The penultimate word about forgiveness

Number 579 • October 31, 2020


This will have some disconnected comments on various aspects of the problem of how and when and whom to forgive in order to be forgiven yourself, as discussed in two prior segments of the essay. Some of these are frequently asked questions; some are simply extensions and addenda to prior comments.


Some like to think forgiveness granted when requested for one wrongdoing implies and includes forgiveness for all wrongs and errors even if not mentioned in the request. Maybe so, if one makes a general but non-specific confession with implied general repentance and correction, but if it is an effort to secure a general forgiveness and amnesty without repentance or correction, it will be rejected and denied.

For example, asking the church to join in prayer for you because you haven’t been faithful in attendance does not also bring forgiveness for dishonesty or involvement in unchristian activities, mistreatment or abuse of spouse, parents, or other family members or other members of the church, improper stewardship, or lack of involvement in church works. When you pray to God, “I’m a sinner. Please be merciful to me and forgive me,” (as in Luke 18:13-14), there is an implied intention on your part to repent and correct all the things which you know or find to be wrong in yourself. People probably do not know your specific sins or errors or omissions but God does. The church and individual Christians may be more likely to grant a general absolution than God will, especially if He knows you are “gaming” the system. “General confession now, specifics to come later” may be effective, but don’t neglect the follow-up.

It is also worth mentioning that forgiving one member of a group – family, congregation, or other group – does not necessarily imply forgiveness for every member of that group. Unless one person is authorized to speak for the whole group and nobody in the group dissents, only those who admit wrong, repent of it, and ask forgiveness should be forgiven.


In Numbers 15:22-32 a distinction is made between intentional and unintentional sins, sins of which one is aware and those of which one is ignorant and unaware and the remedy to be made in any or either case. The point is, sin is sin, sin has consequences and requires remedy and forgiveness both for an individual and a group, even for the whole congregation or the whole nation.

Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the apostle, is an example. He said there was a time when he was or assumed himself to be approved and alive to God without knowledge of or adherence to the Law, in particular the law against coveting. But when he came to an understanding of the law he saw himself as guilty – ignorant but guilty and in need of salvation which only Christ could apply to him (Romans 7:7-11, 24-25). Ignorance does not discount or cancel sin. All have sinned; none is innocent of all sin (Romans 3:10-21). Saying we have not sinned and do not sin is either denying God or deceiving ourselves (1 John 1:6-10).


Some say all our sins are forgiven when we accept Christ as Lord, not only past and present sins but those which have not yet been committed. Others believe one can gain an “indulgence” by good works or a time of faithfulness, or even by a gift or payment to “the church,” – a kind of future forgiveness, a reserve deposit of forgiving grace to be used when needed or applied by the Lord when appropriate. There is supposedly a supererogation of grace on deposit available to priests who can dispense at will. It includes the superabundant grace of Christ, who needs none for himself but has more than enough to meet the needs of all others. Some point to the mother of Jesus as mediatrix of his grace and of her own plenary grace. None of this is scriptural doctrine but is rather the dogma and manipulative tool of a corrupt religious system.

If grace covers inadvertent or unknown sin it could only apply to the Christian who is faithful in all that he knows of the will and commands of the Lord, who, when he finds himself in error repents and corrects it and continues faithfully with the Lord. If we are continually confessing our sin and dealing properly with it, the faithful Lord forgives it and keeps us clean (1 John1:9).


One may acknowledge to another or to the church his troubles, weaknesses, failures to be faithful, etc and ask for prayers in his behalf. Intercessory prayer is recommended (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We can pray with and for each other to strengthen and encourage each other, to provoke each other to love and good works and faithfulness to God, to avoid sin (Hebrews 10-19-25).

In case of mutual offenses and mutual repentance and confession to each other we can pray for each other, forgiving each other and accepting forgiveness from each other. Imagine how that would strengthen fellowship and bind us more closely to each other and to our mutual God and Savior.

I have often heard a person say, “I cannot forgive. Don’t ask me to forgive because I simply can’t do it.” That often only means the person does not want to do it. God doesn’t ask anything impossible of us. Remember, we are to forgive – we can and must forgive – what God has forgiven or will forgive. We cannot, with God’s approval, forgive anything He has not or will not forgive. When one says to another, “Go to hell,” he is saying he does not want that other person to escape but rather to suffer the pain and torment of eternal hell. Here’s a warning: one who wants other persons to go to hell and tries to make sure they will get there will probably end up in hell with them. Even God does not desire that anyone end in hell but wants all to come to knowledge and repentance and salvation and heaven (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). To have the spirit of Christ and the spirit of God we can and must forgive when it is proper to do so.

“I’m going to forgive you, but not yet. You’re going to pay dearly for what you’ve done to me. I’m going to include some special consequences. When I think you have suffered enough then I will forgive you.” Are you really qualified to judge what is appropriate punishment or how long it should last and if or how it can be terminated? “I’m going to forgive you, but I’ll never forget it – and I’ll make sure you don’t forget it either.” When God forgets sin He does not bring it up against the person again (Hebrews 8:12).

Let us reiterate: we must forgive as God forgives, as Christ forgives. It is not enough to forgive others as they forgive you – though you will probably receive the kind and degree of forgiveness you give to others. Take into account all mitigating and extenuating circumstances – be righteous, kind, loving, and merciful without sacrificing truth and justice.

We have suggested only a few of the factors that must be considered in forgiveness. There are others that require a more detailed and complete discussion that we can give here. So this is the penultimate – “next to last” – not the last word we will offer on the subject. We need to say more about third party forgiveness, about purgatory, about the need for specificity in confession, about being unable to sin (1 John 3:9), and especially about “sin unto death and sin not unto death” (1 John 5:16-18) and “unpardonable unforgivable” eternal sin. Can you tolerate one more chapter in this essay? — To be continued.

#geraldcowan #forgiveness