Friday, January 09, 2009

Sunday School notes on Christian forgiveness

This is a study is entitled “A lesson in applied discernment and scrutiny among church members. Subtitle is: Rhology teaches, what better opportunity will you have?” that I taught at my church last Sunday.

Today we are discussing forgiveness, particularly between human beings and how the way God forgives humans applies in that consideration.
It’s a study in avoiding 2 extremes – hard-hearted self-righteousness on the one side and undiscerning, pacifistic, universalism on the other. And by no means let us consider this to be the final word on this topic. This is to get the brain juices flowing on everyone’s part, including mine. As always, stop me anytime with a question, a comment, a challenge, or an ego-stroking, oozing compliment.

Definition of forgiveness: John MacArthur defines it (in his book The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness) as a choice made by the offended party to set aside the other person’s transgression and not allow it to cause a breach in the relationship or fester in bitterness.
And a point to keep in mind – there are freestanding commands to keep oneself free from bitterness and longstanding anger and grudges. That is a distinction to remember.

Analogy – God forgives in two ways, you might say. You might say that Jesus, while walking the Earth before His ascension, forgave in a different way than God’s overall way of forgiving, and this distinction is consistent with the differences between Jesus’ 1st Coming and His 2nd Coming. Follow me on this as we look at things from a human perspective.

Bottom line: the imputation of all of our sins, past and present, to the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ, as well as the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to each of us. Our situation went from horrible to awesome with the sacrifice of one singularly perfect and loving God-man. Out from this flows all possible forgiveness that we could extend to anyone else. Is forgiving loving? Of course, and “we love because He first loved us”.
Yet we still sin. Each and every sin that any of us commits, no matter how “small”, is enough to separate us from God forever and send us to Hell forever. Some sins are worse, weightier, than others, yes, and that plays a part in these considerations as well. And each one of these sins has consequences and God disciplines His children for sins (Heb 12), and are not the consequences very often/always part of the disciplining He performs? Consider the consequences and the discipline that typically comes from taking a toy from your kid brother vs that from being caught in the act of adultery by your own spouse. Big difference, right?

So today I’d like us to consider a few things about forgiveness, some obvious and one or two perhaps not quite so obvious, with respect to the way in which we are to forgive others for their sins against us.
Thesis statement: Ephesians 4:31-32 - 31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (cf Col 3:13)

Point 1 – for ‘merely’ big bad sins, let us overlook them and forgive them.
Prov 10:12, 17:9, 19:11
1 Cor 13:5
2 Cor 5:19
Eph 4:1-3 – let us remember that no one is perfect and we can’t spend all our time going to each other with corrections b/c such would not be conducive to the bond of peace or acting very lovingly towards others.
1 Pet 2:21-25 – in simply bearing the offense, the offended party is following in Christ’s footsteps.
1 Pet 4:8. Just a thought – does “a multitude” mean all here? ;-)

Anyway, why are we overlooking these sins? B/c nobody is perfect. We simply cannot spend all our time on this, and constant correction from one fallen human to another feeds resentment and bitterness on the one side and ego on the other. Let us remember the oft-eisegeted and almost always incompletely-quoted text Matthew 7:1-5. V.2 – you’ll be judged by the same standard. Can you stand up to that standard? If not, then think more than twice before confronting people all the time with these petty offenses. Love enough to do that. This is the way Jesus walked on Earth, and it is the default position.

BUT, Point 2:
Caveats: We are to be always ready to forgive in our hearts and attitude. We are not to hold anger in our hearts beyond the day – Eph 4:26-27.
And of course, we never return evil for evil – Rom 12:17, 1 Thess 5:15, 1 Pet 3:9
We must always entrust ourselves to Him who judges righteously – 1 Pet 2:23. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord – Heb 10:30-31.

Forgiveness involves at least two people, so let’s say two for example. What happens when we forgive? Plenty of things. Among those things is the clearing of the consciences of each party with respect to himself and to each other. In a sense, doesn’t the offended party grant that clearing of conscience to the offender when he forgives him? What if the offense is grave, such as the murder of a child or spouse or something horrible like that, or a negligent homicide by drunk driving? Shall the offended party simply forgive such an offense (theoretically speaking; I doubt very many people would in reality be able to do this) right after it happens? After all, why wait? The offense is done, it’s in the past. While the driver is still drunk and the body of the loved one is still warm, why not just call it good and concern oneself no more with it? Is there any good reason why this wouldn’t be the best course of action?

Would this not be more of a sham forgiveness than anything else? That is, does it make the situation better to ignore the severity of the offense?
Of course, we need to address the issue biblically.

