This post is the first in a four-part series on forgiveness.
As a Christian, am I obligated to forgive everyone who sins against me? Do I forgive only if the offender asks me to? What do I do if he never asks forgiveness?
All this came up while my daughter was counseling at a Christian camp this summer. One of her campers (“Anna”) asked her whether she was obligated to forgive her father for being verbally abusive to her, even if he never apologized for his behavior. See, someone else had told her that she needed to, and she wanted to know if that was right.
So what do you do if a fellow Christian publicly (or privately) insults you, or libels you, or cheats you? What if a drunk driver kills your 16-year-old sister or brother? What do you tell “Anna” when she asks if she is supposed to forgive her father?
It’s no surprise that the NT has a lot to say on the subject of forgiveness. The word shows up about 65 times in the NT. What may be surprising is what it does … and does not … say. Let’s start with where the Scripture is clear and with what all believers should be able to agree on.
What Does the NT Say?
What’s the first word on forgiveness in the NT? Forgive us our trespasses (Mt. 6:12). Jesus’ initial point on this subject is that we need to ask God to forgive us. This first step to forgiveness is called confession and repentance (see Prov. 28:13). But it doesn’t stop there: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. That’s a sobering standard! But Jesus takes it a step further when he pegs that one part of the prayer and applies it: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses (Mt. 6:14-15). God will forgive you (when you ask Him to) if you forgive others (when they ask you to). Forgiveness is serious business. According to Jesus, if I withhold it from others when they ask me for it, God withholds it from me when I ask Him for it. This passage suggests a first biblical principle regarding forgiveness.
Principle 1: Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely.
Peter asked how often he should be willing to forgive someone who sins against him (Mt. 18:21). Until seven times?Jesus replaces that with a number (seventy times seven) that implies no limit to my willingness to forgive someone who genuinely asks for it. Then He tells a story about forgiveness (note 18:27, 32) that concludes (18:35) with the same warning as in Mt. 6: God’s forgiveness of you (when you ask) hinges on your forgiveness of others (when they ask). Mt. 6 and 18 imply that forgiveness requires repentance. But Luke 17:3-4 makes it explicit: If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times in a day returns saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.
Other passages make repentance an explicit condition for forgiveness (Acts 5:31, 8:22; Js. 5:15-16), but usually the linkage is implied in the context. For Paul to demand that the Corinthians break fellowship with an immoral member of their assembly (1 Cor. 5), then turn around and urge them to forgive and receive him (2 Cor. 2: 7, 10), clearly implies that the offender had repented (or else Paul had schizophrenic issues).
Again, Ephesians 4:32 exhorts believers to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. What’s the rationale? Just as God in Christ forgave you. How did that happen? You repented. No one is forgiven by God in Christ apart from repenting. The same link between forgiveness and repentance is implied in the sister passage (Col. 3:13).
The connection between confession and forgiveness is not limited to just our initial experience of salvation. In our daily relationship to God, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. On what condition? If we confess our sins (1 Jn. 1:9).
So as a believer I am obligated to forgive anyone who asks me to. That’s not always easy. But nothing in the NT’s teaching on forgiveness could be clearer. It is repeatedly demanded by Scripture, exemplified by God, and presented as the condition on which our own confession of sin receives God’s forgiveness. No wiggle-room here. At the same time, some equally biblical caveats are in order. That’s the subject of the next post.