Front Page
Series Contents
Series Theme:  Forgiveness



i) Loving your ‘enemies'
ii) Love desires change
iii) Love needs God's help

iv) Forgiveness is essentially all about God

3. Clearing Some Obstacles

i) Forgiveness on the Cross
ii) Forgiveness in Individual Verses


i) A Matter of Justice
ii) A Question of Humanity










































































































































Title:   6. Forgiveness Revisited


A series that explains the practicalities of forgiveness


A number of years have passed since I first wrote these pages on Forgiveness and, as I have observed the trends within and without the Christian Church in the Western world, and I have pondered ever more on this subject, I feel even more clarity needs bringing to bear on the subject. We repeat the preamble-summary we have used before:

We might summarize the subject as follows:

  • God only forgives when there has been repentance, or He knows repentance is coming,
  • BUT He is ALWAYS looking for the good, the best, for every person.
  • Forgiveness is a legal declaration from heaven on the basis of the work of Christ on the Cross, that is received only when a person repents but is ALWAYS granted when that repentance is forthcoming.
  • Nevertheless, while God is waiting for this to happen, He holds a desire for the wellbeing of that person, whoever they are.
  • Called to follow in Christ's footsteps, we too are called to grant forgiveness when forgiveness is asked for, but in the meantime seek for God's grace to have that individual's good in mind.



1. Christians' “Good” Thinking


So often when the subject of Forgiveness comes up in Christian circles, and indeed sometimes in the world outside the Church, that seeks to impose a good ethical stance, the view is still expounded that “you should forgive all those who do wrong against you FULL STOP.”


I would go as far as to suggest that this particular view of Forgiveness is even humanistic because it seems to come from human beings, human thinking and human intellect, who wish to formulate an ethic which looks good, looks superior and even, at the end of the day, produces responses in onlookers of, “Wow, that's amazing! How can they do that? They must be super saints.” The last part of that is usually simply thought or implied, even if it isn't actually said. What it actually does is take a man-orientated attitude and uses it to bring glory to men or women.


Accounts are told of a family that suffered an intruder at gunpoint who raped their daughter before escaping. The Christian family graciously forgave the intruder and the account is relayed in hushed terms as an example of a truly wonderful Christian family who should challenge the rest of us. As gracious and merciful as they sought to be, I believe they were, in fact, in error.


A very well known and respected Christian preacher and writer recounts how a friend challenged him when he felt very hurt and damaged by things said and done against him, and the man said, “Until you totally forgive them you will be in chains. Release them and you will be released.” A little later the preacher wrote, “There are indications that the world is starting recognise the merit of forgiving people.” Both quotes, I would gently suggest, are self-centred and humanistic and, even more, godless.


It is clear from the great Preacher's account that his thoughts and subsequent interpretation of Biblical quotes stemmed from emotion. Emotion is what drove him into a place of, dare we say it, misunderstanding. Emotions will almost certainly be involved in the outworking of this subject but the word of truth and not emotions should be the arbiter of our beliefs and life outworking.


What this way of thinking ends up doing, without realising it, is to push God's incredible way of dealing with wrongs to the periphery, and denigrating human life. I will explain both of those as I continue. Let's try to move into the theology of Forgiveness.


2. The Confusion of Attitude


Where the approach we've noted above falls down, is right at the beginning with the feeling, born of intellectual understanding - which IS right – that we are not to harbour wrong thoughts against other people, even those who have sinned against us. Maintaining a right attitude towards such people is absolutely right – but that is something quite different from the actual act of Forgiveness. Let's focus on the attitude first and then later move on to consider more fully the issue of the act of Forgiveness which, as we've said, is different. Because people stumble over this distinction, we do need to think about it a little more to try and take it in.


i) Loving your ‘enemies'


So focus on attitude. For instance Jesus taught us, “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44). Anyone who abuses you has surely got to be your enemy. Anyone who does violence to you or your family, has surely got to be your enemy. Yet Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them.


