Man’s greatest need is forgiveness. It is so easy for Christians to forget what it meant for them to come to Christ and be forgiven. But a lively sense of having been forgiven is essential to vital Christian devotion; without it, one easily leaves his “first love” (Rev. 2:4). And, without it, he will tend to lack the forgiving attitude toward others that is essential to proper Christian living and to dealing with many counseling difficulties. It is important, therefore, for counselors to learn all they can about forgiveness; and they must also spend time remembering their own forgiveness and reminding counselees about the pit from which they were dug.1

Christians are forgiven people—and should be thankful for it; that’s what makes them unique. But this unique factor carries a responsibility with it: because they are forgiven, they must also become forgiving persons as Ephesians 4:32 says, “and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other just as God in Christ forgave you.”

Within the Christian community, there should be much forgiveness going on all the time. The Christian home, the church and the counseling room are also prime areas for both seeking and granting Christian forgiveness. On all fronts, a Christian should be a forgiving person who never forgets how God forgave him. Counselors must realize the importance of this and work toward it in every counselee’s life.

Matthew 18:23–35 is a graphic parable (to which we shall return later) that makes the Christian’s obligation to forgive plain. We are indebted to God—not the debt that Christ paid for us but—to forgive others, sharing with them the joys of the same sort of forgiveness that we have experienced.

Because it is so basic, there is a great emphasis on forgiveness in the Scriptures—not just Christ’s forgiveness of us, but also our forgiveness of others (cf. Matt. 5—where forgiveness leading to reconciliation takes precedence over worship; Matt. 18—where church discipline is plugged into the willingness/unwillingness of brothers to forgive one another; Matthew 5—where our parental forgiveness is conditioned upon willingness to forgive, etc.).

Christian counselors need to learn the biblical teaching about forgiveness; they must know the subject thoroughly, traversing the entire field again and again until they are entirely familiar with it. They must be well acquainted with the exegetical, theological and practical sides of the issue. That is why I have decided to devote so much space to this subject at this point. I can think of no more important subject for counselors to understand fully.

The church is riddled with holes out of which power is leaking. Many of these holes are difficulties of all sorts in the realm of interpersonal relations. And most of those have never been plugged because of a failure to understand, teach and enforce the principles of Christian forgiveness. Counseling is a secondary activity designed to enable Christians to engage freely in primary activities. It helps people to begin to live as Christ wants them to live by freeing them from the obstacles that hinder them. Counseling is not an end in itself. It makes people fit for serving Christ in missions, evangelism, teaching, worship, etc. The subject, therefore, is quite pertinent for today. There is a great opportunity, during this time of world chaos, political and personal confusion, human unrest, to spread the gospel widely. There are personnel and funds available—we must not miss this opportunity, but enter into it fully, NOW. But the one thing that could most readily keep us from doing so is a church weakened by unresolved internal difficulties, looking inwardly, licking its own wounds. That is why an all-out effort in counseling is the strategy for the present hour. And, that is why forgiveness is so important a subject for counselors to study. A high majority of counseling cases, in one way or another, involve forgiveness.

Jack Winslow, head of a large British mental institution, declared, “I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of forgiveness.”2 In my work in the mental institutions at Kankakee and Galesburg, Illinois, during the summer of 1965, I found this statement corroborated by my own experience. When Karl Menninger wrote the book, Whatever Became of Sin?, he set forth an interesting thesis. He reported a significant change that had occurred over his long lifetime. Years ago, people talked about sin; they don’t do so very much any more. It isn’t that sin has lessened, of course. Rather, it has been relabeled. What used to be understood as sin, now is called either crime or sickness. This change is significant because neither crime nor sickness can be forgiven. Crimes must be punished, sicknesses must be healed (or if that isn’t possible, excused). As the result of this change, there are all sorts of people today who have sinned and need forgiveness, but (as he puts it) can’t be forgiven. Menninger is right in this basic analysis, however wrong he may be in much else in the book (e.g., he thinks of sin only as wrongs against men; not against God!). There are many persons who know that something is wrong, something is missing, but they have been brainwashed into thinking it is something other than the need for forgiveness of sin. Until Christian counselors fearlessly tell them the truth—to call sin “sin” is the kindest approach possible—they will continue in their misery.

I propose, in what follows, first to investigate what the Bible says about forgiveness and then to show how God wants us to use biblical teaching in practical cases.

The Language of Forgiveness in the Scriptures

The Old Testament

There are two principal terms for forgiveness in the Old Testament with which every counselor must familiarize himself. The first is salach. This term is the basic one, and (therefore) the most important of the two. The fundamental idea in it is “to lighten by lifting.” It becomes connected with forgiveness when it is used to describe God lightening a person’s life by lifting the load of guilt from his shoulders. It is always used of God forgiving man (never man forgiving man) and is translated either “to forgive” or “to pardon.” The word is translated in the LXX (Septuagint) by the Greek word, aphiemi (this word will be discussed below) but usually by hileos eimi or hilaskomai, “to be propitious to” (cf. Luke 18:13).

The term has connotations of restoration of an offender to divine favor. There is always some flavor of atonement that adheres to it. Frequently it is quite closely connected to atonement: cf. Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 14, 15, 18. Atonement, in these passages, leads to forgiveness. I shall return to that theme at a later point. Hebrews 9:22 provides the classic New Testament commentary: “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.”

There are other sorts of references in which the word is used. To get the feel of salach, open your Bible to the following verses and follow the term through each reference. Some of these, you will discover, are very vital passages:

1.     Numbers 14:19, 20 (interestingly, here even though sins are forgiven, consequences of sin follow; this question must be treated later).

2.     Nehemiah 9:17

3.     Psalm 103:3

4.     Psalm 130:4. Here, notice, the opposite of forgiveness is keeping sin in mind. This is an important consideration, as we shall see presently.

5.     Isaiah 55:7

6.     Jeremiah 31:34. This critical passage is the one to which Christ refers when instituting the Lord’s Supper. Forgiveness, here, as the synonymous parallelism indicates, means not remembering sins any more (cf. Ps. 130:4).

There are other passages to which we could turn, but these, doubtless, are sufficient to convey the richness and importance of this vital word.

The second term is nasa. It, too, is translated “to forgive” or “to pardon.” The meaning is very close to salach; its special significance is “to take away by lifting up (or off).” While salach refers to the relief obtained from the lifting of the burden (of guilt), nasa focuses on taking away by lifting up. In other contexts, the word is used to speak of lifting up the eyes, head, face (Gen. 4:7), voice, heart or hand, of carrying a child, clothes, etc., of bearing fruit (as a tree), and of suffering, enduring. Of course, of importance to us is the idea of bearing away (or carrying off) sin.

Passages that give the flavor of the word include:

1.     Genesis 50:17. Note that this word includes man to man as well as God to man forgiveness. In this it differs markedly from salach.

2.     Exodus 34:6,7. Here God is forgiving man of iniquity, transgression and sin (note that the words for forgiveness are not used exclusively with any one term for sin).

3.     Psalm 32:1, 5. Forgiveness here is parallelled to covering. The original image in nasa (pardon by taking away) is eclipsed by the one in the context (pardon by covering). These are two ways of achieving the same end result: removal of sin. Comparing vss.1 and 5, it is significant to note that sin is covered by God only when it is uncovered by man.

4.     Hosea 1:6. The opposite of not forgiving = showing pity (cf. Ex. 34:6). There is a warmth about the word.

Perhaps even with these Old Testament studies alone it is beginning to become quite clear that the concept of forgiveness is rich. In the Scriptures the depth and breadth of the idea of forgiveness is vast; it is many faceted.

The New Testament

Again, in the New Testament, we shall study two words: aphiemi and charizomai. Of these, aphiemi is the principal term for forgiveness and in the LXX is related largely to salach. These Greek terms differ, yet have similarities. We shall consider aphiemi first.

Basically, aphiemi means “to let go, release or remit” (lit., to go off again). Similarity to the removal, lifting, etc., already discovered in the O.T. words is apparent. Yet, the figure varies slightly, as we shall see. The fundamental usage (as opposed to mere etymology) is for speaking of debts “forgiven” or cancelled (it can also be used for the release of a prisoner—where the idea of debt—he has a debt to pay for his crime—has not altogether vanished). The term is used in all sorts of legal-financial connections in the papyri, highlighting the concept of debt paid (or cancelled) in full. The Rosetta Stone (196 b.c.) has this phrase: eis telos apheken (“total remission” [of certain taxes]). The usage is quite typical.

The New Testament uses the word in this way, both literally and figuratively (cf. Matt. 18:27, 32; 6:12). The word aphiemi almost demands that the word “debt” follow it. When other words, like “trespasses” (Luke 7:41, 42) occur, they must be thought of in terms of the liabilities incurred. Trespasses place one in a place of debt; one is liable to God and likely to be called to account at any time; he is in a position where this obligation hangs over him at all times. In Acts 8:22, where we read of forgiving “the thoughts of hearts,” the idea is sinful thoughts. Sin is plainly considered debt, obligation leading to liability incurred. The release, remission, relief of an obligation removed is paramount in the concept.

Aphesis is the noun form of aphiemi. It means dismissal, release, forgiveness. Eleven times it is followed by the word “sins” (hamartia), and once by “tresspass” (Col. 1:14). Cf. Mark 3:29; Ephesians 1:7; Acts 5:31; 13:38; 26:18; Luke 4:18. (Here, and in the LXX of Lev. 25:10, etc., it speaks of the release from obligations during the year of jubilee.)

The other New Testament term is charizomai. This word comes from charis (favor, grace), and means to bestow forgiveness freely or unconditionally. The forgiveness is always undeserved by the one who receives it (he deserves to pay the penalty or debt). The gift of forgiveness cost the giver, not the receiver (cf. Eph. 4:32; Col. 2:13; 3:13; Luke 7:42, 43—here the debt was cancelled freely).

Perhaps a note about the English word, forgive, also is in order. The prefix for (not fore) is a negative that in one way or another negates the word to which it is affixed (in this case, the word give). It means “not to give,” to refrain from giving (one what he deserves—a punishment or penalty of some sort). Of course, for other than illustrational purposes, the etymology of this term carries no real significance for this study.

The Meaning of Forgiveness

At this point, in a preliminary way, I wish to discuss the meaning of forgiveness. I say in a preliminary way, because what I shall do here will be rough and not precise. Much that I say will have to be qualified, amplified, systematized and developed as we go along. I am not yet ready to define forgiveness in one crisp sentence, or even in a precisely worded paragraph. What I want you to discover, above all at this point, is that forgiveness is a large, multi-dimentional concept in the Bible.

Let us begin by contrasting forgiveness with its opposites. Often the best way to understand an idea is to discover what it is set over against. (Cf. heart—in the Bible we have seen how illuminating it is to discover that heart is set over against lips, hands, words, outer appearance, not over against the head.) How does the Bible speak of unforgiving, non-forgiving, refusal to forgive? To begin our study, we shall turn to

1. Mark 3:28–30:

Let Me assure you that all sorts of sins and blasphemies spoken by the sons of men will be forgiven them, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven [lit., “never have forgiveness”], but rather will be held guilty for committing an eternal sin (this He said because some had claimed, “He has an unclean spirit”).

This is the account of the famous unforgivable sin (for more details on this, cf. chap. 37, The Christian Counselor’s Manual). According to Jesus, “all sorts of sins”3 are forgivable. Only this one is unforgivable vs. 29). The phrase “sons of men” is a simple variant for “persons” or “human beings”; the word “blasphemy” means insulting speech. The unforgivable sin is not adultery, masturbation, divorce, etc. (as some counselees think), but, as the context makes clear, something quite different. In verse 30 we are told that it has to do with blaspheming (insulting) the Holy Spirit by calling Him an “unclean spirit.” Nothing could offend Him more. If there is one thing that characterizes the Holy Spirit, it is His holiness. He is the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 1:4) Who Himself is holy by nature and is the Source of all holiness among men and angels. Holiness is separateness (from sin so as to make one uniquely God’s).

