What if the other person won’t seek forgiveness or, after having been confronted with his or her sin, refuses to confess it? I have alluded to the problem in the last chapter, but here we must come to grips with the question in greater depth.
Today many Christian leaders erroneously teach that we must forgive another, even when that person clearly does not intend to seek forgiveness. For instance, David Augsburger writes: “Christ’s way was the way of giving forgiveness even before asked, and even when it was not or never would be asked for by another.”
As evidence for this astounding statement, he cites Christ’s prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Augsberger continues, “To think that we needn’t forgive until we are asked is a myth to be punctured!”4
We shall consider these extraordinary statements in due time. But for now, listen to some others. In her book Set Free, Betty Tapscott is so insistent that we must “forgive unconditionally,”5 that she teaches, “There are times when we may even have to forgive an animal.”6 She goes on to say, “Some people have to forgive an entire denomination… and an entire race of people” or an “entire country.”7
Obviously, you cannot rebuke an animal hoping that it will confess sin and repent, or even an entire denomination, race, or country. Tapscott is talking about a forgiveness unknown to biblical writers who never so much as hint at anything of the sort. That there is something important here that she is trying to deal with is true, but her ideas not only seem farfetched, they run counter to the very idea of forgiveness itself, properly understood as a promise made to another.
Describing Kenneth McAll’s practice, Roger Hurding writes, “here there is the idea of a ‘double forgiveness’ in which the patient willingly forgives dead relatives…and, at the same time, asks forgiveness from them…. McAll sees Jesus Christ as the mediator of this two-way reconciliation. ”8 In this system, it is apparent that the forgiveness of absent persons has been extended so far that McAll recommends not only prayers to the dead but, it would seem, also a form of spiritism.
Finally, in a doctoral dissertation dealing with the forgiveness of one’s parents, the writer states, “The forgiving act does not need the actual presence of the parents. The patient, verbally, addresses the forgiveness to the imagined present parent.”9
These examples are typical of various strains of Christian teaching abroad in the church that affect many people. They all deal with real problems, but in an unbiblical way. I could easily multiply examples but, there’s no doubt, you have already experienced one or more manifestations of these ideas in your contacts with other Christians. Interestingly, the idea of forgiveness without repentance has become so widespread that it is now adopted by non-Christians as well.
Christ’s Prayer on the Cross
Let’s begin by considering Augsburger’s statements about Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him. Was that prayer really an instance of a forgiveness “given… even before asked” and “even when it was not or never would be asked by the other?” Is he wise in wanting to “puncture” what he calls the “myth” that “ we needn’t forgive until we are asked”?
If, indeed, Jesus unconditionally forgave those who crucified Him, then, of course, that would mean that they had been forgiven without hearing or believing the Gospel. Clearly that teaching is heretical, and Augsburger cannot have thought through its implications very carefully. Surely he does not wish to say that Christ forgave people out of the blue, apart from the hearing of faith (Rom. 10:14ff). On the other hand, if Chirst had really prayed the prayer Augsburger describes, it would have been a prayer that contradicted all of Scripture and, incidentally, a prayer that failed.
On the cross, Jesus did not forgive; He prayed. The same is true of Stephen. If forgiveness is unconditional, Jesus, Stephen, and others would have forgiven their murderers rather than use what, if true, would be a roundabout way to do so. At other times Jesus had no hesitancy in saying, “Your sins be forgiven you.” No, contrary to Augsburger’s claims, the saying from the cross was not a statement of forgiveness (unconditional or not) but a prayer. The reference to the cross is, in a sense, irrelevant since it was not a case of forgiveness at all.
How can Christ’s words best be explained?
Well, we don’t want to say Christ prayed an unscriptural prayer——that is bedrock. Then in some sense we must recognize that the prayer was legitimate. Since Jesus said to the Father, “ I knew that You always hear [heed] Me” (John 11:42), we believe also that His prayer was answered. How could that be? Not apart from the means, but by them.
Jesus’ prayer was answered in the response to the preaching of Peter and the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and on those other occasions when thousands of Jews repented and believed the Gospel (Acts 2:37–38; 3:17–19; 4:4). They were not forgiven the sin of crucifying the Saviour apart from believing that He was dying for their sins, but precisely by doing so in response to the faithful preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem. We do not have to resort to some strange doctrine of the forgiveness of sins apart from faith in Christ in order to explain Christ’s prayer.
So, it is clear that the forgiveness for which Christ prayed was not unconditional but depended entirely on faith in the very act in which He was engaged at the time He prayed. How unthinkable it is that Christ could be undergoing the sufferings of the Cross, dying for the sins of His people so as to forgive them, and at that very time ask for forgiveness by some other means! When men teach doctrines that are unbiblical, they get into trouble with other biblical teachings as well and are forced to interpret the Scriptures in an unorthodox manner. The so-called “myth” that Augsburger wants to puncture turns out to be the very truth of God.
