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Volume 13, Issue 1: Stauron

Forgive and Forget?

Gary Hagen

"I apologize." "... Oh, that's OK. You didn't really mean it." "Billy, tell Suzie you're sorry now." "I understand, so let's just let bygones be bygones." "Forgive and forget, that's my motto."

How many of these cultural errors have crept into the working theology of the church? These unbiblical practices are so commonplace that we often fail to see them for what they are, pagan concepts foreign to the Word of God. But if this is how we practice forgiveness among fellow believers, what does it say for our understanding of the forgiveness from our Heavenly Father? And are our relationships festering with friends, church members, or even our family because we have failed to seek or grant forgiveness in accordance with God's forgiveness to man? Do our churches fail to employ biblical church discipline due to false doctrinal understandings and practices of forgiveness? Indeed, have we substituted a pagan procedure in place of the very gospel of grace? Tragically, in many cases the modern church must answer "yes."
Our forgiveness of others is to follow the pattern established by God (Eph. 4:32). But do we obey that command? Do we teach our children to follow a scriptural model? We may think so, but if we are copying secular society, we have probably gotten much wrong.
What does Scripture teach about forgiveness? What is its ultimate purpose? How is it accomplished? And just what's wrong with those cultural models anyway!?
How we work out our faith in forgiveness of one another relates directly to our accounts with God. This should be one of those blinding flashes of the obvious, but it is worth recapping here in some detail.
First, we must understand context in order to properly comprehend the point. Some sins are against God alone. The other sins are against man. But the point is that all sin is preeminently against God. In sinning against our neighbor, we violate God's command to love Him. And so we begin to see that a simple "I'm sorry" is a poor substitute for the prodigal's biblical plea: "I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy..." The Psalms emphasize this point more strongly. After David committed adultery and had Bathsheba's husband killed, the prophet confronted him with his sins. Psalm 51 records David's prayer of confession: "Have mercy on me, O God, ... against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight." Did any of the cultural examples in the first paragraph even sound close to acknowledging this? There's more.
When someone says they are sorry, what does that mean? "Sorry" is like "sorrowful." All that is said is that somebody feels rotten. And often it's about the consequences, not necessarily the sin (like Esau). But sorrow is not confession, and it is not repentance. Confession and repentance are both actions. "Sorry," the classic apology, is an expression of feeling. Biblical forgiveness, however, is always preceded by the acts of confession and repentance: saying the same thing (calling it sin coram Deo) and turning away and forsaking that sin (Isa. 55:7). These two steps may need to be preceded, as with David, by a rebuke pointing out the sin (cf. Matt. 18:15). Of course words like sorry and apology may be used rightly, but we must be careful.
When you forgive, are you obligated to forget the sin? This is a misconception about Scripture. We see this by understanding, again, God's forgiveness toward us. At this point, some may object, using verses like Jeremiah 31:34 "...saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." Did God forget their sin? No. That's not what it said.
God does not somehow develop a case of cosmic Alzheimer's in His otherwise omniscient mind. He does not somehow voluntarily limit His divine attributes. We need only look at other passages to see this. 1 Corinthians 6 spoke to sanctified, justified saints (i.e., forgiven sinners). The Holy Spirit reminded them that the unrighteous shall not inherit God's kingdom. He enumerates fornicators, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, and sodomites, to name a few and then says "and such were some of you" (v.11). If God forgot their sin, how did He instruct them by reminding them of specific sinful acts? Is He reneging on Jer. 31:34? Obviously, God cannot lie any more than He can forget. What then?
In these contexts, "remember" is not about cognition. It is about action with a purpose: to recount their guilt in order to punish and visit judgment for sin. Again Jeremiah instructs: "The LORD doth not accept them: He will now remember their iniquity, and visit their sins" (14:10). The passage then details God's severe chastisement for their sins. When God forgives, He does not erase some cosmic computer memory. Rather He covenants to never recount our sin in order to visit punishment on us. Christ bore that punishment once and for all on our behalf on the cross.
When someone repents and confesses to us, he covenants not to commit this sin against us again. Where possible, restitution is also required. When we forgive, we in turn covenant not to malevolently recount (or remember) these sins again. Forgiveness is not some feel-good therapy. It is restoration or renewal of a covenant that was broken. Fellowship was severed over sin. Biblical forgiveness re-establishes that intimate fellowship. Hollow apologies know nothing of covenant.

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