Persons concerned about committing the unforgivable sin have never done so; persons who sin against the Holy Spirit oppose Him by turning God’s values upside down—they call evil good and good evil (cf. Isa. 5:20). They claim that the Holy Spirit is an unclean spirit (i.e., a demon). But, enough for the background. Let us see what (by contrast) the passage has to say about the meaning of forgiveness.

According to verse 29, they will never have forgiveness (aphesis). But what will they have? The second, contrasting portion of the verse tells us: “but rather [they] will be held guilty of an eternal sin.” An eternal sin is a sin that for eternity will never be forgvien, and its effects—eternal punishment—will be unending. That is the concrete result. But notice the rest of the clause: “will be held guilty of.” That is the construct that stands over against forgiveness as its opposite. One who is unforgiven is one held guilty; he is liable4 for his sin. The word, enochos, used here, means to be liable for or deserving of something (cf. 14:64, where the usage of the word is plainly seen: liable or deserving of death). A forgiven person, then, is one who is no longer held liable for his sin. He cannot be held accountable (cf. Rom. 3:19). Clearly, according to this usage, something is held against someone until he is forgiven. But when forgiveness occurs, he is freed from that condition; nothing is held against him any more. That liability to, or threat of punishment has been lifted, removed; it has been let go and has gone away.

2. Acts 7:60:

At the conclusion of Stephen’s speech, as he is being stoned to death, he prays, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them.” That is a prayer for forgiveness. Though the word forgiveness does not occur, there can be no mistaking the intent of the prayer; it is a sturdy echo of Christ’s prayer on the cross (“Father, forgive them…”—Luke 23:34). Here, Stephen’s exact words invite investigation. The prayer is negative; it is a request for God not to do the opposite of forgiveness, i.e., to hold their sin against them. Literally, the phrase, me stese autois, means “lay it not to them,” “set it not down to them,” or “let it not be made to stand against them.” So, forgiveness (again) is seen as a condition in which one’s sins are no longer charged against him.

In contrast, turn to II Chronicles 24:21, 22. Zechariah, like Stephen, is dying; he too is being stoned to death. But listen to his prayer: “Jehovah, look upon it and require it.” The word darash, translated “require,” means “to demand justice,” “avenge” or “vindicate.” It is to require a payment for what was done. The prayer is the opposite of Stephen’s. Zechariah asks God to hold them liable for what they are doing, to call them to account for it and to pay them back for it. Stephen asks for the opposite. Because the circumstances are so similar—even to the uttering of a prayer for the enemy—the contrast in the content stands out all the more. What made the difference? The Lord’s prayer from the cross had intervened; Stephen had a new model.

The result of forgiveness, then, is freedom from liability. A new outlook on life comes to the forgiven person. According to Jeremiah 50:20, even if one searches for sins, he won’t find them when God pardons (cf. Ps. 103:12). All remembrances, traces of liability are gone. The forgiven person has a brand new record—freed completely from his past. Unforgiven persons carry the past as a part of their present; the liability of unforgiven sin hangs over their heads. The future belongs to forgiven people; others drag their contaminating past into the future, wherever they go, and destroy it for themselves. They are always in jeopardy. Forgiveness secures both the present and the future.

3. Hosea 8:13; 9:9:

Hosea declares that God will remember their guilt and visit their sins. Remembering and visiting are paralleled; they are used synonymously. And, in comparing the two passages, it is clear that visiting is used synonymously with punishing. To visit, in the Bible, is to come in blessing or in judgment (as here). The word never means making house calls. as some have thought (see my Shepherding God’s Flock, vol. I, pp. 75–81, for a thorough study of the term). Here remembering, visiting, punishing all speak of God’s judgment on sinners. Remembering is used as it is in III John 10. John is saying not merely that he will keep in mind what Diothrophes has done, but that he will deal with him on that basis; i.e., he will hold him liable for his evil deeds and punish him (perhaps by excommunication, perhaps in other ways) for them. The threat of such punishment is lifted for the forgiven person.

The Basis for Forgiveness

(Some Theological Considerations)

Having said that forgiveness is free to the receiver,5 I immediately balanced that remark with the truth that forgiveness costs the one who grants it. Let’s explore this fact and some of its ramifications.

First, it is crucial to recognize that God’s forgiveness isn’t an overlooking of sin, a by-passing of liability or a winking at guilt. It is not a pardon that is easy to give and costs nothing. Forgiveness was purchased at the cost of Christ’s life. Forgiveness cost God His only Son. Hebrews 9:22 (cf. 10:18) declares that there is no forgiveness apart from the shedding of blood. This is bedrock; it may be neither doubted nor questioned by Christian counselors (remember how closely atonement is linked to forgiveness in Lev. 4, 5).

Of special importance is Matthew 26:28, where we are told that at the institution of the Lord’s Supper Jesus spoke of “My blood of the covenant that is poured out for many for the remission [aphesis = forgiveness] of sins.” The purpose, intention (or goal) of Christ’s death was to bring about the forgiveness of sins. Never, in theology, in counseling or anywhere else, may those two factors be separated.

Liberals ask questions like, “Why an atonement? Why the blood? Why a sacrifice for sins? Why doesn’t God simply cancel the debt and remove the liability? Why do you say that He hinges forgiveness to atonement?”

The question is important. Why did our forgiveness cost God His Son? Because God is holy and righteous as well as merciful and compassionate. Both sides of God’s person must be satisfied. In Romans 9:22, 23 we are told that God wanted to demonstrate both His wrath and His mercy. Both can be seen in all of God’s dealings with individuals and nations.6

As a God of order and righteousness Who rules His world with equity, Jehovah ordained His laws and set forth the penalties for those who violate them. He may not let man go scott free therefore; He must exact the penalties that He has required. He may not upset His own order, waive His former concerns and change His mind. His justice must be satisfied. God’s wrath over the personal and legal aspects of man’s sin must be appeased. Man not only broke God’s laws; he also offended God as a Person. Christ, by His active and passive obedience had to live the life God’s holiness required and die the death this justice exacted. Because of these facts, the loving merciful, substitutionary death of Christ has made it possible for God to be just and the Justifier of those who trust Christ for forgiveness (Rom. 3:24–26). Mercy and wrath kissed at the cross.

If I were to punch you in the nose, then ask someone sitting next to you to forgive me, that wouldn’t do. It is you—not he—that I have offended, and I must have your forgiveness. He can’t forgive me; only the one I have sinned against can do that. Forgiveness is a transaction that always involves the two parties involved in the offense. Jesus Christ wasn’t a third party, sitting by; He was God manifest in the flesh. God Himself—one of the interested parties—bore the cost by taking the penalty upon Himself. In this way, all is satisfied that should be. In contrast, the liberal view amounts to little more than a toleration or a condoning of sin.

Close to that liberal approach (in effect, if not in intention) is the view of the Christian psychologizers who equate acceptance with forgiveness. David Augsburger’s book, The Freedom of Forgiveness, offers a fair sample of what is being said to the Christian public on a popular level:

Christ’s way was the way of giving forgiveness even before asked. … To live forgiveness is to give wholehearted acceptance to others. There is no forgiveness without genuine acceptance of the other person as he is…. Forgiveness is acceptance with no exception.7

The truth is that Christ’s prayer on the cross for forgiveness (to which the first Augsburger quotation refers) was not forgiveness itself, as he claims (“that’s forgiveness”8) but a prayer to God to forgive. Christ, of course had in view all that would happen to bring about that forgiveness; indeed, the death He was dying at the moment was the core of it all. To separate Christ’s prayer on the cross from His crucifixion as Augsburger seems to do in this place is a tragic mistake.

We must not—as Christ certainly did not (otherwise, why did He die)—accept the other person “as he is.” To do so, to forget all about sin unatoned for and unconfessed (not properly dealt with) is not biblical. We forgive—and on that basis accept (I shall have much more to say about this and about granting forgiveness later on). Biblical forgiveness is conditional; it is not to be equated with Rogerian acceptance (“unconditional positive regard”). There is no basis whatever for that—except bad theology; the theology of Carl Rogers, who believes that at the core of his being man is essentially good.

Forgiveness never ignores sin, or tolerates it (accepting the other person as he is); rather, forgiveness is forgiveness of sin (seen to be, acknowledged and repented of as sin). Forgiveness focuses on the fact that there was an offense; it does not turn away from this fact but deals with it. Psychological doctrines of acceptance are cheap substitutes for forgiveness that deny the need for and efficacy of Christ’s atonement—men can accept one another apart from that. Acceptance makes no demands; it is unrealistic, naive. Men are sinners and cannot be handled by acceptance.

Acceptance attempts (at best) a neutralism toward sin. I say attempts because it isn’t really possible to be neutral about sin. Sin is against God, and it isn’t possible to be neutral about God, Who has been offended by sin. Nonjudgmental attitudes actually condone and encourage sin. To accept a sinner as he is, means to say God was wrong in sending Christ to die for sinners in order to change them. God took sin so seriously that He punished His own Son with death for sin. If God punishes sin, we may not accept sinners as they are.

To say God forgives sin is true. But in saying it that way, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is sinners from whom the liability of guilt is lifted. God punishes persons and He forgives persons. Some try to distinguish between sin and the sinner: “God hates sin; loves the sinner.” Such separation isn’t possible. God sends sinners to hell; they, not their sin, are punished eternally. Christ, not the sin He bore, suffered and died on the cross. We are concerned in counseling about the liability to unforgiven persons; sinners. It does no good to obscure facts with trite sayings. Sinners need forgiveness.

It is important to use the word sinner in counseling when speaking of sin. It is not that we want to go around condemning people as sinners; that’s not the point at all. What we want to do or don’t want to do is beside the point. The only question is, What does God want us to do? The answer to that is plain: call sin sin. Only then can we point people to the forgiveness that is in Jesus Christ. Sin can be forgiven (mental illness, sickness cannot). Christianity is a religion based on forgiveness. The counseling that never speaks of sin and forgiveness, therefore, is not Christian—no matter what label it bears. Away, then, with the views of liberals and Christians who are psychologizers of Scripture! Let us return to the biblical basics.

“But didn’t Jesus pray for His persecutors?” Yes. “Didn’t He ask His Father to ‘forgive them’?” Yes. “Did He?” Yes. “When? How?” Some were forgiven on the Day of Pentecost as the result of Peter’s sermon; but not apart from conviction of sin (cf. Acts 2:37), and not apart from the message of salvation.9 They had to repent and believe the gospel. Forgiveness came to them as the result of the atonement; not apart from it. These facts must be borne in mind by Christian counselors at all times when counseling. But the matter of guilt and the conviction of sin raises another matter with which (unfortunately) I must deal in some detail because of wrong views that have been insinuated into biblical circles by modern psychologizers of the Scriptures.

The Place and Purpose of Guilt in Christian Counseling

In order to pursue this matter as fully as possible, contrasting biblical teaching with modern distortions, with the hope of arriving at the place where God wants us to be, I shall focus for a time largely upon a book co-authored by Bruce Narramore and Bill Counts, called Guilt and Freedom (recently changed to Freedom from Guilt).10 This book sets up most of the issues among Christian counselors concerning the place and purpose of guilt. I shall set forth some of its leading concepts, react to them and attempt to compare and contrast these with what the Scriptures teach. The book represents—and, perhaps, best sets forth—what has become a dominant strain of evangelical thought about guilt and forgiveness.

We must deal with guilt in depth because of its close relationship to forgiveness. The two can never be separated without peril. Forgiveness involves guilt; it presupposes guilt. Guilt is culpability for wrong done to God or God and man. All the words for forgiveness, as we have seen, have to do with lifting the burden of guilt, with canceling the debt charged to our account, with removing what was held against us. Narramore and Counts (from now on referred to as N/C) have chosen to discuss a very important subject; the only problem is that they try to lead us into a freedom from guilt by a way that, while purporting to be biblical, is not.

