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Volume 17, Issue 1: Doctrine 101


Patch Blakey

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but it's also a quirky and complex thing to understand and apply. Of course, all who are Christ's are forgiven. Our sins have been washed away by the precious blood of Christ, who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29). Our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12), and they are remembered no more (Heb. 8:12; 10:17). In this, we all rejoice and give thanks. So, then, what's so quirky or complex?

There is an aspect of forgiveness that is contractual, a mutual asking and giving that requires humility on the part of both the offending party as well as the offended party. Jesus taught, "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" (Lk. 17:3-4). Forgiveness is contingent upon the repentance of the offender. We see this again when Jesus said, "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Mt. 5:23-24). So if we have sinned against a brother in Christ, we are to go and be reconciled to him.
But forgiveness is also contingent upon the offended. "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (Mt. 18:15). So, if our brother sins against us, we are also to go to him and pursue reconciliation. Later in the same passage, "Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven" (Mt. 18:21-22). Our forgiveness is to be a never empty fountain, which always flows forth without restraint.
However, we all know that this is easier said than done, making us much like our Israelite forebears in that we are yet a rebellious and stiff-necked people. And it is just this that presents a very serious and dangerous problem for us. Jesus taught us to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Mt. 6:12). Then to bring His meaning into very clear focus, He amplified, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt. 6:14-15). This reads as if our forgiveness is contingent upon the way we forgive others.
Making His point even sharper, Jesus later told the parable of a servant who was forgiven excessive debts towards his master, but took vengeance against one of his own creditors. The forgiving master then rebuked his hard-hearted servant, delivering him to be tormented. And to this, Jesus added a severe warning, "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Mt. 18:35).
But here is where things begin to twist back on themselves like a mobius strip, creating a conundrum. Let us look to see how Christ, our example, forgave others. When a man suffering from palsy was lowered into the room where Jesus was speaking, Jesus said, "Son, thy sins be forgiven thee" (Mark 2:5). And just so we don't miss the point, this same account is given in two other Gospels as well (Mt. 9:2; Lk. 5:20). There was no request for forgiveness from the palsied man; no indication of repentance. Jesus just forgave Him. And again, while Jesus dined with some Pharisees, a woman came and washed His feet and anointed His head with oil, "And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven" (Lk. 7:48). Again, she had not asked Him to forgive her; He just did.
Indeed, while Christ hung on the cross dying before His Jewish accusers and His Gentile executioners, "Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots" (Lk. 23:34). The world did not seek Jesus' forgiveness for crucifying Him but rather gambled over His clothes while He hung naked and dying. Yet Jesus prayed that the Father would forgive them. There appears to be a level of humble magnanimity in Christ's example that transcends the idea that we are only to forgive others when asked. Certainly, when a brother repents and asks for forgiveness, we must, and as often as he sins against us and seeks our forgiveness. But what if a brother doesn't want to be reconciled to us, can he still be forgiven?
From our perspective, based on Christ's example, the answer must be yes. We must forgive at all times, both when asked by repentant souls, and also when not. Our forgiveness is to be unbounded. But does this mean that the offending person is always forgiven? Yes and no. Yes, in that we have no accounts to settle with him because we have forgiven him from our heart. No, in that he has never received our forgiveness. Forgiveness remains as far from him because of his closed heart as if we had never forgiven him.
This might be better understood when we consider what Jesus taught about unbelievers and why He spoke to them in parables, "that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them" (Mk. 4:12). The point is that there are people who are unable to receive forgiveness for their sins because they have not been converted, they are unrepentant. Forgiveness can only be given from a humble heart, and it can only be received by a humble heart.

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