Principle 1: Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely.
The second time the topic of forgiveness surfaces in the NT (Mt. 9) suggests another important principle.
Principle 2: I have neither the right nor the authority to pronounce forgiveness for sins committed against God or others.
When Jesus did that (Mt. 9:2), some of the Jewish leaders were incensed (9:3). “Who can forgive sins but God only?” they asked (Mk. 2:7; Lk. 5:21). They were right. Which is exactly why Jesus could do it (Mt. 9:6). For a similar situation, see Lk. 7:48-49.
Speaking of Luke 7, the implied prerequisite of confession/repentance may actually help our understanding of a puzzling statement. The sinful woman in Luke 7 never says a word in the passage, but weeps what are clearly tears of repentance onto the feet of Jesus (7:48). Jesus observes that she loves much because she has been forgiven much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (7:47). Why would someone be forgiven little? Because they’ve sinned little? No one qualifies for that category. Even the Pharisee who believes he sins little has big sin issues (Lk. 18:9-14). But what if the implication is that some are forgiven little because they confess little? The more we are aware of our sin, the more we will confess; the more we confess, the more we will be forgiven; and the more we are forgiven, the more we will love.
All of the passages we have seen so far either express or assume that forgiveness is my response to repentance. We are to forgive others just as God forgives us. God forgives when we repent and on the basis of our confession. But what about when the offender has not asked—or will not ask—for forgiveness? What then? Are we obligated to forgive anyway? This is where the debate over forgiveness becomes difficult and (ironically) divisive.
Principle 3: Forbear and, if you can, overlook; make it your ambition to be hard to offend.
So, someone tells you, “You know, don’t take this personally or anything, but you really blew that Sunday School lesson. If you would take the time to actually read the passage you’d see that….” What’s your first response, in fact your first Christian obligation? Therefore, as the chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another (Col. 3:12-13a). The word (for)bearing means that I maintain my composure under injury or provocation, rather than lashing out in retaliation. The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression (Prov. 19:11). It is the instinct of love to “cover” sin (Prov. 10:12; 1 Pet. 4:8). Some people are so hyper-sensitive that they see a personal affront in every look or gesture. You’ll make life a lot easier for yourself and those around you if you make it your ambition to be hard to offend (Prov. 12:16, 16:32). But what if the offense is of such a nature that it simply cannot be ignored?
Principle 4: If you can’t overlook, graciously confront.
Biblical forgiveness is responsive and reactive, but it has a proactive side as well. Forgiveness as a response does not mean that your sole obligation is to wait on the offender to repent. Jesus teaches that the offended party has an obligation to the offender: If your brother sins against you, rebuke him (Lk. 17:3). When there is a legitimate or repeated offense, or a habitual pattern that not only breaches a relationship but potentially damages the testimony of Christ, that needs to be addressed. And Jesus places a responsibility not only on the offender to repent but on the offended to confront. The full pattern is laid out in Mt. 18:15-17.
So there are times to confront, but there are also times to forbear. You’ll have to determine the difference. That brings up what is perhaps the most frequently cited verse in the whole debate over forgiveness.
Principle 5: Be willing to dismiss personal offenses committed out of ignorance.
The most famous passage for insisting that forgiveness does not pre-require repentance is the only passage where no linkage between forgiveness and confession is implied—Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Lk. 23:34). What are the implications of this passage? Does this require that I freely and frankly forgive everyone for anything they may do to me (or to those I love)? To voice that forgiveness to them? Even if they’re not sorry? Even if they continue to sin against me?
I have tried to couch the principle in a way that highlights at least three important factors that affect how we apply this passage.
First, the nature of the offense is personal. That is, it does not involve a sin against someone else; it involves my response to a sin committed against me.
Second, the offenders are ignorant of the offense and/or its magnitude. Many limit this statement of ignorance (they know not what they do) to the Roman soldiers who were merely following orders; to them it was just one more execution of yet another criminal. Two passages, however, may suggest that Jesus was thinking more broadly when He prayed that prayer. If ignorance is the issue, 1 Cor. 2:8 extends that ignorance to the Jews themselves (see also Acts 3:17). Stephen, echoing Jesus’ example, prays substantially the same prayer regarding his Jewish executioners (Acts 7:60).
Third, when Jesus and Stephen uttered this expression of forgiveness, they were not addressing the offenders, but God. That is, they were not verbalizing a formal expression of forgiveness to their offenders; they were expressing to God a personal, internal posture toward their offenders. (At the same time, we can’t say this is the only biblical or spiritual response to personal injury; see Rev. 6:9-11. But that’s a topic for another post!)
It is inconsistent with the rest of the NT to elevate this passage to a level that trumps all other NT instruction. It is not as if this statement represents “the” teaching or example of Jesus on the matter of forgiveness; as we have seen, it is only one of many. The only application that is consistent with all the factors in the context (and with the teaching of the rest of the NT on this subject) is that we be willing to dismiss personal offenses that are committed in ignorance. The NT has another word for that—love. As in, love is patient and gracious and is not touchy (1 Cor. 13:4, 5, my translation).
But what if someone knows they’ve wronged you but doesn’t ask your forgiveness. Surely that justifies holding a grudge! Doesn’t their refusal to repent legitimize my bitterness? We’ll explore that issue, and a few others, in the final post.