What is the purpose of guilt? N/C claim that guilt fails to achieve any good purposes. This is a strange claim to those who know their Bibles. The Bible, throughout, assumes what we have all experienced: that God made us so that we have a sense of guilt11 whenever we are guilty of wrongdoing. That is to say, the awareness that one has done wrong leads to bad feelings. The conscience (the capacity for self-awareness and self-judgment, leading to self-condemnation or exoneration) in such situations triggers bad feelings in order to warn us that something is wrong and must be dealt with. That is the standard, traditional viewpoint that most Christians have taken of the totality of biblical teaching: A sense of guilt is an alarm and motivating factor to lead us to repentance.

Not so, say N/C. They want to exchange all that sort of thinking for (what they say is) a more scriptural stance toward this question. They speak of people who adopt the traditional position as playing (or being in danger of playing) what they call “guilt games.” Because of the sense of guilt (which they see as altogether wrong), Christians do such supposedly improper things as trying “to obey the Bible to the hilt,” “admitting” their wrong and “asking forgiveness.”12 But this is “too hard,” they tell us, and (anyway) many confess sin only to get rid of bad feelings.13 Then, N/C say, all of this leads to “a solid conclusion—guilt doesn’t work”14 (the sense of guilt is what they are speaking about, remember). This solid conclusion, however, constitutes a frontal attack upon the structure of man as God made him, and much of what God is up to in His relationships to men if the traditional understanding of the Bible is correct. To say that guilt is a “total failure,” as we are informed on page 33, certainly goes pretty far, and assures us that what we are reading is not a slight modification of previously held concepts, or a warning about abuses of them, but a radical and absolute denial of traditional interpretations and an attack leveled at them because they see those interpretations as seriously wrong and dangerous. That, in fact, is exactly what N/C are up to: they want to supplant the former view with their own newer conception. What must we say about all this?

First, if N/C are correct, God must have wrongly made us. Forgiveness and confession of sin are but a farce on the N/C system. They are merely words, drained of all their essential content, into which new and strange meanings have been poured. Words are both misunderstood and misconstrued; psychological content has been sewn up in them after pulling out their biblical stuffings.

It is always important to ask (particularly in the field of Christian counseling) whether the writer derives the meanings he gives to words as well as his ideational constructs from the Bible through hard exegetical work designed to yield the correct biblical usage, or whether he obtains them from an outside source. Are the terms used as their biblical writers used them, or have they been shaped by the author of the book to fit a system of thought that he brings to the Bible? Narramore accepts a good bit of Freudianism; does his Freudianism influence his interpretation of the Bible? The answer is yes; many of the key scriptural terms have been reworked to fit a modified Freudianism. The pigeon-holes are set up; Bible verses and terms are then tucked into them.

Though at times (of course) guilt is ineffective—the Bible itself teaches that a sense of guilt doesn’t always (or even most of the time) lead to repentance among men—that doesn’t mean that it is wrong, or even ineffective. Because the majority head down the broad way to destruction, does that mean that salvation is ineffective? God’s prophets plead, try to arouse a sense of guilt, etc., but often the people will not heed. That doesn’t mean that guilt as a motivator is a failure; it means that people may harden their hearts—even to such strong feelings within. Moreover, to call the sense of guilt a “total failure” is far from the truth; the Scriptures are replete with evidence to the contrary. And such language is not only an attack upon a system, it amounts to a debunking of God’s own approach; throughout history God has used this method (often very successfully!).

Again, to say that a sense of guilt was not built into man, but came only through parental training (N/C) denies the obvious fact that Adam fled, covered up, blameshifted, etc., out of a sense of guilt. Who was Adam’s parent? He had none. Unless you want to say that God socialized a sense of guilt into him by His command, warning and penalty, you must say it was innate. Either way, the Source was God, not human parents. When God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?”. He refers to the awakening of the sense of guilt that Adam’s conscience brought upon him when he sinned. Conscience—the capacity for self-evaluation and self-judgment—had been there from the beginning, but until Adam sinned had always rendered a positive judgment about his actions and attitudes. Now, with the sin, his conscience began to accuse him and turned loose within him a feeling of misery that we call the sense of guilt. So, then, even if the majority of sinners proclaim that their sense of guilt doesn’t motivate them (this is questionable, however; it could be demonstrated that unsaved persons are motivated by this sense of guilt to do all sorts of wrong things), that misuse of the sense of guilt does not make it an improper motivating force (cf. Rom. 3:4). Norms cannot be set by how many people do or don’t do something; we do not vote to determine what is and what isn’t righteous—God tells us. The sense of guilt as a motivator, in a man who is basically oriented toward pleasing God, does work—quite well!

What do the Scriptures themselves have to say about these matters? Psalm 51 sets forth the traditional view:

Vs. 1. Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: according to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.15

This is a penitential psalm. After David sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba, and Nathan exposed his sin in the nouthetic encounter recorded in II Samuel 12:10, he wrote this psalm. In it he describes the misery of the period during which he impenitently refused to confess his sin. The entire psalm exposes the inner misery of a man suffering from a sense of guilt. This prepared him for the final confession to God when Nathan came.

Vs. 3. I am conscious of my transgressions and my sin is ever in mind.

He cannot get away from his guilt; it gnaws at him. The sense of sin dogs him day and night. Now notice the next verse:

4. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Thy sight; so that Thou are justified in Thy sentence and pure in Thy judging.

Was God simply smiling at David with no barrier between except those wrongly erected by David himself? Was God accepting and nonjudgmental? That is what N/C want us to believe, as they say later in the book. But look at the text—God had judged and sentenced David. It looks as if there was a charge against him; he was liable to punishment. God declared David guilty, and David said that He was justified and pure in doing so. Who is right? David or N/C? Now look at verses 8 and12:

8. Cause me to hear joy and gladness, so that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

12. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation.…

Clearly, David knew that it was God who brought the misery he was suffering into his life; it was not some residue of poor parental socialization. It was God Who broke his bones (a figurative expression denoting severe misery occasioned by excruciating pain. Few things cause such sharp pain as broken bones). That sounds like more than the “constructive sorrow” of which N/C will speak later on.

17. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and penitent heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (cf. Ps. 34:18).

God desires broken hearts and spirits in His sinning children (cf. Joel 2:13).16 He brings misery to break their rebellion, pride and self-centeredness. Brokenness, humility, is not wrong, but to be sought. Who breaks the spirit and heart? God Himself. But He breaks them not to leave them that way, as Isaiah said (58:15: He “t; cf. also Ps. 147:3).

God appreciates broken hearts in sinners; N/C tell us God doesn’t want them to feel bad. They say that when you sin you ought not to feel guilty; instead, you ought to rejoice because of what God has done for you in Christ. There should be no pangs of guilt at all. Clearly, David and N/C are at odds.

But if Psalm 51 tells us that a sense of guilt is proper, Psalm 38 even more strongly says the same thing. I shall not quote the psalm or even verses from it. Surely, there is no indication that God smilingly accepted him in his sin, non-judgmentally looking upon him with favor, with no barriers between.17 Rather we read of God’s “indignation,” “hot displeasure,” etc. That’s quite a difference. God Himself has been shooting arrows into David (not literally, of course, but in judgment); His hand has been resting heavily on David. Plainly, God was actively bringing misery into David’s life because of his sin. There is no other way to read the psalm. The misery of the sense of guilt is vividly expressed in verses 2–10; nothing could be added to make the situation seem more miserable. It is all summed up in one succinct phrase: “I am anxious because of my sin” (vs. 18b). What is going on here? God was at work bringing David to repentance. God was chastening him, and if there ever was a picture of the sense of guilt, it is in this psalm. And the misery of guilt could be removed only by confession (vs. 18a).18

N/C try to separate what they call “theological guilt” (culpability) from what they call “psychological guilt” (the sense of guilt). The first, they call “and objective fact”; the second, a subjective “feeling” (p. 34). This distinction is neat, easy and convenient; the sinner’s standing is seen entirely apart from his state. Of course, there is a logical, paper disjunction that may (must) be made for the sake of analysis. But unless one’s conscience has been “seared with a hot iron” and he is “past feeling,” I would like someone to tell me how a Christian makes the distinction in actual life. David couldn’t, Paul couldn’t, Peter couldn’t. How can a true believer, who basically seeks to please God, acknowledge his guilt as an objective fact and not in some way be inwardly moved by it? (cf. Ps. 38:18). A plainer invitation to antinomian Pharisaism hardly could be imagined. The doctrine is dangerous. In counseling, should it catch on, it could cause much damage. Fortunately, so far it does not seem to have been accepted widely.

N/C do allow for something that they call “constructive sorrow”19 (taken from II Cor. 7:8–10), but they say that it doesn’t “involve feelings of self-condemnation.”20 In discussing their obedience to his former letter regarding an offender, Paul does make a distinction between two kinds of pain: worldly pain and godly pain (vs. 10). The word lupe, sometimes translated “sorrow,” is the standard word for pain. Paul’s letter was so painful; he almost regretted sending it (that doesn’t sound like taking a purely “objective” view of their sin!). But because of the results (God used it to produce pain leading to repentance) he was glad he did. This was a very painful sorrow that produced such results (among those for whom it was appropriate21) as “fear” and “mourning” (i.e., wailing, lamentation—vs. 7). And its results were effective. The description is not of a mild, objective response with some slight sorrow attached that led to constructive action. Rather, the reaction was intense! tense! The entire section rings with strong emotion. The distinction is not between two kinds of sorrows—different in intensity;22 rather it is between two kinds of sorrows—both painful experiences that differ in source and result. The sorrow that came from the world led to further sin, only to be the cause of further regret and sorrow; that which came from God led to good results, never to be regretted. The problem was not whether there was fear (there may be fear for different reasons) or not, but why the painful experience occurred. Godly sorrow led to self-condemnation among offenders all right, but that motivated them to repentance. In other words, godly sorrow over the guilt of one’s offenses can be successful in leading to repentance. It is interesting that in the N/C book on guilt there is virtually nothing said about repentance. Of course, that is consistent with the basic viewpoint of the book. There is really no place for biblical repentance; that is why the concept is missing. Biblical repentance always requires self-condemnation; confession of wrongdoing toward God. But this godly sorrow, Paul says, led to repentance.

Triumphantly N/C say, “The Bible … never tells us to feel psychological guilt” (p. 36). Of course, this is true, technically speaking, because it doesn’t use those terms. But the argument is specious. The whole Bible stresses the need for sinning Christians to become aware, of, feel sorry about and repent of sin. There is no call for morbid introspection; the sorrow always should lead quickly to repentance. Perhaps James sums up the biblical position as simply as any writer:

Be distressed and sorrow and cry; let your laughter be turned to sorrow and your gladness to dejection. Be humbled before the Lord and He will exalt you (James 4:9, 10).

So God never wants us to feel bad! So He never erects barriers to be removed by repentance! Nonsense!

N/C say that the “feeling” [regularly, they confuse judgments that lead to bad feelings with feelings themselves] that “ I have failed; I should have done better” is wrong (p. 34). In other words, repentance for a believer is wrong (the essence of repentance is to acknowledge the fact that one has failed God and must do differently in the future). But I ask, was Jesus wrong when, again and again, in the letters to the seven churches, He calls Christians to repentance? Look at some of the detailed directions and comments that He gives along with that call.

In Revelation 2:4–5, Jesus tells the Ephesian believers, “I have this against you” (vs. 4—a phrase used throughout these letters). But to have (or hold) something against someone (we have seen in our discussion of forgiveness) is to hold him guilty. N/C have no place for this; there can be no barriers from God’s side. Yet over and over in these letters Jesus erects this sort of barrier. Someone—Jesus or N/C—is wrong! The solution to the problem (i.e., what removes the barrier Christ erected) is not simply to smile and thank God that all is well in Christ, but to repent (vs. 5)!

When N/C claim that God doesn’t want us to have a sense of guilt arising from our sinful failures and that He doesn’t motivate us by this sense of guilt, by feelings of “lowered self-evaluation” or by “fear of punishment” (vs. 33), what do they do with the following passages?

