Here’s what we’ve discovered from the New Testament so far. I’ll just rehearse the principles, not the passages. But it’s important to remember that these are not just psychological truths gleaned from human observation; each is grounded in specific Scriptural statements.
Principle 1: Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely.
Principle 2: I have neither the right nor the authority to pronounce forgiveness for sins committed against God or others.
Principle 3: Forbear and, if you can, overlook; make it your ambition to be hard to offend.
Principle 4: If you can’t overlook, graciously confront.
Principle 5: Be willing to dismiss personal offenses committed out of ignorance.
Now to return to the issue I ended with last time: what if someone knows they’ve wronged you but will not ask forgiveness? If I can’t express forgiveness because they won’t repent, isn’t holding a grudge and harboring bitterness my only option?
Principle 6: Forgiveness is “dismissal” and that can be exercised on different levels.
I’m admittedly wandering into territory here that is not explicitly charted in the NT, but I’m trying to get at a distinction that I think does have biblical warrant. The Greek word translated forgive in the NT literally means to dismiss. That can be done on different levels.
One level is dismissing an offense outwardly by granting forgiveness in response to confession. That’s what this series has focused on. We might call that formal, theological, expressed forgiveness. But it is possible, on another purely internal level, to dismiss an offense inwardly by standing ready to forgive and, in the meantime, refusing to dwell on the offense. We might describe this as an informal, personal, unexpressed kind of “forgiveness”—that is, “forgiveness” in the sense of dismissing it from your conscious consideration. It is a choice to allow God, not the sins of others, to control your life and your spirit.
Consider the Old Testament example of Joseph (Gen. 37-50). Though the word forgiveness surfaces only at the tail end of the story (Gen. 50:17)—in response to an earlier clear confession of sin—the Joseph narrative may be considered a classic illustration of personal “forgiveness” even prior to that confession. Joseph is grieved by the injustice of his betrayal by his own brothers. But he does not seethe. He does not sit in prison plotting his revenge. What sustained him amid such sinful sibling betrayal, believe it or not, was his theology. It is your personal theology—what you think about God at that moment—that drives your actions and reactions, especially when you are wronged. Even in the face of such despicable human sin, he understood that the providence of God rules and overrules (Gen. 45:4-8, 50:19-21). This sets the stage for two final principles of forgiveness.
Principle 7: Even though the NT predominantly teaches that forgiveness is a response to confession, that does not give the offended the right to think and feel as they choose until the offender repents.
The Bible forbids harboring resentment and nursing grudges (Ps. 37:8; Col. 3:8). Bitterness is not a legitimate pastime until the offender owns up. The fact that numbers of medical studies have demonstrated the negative health effects of bitterness and anger is interesting, but immaterial. The bottom line for the believer is that it is unbiblical.
Bitterness is a choice with personal as well as relational consequences. It is a choice to resist God’s grace, to sour your relationships with others, and to poison those around you (Heb. 12:15). Back-to-back with the command to tenderheartedly forgive one another (just as God, in Christ, forgave you when you confessed your sin to Him) is a prohibition against harboring bitterness, anger, and malice (Eph. 4:31-32).
How does one do that? It takes growth in grace and sanctification. Yet there is another ingredient for victory in this regard. The Joseph story illustrates it, but I’ll spell it out in a way that may help us help others—others like “Anna,” that summer camper in my daughter’s cabin that prompted this whole discussion in the first place.
Principle 8: It is not Scriptural to insist that another person forgive someone who sins against them (and has not repented); but it is Scriptural to help them focus their attention on God rather than on the offender and the offense.
I can’t be someone else’s conscience, or presume to pontificate how someone else ought to feel. This is especially true when the offended party is a young person and the offense is deep, the betrayal of trust or abuse of power severe. But I can encourage them in a legitimate alternative direction.
No one in the NT talks more about suffering and how to handle it than Peter. When we unjustly suffer because of the sinful persecution of others, who is our model? Jesus (2:18-21). No one knows more about suffering wrongfully because of the sins of others than Jesus—not by virtue of clinical omniscience but by painful personal experience. If you want to compare your experience of suffering to someone else’s, compare it to His.
But another prong of Peter’s strategy is to focus our attention in the right place, to anchor our souls in a bigger reality and in the heart of a bigger Person. What did Jesus do when He faced sinful abuse? Christ, when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but committed himself to the One who judges righteously (2:23). There’s the secret! “We are in God’s hand, brother, not theirs” (Henry V). Therefore, let those who suffer according to the will of God (i.e., not because of my own sin or foolishness, v. 15) commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator (4:19).
You need not be paralyzed, or victimized, or embittered by the sins of others against you. Neither should you fall for some kind of fuzzy, feel-good, omni-forgiveness that diminishes the seriousness of sin and minimizes the importance of repentance. You can move your injured soul in the right direction while you wait to forgive those who haven’t asked for it, even if they never do. You do that by fixing your thoughts and attention not on the people who hurt you but on the God who heals and forgives and loves and leads you.
Do these eight principles exhaust the topic of forgiveness? Hardly. They are just some Scripturally informed guardrails to help you navigate your way through a sinful world filled with sinful people, starting with yourself.