Thoughts on forgiveness, 2

February 22, 2008

After a long time, I’ve made some time to post a little more on forgiveness. The previous thought is here.

Part of the last post was how we should forgive. This time, should our forgiveness be universal or only for those who repent?

The New Testament teaches in many places on forgiveness. Our job, concerning this question, is to look at each one and determine which of the two options (or neither) is Biblically obedient to God. Now, of course, I do not have the room to review each one here. I will try to review several, hopefully representing both sides.

In Matthew 18:21-35 is our first example. Jesus has just finished His teaching on church discipline – what happens if your brother sins against you. Peter asks the question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v.21). Jesus responds that Peter should forgive many more times, endlessly even. He tells the parable where the king settles accounts with his slaves. In the end Jesus points out that God has forgiven us much more than any other person could owe us so we should take this example and forgive others. In each instance the forgiveness is given to someone who asks for it.

In Luke 17:3-4 we find deeper insight,

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.”

Jesus uses the word “and” here very effectively. Let’s look at both of them. In the first, our brother sins against us, we rebuke “and if he repents”. The second use is “and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent'”. There is a requirement before forgiveness. The “if… then” is only applied for those who repent. There is no obligation to our brothers who sin knowingly and do not repent. Repentance is necessary. We agree that repentance is necessary in salvation, to be reconciled with God. Why would it be different between us and our neighbors?

In Matthew 6:12-14 and Luke 11:4 we are told to forgive during our prayers. Some may consider these verses as examples of times we forgive the offenses of others despite their repentance. There are at least two responses to that argument: 1) these are more general commands, assuming repentance, passages like Luke 17:3-4, above, clarify; 2) this forgiveness tells of what your common practice is for those who come to you in repentance, you forgive (Matthew 6:12). We can see a progression in the way we forgive: the person repents; we forgive; we approach God in the our daily prayers with confidence that He will forgive us when we ask because we have forgiven those who ask it of us.

In Mark 11:25 and Luke 23:34 requests for forgiveness are made in prayer. In Mark, Jesus instructs us to forgive while we pray, “forgive, if you have anything against anyone”. This verse certainly seems different than waiting until someone repents to forgive them. How, then, can we address this verse?

As with all teaching, the answer is found at the cross. For Mark 11:25 we find our answer quite literally at the cross. While on the cross Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In accord with the command in Mark, Jesus prays that the Father forgive those that are crucifying Him. This is often used to refute withholding forgiveness until repentance is sought. But if this were not the case, if Jesus was not requiring the repentance of those people but forgiving their sins then all those who crucified Him would not be guilty, which Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and 3 denies. So what can we say about Jesus’ prayer here and His command in Mark 11:25?

These prayers are made when those who are in offense are not aware of their sin. In Mark all we know is that the person praying has something against another person. The illustration in Jesus’ own life shows us that the crowd thought they were doing God’s will (John 16:2). The guards were doing as they were told with who they were told was a criminal. The chief priests, not to excuse them in any way, thought they were securing their inheritance (Matthew 21:33-41, esp. v. 38, John 11:48). Jesus prays because He wants the Father to forgive all those that repent when/if they learn of their sin.

We are to do the same. When someone sins against us but does not know of their sin, we should pray that the Father will forgive them. But we are not able to shirk our duty to confront our brothers when they sin against us (Matthew 18:15). Instead, if we are unable to confront the person, or if the person is unsaved, etc. then we are to appeal to God that He forgive them. The majority of cases are much more clear. We wait expectantly, hopefully and actively (Matthew 18:15-17) for the person to repent then we wholeheartedly forgive.

Still to come, how do we relate those who do not seek forgiveness?


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