1. Revelation 2:20–22. Is the “great affliction” of verse 22 to be feared? If so, why—if not to motivate to change? Why are there such warnings throughout these seven letters, and elsewhere in the Bible?

2. Revelation 3:2, 3. So, God doesn’t want us to say, “I have failed”? Why tell the saints in Sardis, “I haven’t found a thing that you have done complete before my God”? They are to “wake up” and “strengthen” the few bits and pieces that they have left—which are “about to die”—or else (warning) He will visit them in judgment (“as a thief”). If Jesus hasn’t been painting a picture of failure, what has He been doing? Nothing was done completely—everything they started they didn’t finish, they ruined along the way, etc. Very little worthwhile left—and that about to die: there is a picture of almost total failure. And for failing—unless they repent—Jesus warns them to watch out for a judgment upon their church (motivation by the sense of guilt and fear—just what N/C deny).

3. Revelation 3:16, 17. There must not be “lowered self-evaluation,” say N/C. Here Jesus says, “You’re lukewarm” and you make Me sick; “I’m going to vomit you out of my mouth” (vs. 16). Just the words themselves tend to lower self-esteem (Haim Ginott, et al., would say talk about the act; not about the person; Jesus doesn’t follow that advice at all)! But that isn’t all; listen to what else He says, “… you say, ‘I am rich … and have need of nothing’” (vs. 17). Then He continues, “and don’t know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked” (vs. 17). If words ever were calculated to lower one’s sense of self-worth, these words were.

4. Revelation 3:19. Here, in our last reference to the seven letters (there is plenty more; I simply don’t want to waste space), Jesus sums up His purposes and methods; He lets us know what He is up to in writing such things: “I convict and discipline those about whom I care; so be zealous and repent.” When N/C speak about conviction and discipline, it looks quite different from what we discover in these letters. In fact, we can say (without the slightest fear of contradiction by unbiased readers) that Jesus and N/C are on opposite sides of this issue.

But notice it is pastoral “care” that Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, is exercising in such treatment of His flock. But that care is so deep that He will not countenance for one moment sins that destroy lives. Instead, by calling sin “sin,” by crushing pride, by warning of potential punishment, by calling to repentance, Jesus wishes to bring conviction that motivates a sense of sorrow over guilt and leads to change. He didn’t just smile and let it all pass by.

So, then, does God “make us feel guilty” as N/C put it (p. 36)? Is it possible to have what they call “guilt-free living” (p. 37)? No. Not when Jesus treats us that way. And, thank God we can’t—we would be totally unconcerned about God if we lived that way. Now, when they speak of “guilt-free living,” they aren’t simply saying that if we didn’t sin we could live guilt-free. No; exactly not that! We would all agree to that (theoretically possible) fact. What they are saying, N.B., is that even while living a life in which we go on sinning we can still live guilt-free (i.e., free from the sense or feeling of guilt)!23 Such thinking does not square with God’s encouragement of a broken spirit and penitent (lit., “crushed”) heart (Ps. 51:7).

We have been looking at some prime issues raised by N/C. What do they offer in addition on their non-judgmental system? With what would they replace the traditional view of Scripture? With what they admit is a view that “may seem incredibly far out” (p. 36). I can only concur in this estimate; their view is far out—outside the Bible. They warn against preaching and counseling that (they claim) dumps guiltloads on people. Instead, as the title of the book says, they claim to free Christians from a sense of guilt. How (we have already seen much of the system)?

1. By reminding us that what Christ has done for us should bring us a glorious self-image. This fact should carry us safely through sin-experiences, guilt-free (i.e., free from “psychological guilt” = the sense of guilt). John Bettler has pointed out (see note 23 for source) that what we need isn’t a good or bad self-image, but an accurate one. Then, we can deal with our problems. Good self-images cannot be pumped up by telling yourself how great you are in Christ or by trying to ignore the consequences of your sin before God. True, in Christ we are perfect; and that is important. It is even very important for a Christian to know that this is true. But that doesn’t alter the fact that in ourselves we are far from perfect. Justification (what we are in Christ) must not be confused with sanctification (what we are in ourselves). What we are in Christ gives us no warrant for ignoring the actual guilt in our own lives today, nor for not feeling bad over it. Indeed, if anything, it should increase our sense of guilt. If we have already achieved something in Christ that we are failing to do in ourselves, we know that it isn’t necessary for us to fail. In Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 Paul’s constant argument is that since you have something in Christ, you know you can have it in yourselves. He reasons: “Be (in yourselves24) what you are (already in Christ); your state must measure up to your standing.” So this argument—confusing sanctification with justification—fails.

2. Next, N/C say, “We are so valuable … that Christ paid the ultimate price to restore us to fellowship with God” (p. 49). Is that why Christ died? Was it because we were so valuable He couldn’t bear to lose us? Was the incarnation like Jesus crawling around on His knees in the mud trying to retrieve as many precious pearls as He can? No! Where is the vaunted N/C emphasis upon grace? There was nothing in us weak (no power), sinful (lawbreakers) enemies (who opposed Him) to commend us to Christ. Our salvation is wholly of grace. We deserve nothing but the opposite. What makes us valuable is Christ’s death; N/C have the trailer before the car! What God told Israel again and again when their self-image began to balloon was, “I didn’t choose you because you were any better than anyone else.” Unless N/C believe God thought all human beings were lost pearls, what they say leads again to pharisaical views (of course, if they do think all are pearls, they must think Christ failed, since most of the “pearls” go rolling down the broad road that leads to destruction). Salvation is by grace.

3. Again, N/C prove themselves bad theologians when they say that not all that is good comes from God (p. 52). Some (wrongly, they claim) teach that all good comes from God and none from us. Rather, N/C affirm, much comes from us. They ask, “At what point does God end and we begin” (p. 52)? No theologian would put the question that way (again, we see the importance of theology rather than psychology as the basis for counseling): God never “ends”! All the good that we do (and, against Charles Solomon, we do it; Christ doesn’t do it for us, instead of or in place of us), we do by God’s direction and strength provided for us in the Word and by the Spirit.

We may contrast several wrong views:

Charles Solomon
N/C25 Self-Help
God does all good through Christ in us. He does more as we cease trying and let Him do it for us. God does some good; we do some good. Neither does all. We do all good by our own strength (this view is the straw man that no evangelicals hold, but all fight against).

N/C stand in a mediating position between two faulty views. But it also is a false resolution of the problems presented by each. Rather, the biblical view looks like this:

Biblical View
All the good we do,
we do by God’s wis–
dom and strength.

This view is based on the fact that God everywhere commands us (not Christ in us) to believe and to obey, but also says we can do so only by His grace (wisdom and strength). See Philippians 2:13; 4:13; Colossians 1:11. I shall not take the space to discuss the question more fully.

4. We are to love ourselves, say N/C (p. 63). They write: “And we love ourselves because he [God] tells us to.” I shall say nothing more on this point than to observe that there is not a single command in the Bible to love ourselves; the statement is completely false. For a discussion of the false psychologizing view that we should love ourselves, see thorough treatments in my books, The Christian Counselor’s Manual, pp. 142–144, and Matters of Concern, pp. 91–98.

5. N/C assure us that God never punishes His children. This idea of punishment (the threat of punishment that forgiveness removes), we are informed, is only a hangover from childhood. Their essentially Freudian approach is plain throughout: Parents (and others) punished us in childhood, and now as “adults we continue to expect punishment” (p. 69). That’s why we fear God will punish us. Are we “totally free from punishment” (p. 69) as N/C say? Is “all punishment” removed in Christ (p. 68) as they claim? Much must be said about this important issue before we have finished with it, but I shall respond only minimally at this point. N/C agree that God disciplines us, but see this as “entirely different” from punishment. Punishment, they say, is “payment for misdeeds” (p. 70), and Christ paid the penalty for these. God only corrects His children to remove faults, and that correction does not involve punishment. What N/C want to remove is all the elements of a sense of guilt and all fear that God would do something unpleasant to His children to motivate them (we have already responded to these views—cf. especially the discussion of Christ’s dealings with the Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor).26

All of us agree that God won’t punish us as He did Christ. We all agree that anything that God does is for His honor and our welfare—not to make us pay for our misdeeds. Punishment, however, isn’t to be restricted to payment (see note 26); it is fundamentally unpleasantness, pain, etc. But the goal of the unpleasantness may differ. Correction and discipline include some form of unpleasantness (cf. Heb. 12:5–11), despite what N/C want us to believe. Juggling terms does not change facts. Discipline is “painful” and it is unpleasant (12:11); the Scriptures themselves tell us so. He “whips every son” (12:6). The same punitive restrictions may be placed upon one person in order to make him pay that might be placed upon another to correct him. But to deny that (for their good) God does make it unpleasant—often very unpleasant—for His children, is to fly in the face of all of Scripture.

Punishment is a part of discipline (the “rod”), but not all of it. There are two sides to discipline (Eph. 6):

(1) nurture
and (2) admonition

which are the same as the O.T.

(1) rod
and (2) reproof.

These two concepts mean (as the usage of both O.T. and N.T. terms indicate):

(1) structured discipline with teeth: reward and punishment.
(2) counsel: confrontation with the claims of Christ, motivating child out of love for Him.

Both sides always must be present to be biblical. So far as I can see, N/C limit us to the first half of the first concept: reward. And, Paul tells us, we are to bring up our children in the discipline and nouthetic confrontation of the Lord. That means we are to follow God’s example in disclipining us as we discipline our children. Clearly, then, this is how God disciplines us.

There is no eternal, judicial punishment in view, of course. But for the good of the children, for the welfare of the whole family, and for the sake of the family name, God uses parental punishment. This disciplinary punishment can be quite severe at times. Cf. I Corinthians 11:27–32: N.B., they “will be held guilty” (vs. 27)—a state needing forgiveness, as we have seen—“judged” (vss. 30–32, 34) and “disciplined.” And according to verse 32 the Lord “disciplines” by “judging.” Notice the judgment (vs. 30): some were weak, others sick, and a number had been put to death (the beautiful Christian figure is “slept”). Cf. also II Corinthians 10:6; Colossians 3:25; Matthew 18:21–25.27

Forgiveness in the Bible grows out of a genuine sense of guilt, contrary to all that N/C have to say. The forgiveness package contains all the elements that we have seen, and must not be depleted.

6. N/C discuss the question of what happens when a believer sins (pp. 82ff.). As expected, they say

a.     If he feels a sense of guilt, that is wrong.

b.     If he thinks that God requires repentance to be in fellowship with Him again, this is simply his “own mental gymnastics” (p. 83) and not true to the facts.

c.     God has erected no barriers; only the counselee has done so in his own mind. He gets what he expects in this regard (p. 84).

d.     God is only totally accepting. He doesn’t condemn, judge, punish, etc. He isn’t alienated (I John 1:7–9 is ignored along with I Sam. 59:12).

e.     It is only that sins have “built-in consequences” (p. 87). These, not God, are what punish us. N/C write, “… every sin has some harmful effect on our physical or emotional lives.” What we have here is a deistic approach: God Himself does not punish, but He has gone off and mechanically allowed His creation to do so for him.

f.     There is also “false guilt” (pp. 119ff.): “Most of us feel guilty over a number of things God doesn’t consider sins.” I shall not comment on this since I have done so elsewhere.28

g.     “Guilt feelings aren’t the voice of God at all” (p. 122), but “always the products of our early family training.” They are “the devil’s tool. They do not come from God” (p. 123). We have already discussed this subject in some depth, but only as one additional factor consider Ezekiel 36:25–31, where believers “loathe” themselves after repentance and restoration (cf. also Ezek. 20:42, 43).

h.     Conviction means being shown sins and urged to change (p. 124).

i.     One confesses to avoid guilt; confession is catharsis (pp. 131, 132). It is a matter of getting things out so that one feels better—it merely has to do with feelings, not with our relationship to God (p. 134). I shall not discuss this error further, since I have commented on it earlier. I shall say more about confession later.