Now hidden within this is something quite vital and is so often missed in this ‘Forgiveness debate'. When you love someone you want the best for them. When you are praying ‘ for someone' you will be asking for good for them. Now there are four immediate out workings of this.


ii) Love desires change


First the change issue: if you apply the humanistic approach I've described above, the emphasis is on letting the offender off and releasing them from what might be otherwise vengeful thoughts in you. The emphasis is NOT on helping bring change to them, change for the better. The positive side is that if you are to love them as Jesus says, you will want to see them changed and you will pray and work to help bring about that change, because you want something better for them. That's what love does! But that does require a lot more effort than the ‘humanistic forgiveness' approach.


So if a terrorist blows up the bus or car in which a loved one is traveling, the call of love isn't to just let them off and leave them as a terrorist who might do it again, but will mean that you want them to come to a place of repentance and change so that they will be released from that destructive lifestyle. That is love!


The same thing is true of a rapist or a mugger. Just letting them off is not the objective. Love will desire change. Now the defender of what I have called this humanistic approach will say, “But, our forgiving them will be a force to bring change in them.” Maybe it will and maybe it won't, but that is not to be the primary moving force; that misses a fundamental of the Christian Gospel, the need to face and confess our sins. Now being ‘forgiven' might open a train of thinking in the offender but in many cases it just makes the offended look weak, and the terrorist or rapist is going to need much more to bring about change in them.


iii) Love needs God's help


Second, it must become obviously apparent, that you cannot love and look for the good of your offender without the help of your heavenly Father. The natural response is to want vengeance. The ‘good intentions' response is to ‘abide by the law', as they see it, and declare forgiveness. The Jesus' response is to seek your heavenly Father for the offender and in so doing realize the impossibility of you feeling anything good for them without God's grace, and therefore results in you asking for that grace.


The ‘good intentions' Christian may indeed ask the Father for that grace, but if that famous preacher is right and “ the world is starting recognise the merit of forgiving people,” many will not, because ‘Forgiveness' becomes a tool in the humanistic and godless mind, a means of therapy that releases ME. God does not come into it.


Jesus' approach requires a drawing close to the Father (God) and without Him we cannot be the people He wants us to be. Jesus' words, that we quoted earlier, in respect of praying for our enemies, continue on: that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:45) Loving your enemies and praying for them is to be seen as an expression of Christ in you, you being a child of God.


iii) Attitude is not Forgiveness


Third, when Jesus gave that instruction it was not in the context of Forgiveness. It was simply about holding right attitudes. In the passage in which it comes, Jesus gives a number of circumstances that we might call dealing with people who are treating you unrighteously. Very often getting to a place of right attitude is indeed a precursor to other things that follow on and eventually allow you to declare forgiveness. The desire for this right attitude is what actually leads the ‘good intentions Christian' into the place where they declare forgiveness prematurely, because they have not seen forgiveness in the Biblical context.


iv) Forgiveness is essentially all about God


Fourth, forgiveness without a Biblical context is, as we've already said, simply a humanistic ‘letting off' the offender and this is what the ‘good intentions' Christian does. To understand Forgiveness fully we MUST see it in the context of the whole Bible and reclaim it as a godly issue.



3. Clearing Some Obstacles


Before we move on to the consideration of Forgiveness properly, there are one or two issues that usually arise in respect of the Biblical text, as seen in the New Testament.


i) Forgiveness on the Cross


Often Jesus words from the Cross, about the soldiers, are presented as evidence of forgiveness being declared without the need for any repentance on behalf of the offenders: Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34 – observe also the note in your Bible that this verse isn't in some early manuscripts. The Church obviously had a slight question mark over it.) Now there are four things that we should note in respect of this.


First, this applied specifically to the soldiers and we should observe the grounds for Jesus' request – they didn't know what they were doing. As far as the soldiers were concerned, they had not been watching Jesus, had not had time to assess his claims to Messiah-ship and divinity, and were simply carrying out orders. Failure to obey orders carried with it the death penalty. As far as they were concerned he was just another condemned convict to be executed.


