desirable? This is the heart of the gospel and the heart of Christian relationships. “Love one another” stands as both the command of our Lord and the hallmark of his disciples. It shines forth where there is repentance and forgiveness, which result in reconciliation.
But what happens when our brother will not listen and does not repent?
Though forgiveness is not granted, love yet requires further steps. And Jesus commanded that these steps be taken. Our Savior instructs us, “If he will not hear, take with you one or two more . . .” (Matt. 18:16). And if even that fails, he commands that the offender be called to repentance by the assembly, the congregation of Christians.
To our mindset in these times, such commands seem like insurmountable walls looming before us. The Christian faced with the task of finding one or two others to go with him will face daunting questions: Who will go with me? What if they do not honor my request? What will they think of me? What if he does not listen to us and repent? How will we ever get the congregation to listen to this? What if I lose my Christian friends? So many icy cold “what ifs” freeze us in our tracks.
In The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis’ characters faced the same sort of petrifying predicament. Scrub, Jill (nickname, Pole), and Puddleglum have been sent by Aslan to find and rescue a fellow citizen of Narnia. They have been instructed to memorize certain Signs that will give them direction during their journey as to what to do. Like us today in this dark world, they are in the Dark Castle. And the critical moment is upon them. They recognize the climatic sign for their mission and balk.
“’Oh, what are we to do?’ said Jill.”
In the narration which follows that scene, C. S. Lewis asks, “What had been the use of learning the Signs if they weren’t going to obey them?”
The heroic characters, two children and a Marsh-wiggle are very fallible creatures. They have already “muffed” the previous signs, and, now, they stand before a very dangerous situation. The question which they raise—a very pragmatic question—is, will “everything come right” if they obey?
(As Christians, we would do well to listen with great care to the answer, even to memorize it.)
“‘I don’t know about that,’ said Puddleglum. ‘You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do.’”36
When we freeze in our tracks, like the children, while shrinking in fear before a wall of what-ifs, let the Marsh-wiggle’s answer ring in our ears. Obedience lies before us; fear may be present but it need not hold us back. Faithfulness calls us forward; pragmatism drags us backwards. “Onward; upward; finish the race,” calls our King, whether his name be Aslan, Lion of Judah, or Christ Jesus.
He calls us to focus on himself. Anxiety about the what-ifs reveals our self-centered focus. But our Lord makes plain the fact that, if we want to follow him, we must turn our backs on all that hinders, especially self, and travel along his narrow way, the way of the cross.
Book at Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Ebook three dollars at Barnes and Noble or Amazon or Smashwords