More about forgiveness


Number 578 • October 30, 2020


Response to Periodical Number 573, was quick and not always positive or polite. Not much was said in the essay about forgiveness to be given to you – that wasn’t the central point. But the suggested “test” regarding forgiveness to be given to others by you and the unlikelihood of being forgiven if you yourself were unforgiving seems to have been disconcerting and upsetting, striking a particularly sensitive and painful nerve.

As a lame and late retrospective apology and defense, I need to add a bit to the narrative for clarity and balance. I have in fact written about forgiveness at other times – some of which I will repeat here shortly – but do not always remember and admit that most writings, not only mine but those of others, are probably taken as stand-alone declarations. People may forget, or may not have received and understood any prior statements one has made. They do not, perhaps cannot, put things together to form a cogent understanding and conclusion. So each argument must be treated fully, if not comprehensively, in each iteration.

This is why we recommend that one not take a doctrinal position based upon one scripture statement without reading in their own contexts all scripture statements on the particular subject, particularly all the words of an individual author or spokesman. For an easily understood example of the point, do not summarize and finalize the apostle Paul’s teaching about grace, faith, and salvation in Ephesians 2:8-9 without having read the immediate context in the rest of that epistle. One must also read Paul’s letters to Romans and Galatians and those to his proteges Timothy and Titus, and must not ignore his letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians. One must read and assimilate everything Paul wrote before he can comment on the meaning of Ephesians 2:8-9. More than that, one must take into account what others have said on the subject, such as Peter, James, the author of Hebrews, and the words of Jesus himself as recorded by the “Gospel” writers, evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. By all means consider the “red letter” words, purported to be quotations or summations of words spoken by Jesus himself – especially as they pertain to love, mercy, grace, salvation, forgiveness, and the spirit of disciples and followers of Christ. The biblical writers do not contradict themselves or each other. The Bible does not present contradictory views without also providing a resolution to the problem.


Matthew 6:12, 14-15 in what some inappropriately call “the Lord’s prayer” are not the only things Jesus had to say about forgiveness. If you forgive others God will forgive you, but if you will not forgive others God will not forgive you. In Mark 11:25-26 Jesus may seem to be making a similarly broad all-inclusive declaration: Forgive everything or be forgiven for nothing. He may seem to say that unconditional forgiveness must be given to all persons for any and all sins they have committed. I heard a radio preacher say, if one does not unconditionally forgive everyone for everything he himself will not be forgiven. But if one forgives (all sins of all others?), all his own sins will be forgiven (automatically and immediately, and eternally?).

But if that is what Jesus says in Matthew 6 and Mark 11 that would contradict other statements he himself made about the conditions and requirements for true and proper forgiveness, of which we will speak shortly. An important point: though some today insist forgiveness must be automatic, immediate, unequivocal and unconditional Jesus never speaks of or requires unconditional forgiveness. A necessary inference from his words in the two passages we have mentioned is that the matter in question is actually forgivable. It is something forgivable, something that could have been and should have been resolved and forgiven, but you are still holding it against another person and will not let it go. You have failed or refused to seek reconciliation and forgiveness. Such an attitude and response is a grievous mistake for which you will not be forgiven unless and until it is corrected. It does not speak of what others may or must do to elicit forgiveness (from you or from God?), but only speaks of what you must do or not do in order to get forgiveness from God and others. As already suggested, we must take all of Jesus’s words – and all other inspired words in scripture – into account before arriving at a conclusion. It is imperative that we understand the fact that Jesus mentioned conditions and requirements to be met by both or all parties involved in the resolution and forgiveness of sins and errors.

Before continuing here please read and think carefully about Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24, 18:15-18, 18:23-35, and Luke 17:1-4. Also read and give the same consideration to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:31–5:2 and Colossians 3:12-14.