The point has been made that although Jesus lets them off, he didn't do that with those who should have known better, an example being, Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.” (Mt 11:20)


Second , this takes us on to consider the principle: “no awareness, no punishment,” that occurs in the Bible. The apostle Paul used this in his arguing in Romans, e.g. “ where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Rom 4:15) He had already shown that everyone is a sinner, but will make the point that absence of knowledge holds off the wrath of God: “before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.” (Rom 5:13) So yes, sin was in the world, and death prevailed because of it, but in the absence of specific commands, there was an absence of knowledge and an absence of specific judgments.


Third , when awareness comes, there is an issue to be dealt with before God. This goes right back to the Law of Moses and Sin Offerings: If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter , they are guilty. When they become aware of the sin they committed, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the Tent of Meeting.” (Lev 4:13,14)


I have underlined the key parts of those verses. First of all whatever the wrong was it was unintentional and then that they were unaware of it being a wrong. They didn't know it was wrong. Beware applying this to the terrorist (who is deceived certainly) or the rapist, both of whom must be aware of the violence they are inflicting on others. But this applies to the soldiers at the Cross, remember. Finally notice the crucial part: once they became aware that they had wronged God by disregarding God and His laws, they now have an issue with God and need to do something about it!


There will be times when people abuse us verbally, but such is their own plight they may not realize the import of what they were saying and the hurt and harm it caused. We will see that before there can come forgiveness, there has to come an awareness of the need for it on the part of the offender.


Fourth , there is a rule of general interpretation of Scripture that says you do not formulate doctrine from historical actions, but from specific teaching. The example of Jesus' words on the Cross was not given as teaching but applying to a specific historical incident. We should not build a doctrine of forgiveness without repentance from this single incident.


ii) Forgiveness in Individual Verses


One of the problems we have, if it is a problem, is that Jesus didn't sit down and conduct seminars with note handouts; that just wasn't the way of the culture. Therefore the subject arose a number of times and we have mini-teachings, if we can call them that, each of which should be seen in the overall context of Scripture, i.e. the Bible seen as a whole.


We have covered many of these references in previous pages so will not repeat them here. Simply remember the principle.



4. The Biblical Principles of Forgiveness


Again we have covered these in previous pages and so our objective here is simply to briefly reiterate them in order that we may then consider the failures of not following the Biblical teaching.


The simplest and most straight forward verse encompassing the Biblical order is:


If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. (Lk 17:3)


Note the order: sin - rebuke - repentance - forgiveness.


Similarly, it doesn't matter about how many times; the issue is their sincerity:


If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says ‘I repent,' forgive him." (Lk 17:4)


Note again, repentance brought about desire for forgiveness.



Throughout the Bible that is the order and without repentance there is never forgiveness. God doesn't actually forgive without repentance.


Let's just remind ourselves of the order in our own lives, as Christians, in respect of God and me in terms of both general salvation and specific sins needing to be dealt with:


How did God forgive me? He:

1. Confronted me with it. (i.e. the Holy Spirit convicted me)

2. Made every provision for me to be forgiven (Jesus on the Cross died for my sins)

3. Was patient until I came to repentance (many didn't come to Christ until older)

4. Still loved me while waiting (amazingly blessed me even before I surrendered)

5. Forgave me when I repented (which came at a specific time of salvation)


The crucial issue about any ‘sin' of another, is that it is first against God and then may be against me. It is dealt with before God by repentance and then before me by asking for my forgiveness.


Observe that so many of the individual verses in the New Testament are about ensuring that we respond rightly WHEN the person asks for our forgiveness.


If we have not been down the path displayed on earlier pages – of coming to a right attitude about our offender, of praying for them, of looking for the right moment to raise the issue with them – if the Holy Spirit does a sovereign work of convicting them so they come to us seeking our forgiveness, we may find it difficult in the moment to quickly come to the right attitude that can forgive, so we need ‘the law' of the New Testament instructions to egg us on to forgive, e.g.


Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col 3:13)


See that sort of verse as a mini-law so that when they are convicted and come seeking forgiveness, you won't act ‘high and mighty' but will remember that you too are a forgiven person, so forgive!




5. Foundational Issues


I would like to conclude with emphasising two foundational issues, things that underpin the whole issue of forgiveness and which cheap, well-intentioned, false forgiveness misses:


i) A Matter of Justice


If we lightly (or even with a lot of prayer and grace) simply say, “It's all right, I forgive you,” we are unwittingly saying that sin doesn't matter. Oh yes we do; let me explain!