So, we have seen the modern view of N/C (and a number of others who hold similar views) and have found that there is no biblical basis for it. I have taken the time and space to treat this viewpoint in detail because of the possibility that it may grow even more widely in Christian circles than it has in the past. If it does, you will be prepared to answer it.

Biblical Teaching

By way of contrast, I have already said much about what the Bible teaches on the subject of guilt as it relates to forgiveness as well as having done some basic biblical studies in a rough, preliminary way. It is now time to dig in more deeply, and tie together what has been learned systematically with what has been discovered thus far. That is what I propose to do at this point.

Let us begin, therefore, by grappling with the questions that N/C seek (but fail) to answer: What about forgiveness after forgiveness, punishment after punishment, repentance after repentance? Doesn’t the traditional view, from which they depart, deny the once-for-all work and efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection? If we are forgiven in Christ, why repent, confess sin and seek forgiveness again? If He bore the penalty for our sin, taking the punishment on Himself, why should believers fear any future punishment at all? Those are the questions to which N/C unsuccessfully address themselves. We can commend them for raising these issues, because they are important to counselors.

I have been referring to the “traditional view”; perhaps it is time to state it clearly. I suppose that it is no more plainly set forth than in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. XI, “Justification,” sec. 5:

God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon and renew their faith and repentance.

Without a doubt, the N/C book constitutes a direct attack upon that view—in general, and at every particular point.

We have seen that the N/C view is unscriptural, and that the Westminster view is thoroughly biblical. But we have not (as yet) dealt with the central problem of forgiveness after forgiveness—how can that be?

Let us turn to the teaching on forgiveness that accompanies the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:12b, 14, 15). Remember, throughout this sermon—of which this teaching is a part—Jesus is instructing His people about life in His community. He does not address unbelieving, unforgiven persons, but (rather) those who (by following His directions) can have righteous living that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.

Look at verse 4—“Your Father …”; verse 6—“your Father …”; verse 8—“your Father …”; and verse 9—“Our Father.” The entire context has to do with God’s children speaking to, and living in relationship with, their heavenly Father. They could not have missed that point; the language is far too explicit. Nor should we do so today. Similarly, in verses 14, 15, the forgiveness (or lack of it) about which Jesus speaks comes from a father. It is a matter of the heavenly Father forgiving (or withholding forgiveness from) His child. There is no question that, throughout, Jesus is speaking to forgiven (justified) persons about forgiving justified persons. In short, Jesus advocates forgiveness after forgiveness. And—don’t miss this point—this prayer (including a prayer for forgiveness) and the discussion of it (vss. 14, 15) was designed to deal with the common, everyday events in the lives of forgiven persons. How can this be? How can truly justified persons need daily forgiveness?

Before answering that question, let me make one further observation. The point of giving the prayer was to provide a how-to pattern of brevity.29 The Gentiles pray long, repetitious prayers (vs. 7). They think God wants to hear a lot of talking. That is wrong. Instead, one should pray like this, Jesus says—then, He gives the Lord’s prayer, which (above all else) is a model of brevity. Yet, the one point in so brief a prayer, upon which He does elaborate, is forgiveness (vss. 14, 15). Rather than downplay the idea, then, Jesus elevates this point to unmistakable prominence. Perhaps He emphasizes this feature because it is so difficult for some of us to seek forgiveness from the heavenly Father; perhaps because it is the factor that becomes the sine qua non in prayer (unless one is on talking terms with God, there is little use in praying for any other thing). At any rate, Jesus’ concern to emphasize the point is evident from the enlightening commentary on verse 12 that appears in verses 14, 15.

Some take verses 14, 15 to mean that God will forgive His children on the basis of their own forgiveness; that isn’t true. There is no forgiveness on the basis of human works. Others understand this to say that one evidence that one has been forgiven is his willingness to forgive others. That fact certainly is true, but that isn’t what the passage says. He clearly states that God will withhold His forgiveness of us (based on Christ’s merits, not on our works) until we are willing to forgive others. Well, then, are those who say that the passage is not for us today correct? Is this a legalistic way of salvation for a different time and place and people? No, not at all. There is but one way of salvation—in all times, for all people—by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

What is the answer to the problem, then? It is very simple, yet profound—and satisfying. Christ here is not referring to judicial forgiveness, but to parental forgiveness. He had no intention of talking about the forgiveness that is a part of justification and that brings salvation. That was not in view. He was speaking to persons who were already judicially forgiven, once-for-all. We have seen that—He speaks to those who already call God their “Father” (indeed, in the Lord’s prayer, He teaches them to do so). Those who get hung up on forgiveness after forgiveness, therefore, do so because they miss this very obvious point. That is the N/C difficulty; because they fail to distinguish the things that truly differ, they must distinguish the things that do not. Judicial forgiveness—forgiveness granted by God as Judge—is over and done with for those to whom Jesus speaks. He plainly calls God their heavenly Father (over and over again). The forgiveness under discussion in verses 12, 14, 15, therefore, is not judicial forgiveness, but parental forgiveness; to confound the two is to confuse people and leads to the misunderstanding of many profound truths for practical living. It is no minor error.

Is this idea new? No. Referring once more to a portion of the article that I quoted in the Westminster Confession of Faith, note these words: “God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified … because they fall under His fatherly displeasure” (emphasis mine). The writers of the Confession clearly understood the distinction between judicial forgiveness and that forgiveness that comes to God’s children when they repent, confess and seek pardon for having displeased their heavenly Father.

In order to understand more fully the similarities and differences between judicial and parental forgiveness, consider the following chart.

God’s Forgiveness of Us

JUDICIAL Similarities and Differences PARENTAL
GUILT—liable to S. GUILT—liable to
eternal D. temporal
as just desert from D. as remedial and disciplinary from
GOD as S. GOD as
judge; D. Father;
condemnation; D. correction;
SENSE OF GUILT producing S. SENSE OF GUILT producing
fear of judgment; D. remorse over offending the Father;
an enemy surrendering; D. a child submitting;
threat of hell, establishes a new D. threat of temporal punishment and improves previous

An understanding of these differences and similarities will go a long way toward understanding how a counselor must deal with counselees as well as give him a handle for instructing counselees, many of whom are deeply confused over these very issues.

Clearly, a judge doesn’t treat his own children in the ways that he treats criminals who stand before the bar. As a judge, one thing is required; as a parent, something else. Yet, in dealing with the wrongs of both criminals and children, there are (nevertheless) many similarities; because wrongdoing per se, is not altogether dissimilar, treatment will (in some ways) be similar. The chart distinguishes the things that differ and identifies those that are similar.

Let us review the items in the chart briefly once again.

(1) GUILT. Whenever one sins; he becomes liable. That, we have seen, is the meaning of culpability, and it is that which forgiveness “lifts” or “takes away.” When, in parental forgiveness, one prays “forgive us our debts,” the idea of debts brings the notion of liability to the fore. The notion of liability to a Judge or to a Father may differ radically in many ways, but in respect to the question of liability itself—accountability, a debt to be handled, a burden unlifted—both in judicial and parental forgiveness, the fact is the same.

(2) PUNISHMENT. Surely, eternal versus temporal punishment makes a great difference, but with regard to the matter of the question of punishment itself, the two are the same. Fathers do punish their children for remedial and disciplinary purposes (not merely out of raw desert). We have seen evidence of this fact in earlier studies. Hebrews makes it clear that all children are punished—that is one evidence that they belong to the family (you don’t go down the street giving the neighbors’ children a licking!). But that is different from throwing them out of the family, disowning and disinheriting them, etc. All God’s children will be punished, but all will live as joint heirs with Christ forever in the heavenly home.

(3)GOD is the same One Who punishes both His children and the children of Satan. Yet, how He does so is quite different. Like us, God wears different hats at times. He is both a Judge and a Parent. When wearing each hat, He always does that which is appropriate to each role.

(4) REBUKE. On the one hand there is condemnation; on the other, correction. The one rebuke is intended to change the child rebuked, while the other is not. Both lead to a

(5) SENSE OF GUILT. But in one, there is the fear, discussed in Hebrews 2 and I Corinthians 15; in the other a concern over the fact that we have dishonored and disobeyed the heavenly Father. A true sense of guilt, in a child, therefore, focuses not so much on what is coming to one’s self, but on the consequences to the Name of God and the welfare of His church. Actually, this sense of guilt rather than absent altogether (N/C) ought to increase, intensified by the fact that one has hurt his loving, saving heavenly Father.

(6) CONFESSION. The sense of guilt is designed to lead (in the judicially unforgiven person) to a surrender to God as an enemy. That is quite a different thing from the confession of a rebellious child now submitting to his father.

(7) FORGIVENESS. In both cases, guilt is lifted; but in the one case it is the liability to eternal punishment in hell, and in the other the threat of temporal punishment and fatherly “displeasure” and lack of fellowship that is in view.

(8) RELATIONSHIP. The new relationship of Father and child is established through judicial forgiveness whereas that same relationship is restored and deepened in parental forgiveness.

So, while there are obvious similarities, we must be careful also to observe the great difference between judicial and parental forgiveness. Only by doing so can we be true to the whole teaching of the Bible, preserving the truths of grace (on the one hand) and avoiding antinomian and undisciplined living (on the other). Few things, therefore, are more important for biblical counselors to grasp. Their views on this point are altogether crucial for proper counseling.

Repentance and Confession

Now let us examine two important biblical words that fit into the forgiveness package. The first of these is repentance. Repentance is a part of the Christian proclamation that is coupled with forgiveness:

Christ must suffer and on the third day rise again from the dead, and … repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached in His name to all nations … (Luke 24:46, 47).

The good news is that Christ died for our sins (a penal, substitutionary, sacrificial death) and that He rose (bodily) from the dead (cf. I Cor. 15:3). This good news must be announced to all the world. With that proclamation must go a call to a new way of thinking that leads to faith and forgiveness. This new way of thinking is repentance (metanoia). Repentance is (literally) a change of mind; a rethinking. It is wrong to hook all sorts of emotional connotations to that word. There is another term, metamelomai, that means “to be sorry about,” and that focuses on the consequences of an act or attitude to one’s self rather than on the rightness (or truth) of the act or attitude before God. One can be sorry about his own losses without changing his opinions, stance or attitudes. Repentance refers to a change of heart—a new orientation of the inner man brought about by the Holy Spirit. It involves a rethinking of one’s relationships toward God, one’s self, sin, Christ, others, etc. It leads to the conclusion that “I am a sinner who must trust Christ alone for forgiveness of sin.” Repentance after repentance leads to a similar conclusion: “I have sinned against my heavenly Father; I must ask Him to forgive me through Christ.” Repentance is known to be genuine when the inner changes of heart lead to outer changes of life. The two are connected, but must never be confused.

Confession is the second term. Confession also is a part of parental as well as judicial forgiveness (cf. Rom. 10:9, 10—judicial forgiveness; I John 1:8ff.—parental forgiveness). Judicial confession and forgiveness establishes fellowship; parental confession and forgiveness restores and improves it.

Confession is not catharsis (N/C). What is it? It is an essential part of the forgiveness package. Confession is, essentially, agreement. Homologeo, the Greek term, literally means “to say the same thing,” as does the Latin word from which our English term confess is derived (the word confess means, exactly, “to say with”). To confess is to agree with someone else. In volume I, Select Papyri, of the Loeb Classical Library (Edgar and Hunt, eds.), the word homologeo is used constantly in those papyri that have to do with legal and business transactions. There, it regularly means “agreement.” When two or more parties “agree” to do something or other, the contract drawn up is called an “agreement” or contains an “agreement.” So too, a confession of faith is an agreement by those who subscribe to it that they hold to those truths articulated in it. Confession, then, is an acknowledgment on our part that we agree with God in what He has said about our sin in His Word. We stand on His side—the side of the One offended—and acknowledge that He is right in holding us guilty of an offense. Confession is a formal acknowledgment of the fact. It involves a personal, on-the-record admission of guilt. The confessee says, “I have sinned; I am liable.”