What About Parents, Cats, Countries, and Whole Churches?
Obviously, Betty Tapscott’s views are foreign to the Bible. While we are commanded to forgive others, we never read anything about forgiving animals or masses of people whom we are unable to rebuke, whose confession of sin we could never hear, or to whom we could not make the promise “not to remember” their sin against them. It is a forgiveness very different from God’s forgiveness that Tapscott teaches. Indeed, as one peruses her book, it becomes clear that her major concern is about what forgiveness does for the one who forgives, not how it pleases God or shows love to others. That same self-oriented emphasis lies behind many extraordinary measures such as talking to the dead, forgiving parents whose presence is “imagined” (Velazquez-Garcia), and “forgiving” large groups of people who are totally oblivious to it.
Any Truth in All of This?
Yes, there is a truth that is greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. It is found in one passage that (rightly) deals with the problem of forgiving when the one to be forgiven is either not present or unwilling to confess sin. It is found in Mark 11:25, “And when you stand praying, if you have something against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heavens also may forgive you your trespasses.”
Here a nice distinction must be made. As we have seen, when God forgives us, He goes on record declaring that He will remember our sins no more. That is the granting of forgiveness by which He promises never again to use our sinful record against us. Forgiveness, however, does something, as we saw in chapter one. It lifts the guilt from the shoulders of another allowing reconciliation to occur. We must discuss reconciliation more fully later on, but in this verse Jesus is concerned about the attitude of the believer as he stands before God in prayer. If he is inwardly unwilling to forgive his brother or sister, he cannot expect forgiveness from the Father. Thus, preceding the promise (or granting) of forgiveness to another, one must prepare to lift that guilt so that the promise he makes, even if against his feelings, will be sincerely meant and kept. He may not simply repeat a formula; he must forgive from his heart.10 Like his Heavenly Father, by prayer, the believer seeks to become “ready to forgive” (Ps. 86:5, MLB). That is the meaning of Mark 11:25.
Notice that in prayer one does not “pretend” to forgive another, nor does he commune with the dead. What he does is express to God his genuine concern to be reconciled to his brother (if possible) and his willingness to grant forgiveness to him. His prayer is to God, and since he is not granting God forgiveness, in the verse the word “forgive” must be used by extension to express the willingness to forgive another. Perhaps it means even more. Possibly it implies a prayer, modeled after Christ’s prayer, that God will also forgive the offender (again, not apart from, but through the means). Certainly, we can be sure of this much, that it is a prayer to take all resentment and bitterness from the heart of the supplicant.
It is also clear that this “forgiving” in prayer in no way exempts one from granting forgiveness to his brother. Misuse of this verse affords an easy way out for those who do not want to face the rheumatism and gout mentioned in the previous chapter.
Commenting on Mark 11:25 (in An American Commentary),Clarke says, “Prayer is a tremendous power, but it cannot be used for the gratification of personal resentments.” It may be that after cursing the fig tree (not an act of personal resentment, but a symbolic act of Jesus as Messiah toward unrepentant Israel), and His words on the power of prayer, which precede this verse, Jesus wanted to distinguish the personal act from the official one, so that no one would get the idea that he could use prayer as a means of cursing others out of personal vengeance. Whatever may be said about why this verse appears where it does, it is clear that it gives no support to any of the strange views set forth above.
In Matthew 18:15ff, Jesus sets forth an outline of the program of church discipline that He intends His church to follow. That program (for details see my book, Handbook of Church Discipline, Zondervan) basically moves forward in four steps:
“If your brother sins against you, go and convict him of his sin privately, with just the two of you present. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen to you, take with you one or two others so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile and a tax collector. Let Me assure you that whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in the heavens. Where two or three meet together in My Name, I am there among them.” (Matt. 18:15–20)
As you can see, the brother sinned against goes to his brother (just as we have seen in Luke 17:3). If there is confession and forgiveness, the matter is settled right there and must go no further. Reconciliation occurs. If the sinning brother refuses to hear his brother, the latter must return with one or two others to act first as counselors, and if there is still no repentance, to act at the next step as witnesses. Again, if they are successful and forgiveness occurs, the matter stops right there. But if they fail to convince the recalcitrant brother to repent, the matter is formally taken before the church. If there is repentance and forgiveness, the matter stops there. But if even that extreme measure fails, then the offender is put out of the church and treated as a pagan and tax collector (both of whom were out of the church). Does anything in that process sound even remotely consonant with the statement of Minirth and Meier that “we must forgive no matter what response we get from the other person”?11
Now, notice how on failure to bring about repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, more and more persons (two alone, one or two others in addition, the whole church and, finally, the world itself) become involved in the process.
If forgiveness were unconditional, then this entire process of discipline would be impossible. It is my contention that the very existence of such a program as this requires us to believe that forgiveness is conditional. Consider the following.
