There is a very common misunderstanding among Christians that says forgiveness is not for the offender but the victim—to give him peace of mind and heart. I have some problems with this notion. As the word implies, ‘for–give–ness’ is a gift. Every gift must have a receiver as well as a giver. Giving always makes a person feel good. But the gift does the intended recipient no good if he does not accept it with a contrite heart.
Verse after verse in the Bible says that forgiveness is contingent upon repentance. Sinners do not get a free pass to heaven because Jesus forgave their sins on the cross. They must repent in order to receive that forgiveness and obtain eternal life. Only then will their sins be completely exonerated. First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins he will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Think of forgiveness as providing an opportunity for the sinner to repent. That is exactly what Christ meant when he asked his father to forgive those who crucified him. His words did not guarantee them a place in heaven. Only the thief on the cross next to him received that promise when he repented of his unbelief. At Pentecost Peter made it clear to his listeners that they were guilty of crucifying the Son of God and would be held accountable, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross ” (Acts 2:23).
Anger Is Not Always Bad
In the book of Jeremiah, God says, “I will not be angry with you forever. However, you must confess that you have done wrong, and that you have rebelled against the Lord your God. You must confess that you have given yourself to foreign gods under every green tree, and have not obeyed my commands” (Jer 3:12–13). Although God promised not to be angry with his people forever, he did send them into exile because they would not repent. He later showed his mercy by bringing them home after they had come to their senses.
Anger has an appropriate place in the Christian life. It is the natural response to injustice. It is what fuels our sense of outrage and moves us to take action on behalf of the oppressed. Denying our feelings of righteous indignation would short–cut the grieving process and leave a reservoir of unresolved emotions. That does not mean we should feel justified in harboring resentment, however.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, World War II era German theologian, maintained that the triumph of unconditional forgiveness, which he called ‘cheap grace,’ led to the German Christians’ failure to stand up to Adolph Hitler. They lost the ability to recognize and confront evil. He said, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance …absolution without personal confession.”(1) Many modern Christians think that forgiving even the most unrepentant sinner is the loving thing to do, but Bonhoeffer disagrees, “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”(2)
To offer absolution to unrepentant sinners trivializes sin and cheapens the grace of God. If not confronted, un-confessed sin can have terrible consequences. On the other hand, we should be perfectly willing to forgive anyone who has wronged us, no matter how grievously, if that person has genuine remorse and a determination to make things right.
The Biblical Process
In the Bible there is a process for dealing with unrepentant sinners. It involves confronting the individual privately with his transgression, then bringing a witness along to confirm his rebellion if he refuses to repent, and finally, bringing the matter up with the church and excommunicating him if he persists in his sin. This process is outlined in Matthew 18 verses 15-19. Yet this process of confronting sinners is seldom if ever practiced in the church. Why is that? Isn’t failure to repent just as sinful as failure to forgive?
In Luke 17 Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Lk 17:3) The first step in the restoration process according to this verse is to confront the sinner. Most Christians overlook this part entirely and move right on to the forgiveness portion of the verse. But confronting evil is clearly a precondition for repentance.
This same idea is repeated in Matthew 18 but without any mention of the words, ‘rebuke’ or ‘repent.’ “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.'” (Mt 18:22) Has Jesus removed the requirement for repentance from Matthew 18? If that were true, he would be contradicting himself. No, this is just Matthew’s abbreviated version of the same conversation.
Take this verse, for example, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:19). No mention is made of the need for repentance in this verse, yet to suggest that everyone receives a ‘get out of hell free’ card regardless of his or her attitude towards Jesus Christ would contradict the clear teaching of the Bible and make Jesus’ suffering and death a meaningless tragedy as far as many people are concerned.
Today’s church leaders often avoid confrontation in a misguided attempt to preserve harmony at all costs. But the Apostle Paul made it very clear to the Corinthian church that they must remove a sinner from their midst. He would not settle for any half–measures. He expected the church to put up a unified front in dealing with this man so there would be no doubt in his mind that what he was doing was wrong. But Paul also counseled them to do it gently, not with a spirit of superiority, always being mindful of the fact that they could fall into sin themselves (Gal 6:1–2). The motive for confrontation is not just to reconcile two adverse parties, but to restore the brother or sister to a right relationship with the whole body of believers.