1 Jn 1:9
It is obvious that God forgives sin based on repentance and faith in God. See Lk 18:13 for an example. There is a breach in the relationship between God and the sinner. The sinner is repentant and asks for forgiveness. Both sides benefit from this. In what ways (ask for input)?
(God gains a worshiper, God is recognised as glorious, as holy, as authoritative to forgive sins, as powerful to forgive, as generous, as merciful, etc, which is what He wants. The sinner is forgiven from the guilt on his own conscience and on his account before God and gains eternal life.)

Go into the consequence of the universalism, mentioned earlier – if our forgiveness reflects the way that God forgives and we forgive that way, what is the implication of how God then forgives sinners? Implications of how sin then does not matter in the slightest. Not only does the sin not matter, but reconciliation doesn’t matter, restitution is irrelevant b/c there’s no wrong committed. You may feel bad but that’s not bad either.

Relate Jn 20:23 and Matt 18 ch discipline psgs.
Lk 17:3-4 “if he repents”
In Jn 20, Christ gives the disciples the authority to share the Gospel and to do church discipline. The option to retain sins is interesting here, isn’t it? On what basis might they retain someone’s sins? No, it’s not b/c they’re priests and can absolve you, my son, if you say 10 Hail Marys and make sure not to miss Mass this month. It’s unrepentance, right? Like in Acts 8:22 with Simon Magus – he probably wasn’t really repentant of his sin. So the point is that the NT allows for the withholding of forgiveness for certain purposes.

So how do we distinguish between these 2 situations? When do we overlook a sin unilaterally out of love and when is the sin of sufficient gravity to confront and deal with it bilaterally?

Grave offense – we can certainly forgive unilaterally, keeping in mind all the things mentioned above, such as love, unity, peace, etc. But there may be times when extending this unconditional forgiveness would be counterproductive.
1. When the offense will/might end up hurting the offender. Gal 6:1-2
-The example of the Willis family and Gov George Ryan of Illinois. Note how the motivation is love for the offender. Tie it in to the benefit of the tax collector vs God in the Lk 18:13 example. They both benefit, but the offender far more, and in this case he stands in need of forgiveness from God for all of his sin. It would be the best day of his life if God were to grant him repentance and a broken heart over his sin.
2. Church discipline – when the sin is damaging to the body of Christ, is scandalous – read Ronnie’s book for more, a lot more, on that.
3. When the offense is serious but not committed not against you but someone else, especially if that someone is weaker or defenseless, such as the orphan, the widow, the alien (of course, unless the other person tells you not to confront the offender) (Isaiah 1:17).
4. When a relationship is broken absent formal forgiveness – Lk 17:3 and Matt 18:15 – “you have won your brother”
5. When the name of Christ might be publicly besmirched (I’d call this one a weaker example than the others)

Of course, one could certainly not fault another for acting out of excessive forbearance and love, right? Better to err on that side, certainly. But it bears consideration in these certain cases to what extent we as humans are responsible to extend forgiveness on a different basis than that on which God Himself extends it – repentance.
And let us remember the distinction we made earlier about the freestanding commands not to remain angry, not to let bitterness take root in us. It is all about the attitude of the offended party in these cases – we don’t want the offense to remain, we want to forgive, but we postpone and withhold forgiveness b/c it bolsters the possibility of a better outcome in the future for the offender. This motivation is out of love as well, and this fits very well into God’s overall scheme for forgiveness of humans.

Final note, somewhat of an aside: If someone isn’t repentant, let’s remember, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not bothered by his evil deed. “Burning coals” indirectly speaks to this situation; that is, the answer is not necessarily to cease all relationship with the person, but it does not mean we extend forgiveness to them. The relationship is certainly changed, one would have to admit.
2 Cor 2:7 – “otherwise, this one might be overwhelmed with excessive grief”. Repentance is evidenced by her actions.

Responding to difficulties: Lk 23:34, and cf. 1 Cor 2:8


Stacey said...


With respect to Luke 17:3-4, I have heard it said before that this verse means we should only ever forgive if someone is repentant. Now you say that it means we are allowed to withhold forgiveness under certain circumstances. I can't see this as consistent with Christ's message at all. Nor does it logically follow from the language in the verse.

This verse says "if someone repents, then forgive them". Using some mathematical logic, you cannot then deduce the inverse i.e. "If they do not repent, then do not forgive them." nor can you say "If they do not repent, you do not have to forgive them."

I think there are many points in the Bible which seem to emphasize a certain point, almost as if we are two year olds and God is trying to drum a "Don't do that!" into us. With the above logic, it seems obvious to me that God is drumming into us the idea that we should never withhold forgiveness from a repentant person, no matter how many times they have sinned. Not giving us leeway to not forgive.