We often excuse ourselves, rationalize away our guilt, blame others for our sin. Confession is the opposite of all such behavior. It begins with repentance—rethinking all such attitudes—and ends with owning up to one’s sin before God (and any others whom we may have wronged). Confession is done to formally commit ourselves before God; He wants us to go on record before Him (not principally for His sake, but for ours). Examples of great prayers of confession are found in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 (the “9” chapters).

Proverbs 28:13 makes it clear that genuine confession never stands alone; it must always be followed by change. The writer links confession with forsaking sin. Note that in this Proverb, “concealing” = the opposite of “confessing.” To “prosper” means “to be successful.” To live successfully for Christ, then, one must confess sin and forsake it. Psalm 32:1, 5 interrelates various terms with confession. In verse 1 sin is covered by God; in verse 3 we read of the period when one is silent (i.e., when sin is still unconfessed, and covered by the sinner). Then, in verse 5, David says, “I acknowledged (note the parallelism here with “confess,” “acknowledging” and “not hiding” sin). This leads to forgiveness. When he uncovered or opened up his sin to God (i.e., confessed it), then God covered it (vs. 1).

Confession is not morbid, unhealthy self-introspection. It is always done in the presence of another, to him. There is no self-focus. God (or God and another) is in focus. The concern is about the one who has been wronged. Confession always includes at least one other. That shows, of course, that it is not merely some kind of “catharsis.” The goal of confession is reconciliation. The person to whom one confesses is the one whom he has wronged and who can (therefore) forgive him. All openness groups, or confession groups other than groups composed of wronged persons—and those who wronged them—are excluded.30

Confession, then, involves (1) personal recognition of guilt and liability, and (2) formal admission of this to God and any others wronged. It leads, quite naturally, to asking forgiveness from God and those others who may have been wronged, followed by the granting of forgiveness and the establishing of a new and better relationship to them.

There are other views of confession abroad in the church today. In a book, How to Live with Your Feelings, Philip Swihart takes a position on confession similar to some things that N/C have said, but then goes far beyond. In the chapter on Confession31 he describes confession as the confession of “emotions” and “feelings.” Confession, according to Swihart, is “facing up to my own emotions, owning them as belonging to me and accepting the fact that they do exist in me no matter what they are.” There is no confession of sin to God or others; merely confession of emotions to one’s self. There is no biblical warrant for the Swihart teaching. What has happened is that a biblical term has been drained dry of its meaning and new psychological content has been poured into the word. Then, under the scriptural label, this psychological (not a biblical) concept has been palmed off as God’s way. Using the biblical word to teach psychology is one way to gain authority for the latter among God’s people. The Bible nowhere tells us that to get feelings out into the open and be honest about them is confession. The Bible is used to support psychological teaching; thus psychology is stamped with biblical authority while entirely by-passing what the Bible actually does say about confession. Such practices are altogether too frequently discovered in our day.

Now, I have mentioned the matter of confessing sin not only to God, but also to others (cf. Luke 15:18). That concern leads to several others.

First, note the importance of distinguishing between heart sins and social sins. These terms, without careful explanation, may be misleading. All sins (including social sins) are heart sins—i.e., at some point, the sin was in the heart before it was in the hand or on the lip. The sinner assents to the act, develops the desire, etc., in his heart. Even though he may never follow through in a social way, he has sinned. Perhaps out of fear, etc., the sinner fails to do what he desires to do; the sin never proceeds beyond the heart. So his sin has no direct32 social effects. Such heart sins, nonetheless, are sins33—heinous and damning—and they must be confessed to God. Jesus called adultery of the heart “adultery” and not something else. The difference between heart sins and social sins is the lack or presence of damaging social effects. Before God, desiring to violate any of His commandments is as rebellious as doing so. Of course (as His restraining common grace indicates), God hates the social effects of sin and is pleased to see His children not take the second step in which they put sinful thoughts into practice, but (rather) wishes them to repent and reject those thoughts before doing so.

But this discussion raises the question of how counselors should instruct counselees to confess heart sins. The matter is somewhat clearer with respect to sins with social effects. Counselees are instructed to confess them to God and to all others who have been wronged.34 But what of heart sins, directed toward another brother or sister—let us say adultery of the heart, fornication of the heart, homosexuality of the heart.35 All these desires go no further than the heart (the inner life), but they are sins. Does the sinner, in such cases, confess both to God and to the one at whom his inner sin was directed? Or does he confess to God alone?

The Bible indicates that a sin ought to be confessed as widely as the sin’s direct effects extend (cf. Matt. 18:15ff.). First one goes privately to the one person who has been wronged (against whom a direct offense has been committed and from whom he is now estranged). He may not go to others (not even to office bearers). There is an endeavor to contain the problem. Only after every attempt at that level fails is he permitted to call in one or two others as arbiters or counselors (and ultimately as witnesses). Only if they will not be heard does the matter come before the church. Clearly, there is a reluctance to widen or spread matters any further than necessary. This is an important principle that applies to group counseling, etc., but that also has bearing on our question. It means that if no offense has estranged the counselee from another, he need not (must not) go.

That means that there are some sins that must be confessed to God alone. Lustful thoughts toward another is a good example. Counselees must be instructed to confess such sin to God (as a violation of His commandment) but not to the person who was the object of the lust.

No transgression against him/her was committed. There was no social issue involved; it was a heart sin only. If any social acts, words, etc., accompanied the lust (improper words or suggestive advances, for instance), these should be confessed to the one approached in this manner and forgiveness sought. The principle, then, is a sin is confessed as narrowly as the offense; in some cases, that involves God and the sinner alone. All sin requires confession to God, but only some requires confessions to other persons as well.

Next, let us ask, how does one confess sin to another? When confession of sin to human beings takes place, it must be done with great care. Counselors must explain how/how not to do so, warn of dangers, and (in general) safeguard confession against the many possible abuses that (so often) one finds associated with the practice.36

To begin with, what one says is important. In identifying his offense to another, the confessor must be careful about his content and his language. There are things that ought not to be said (Eph. 5:12). Today, under the guise of “openness,” that passage is regularly ignored. Christians may not be free and open to say anything they please; they may say only those things that please God. In reporting sexual sins, for example, details are neither necessary nor proper. If a confessor seems caught up in titillating details of sexual exploits, the likelihood is that he has not actually repented of the sin, but is still vicariously trying to get kicks out of it. The attitude of heart in the confessor is important. While counselors cannot judge counselees’ hearts, they can (must) warn them about the problem. One can confess sexual sin cleanly—as the Bible speaks of it. The Bible is neither prudish nor suggestive, but always strikes a frank, non-detailed, honest posture when reporting sexual sin. Clear direction, plain discussion of the point, etc., by counselors, is needed.

How does the counselor guard against such abuses? Let me suggest that he warn directly against several problems whenever it may be appropriate.

1.     Tell counselees to avoid highly connotative language (language that tends to titillate, that tends to aggravate, etc.). They will do well to use simple, factual terms, and say what they have to say as briefly as possible (Prov. 10:19).

2.     Warn counselees against destroying good words by bad attitudes (Prov. 25:11). Urge them to be sure that they go for proper reasons in the right spirit.

3.     Guard against someone ruining a confession by describing his own sin accusingly:37 “Forgive me for saying what I did when you pulled that dirty trick on me.” Look out for “but you too” attitudes.

4.     Make sure that the counselee understands that he may not attach excuses to his confession. Here, watch out for “even though” qualifications: “Even though the pressures were great, I guess I shouldn’t have done that.”

Some habits of speech are so ingrained that counselees will find themselves saying such things without realizing it. Role play of the potential confession scene between the counselor/counselee often can be useful in detecting (and deflecting) such problems.

It is important to seek forgiveness when confessing rather than apologizing. To make this clear, let me quote from my book, Update on Christian Counseling, vol. 1:

Don’t Apologize

It is time to say it clearly—so that no one may misunderstand: the Bible nowhere advises or allows (and certainly doesn’t command) apology.

Yet, in spite of this fact, Christians (and even Christian counselors) somehow seem to be addicted to apologizing and advising counselees to “go apologize” to others whom they have wronged. To all such, I have one piece of advice: Stop it!

“Well, what on earth is wrong with apologies?”

Fundamentally, two things.


An apology is an inadequate, humanistic substitute for the real thing. Nowhere do the Scriptures require, or even encourage, apologizing. To say “I’m sorry” is a human dodge for doing what God has commanded. And (as we shall see) since it is man’s substitute for God’s requirement (and has all but replaced that requirement), it has caused a great number of problems in the church. By replacing the biblical requirement for dealing with estrangement, it has allowed estrangement in the church to continue unchecked.

“What is this biblical requirement that has been replaced?”



Yes. I shall not now develop this point by discussing the numerous passages that speak of Christian forgiveness. Instead, I shall simply refer you to other treatments of the subject.38

Thus, confession is always linked with seeking forgiveness. This is what all the great prayers of confession do. Apologizing breaks that link.

As long as Christians continue to say to those they have wronged, “I’m sorry” (or words to that effect), instead of “I sinned; will you forgive me?,” and as long as they receive the natural response, “Oh, that’s all right” (or something similar), the real solutions to the many difficulties that could have been reached through forgiveness will continue to be by-passed. The church will labor under the burden of resentments and bitterness on the part of its members.

“Why do you say that?” you may wonder. Let me explain; and that explanation leads to a second point—apology is wrong, not only because it is man’s inadequate substitute for God’s revealed method of righting sour interpersonal relationships, but (as such),


apology elicits an inadequate response. When one asks, “Will you forgive me?” he has punted; the ball has changed hands, and a response is now required of the one addressed. The onus of responsibility has shifted from the one who did the wrong to the one who was wronged. Both parties, therefore, are required to put the matter in the past. And, the proper response (Luke 17:3) is, “Yes, I will.” Like God’s forgiveness (“Your sins and iniquities I will remember against you no more”), human forgiveness is a promise that is made and kept.

When one person says, “I forgive you,” to another, he promises:

1.     “I’ll not bring this matter up to you again;

2.     “I’ll not bring it up to others;

3.     “I’ll not bring it up to myself (i.e., dwell on it in my mind).”

The response, “Yes, I’ll forgive you,” then, is a promise that entails quite a commitment—one to which the forgiven brother (and God) may hold him, and one that (if kept) will lead to forgetting the wrong (not forgive and forget, but forgive to forget) and reestablishing a new, good relationship between the parties involved. So, an apology is an inadequate substitute because (a) it asks for no such commitment, and (b) gets none.

An apology keeps the ball in one’s own possession. The other party is required to do nothing about it (and usually doesn’t). To say “I’m sorry” is, you see, nothing more than an expression of one’s own feelings. To say, “I have wronged you,” and then to ask, “Will you forgive me?” is quite another thing.

Therefore, counselors (in advising counselees) must be quite clear about this matter. When they are, and when a proper understanding of this matter once again begins to permeate the Christian church, many of the current difficulties we are experiencing will disappear. Let’s do our part in hastening that day.

In another place I wrote:

Now, let’s take an example. Suppose you have told a counselee to ask God for forgiveness for a particular sin and then go to the person he has wronged by it and seeks his (or her) forgiveness as well. The counselee agrees. All looks well. When he returns for the next session, he reports that he has done so. (You fail to check out the exact particulars of what he said and did.) Pleased, you go on to other matters. Then, at the next session, the counselee announces that “this business of seeking a brother’s forgiveness hasn’t done any good.” Things, he indicates, aren’t any better; in fact, they seem worse. He says, “I’m sorry I took your advice.”