The Bible Emphasizes Repentance
The New Testament uses the words, ‘repent,’ ‘repentance,’ ‘confess,’ and ‘confession’ over sixty times with reference to sin. But the words ‘forgive,’ and ‘forgiveness’ occur less than forty-five times. The emphasis on repentance should come as no surprise given the holiness of God and the human tendency to minimize sin. Those who urge forgiveness with no strings attached do so because they don’t appreciate the severity of sin and because unconditional forgiveness is the easy way out. Today’s brand of forgiveness requires nothing more than an attitude adjustment. It does not necessitate confrontation of the sinner or resolution of the conflict. It never balances the ledger of justice or corrects the misbehavior.
Repentance is so important in the Bible that Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison.” (Mt 5:23-25)
Remarkably, I have heard Christians say that this verse is addressed to the victim, not the offender. As far as they are concerned, it is the responsibility of the victim to take the initiative in reconciling. But clearly this passage is addressed to the one who committed the offense—the one who faces prison. Furthermore, the words Jesus uses are ‘be reconciled.’ That means to make things right, and the victim cannot do that. It has to be the offender because he made them wrong in the first place. God’s grace would never place the onus for reconciliation on the shoulders of the victim. But that is exactly what so many Christians do today.
If the sinner does not repent, he will ultimately receive God’s punishment. If Christians were as concerned about the welfare of the sinner as they are about his victims, they would urge him to repent and escape God’s wrath. However, the way things are in the church today, repeat offenders see that there are no consequences for bad behavior. Their numbers multiply and the body of Christ suffers correspondingly. This is one of the reasons today’s church has many of the same problems as the rest of society.
It’s All About Reconciliation
The goal of repentance and forgiveness is reconciliation between two parties who have been alienated from one another by the actions of one or both. While it is true that the victim must come to terms with his or her feelings of bitterness and anger and give up all claim to revenge, that is not the sum total of forgiveness. That is only half the transaction. The other half is confession of sin and repentance by the sinner. This is the part that the church so often chooses not to address. Forgiveness lifts the burden of anger and bitterness from the victim. Repentance provides restoration for the offender and healing for the whole body of Christ by rectifying wrongs and keeping them from multiplying.
In the gospels, Jesus tells the story of the unjust judge who refused to listen to the complaints of an aggrieved widow until she pestered him so much he could take it no longer. Jesus was making the point that if this woman could obtain justice from an uncaring judge, his followers could certainly expect a loving Heavenly Father to show them mercy. He never implied the woman should have just let go of her penchant for justice in the name of forgiveness.
Perhaps the reason it is so easy for Christians to overlook sin in the postmodern age is a lack of belief in moral absolutes. George Barna says:
“A large majority of both adults and teenagers, Christian and non–Christian, contends that there is no absolute moral truth. More than two out of three adults and more than four out of five teenagers argue that truth is always relative to the individual and the circumstances. While most of these people describe themselves as followers of Christ and say that the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings, they nevertheless believe that truth is based on feelings, experience or emotion.”(3)
In our day, postmodernism has blurred the lines between good and evil and turned black and white to shades of gray. Choices are not right or wrong. They are value neutral. What is right for me may not be right for you. However, to look the other way instead of confronting sin out of a misplaced desire to withhold judgment disables our critical faculties and emboldens the sinner.
How often has your church excluded someone from fellowship because he or she has persisted in rebellion against God? In over forty-five years as a Christian, I have never seen it happen once. But I have seen people who have been wounded by the heartless acts of others counseled over and over again to simply ignore their wounds.
1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Cost of Discipleship.” p. 47. 1937.
2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Life Together.” p. 107. 1939.
3. Barna, George. “Barna Identifies Seven Paradoxes Regarding Americas’ Faith.” Barna Group. December 17, 2002. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/87-barna-identifies-seven-paradoxes-regarding-americas-faith?q=evangelism”