One of the most challenging responsibilities that elders face, is to be certain there are no roots of bitterness troubling the assembly; to make sure that relationships are healthy and that all in the fellowship know how to resolve problems that arise in the normal course of life; to “keep the air clear.”
The question of when a Christian should forgive someone who has wronged him is a frequent topic of discussion these days. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, every true believer has experienced God’s gracious forgiveness through Christ, and finds the subject a source of delight. Forgiveness is also a basic part of the good news to be shared with people who do not know the Lord, and are weighed down by sin. But there is another reason. A growing number of Christian teachers are promoting the idea of unconditional forgiveness, i.e., forgiveness that takes no account of repentance on the part of the one who did the wrong. One man in an informal gathering of believers recently proclaimed in my hearing that even though a certain brother had “never yet sinned against him,” he had already forgiven him and so had great peace! Others smiled and nodded approvingly. This sounds large-hearted but is it right?
At the outset, we need to be clear about two things: First, we are not calling into question the salvation of the sinning believer, only the matter of fellowship between brothers, and the harmony that should be maintained within the family of God. Secondly, there is a difference between the attitude to be taken toward the unsaved, and toward those in the household of faith. When considering the abuses and wrongs done to us by sinners, no better example can be found than of the Lord Jesus who prayed: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”(Luke 23:34 KJV) Stephen, the first martyr followed this example at the time of his death saying: “Lord lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60).
But what about when we are wronged by fellow believers? Jesus warned His disciples about this in Luke 17:3,4. “Take heed to yourselves. If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” Notice that the one who sinned is called a brother. Can we find other Scriptures that make this teaching void? I am not aware of any. In fact, other Scriptures support our Lord’s instruction.
Checking the Old Testament, we note that in the place where the word “forgive” occurs most, Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple (II Chron. 6), the king asks God to forgive His people when they sin. In all five petitions, forgiveness follows confession of sin; e.g., “if they pray toward this place and confess thy name and turn from their sin…..then hear…..and forgive (vs. 26); “whatever supplication shall be made…..when everyone shall know his own plague and his own grief…..then hear thou from heaven…..and forgive” (vs. 29).
As one surveys the many passages in the New Testament that deal with wrongs between believers, there is a consistent pattern developed in which forgiveness is granted when the sinner repents. Consider the foundational teaching for dealing with offenses in Matthew 18:15-18. What would be the point of following the three steps laid down by the Lord, (going to the person privately, then with witnesses, and finally to the whole church), if the truly Christ-like response was to simply forgive and be done with it?
Commenting on the word “forgive,” W.E.Vine in his Expository Dictionary says, “Human forgiveness is to be strictly analogous to Divine forgiveness, e.g., Matt. 6:12. If certain conditions are fulfilled, there is no limitation to Christ’s law of forgiveness…. The conditions are repentance and confession.” Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 5 on how to proceed “if any man is called a brother….” and pursues a sinful lifestyle are pointed. The man is to be delivered to Satan! Why not just pronounce him forgiven, and skip this difficult part? The answer is given in verse 6 (and again in Gal. 5:9). Put simply, leaven (sin) spreads.
Think for a moment of the way God saves every sinner. “Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21 ) is the basic formula. Who ever heard of God granting forgiveness to a man who denied his sin and had no thought of repentance? This is universalism, the teaching that God is too good to damn anyone, and eventually all will be saved. Once a person has been saved by repenting of his sin and believing in the Lord, one of the first lessons he is taught is to understand how to deal with sins committed as a Christian. I John 1:9 is very clear; forgiveness is granted by God on the one condition of confession of the sin. And so the prodigal son (who was a son indeed) returns to the father with the words, “Father I have sinned….” and is received with rejoicing (Luke 15:21). Can we imagine the Father sending word to the son in the far country to relax since forgiveness had already been granted?
Taking the Easy Way
How, then, can such teaching not only be entertained as a theory, but also be taught by godly men and even thrive? I believe there are a number of reasons for this. Many have rightly concluded that resentment cherished or held onto is harmful. All too often, Christians have not dealt with problems in the past and have held on to resentments until they have become bitter. This is damaging to the health and destructive to any fellowship. Since our Lord commanded us to forgive if we would be forgiven, they reason, then why not just forgive all who have wronged us instantly and automatically, and “be free.”
Now it is true that the word “forgive” means to “let go” of something. So it seems reasonable to “let go” of any possible cause of bitterness and resentment in the heart, that is, to give it to God, which may be done without any concern for the response of the one who did the wrong. But if there is nothing more to forgiveness than this, we will find that although the short term effects may be enjoyable, the long term results can be devastating.
This understanding of forgiveness renders the many passages that teach us the conditions of forgiveness nearly meaningless. Can we be more “spiritual” than the Lord who gave these instructions and who requires our repentance before He forgives us? Is it a worthwhile trade to weaken the clear sense of many Scriptures so that one may seek “good mental health?” For another, this practice allows the wrongdoer to continue sinning and hurting others, yet being constantly “forgiven” by all the very spiritual people around him. Finally, it usually becomes apparent that the matter is not really resolved at all; cheap grace is no grace at all.
Making it Clear
It would be helpful to make clear the difference between two legitimate concepts: 1) that which we might call the release of a matter that is surrendered to God so that there will be no resentfulness or bitterness taking root in our own hearts, and 2) the forgiveness granted to a sinning brother upon repentance that restores broken fellowship. Note that the motivation for the latter is love for the offending brother. True restoration between believers is possible, because it is founded on the simple fact that fellowship with God has first been restored.
Genuine concern for the good of the other person contrasts sharply with that concern which is simply for self; “I have peace, that’s all that matters.” In a “me – centered” world, filled with hurting and broken hearts, quick fixes are welcomed by the masses. But the fruit can bring bitterness because the sinning brother is not helped and restored, so he continues on injuring others and ruining the fellowship in the church or family. In the meantime, if anyone waits to grant forgiveness that is genuine, he may be viewed as “harsh,” “unforgiving,” even “legalistic.” We must be very clear that there is a wide difference between an unforgiving spirit, and a heart that is longing to extend genuine and heartfelt forgiveness, the kind described by the words in the Scriptures.
As elders oversee the spiritual climate of the flock, they must be watching that no one becomes soured by resentment and bitterness, and “by it many be defiled” (drawn out of fellowship) Heb. 12:15. Every believer must be taught clearly in this matter. Wrongs are not to be held onto, and nursed along in the heart (lit. “cherished” as in Psalm 66:18). Rather, let there be an attitude of love and a willingness to forgive and restore (Gal. 6:1) at the very moment a brother turns from sin, and having received forgiveness from the Lord, seeks forgiveness from his brother.