There can, of course, be many other dimensions to such a problem (failure on the part of the offended party to forgive, or to live up to his forgiveness promise, etc. But, for the sake of simplicity in making the point, let’s leave these possibilities aside for this discussion39). But let’s say that this is what happened:

Your counselee heard your advice. However, he “translated” your words (even when written, this can happen), “ask forgiveness” into “make up with” or “tell him you’re sorry” or “apologize.” That isn’t what you said, and it isn’t what you intended, but it is what (in his sinful perversity) he did. What he did was partial. He went to the offended party as you directed, but it was also perverted: he did something qualitatively different. He did not follow directions. He said, “I’m sorry,” instead of “I’ve sinned; will you forgive me?” Now, there could be any number of reasons why he fulfilled the assignment in this way. Take two:

(1)     It could be his pattern to “do things his own way.”

(2)     He could genuinely not have known the difference.

Let’s consider (2) more closely. In this case, the counselor also bears some responsibility. Counselors ought to know about such perversions of biblical action; they should know that people substitute apologies for seeking forgiveness. And, therefore, they should know to spell out what asking for forgiveness entails. In fact, they should anticipate such a possible “translation” and guard against it by clearly distinguishing the two things when giving the assignment. Because so few persons recognize the difference, and because most people persist in confounding forgiveness and apology, of necessity good counseling involves spelling out in detail what is and (with equal clarity) what is not meant by the assignment. And it would be well to warn against substituting the one for the other. He might explain,

“Seeking forgiveness and saying ‘I’m sorry’ are two entirely different ways to handle the same situation. One is God’s way; the other man’s substitute. The former stems from repentance (leading to confession—an admission of sin—and to the granting of pardon); the other may stem from sorrow (often, as in Esau’s case, mentioned in Hebrews 12:15–17, sorrow arises over the consequences of sin, rather than the fact of sin as an offense against God and others, and his inability to reverse them). The two differ radically. An apology is no more than a statement about one’s feelings: ‘I’m sorry.’ It is non-specific—is he sorry about what happened to himself or to others? Does he recognize the fact that he has sinned, first and foremost against God? What do the words mean?

“Because they are non-specific, the words of apology elicit some non-committal response (if any is forthcoming at all). Why shouldn’t they? They are vague, and (indeed) ask for no commitment from him. Having made an apology, one may assume that the matter is closed. The truth is that it is not. Neither party has committed himself to closing the question; nothing has been done about the past act or about their future relationship. This leaves all options open.

“In contrast, asking for forgiveness is quite specific, when done biblically. Say to the one you wronged, ‘I have sinned against God and against you [Luke 15:18]. I have confessed my sin to God [if you have], and I know He has forgiven me; now I ask you to do the same. Will you?’ Such a statement is specific. By it you recognize the serious nature of what you have done—it is sin, against both God and him. Secondly, it asks for a concrete response on the part of the one that you have wronged (don’t settle for a non-committal reply like ‘Forget it.’ Say, ‘No, this was sin. That requires forgiveness. I want to set the matter to rest; will you forgive me?’

“Sometimes the person wronged is willing to settle for less so that he can go on holding the offense against you. If he dodges an answer, or refuses to forgive, remind him of Luke 17:3–10. If he still refuses, Matthew 18:15ff. comes into play (with another believer).40 He must say either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You must know the answer.

“When you go to another, the object isn’t merely to express your feelings—even of regret. You must go (as the Scriptures make clear) to be reconciled to him. The substitute, ‘I’m sorry,’ does nothing about the relationship; the biblical way opens the door on a new beginning.

“And, one more thing—if either you or the person to whom you go doesn’t understand what forgiveness is and, therefore, what the granting of forgiveness entails, let me tell you plainly. Then you can explain to him what you have in mind. Forgiveness is a promise. When God forgave you in Christ, He promised not to ‘remember your sins and iniquities against you any more.’ The one who asks for forgiveness also asks for that; the one granting forgiveness promises that—and nothing less. This promise is threefold in his case.

(1)     ‘I won’t bring the matter up to you again;

(2)     ‘I won’t bring it up to others;

(3)     ‘I won’t bring it up to myself (i.e., allow myself to sit and brood over it in self-pity).’

“Asking and granting forgiveness implies future effort to work for a new, biblical relationship. When God reconciled us to Himself, He didn’t leave the matter with forgiveness. Once the sin was forgiven, He insisted on building a new, proper relationship with us (cf. Eph. 4:17).41 Now, what do you think of this? Is it clear? Do you have any questions?”

Some such presentation of the assignment must be given (whatever the subject may be). By going into it in some detail (you may even want to read this to a counselee at times) you will forestall all sorts of problems. By giving an opportunity for feedback at the close, often you can discover whether the counselee understands, believes, intends to follow directions, etc. His response usually will lead to further clarification of the issues.

What about restitution? Often, restitution is necessary. God required restitution in addition to sacrifice (cf. Num. 5:5–7). Luke 19:1–10 shows how one man spontaneously far surpassed that requirement. A chief difference between the sin offering and the trespass offering is the fact that the latter was for social sins and usually was accompanied by restitution (cf. Lev. 6:4f.). The O.T. worshiper was to restore the value of the loss plus one-fifth more. Zacchaeus far exceeded this requirement. He said, “I’ll give four times the original.” For every dollar of value, the law required $1.20 in restitution. Zacchaeus said, “I’ll pay four dollars for one.” Paul agreed to pay Philemon whatever Onesimus may have owed; his conversion did not free Onesimus from obligations entered into prior to his conversion.

At this point, I am tempted to reproduce my sermon on Luke 17:3ff. on the subject of forgiveness, in which Jesus tells us that the person wronged is (1) required to take the initiative and go to the one by whom he was wronged, (2) required to rebuke him in love, and (3) required to forgive him

a.     if he repents,

b.     as often as he repents (7 times a day if necessary),

c.     on the basis of his word alone, “saying, ‘I repent,’”

d.     whether he feels like it or not,

e.     because God commands it.

But I shall not.42 The principles in the passage are, however, of great importance.

In the discussion of Luke 17:3ff. the idea of rebuke, leading to forgiveness, appears. In the chart presented earlier the word rebuke appears. It is useful, therefore, to understand something of the biblical meaning of rebuke.

The basic O.T. term for rebuke is yakach. This word occurs frequently and is often translated “reprove.” Inherent in it is the idea of reproaching or rebuking through reason. It presents not the idea of strong emotion but rather of measured, logical argument. The notion has to do with making something clear by presenting the facts. The concept of conviction attaches itself to the word. The issue is to be discussed. Obviously this says much about how rebuke is to be done. Some typical passages in which yakach occurs are: Genesis 31:42; Leviticus 19:17; Psalm 6:1; 38:1; Proverbs 9:7, 8; 24:25; 28:23.

Another term is tokachath = reproof, correction by words, arguing down, showing what is right. This is a great word in Proverbs(1:23, 25, 30; 15:12; 6:23; 10:17; 12:1; 13:18; 15:5, 10, 31, 32; 29:1, 15).

A third O.T. word is gaar = to rebuke, scold, threaten43 (used of a father rebuking a son; but also used more widely), instruct, punish, warn, reprove. This is a somewhat stronger term. Sample passages are Proverbs 13:1; 15:31, 32; 19:25; 27:5; 28:23.

There are also two N.T. words for rebuke. The first is elengcho (found in I Tim. 5:20; Tit. 1:13; 2:15; Heb. 12:5; Rev. 3:19). The word means to convict. It is a legal term, taken from the courtroom, meaning to so pursue a case against another that he is convicted of the crime of which he was accused. It is not merely rebuke or reproof, but effective rebuke or reproof.

The other N.T. word is epitimao, meaning “to set a weight on, to chide.” It frequently appears in the Gospels, but is also found elsewhere (e.g., II Tim. 4:2; Jude 9). It appears in Luke 17:3 (the passage mentioned earlier). The word is much more tentative than its N.T. counterpart.44 It is rebuke that may be undeserved (cf. Matt. 16:22) or ineffectual (cf. Luke 23:40). When one goes to rebuke his brother (Luke 17:3), he often must do so with certain reservations. He may not know for sure that the rebuke is deserved until he hears his brother’s response. In this rebuke, one raises the issue, and brings the evidence that he has so far. It is most important, therefore, in counseling others to go and present their cases to offending brothers and sisters, to explain that the attitude in which they go must possess this quality of tentativeness. That should be so, even when the case seems open and shut. The one going to rebuke another must go in love; but among the qualities of love are these: to “believe all things” and to “hope all things” (I Cor. 13:7). The one raising the issue must be prepared (have a mind set) to hear new evidence, and must show a willingness to give his brother the benefit of any doubt. In effect, he says, “Here are the data that I have; now let me hear your side of the story.”45

Now, turning from the notion of rebuke (which, as you can see, is multidimensional), let us ask the question, “What is forgiveness?” We are almost ready to say a final word on this subject. But first, let us be clear about one thing: forgiveness is not a feeling. The Luke 17:3ff. passage is plain about that. Against all his feelings to the contrary, the slave had to refrain from tasting his master’s meal as he was preparing it. Out of obedience, he restrained his own hunger, just as the one who forgives another often must restrain his feelings (to pay back, to withhold forgiveness, etc.) and grant forgiveness to the one who seeks it the seventh time. No, forgiveness isn’t a feeling.

Well, then, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a promise. When God forgives a sinner, He does not simply become emotional over his repentance. No, instead, He goes on record that He has forgiven by making (and keeping) a promise to that effect: “Your sins and iniquities will I remember against you no more” (Jer. 31:34). When Bushnell once disparagingly wrote, “Forgiveness is only a kind of formality,” he missed the whole point. Of course forgiveness is a formality—but what a glorious one! “Only a kind of formality,” indeed! Thank God for a formal promise not to bring up our sin any more; if it were not for that “formality,” we’d always be unsure of our salvation. Forgiveness is a wonderful formality, the basis for all our comfort, peace, security, certainty. Our forgiveness is modeled after God’s forgiveness (Eph. 4:32). That means that for us forgiveness is also a promise that offers assurance for the future.46

So, when a counselee says, “I forgive you,” to another, then he also makes a promise. This promissory aspect is an essential element of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a formal declaration to lift the burden of one’s guilt and a promise to remember another’s wrong against him no more. It is a promise (as we have seen) that involves three elements: I won’t bring it up to you, to others or to myself.47 The one to whom such a promise is made may hold him to it. And a promise can be made whether or not one feels like it (e.g., a husband, out of conviction—against his feelings—may say, “Honey, I’ll take you out to dinner Friday”), and his promise can be kept (in the foregoing example it had better be), whether or not one feels like it (even on Friday).

So, we are ready to put it all together now:

Forgiveness is a lifting of the charge of guilt from another, a formal declaration of that fact and a promise (made and kept) never to remember the wrong against him in the future.

“Wait!” you ask. “Does the Bible teach that we must ‘forgive and forget,’ as the saying goes?” No, it does not. It teaches that we must forgive in order to forget. Whoever makes and keeps those three promises will forget; that is the only way to do so.

Looking once more at Luke 17:3, 4, I should like to note that forgiveness is conditioned on repentance. Forgiveness may not be granted to another person until he says, “I repent, please forgive me” (or words to that effect). This should be obvious to anyone who thinks through the facts about forgiveness. After all, if one must rebuke an unrepentant brother or sister (as Luke 17:3 requires), and pursue the matter to repentance and reconciliation, he may have to bring it up again and again in the process (Matt. 18:15ff.). On this matter, see the discussion of “Church Discipline” in Matters of Concern (pp. 69–74, esp. pp. 72ff.).

“Well, then, if a person refuses to seek forgiveness, and you hold something against him inside you, won’t that lead to the self-pity you were warning us against in the last footnote?” Again, the answer is no. “Why not?” First, because Christians are not allowed to become bitter and resentful, and there are ways to avoid doing so (cf. Competent to Counsel, pp. 220ff., and similar discussions in any number of my books). But, even more to the point, there is a very important passage in Mark 11:25 that we must consider:

And when you stand praying, if you have something against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in the heavens also may forgive you your trespasses.

How can we square this verse with the idea that forgiveness may be granted only to those who seek it in repentance?