There is a unique characteristic of the human race that marks us out from the animals and it is the issue of ‘justice'.


Even the little child has a sense of it when he or she cries to his mother, “It's not fair!” What they are appealing to is a sense, that we all take for granted, of fairness or of rightness.


Now take that apart and analyse it. Our child – and us – has the belief that there is certain behaviour that is good and right and certain behaviour that is not, and we expect consequences to match actions.


In the Old Testament, the Law of Moses was simply God saying, this is how I have designed you to live and although you have fallen, this is the way you can live rightly in this fallen world.


Our little child works on a very much more simple approach: if you give my sister five sweets then it is only right that I get at least five sweets.


Of course, throughout the world and throughout history we have formulated things that we have thought to be wrong and mostly we find them tabulated in the Ten Commandments: it is wrong to kill people, or steal from people what belongs to them, and so on.


In recent decades we have seen the folly of relativistic thinking that seeks to undermine historically accepted norms, but the truth is that we can all appear to be philosophers on the high ground until my daughter is raped, I am mugged, my wife is murdered by an intruder, and so on. Suddenly at that point we scream, “What are the police doing? I want justice!”


No, the truth is that we all, deep down, believe in justice, that if someone does wrong, some action needs to be taken to remedy it. It is not sufficient to just say, “It's all right, I'll let you off.” We know that justice demands action be taken to remedy the situation, and we want the situation to change.


Now of course the Bible is in complete agreement with this because this is the truth of existence, in humanity made in the image of God. God has designed us to live in specific ways and when we fail to live like that, there are consequences but, even more, justice (in the mind of any sentient being) says “Someone should pay”. We'll move on in a moment to why that is but for the moment we'll accept that that is how it is.


Ultimately, every single wrong thought, word or deed offends justice and a rational, detached, objective observer would agree. If we don't agree, it is just because we feel defensive and have to make excuses for ourselves. Yet the Bible is quite specific about this, and this, and only this, is the reason Jesus as the Son of God, HAD to go to the Cross to take the punishment that justice cries out for.


Any wrong word or deed against you by another is a sin and as such comes under the spotlight of justice. For you to say, oh, it doesn't matter, means you diminish the significance of sin. Oh yes, for much of the time it is not clear black and white and therefore we are not to keep a tally of wrongs, but God will and they will fall under our need for the Cross. However, where there are big, harmful issues, then these are the sort of things that fall under the umbrella of needing forgiveness.


But what is it that makes this concept of justice so significant?


ii) A Question of Humanity


One of the things we all cry out for is a sense of significance, of meaning and purpose. Each of us, deep down, wants to know that we count for something and so many of our feelings of inferiority or of low self-esteem, arise when that is missing.


Now when it comes to the issue of being offended, abused, attacked or hurt or harmed by another, this need kicks into place in a big way.


If my wife was murdered and the police were casual about finding her killer, not only would it produce a great sense of anger within me, but it would reveal the reason for that, that they don't think she is worth the effort of them chasing her killer.


This is at the heart of justice. Justice says you are an important person, I am an important person, and when people do wrong against us, it is an act of caring or an act of respect for us as a person that seeks to remedy that wrong.


The awful truth is that for most of us, our indifference about dealing with the perpetrator of a wrong against us, is our indifference about them as a person. It's easier and more comfortable to ‘let sleeping dogs lie'. To do the things suggested on the earlier pages here on Forgiveness, means we have to make an effort. It's much easier to say the words, “I forgive them,” and walk away, but ‘they' are still the same and still have an unresolved issue with God, and we have NOT loved them as we considered earlier.


As another person made in the image of God, they are important, they are significant, even if we don't like them, even if we dislike or even hate what they did. Jesus wants to redeem them, and with your help and mine – but that take us right back to the subject of needing his grace to achieve that.


Proper forgiveness is about pronouncing heaven's judgment over someone when they have repented, and in so doing we can transform both them and us, but to arrive at that place requires we consider the content of these pages much more. May it be so!