Notice from the last two references, from Paul, that our forgiveness is to be the same as, to the same extent as, and subject to the same conditions as that given by Christ and by God (Ephesians 4:32 even as God; Colossians 3:13 even as Christ). If God or Christ forgives or would forgive, we must also forgive; if God or Christ does not and will not forgive, we must not forgive. The principle is essential and mandatory, so keep it in mind as we look at the other references.

Here is what we learn: the teaching applies personally and particularly, not generally or generically. It is to be applied within the community of faith, especially when you are personally directly involved either as the object and recipient of a hurt or as the cause and perpetrator of a hurt to some other – whether you are the sinner or the one sinned against! If a brother, a fellow Christian, follower of Christ and of God sins against you (Matthew 18:15, Luke 17:3), rebuke him – make a direct charge or accusation, make him aware of the problem (since he may not be aware of it) and ask for repentance and correction so that you can forgive him. If he admits the charge and, crucially, if he repents and asks to be forgiven you must forgive. If he refuses to admit it or repent it, do not forgive it. Can you continue to press the charge or accusation if he denies it or refuses to repent of it? Yes.

From Matthew 18:15-18 we learn that one can bring witnesses against the person to verify one’s charge against him, and eventually you may ask the church to take action against the guilty one. Important: the charges are to be proved by evidence, including witnesses who know the truth, not just others to whom you have related your story, not just others who will attest to your proper attitude and conduct in the controversy. False charges or irrelevant claims can make you susceptible to charges of wrongdoing and you may be required to defend and vindicate yourself. If you have sinned against the other (Matthew 5:23, Mark 11:25), and especially if he knows it and holds it against you, go to him and acknowledge your wrong, repent it and seek forgiveness for it. Remember that he has exactly the same options in dealing with your sin against him as you have in dealing with his sins against you. The point of emphasis so far is that repentance (which includes correction or restitution where that is possible) is mandatory. No repentance means no forgiveness. If there is no repentance, no acknowledgment, no correction – even though you have indicated willingness to forgive and be reconciled, you may simply have to leave the person to God and to his own conscience. The fact that you may choose to forgive without repentance does not mean God will do so. You must forgive what God forgives, but God is not obligated to forgive everything you forgive, or necessarily refuse to forgive what you refuse to forgive. Our forgiveness must be like His. His is not necessarily like ours.

Those who believe Christ and/or God will forgive without repentance, will usually quote Luke 23:34 to prove their point. There Jesus, while dying on the cross prayed for those who were killing him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Note: Jesus did not forgive them, nor were they forgiven by God as Jesus allegedly requested. Jesus would not contradict his own teaching by forgiving without expressed and demonstrated repentance. We know, from Acts 2:22-23. Peter accused the Jews of having killed Jesus with their own wicked hands because of their own wicked hearts. When they asked what could be done, they were told to repent (and be baptized) in order that their sin – in particular that sin of having rejected and killed the Christ of God – could and would be forgiven and they could receive the Holy Spirit of God (Acts 2:36-39). If they were forgiven by Christ on the cross they did not know it and God did not recognize it.

What Jesus demonstrated is the willingness to forgive and the desire and request that the guilty be forgiven if and when they acceded to the requirements and conditions set by God. This is the lesson for us to learn and repeat in our own lives and experience: desire and willingness to forgive those who meet God’s conditions and requirements. The proof of that desire on our part is that we confront those who sin against us and encourage them to repent and be forgiven, by us of course but more importantly by God. Ultimately, after you have done what you should do for the person, you must leave unrepentant sinners to God.

There are other questions that need answers. How extensive and inclusive is forgiveness? What if you really do not want the sinners to be forgiven? Can there be “third-party forgiveness” from one not involved in the particular sin – can an uninvolved person forgive someone for sins committed against you or forgive you for sins you have committed against others and even against God? There are several more peripheral matters. That seems to call for one more chapter to this essay. It is planned for the next issue of our Periodicals. — To be continued.

#geraldcowan #forgiveness