Let us look more carefully at Mark 11:25. Note, you may not sit around and wallow in self-pity or become bitter; that much is clear. But what do you do? Do you forgive or don’t you? Does God forgive us when we don’t repent? No. Forgiveness and repentance are always snapped together in the Bible. John the Baptist came preaching forgiveness through repentance; Jesus did the same. And He taught us to preach the same (Luke 24:47). Well, then, what does Mark 11:25 mean?

First, it doesn’t mean that you stop bringing up the matter to the offending, unrepentant brother; Matthew 18 requires you to bring up the issue until repentance occurs.

Secondly, it doesn’t mean that you stop bringing it up to others—Matthew 18 may require you to bring it up to one or two others, or eventually to the elders of the church as well.

Does his failure to repent give you the right to become resentful? No, that is no license for self-pity. The words in Mark 11 apply to the third element in forgiveness—precisely this matter of self-pity. You must empty the matter from your heart in prayer; you may not dwell on it—you have given it to God. Note, especially, you do this before God, not before the offender. You must tell God of your willingness to grant him forgiveness, that you want to be reconciled and that you won’t sit and brood about how you were wronged. In that sense—and that sense alone—you forgive him: before God. But Mark 11 doesn’t require you to grant forgiveness to the offender; the passage speaks only about one’s own personal attitude. You are not making a formal promise to the offender when you tell God you won’t be bitter toward him. This passage speaks of forgiveness of the heart. Forgiveness of the heart is essential in all cases. The heart and the promise on the lips must conform.48 The only commitment in Mark 11 is a commitment to God; none is made to the offender. It is forgiveness before God. At every point, a matter is set to rest as quickly as possible, where it can be. According to Mark 11:25, one person can resolve at least one part of the problem right away. Counselors must call them to do so.

There is one other issue to consider. Even though a person may be forgiven, that does not cut off all consequences which may flow from his sin. If a person puts his arm through a plate glass window in a drunken brawl, and lacerates it so badly that it must be amputated, he doesn’t sprout a new one when he is forgiven. He must learn to overcome these consequences and by God’s grace use them for God’s honor in days to come. Forgiveness lifts the weight of guilt and removes liability to punishment. It does not lift other consequences.

Some may think that all such consequences are punishment, failing to recognize the possibility of other factors. Probably the most striking example of this situation is the case of David and the death of his child born out of that adulterous union with Bathsheba (II Sam. 11, 12). Nathan comes, tells the story and mentions some consequences (the sword will continue with you; there will be trouble in your own family—these were consequences that God [for His own reasons] said would be set in motion by his sin and that would continue until fulfilled). David repents and is assured of forgiveness (and the removal of his punishment: “You will not die”). But then he is told, “Nevertheless,” because your sin provided such an occasion for the Lord’s enemies to ridicule, your son will die. And he did. This was not punishment; it was a consequence that involved the Lord’s Name and His witness to His enemies (to show them that God doesn’t countenance sin). Sure, it was tough on David; certainly it had sanctifying effects on his life—but those questions were secondary. The fundamental reason is given—the witness to God’s enemies.

This fact of further consequences (following forgiveness) must not be forgotten (or by-passed) in counseling. Too often, counselors look on forgiveness unrealistically, neglecting to mention this possibility,49 thereby failing to prepare counselees for it and setting them up for some nasty jolts in the future.

How does one help the counselee to handle the after shocks of sin’s earthquakes? Again, he teaches them from the super-redemption stance discussed in detail earlier. Even such liabilities can be turned to assets, by God’s grace. He must help them to see how. Every consequence of sin can become a blessing. God is greater than any problem and loves to turn liabilities to His own advantage; He is the One Who makes even the wrath of man to praise Him.

Because forgiveness (and its many ramifications) is such an important issue in counseling, I have taken a great amount of time to deal with the question. I cannot overestimate the need for every counselor to thoroughly familiarize himself with the biblical data on the subject. But before leaving the subject of forgiveness, let me append one footnote.

Frequently, these days, one hears words like, “I know that God has forgiven me, and Bill has forgiven me, but I just can’t seem to forgive myself.” How does a Christian counselor handle that problem?50 First, he points out that the words represent a psychologizing rather than a biblical construct of the situation. Yes, there is something more to be done, but it is not a matter of more forgiveness. Nowhere does the Bible command us to forgive ourselves. That simply isn’t the real difficulty.

The actual problem lies elsewhere; there is a dynamic at work that must be understood and properly dealt with, and not masked by such unscriptural notions.

When a counselee has been forgiven by God and others, but recognizes that this is “not enough,” he is right. Forgiveness isn’t only an end; it is also a new beginning. Forgiveness closes off certain relationships, but it also opens up the possibility (and need) for new ones. Forgiveness is a watershed. There is truly a need for something new—but it is not more forgiveness (remember, the forgiveness chart closes with a new relationship).

The dynamic behind the counselee’s uneasiness is twofold. He senses, but often cannot articulate clearly the fact that:

1.     Though forgiven, he is still the same person, unchanged, who did the wrong. Something more is needed, then, to keep him from doing it again; he must change.

2.     Though forgiven, he has done nothing more to establish a new and better relationship with God and his neighbor. Unless he does, the future relationship will drift, and is likely to be bad rather than good.

These are vital issues and must be handled well by Christian counselors. I have dealt with the second one in Matters of Concern (pp. 36, 37), where I have shown that barriers removed do not constitute bonds cemented; those are two separate things. Indeed, barriers removed leave breaks existing if bonds are not cemented. Forgiveness is but a part of the larger concern of reconciliation, which involves making and cultivating new relationships as well (see also the last element listed on the similarities and differences in forgiveness chart).

The first item—becoming a new and different person—is a vital one and must be considered in full in the next chapter.

1 The Lord’s Supper was designed for this very purpose. Clearly, the necessity for this memorial (reminder) demonstrates the propensity for sinners to forget.

2 John Stott, Confess Your Sins (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964), p. 73.

3 The word translated “sins” is hamartema, “acts” or “deeds of sin.”

4 The English word liable comes from the Latin (through the French) word, “to bind.”

5 Charizomai stresses that element.

6 A study of history, interpreted in the light of this thesis, would be enlightening.

7 David Augsburger, The Freedom of Forgiveness (Chicago: Moody, 1970), pp. 36, 37, 39.

8 Ibid., p. 36.

9 Incidentally, the Apostle Paul’s conversion was an answer to Stephen’s prayer.

10 Guilt and Freedom (Santa Ana: Vision House Publishers, 1974).

11 Throughout the book N/C speak of “psychological guilt” when thinking of what I prefer to call a sense of guilt. For them, this is the “feeling” of guilt.

12 Ibid., pp. 27–37.

13 Interestingly, later on in the book, under a discussion of confession, N/C claim that the purpose of confession is catharsis—the ventilation of bad feelings, and see this as a good thing. One of the difficulties a reader has with the book is its inconsistencies.

14 Ibid., p. 33.

15 I quote here from the Berkeley Version.

16 Note also vs. 12 for a picture of the attitude that accompanies a broken heart.

17 Ibid., pp. 83–85.

18 Unbelievably, N/C refer to Ps. 51 and write, “The miserable feelings of psychological guilt that David experienced weren’t sent to him by God,” ibid., p. 131. Read that sentence again, then read Ps. 51:8 and Ps. 38:2, 3.

19 Ibid., p. 34.

20 Ibid., p. 35.

21 There were other responses by those to whom it wasn’t (cf. vs. 11).

22 Even Esau’s “repentance” evoked strong emotion (cf. Heb. 12:17). The problem, however, was not that he had strong self-condemnation; rather, his regrets indicate the dominant concern was self-pity. Godly self-condemnation focuses on God, while self-pity focuses on one’s self.

23 Unfortunately, A. A. Hoekema, in his little book, The Christian Looks at Himself (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), leaves theology and psychologizes the Scriptures, adopting much the same view (p. 35). In his taped lectures on self-image, my colleague, John Bettler, deals in depth with Hoekema’s book (tapes available from C.S.S. (250 Edge Hill Rd., Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006).

24 By God’s grace, of course.

25 Later in their book, N/C come to the biblical viewpoint. I am happy to acknowledge this; but the grave inconsistency of this statement is quite misleading.

26 Punishment in the Bible isn’t restricted to unbelievers and isn’t limited to “payment for misdeeds.” It is this faulty definition that confuses. Cf. II Cor. 2:6, for instance, on punishment as church discipline. Here epitimia, the word used for punishment, means “restriction of rights.” And in vss. 7, 10, forgiveness of the wrong is extended following repentance. Punishment by pain, loss, restriction, etc., are all punishments intended to correct faults; as, indeed, was the case here.

27 Matt. 18:21–25. Here forgiven persons who are not forgiving are in view (not fake professors, as some think). N.B., the terms “heavenly father,” “you” (disciples), “brothers,” etc. The torturers in the picture complete its exaggerated vividness (hundreds of thousands of dollars) and fit the other details in this contemporary scene. They are not to be made typical of punishment in hell.

28 Cf. Competent to Counsel, p. 14.

29 For more on the how-to nature of the entire Sermon on the Mount, see my Update on Christian Counseling, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979).

S. Similarities

D. Differneces

30 For more on the use and misuse of groups in counseling, cf. The Big Umbrella, pp. 237ff.

31 Philip Swihart, How to Live with Your Feelings (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1977), pp. 43ff.

32 Inner attitudes and desires, persisted in, lead to indirect effects especially detected in deteriorating interpersonal relationships. The distinction between heart and social sins at points is rough, but important (as we shall see).

33 The inner temptation to sin must be distinguished from the sin. When temptation is inwardly resisted, there is no sin. Jesus had to entertain the possibility of sinning, when tempted by Satan, in order to reject it.

34 There are problems associated with doing so, to which we shall come at length.

35 Bitterness, resentment, anger; self-pity, jealousy, envy, sinful doubt are other common problems.

36 The suggestions that follow are but suggestive. Counselors should study the subject and be prepared for all of the many contingencies that may arise.

37 He must first take the log out of his own eye. At a later time—after his own sin is cleared—he may raise other issues. The two must not be confused at the time of confession.

38 See The Christian Counselor’s Manual, pp. 63–70, 88, 361; Christian Living in the Home, chap. 3.

39 But not, however, in a genuine counseling context if the other party can be brought into the counseling session as well.

40 In seeking forgiveness from an unbeliever, follow Rom. 12:18 (for a thorough discussion of this, see my book, How to Overcome Evil).

41 On this see my Matters of Concern, pp. 36ff., where I discuss how reconciliation must lead to a new relationship.

42 The sermon is available on tape from Christian Study Services, 2540 Edge Hill Rd., Huntingdon Valley, Pa., 19006. In its fullest form, it is found in the taped series of studies on Christian Forgiveness.

43 This element must not be applied to such passages as Luke 17:3ff.

44 Trench, R. C., Synonyms of the New Testament, has an excellent comparison of the two terms.

45 For more on love as “believing all things,” see my What About Nouthetic Counseling?<, pp. 51ff.

46 Of course we may, and often do, fail to keep our promises. In such cases, we too must seek forgiveness for having done so.

47 The third element of the promise is often the hardest; self-pity can destroy the good effects of forgiveness. Counselors can find help on how to keep the promise in Lectures on Counseling, pp. 138ff., and Matters of Concern, p. 11.

48 To do something “from the heart,” remember, is to do it sincerely.

49 Note how Paul did not fail to mention such matters in his letter to Philemon. Paul knew that Onesimus was fully forgiven, yet he recognized that there were still obligations (1) to return to Philemon, and (2) repay anything that he may have owed Philemon. He hoped (and hinted), of course, that Philemon would forgive him not only the wrongs done, but the obligations (consequences) remaining. Cf. also Num. 14:19–23.

50 For more on this, see Matters of Concern, pp. 7–9.

Jay Edward Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling : More Than Redemption, Reprint. Originally Published: More Than Redemption. Phillipsburg, N.J. : Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., c1979. (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resource Library, 1986], c1979), 184.

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.