Forgiveness is one of those areas where people have many different interpretations as to what it means to forgive someone. I would submit that the world as well as some Christians do not understand biblical forgiveness. Ephesians 4:32, states “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.” So the first general principle regarding forgiveness is that believers should be prepared to forgive in all instances because we ourselves have been forgiven of all our sins.
The second general principle is that we are to forgive as Christ forgave our sins. We will take a look at how Christ forgave our sins in a moment. Before we do that we must still investigate the intricacies associated with forgiveness and how it is to be demonstrated in the life of the believer.
The scriptures teach that believers, both the offender and the offended, are commanded to seek reconciliation through forgiveness - this is the third general principle. We read in the Gospel of Matthew, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:22-24). In other words, if you know you have said or done something against another brother you should go to them to seek forgiveness and be reconciled. Not only is the offender required to seek forgiveness but also the offended person is obligated to seek reconcile and restore the relationship even though they themselves have done nothing wrong; “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). If a believer is offended by what another believer has said or done that believer is obligated to go to the brother or sister and confront them. If they hear you then you have gained them. This begs the question what does “…if he hears you…” means? Does it mean that the person responds to the rebuke by saying they are sorry and/or they apologize? The answer is NO. The scriptures do not speak to the concept of apologies but rather to forgiveness which leads to reconciliation between two parties. The world speaks of apologizing yet apologies in reality do not carry the same weight as forgiveness. Apologies and asking for forgiveness are two separate things, let’s see how.
An important caveat regarding forgiveness relates to the scriptural truth that forgiveness is based upon repentance, this is the fourth general principle. If the party that needs to acknowledge their fault and repent does not repent then the innocent party although they are willing to forgive will never be reconciled to that person. Reconciliation requires the guilty party to acknowledge their offense. Luke 17:3, states, “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” We are told in Proverbs 28:13, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whosoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” Believers should always to be ready to forgive the offended, their hearts should be ready to do so. However, if the offender does not repent then there can be no complete forgiveness since forgiveness requires two parties to be reconciled and without repentance there can be no reconciliation. Let me speak also to the worldly idea that we are to forgive someone in our hearts without confronting the person is not biblical. Biblical forgiveness demands repentance since that is the only way to reconcile. A scenario is necessary at this point. Imagine an adult son or daughter offends their parents and does not speak with them for five years and the parent dies without the adult son or daughter asking for forgiveness for what they did. Let’s say that the son or daughter is bothered by the fact that they never said they were sorry. The world and its psychology would teach that the son or daughter, to be emotionally healthy, could communicate their apology by writing a letter to their dead parent. In this way, the son or daughter could continue with their lives and not feel as much guilt for what they had done or not done. Although this exercise might help alleviate anxiety for some it could never reconcile the relationship. God wants us to be a reconciled people with those who have offended us. We are commanded to seek reconciliation with others while they are alive, it cannot be done after someone has passed away.
The scriptures also detail the frequency of providing forgiveness; “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” (Matthew 18:21-22). These verses clearly delineate what must occur for there to be forgiveness. The guilty party must ask for forgiveness and the innocent party must forgive regardless of how many times the infraction occurs, this is general principle five. Some clarification is needed at this point. If a person continues to commit the same sin and there is a pattern of sin, followed by confession, and then sin and confession then it behooves the forgiven party to seek counsel among godly brethren. At that point the forgiven person is responding to their situation in a sinful pattern, they are habitually sinning. The forgiving party should help the individual according to Galatians 6:1, Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”
What happens if an offender chooses not to repent? Well then, additional believers need to confront the person and if the offender does not listen to the counsel of these believers and the elders or pastors of the church and refuse to repent then the elders need to administer church discipline. The entire congregation must be brought in and advised of the situation and given instruction on how to respond to that person:
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. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every
word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto
thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Matthew 18: 15-17)
Church discipline should never be viewed as a way to seek vengeance:
Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably
with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay,
saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his
head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
We must remember that believers are commanded to love their enemies. Even if our marriages have deteriorated to the point that we consider our spouse an enemy we are still commanded to love him or her. If we are admonished to love our enemies how can we not forgive our spouses? Not only forgive them but as already noted in Ephesians 4:32, “…be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.”
Going back to the second principle, forgiving others as Christ forgave our sins. How did He forgive our sins? Did he not go to the cross to be crucified so that he might redeem those who believe? Isaiah 43:25, states, “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” Similarly, in Jeremiah we read: “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). When God forgives us He makes a decision to not remember our sins, He chooses not to bring the past up again. Likewise, when believers forgive we are to make a conscious decision not to bring that issue up again, it’s not that you somehow mysteriously don’t remember it anymore. In contrast you should consider the issue over and not dwell on the matter again in terms of holding a matter against someone else. I believe an example, is necessary here. Recently, I counseled a saved couple dealing with a second adulterous relationship by the husband and a habitual sin with pornography. The wife chose not to seek divorce and remain with him as long as he received counseling and discipleship. Eventually, the wife reconciled with her husband after he sought biblical forgiveness. During a counseling session where we were discussing forgiveness the wife asked if she was forever forbidden from bringing up the affairs again since they had reconciled and he has chosen to remember his sin no more. The question came up because she and her husband had gone to a park with their children and there was a man and woman who came in separate cars and it appeared that they were in the midst of an affair. The actions of the man and woman were dually noted by the wife and husband. That incident spontaneously stirred up within the wife the old feelings of betrayal and deceit that she had felt when she learned her husband was involved a second time in an adulterous relationship. The wife told her husband how seeing this couple made her feel. She asked me if she had not forgiven her husband because she mentioned the adulterous relationship after she forgave her husband and they had reconciled? I explained to her that she was clearly not mentioning the adulterous relationship and holding it against her husband she was just addressing the adulterous couple and how it made her feel. Although, of course the husband may have felt that she had not forgiven him entirely because she pointed out the couple at the park this was not her intention. When we discuss remembering it refers to the offended not holding the issue against the offender. It is crucial that believers have a correct understanding of biblical forgiveness. Moreover, it is crucial that pre-marital counseling included a study and discussion of biblical forgiveness. I’m afraid there are many Christian marriages not practicing biblical forgiveness and there are matters being held onto which leads to bitterness and lack of connection.
Principle six deals with bitterness, it is a sin and is unacceptable in the heart of a believer, “For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity" (Acts 8:23). Biblical forgiveness prevents bitterness from festering in the heart of spouses since it demands believers to address issues and pursue reconciliation.
Cleanwaters Counseling Ministries provides biblical discipleship and counseling for married couples and those with addictions.