Read: Mark 11
“I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too. But if you refuse to forgive, your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins.” (Mark 11:24-26)
Don’t skip past these words too quickly! Far too many Christians claim an exemption on this one—to the Lord’s dismay and their own harm.
Having said that, there is another side to the forgiveness coin that we need to consider if we are going to have theological balance in this matter. The question that always comes up when you begin to talk about forgiveness is: Do we have to forgive everyone who has offended us?
I think there is a fair amount of confusion on this, and a lot of misguided theology is to blame. Perhaps you’ve been taught that you are to forgive others even when they don’t repent of the wrong they have committed. And the scriptural justification for that is Jesus’ words we read here. That might be leveraged, for instance, to say to the wife of a chronically unfaithful husband, “You gotta’ forgive him, or God won’t forgive you.”
But that interpretation fails to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the rest of scripture, best summarized in Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32, where we are commanded to forgive others in the same manner that God forgives us.
How does God forgive us? Only when we confess. Confession opens the door to forgiveness. I John 1:9 says, “If…” underscore that conditional clause, “…if we confess our sins…” then comes the apodosis, or the consequence, “God will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Nothing in the Bible indicates that God forgives sin if people don’t confess and repent of the sin.
Furthermore, the Bible always calls the sinner to repentance—that is, a radical reversal of the attitudes and actions that resulted in the sin. Confession without repentance is always hollow. (Matthew 3:7-8, Acts 2:37-38)
So when a wife is encouraged to forgive her adulterous husband while he’s continuing in his sin, she’s being asked to do something that God himself doesn’t require. What Scripture does teach is that we must always be ready and willing, as God is always ready and willing, to forgive those who repent.
But forgiveness without confession and repentance doesn’t lead to reconciliation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great theologian who was martyred by hanging in a Nazis concentration camp in 1945, said forgiveness without repentance is “cheap grace… which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner.”
Let me suggest that when there is no confession for a moral wrong committed against you, the better response would be to release that person to God’s justice in hopes that God will deal with them in a way that brings them to repentance and reconciliation. Further, we are never to give into bitterness, hold grudges, or let anger over sin pull us into sin. We must be very alert when we find ourselves in such a situation.
If you forgive cheaply, as Bonhoeffer warns, you may very well circumvent God’s process to bring that person to repentance and in so doing, close the door to reconciliation in your relationship.
Be very discerning about cheap grace. Genuine forgiveness and Biblical reconciliation require a two-person transaction that is enabled by the confession and repentance.
Yes, forgive! Do it early and often, quickly and fully. Be a forgiver, for sure, but don’t go beyond what Scripture teaches.
“Forgiveness does not mean excusing.” ~C.S. Lewis
What If God Took Over?
Is there someone you have not forgiven? Why? Did their offense against you rise to the level of a moral offense? Are they continuing in harmful behavior against you or others? If the offense doesn’t rise to that high threshold, then go before the Lord and ask him to help you forgive. If the offense does meet that threshold, make sure you are not holding on to destructive anger, allowing bitterness to take root in your soul, or nursing a grudge. Don’t let their sin pull you into the sin.