Remember, too, there is a difference between sins being forgiven and consequences being erased. You may forgive, if you are able, the man who has drunkenly killed your loved one, but still send him to jail for his own good and the good of others.

Rhology said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rhology said...

Haha, oops...

Hi Stacey,

I appreciate your thoughts, though I hope they're not just your private, fallible, individual interpretation, for your own sake. ;-)

I don't know if I agree with paragraphs 1 and 2, but I think the answer might be found in #3, by redirecting our thoughts a little from what I think is the wrong question, though it's close.
You said:
Not giving us leeway to not forgive.

I agree with this 100%. This reminds me of the way many people think about sexual purity in a dating/courting relationship before marriage. They ask "How far can we go and it still be OK?" Wrong question, right? I'm sure you'd agree that by far the better question is "How can we please Jesus in every way in our relationship?" It's less Law and more Gospel.
So, in this case, the emphasis in the NT as I've been saying is that we be ready to forgive at all times, and do go ahead and forgive most times b/c it's best for the offender and the offended. But sometimes it's better for the offendER that forgiveness be explicitly withheld, and the offender be told that, until he repents. B/c his lack of repentance would indicate such a spiritual problem that it would be unloving of us not to focus the offender's attention on that, since it is of utmost importance.

Does that make sense? And do you agree?

Stacey said...


I almost agree with you! I definitely agree about the emphasis on doing God's will instead of not doing something against His will. I still don't think that in certain cases it is "better for the offendER that forgiveness be explicitly withheld". I think it can be better for them if they still deal with the consequences, but not that their sins are held against them. Forgiveness in the human sense (which I define as giving up the right to be wronged) is always more liberating to the offended anyway.

Yes, these are my private thoughts :oP I'm not under any magistrate yet, I just find a lot of wisdom and truth in Catholicism and lean that way.

rotsaP loeJ said...

You cite five reasons not to forgive. I shall address them in order, and then you can tell me if I have understood you properly.

1. I gather from the link that the the Willis family is considering how to be assured that the offender is really and truly sorry before they forgive him - and, apparently, do not feel capable of forgiving unless the offender repents "sincerely", whatever that may mean. I have not got time to read Braun's book on the subject, which is no doubt very fine; but I confess I am mystified as to how you draw this inference from the passages you cite. Of course it is better that people should repent than not; one can hardly argue with that. But our forgiveness cannot be predicated upon the other fellow ceasing to sin.

First, this violates the model for our forgiveness - the forgiveness of God. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, the prayer goes; and we are forgiven - that is, the penalty of our sins is satisfied - long before we have the capacity to repent. Rather, we are given repentence as an outworking of grace.

Second, it violates the example both of Stephen and of Christ, forgiving those who obviously were not close to repenting. Were these two betraying a poor understanding of forgiveness when they cried to God to spare their torturers?

2. This about church discipline is an interesting point, and I suppose there is an obvious sense in which it is a case of withheld forgiveness. Of course, this is not intended as a model for interpersonal relationships, as I'm sure you are aware - presumably the Willises do not imaging they are delivering Gov. Ryan over to Satan.

3. This seems nothing to the purpose - of course no-one can forgive offenses to other people, conditionally or otherwise. The condition of the person seems highly irrelevant. We are told to defend the weak, but I do not see how you can derive forgiving on their behalf from that command.

4. The Luke passage seems particularly helpful to your case; the Matthew just the opposite, and I am curious as to whether you read them in parallel. In Matthew the context is clearly a point of church discipline, directly followed by the power of the keys, and as such inapplicable to interpersonal relationships. In Luke the point is a little more ambiguous, but I still think the emphasis is on relationships between the brethren, which puts things into the same sort of formal context as in Matthew. I submit that such formal arrangements for the constitution of the church are not directly intended to govern individuals.

I don't mean to imply that the commands to the church have no bearing on my own life. And, indubitably, it is unrepentent Christians who are subject to chuch discipline. Which is, as agreed above, essentially a withholding of forgiveness.

What I object to in this line of argument is the that it invariably seems to end with you or me constituting ourselves a board of elders, and presuming to inflict excommunication on whoever wrongs us. Like the Willises, again: I see no reason to suppose that Gov. Ryan is legitimately a brother subject to the discipline of their church, so what on earth are they trying to prove by withholding forgiveness? If sincerity is to be the test, no non-Christian can ever really repent - can ever fully understand the depth of his sin and be appropriately sorry for it - so are they just going to try to wait him out until Ryan becomes a Christian? This becomes absurd. What about people who cut them off on the interstate?

So there are some more, or perhaps less, relevant thoughts. This argument has uncomfortable implications, and I am interested to hear your clarifications or defence.

Rhology said...

leoJ, I respond here.