If we were to grant forgiveness to a brother apart from his repentance and desire for forgiveness, then why bother with the process? One would simply say, “I forgive you” and walk away. The whole point of the progressive nature of Christ’s program of discipline is that where there is no repentance, increasingly larger efforts must be made to bring it about. The matter cannot be dropped simply by saying, “I forgive you, whether you repent or not.” God is not interested in forgiveness as an end in itself, or as a therapeutic technique that benefits the one doing the forgiving. He wants reconciliation to take place, and that can only be brought about by repentance.
Since the program does exist, is commanded by Christ, and He promises to work by it to resolve personal problems (see v. 18–20; v. 18 is no warrant for small prayer meetings), we must reckon with it. We dare not ignore it because of some programs we wish to follow instead. The reason that the process of church discipline is so pertinent to the present discussion is this: No Christian may ever make a promise that will keep him from obeying a clear command of Christ.
If we are to forgive brothers and sisters purely on our own, apart from any whisper of repentance, in doing so, we promise them not to bring the matter up again…to them, to others, or to ourselves. Yet, that is exactly what the process of church discipline requires us to do…bring it up, again and again and again, to them and to others, until repentance and reconciliation are effected or the rebellious brother is evicted from the church.
It should go without saying that since our forgiveness is modeled after God’s (Eph. 4:32), it must be conditional. Forgiveness by God rests on clear, unmistakable conditions. The apostles did not merely announce that God had forgiven men, who should acknowledge and rejoice in the fact but, rather, they were sent forth to preach “repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47; Acts 17:30). The sins of those who repented and trusted in the Saviour as the One who shed His blood for them were forgiven on the conditions of repentance and faith. Paul and the apostles turned away from those who refused to meet the conditions, just as John and Jesus did earlier when the scribes and the Pharisees would not repent.
“But,” you ask, “must one go to another about every offense? Must there be rebuking, repenting and forgiving over everything that happens? Why, a husband and wife would hardly be able to keep lists of all the matters they have to deal with, let alone get around to doing so.”
A good question. No. God has provided a means for handling the multitude of offenses that we commit against one another. But it is not by forgiveness. In 1 Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 17:9, Peter points out that those who love one another “cover a multitude of sins” in love. It is only those sins which throw the covers off that must be dealt with by the Luke 17 and Matthew 18 processes: those offenses that break fellowship and lead to an unreconciled condition require forgiveness. Otherwise, we simply learn to overlook a multitude of offenses against ourselves, recognizing that we are all sinners and that we must gratefully thank others for covering our sins as well.
Smedes cannot be right when he divides offenses into categories, some of which must be forgiven and some that need not be.12 Any offense, no matter what its nature, may create an unreconciled condition, depending on how the offended party responds to the offense. The same offense may or may not result in an unreconciled condition, depending on many changeable and unpredictable factors, such as the predisposition of the one offended, his past experiences, the number of times it has been repeated, how he interprets it, and so on. Categorized lists of offenses, therefore, are misleading and unhelpful.
Of course, it is possible to rationalize here. I may say (and perhaps even convince myself for a time) that I have covered a brother’s sin when I by no means have done so. It is important to become scrupulously honest with oneself without becoming overly scrupulous. If you have troubles with this, you should talk to your pastor or to some mature Christian about the problem.
“But what do you do about forgiving the dead or others with whom you have lost touch?”
Certainly, you must not pray to the dead. Nor should you act out some charade by imagining you are talking to them. Since such people cannot repent and seek forgiveness from you, you cannot grant forgiveness to them. In prayer you may simply tell God of your desire to forgive and your determination to rid your heart of all bitterness and resentment toward them. That is all you can do and all you need to do. Those Christians who died before reconciliation have now been glorified and made perfect. They don’t need your forgiveness. Glorification has made them the sort of people you would so delight to be around that, doubtless, on meeting them you would forget their offenses. Those with whom you have lost touch may cross your path again. At such a later time you can finally deal with matters as you should have earlier.
When wronged by countries (e.g., Nazi Germany) or denominations, rather than going through a mock exercise called “forgiveness,” you must follow the example of dying saints (Acts 7:60) who, in imitation of their Lord, pray for the forgiveness of their persecutors. In response God may be pleased to bring many of the group to repentance leading to forgiveness.
What shall we say then? It is clear that forgiveness—promising another never to bring up his offense again to use it against him—is conditioned on the offender’s willingness to confess it as sin and to seek forgiveness.13 You are not obligated to forgive an unrepentant sinner, but you are obligated to try to bring him to repentance. All the while you must entertain a genuine hope and willingness to forgive the other and a desire to be reconciled to him or her. Because this biblical teaching runs counter to much teaching in the modern church, it is important to understand it. Such forgive—ness is modeled after God’s forgiveness which is unmistakably conditioned on repentance and faith.
© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.