Forgive and Forget? No!

If a Christian has been personally wronged by another Christian, should he just forgive and forget? I don’t believe he should. I think that would be a terrible mistake, and this attitude (while well-meaning) is very dangerous for local churches. It papers over disputes, and presents a false front of unity where, in fact, bitterness and sin often abound below the surface. Here is my position, briefly:

If a Christian offender has been made aware of his offense against another Christian, and if the offender refuses to repent and ask for forgiveness from the victim, then victim should not forgive him

Now understand - when I write this, I’m envisioning two professing Christians in the same congregation; one of whom is defiantly unrepentant. My position is drawn from this passage (Luke 17:3-4):

Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him.

What is the situation?

One Christian sins against another. Matthew 18:15-19 deals with how a church should handle disputes among brethren. This passage addresses the individual aspect. This is about how you and the other Christian should handle the matter. This is important, so get this straight in your head up front - when we talk about forgiveness, there is a difference between a believer and an unbeliever. These are completely different categories. How so?

An unbeliever will act like an unbeliever. Expect it. Don’t expect repentance for sin (in a Biblical sense) or even an acknowledgment of sin. It likely won’t happen. You’re not dealing with a child of God, but a child of Satan. Unsaved people act like unsaved people. Big surprise, right?

Believers are members of the same family, saved by the same Gospel, indwelt by the same Spirit, and baptized by the same Spirit (cf. Ephesians 4). There is a shared understanding of the Gospel, sanctification, and the concepts of sin, repentance, atonement and forgiveness. On that basis, you hold a believer to a much higher standard. You don’t “forgive and forget” a believer’s deliberate sin. You expect and demand repentance, confession and (above all else) restoration between the two injured parties. Nothing less is biblical or right.

If you don’t understand this category distinction, this entire article will seem mean-spirited to you. I was once told that I was being “unloving” for demanding an unrepentant Christian, in deliberate and terrible sin, repent and confess his sins. How did I reply? I said, “When I’m commanding you to repent, confess and make this right, I’m actually doing the most loving thing possible for you.” The man didn’t agree, but you get the idea (I hope).

What should you do?

If your Christian brother or sister sins against you, you must confront him. If you decide to be childish, sulk in your pew, ignore the other person, and let your bitterness fester - then you’re in deliberate rebellion yourself. The other person may not know he did anything wrong. If you were sinned against, you have a duty to lovingly confront that person in a spirit of meekness. It’s possible you’ll decide to sulk, instead. Or gossip to other people about it, telling them just how evil that person was to you. That’s a mistake. You’re sinning yourself, at that point. Stop it, and confront the person. Please. You have a duty to.

When should you forgive?

You forgive if your brother repents. I can’t be any more clear. Black and white. Simple. Check the Greek, if you’re interested in what it really means. Here is what it really means: “and if he repents, you must forgive him.” Revolutionary. Now you know the truth. So simple. If the guy repents, you have a duty to forgive him. No tap-dancing necessary.

What is repentance?

God doesn’t want external, superficial change. He hates hypocrisy (read Zeph 1:2-6). There has to be an internal change, which produces outward action. That internal change is repentance – what is repentance? Repentance is when you confess your sin, and forsake it:

He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy (Prov 28:13)

In practical terms:

  1. you realize you’ve sinned against God, your Heavenly Father
  2. you’re sorry,
  3. you truly mean it,
  4. and you prove it by stopping your sinful behavior

Repentance is the seed that produces action, that produces progressive holiness, in your life.

What is forgiveness?

God forgives sinners. It doesn’t mean He forgets, because He doesn’t. He won’t ever forget your sins. But, if He forgives you, this means He promises He won’t hold your sins against you anymore. If you’re a Christian, that means you’ve repented (i.e. honestly confessed and forsaken your sin of rebellion) and believed in who His Son is and what He’s done. As a result, God declares you innocent of the crimes you’ve committed, and pardons you.

You’re given a clean slate. He knows your crimes, including the sins you’ve yet to commit. But, by forgiving you, God has declared in advance He won’t hold them against you.

When we forgive one another, we can’t promise to “forget” something happened. We don’t ever really forget, do we? Our forgiveness to other believers is modeled after God’s forgiveness to us, when we became Christians. So:

  1. We wait for repentance from the other party, and tell them we expect it
  2. When the other party repents, we extend forgiveness - which means we promise to not hold their sin against them any longer.
  3. This is precisely what God does with us, and it’s what we must do with other Christians

Are you saying I shouldn’t forgive somebody!?

Yes, I am. Actually, Jesus said it. God never forgives anybody unless they repent. Never did, never will. Don’t you realize that? Look past the Jell-O rhetoric and Christian-ese you’re so used to hearing, and think about it. Does God forgive people if they refuse to repent? No. Neither should you.

What does this text tell you:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 Jn 1:9-10)

This is what it tells me:

  1. You have to confess your sins. That means you have to acknowledge them, realize they’re sinful, offensive to God, and contrary to His holy law. In other words, you have to repent.
  2. If you do that, God is faithful and just to forgive you for your sin, and be cleansing you from all unrighteousness.
  3. If you pretend you haven’t sinned, then you’re making God a liar. John wrote this passage against proto-gnostic heretics who believed God freed us so that sin didn’t apply to us anymore - so we could do whatever we wanted. Nonsense, John said. Foolishness. Liar.
  4. Your brother is making God out to be a lair, if you confront him with his sin, and he refuses to acknowledge it and repent.

What does it mean to “not forgive” a fellow Christian?

Now we’re really getting down to brass tacks. It means you treat them with kindness, respect and grace - but you realize there is a breach of relationship there that must be healed. You don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You certainly don’t promise to not hold their sin against them.

You also don’t “forgive and forget.” The Bible knows no such thing. If you disagree, show me where. Point to a passage (not an isolated verse), and explain from the context how it teaches this, and how it fits with the general theme of forgiveness from the entire Bible.

God only forgives people and adopts them into His family because He sent His unique and only Son in the likeness of sinful men to live a sinless and perfect life, and to die in their place, as their substitute. He didn’t forgive and forget. If your brother can’t be persuaded that he committed sin, take it to your Pastor(s). Eventually, if it cannot be fixed, church discipline may be necessary.

Church discipline! Isn’t that mean?

A lady told me once, “church discipline is a Roman Catholic thing! It’s not a Baptist idea.” How silly. Of course, it’s not entirely her fault. She’s never seen it in action. It sounds mean. Rude. Not Christian. Unloving. In our current culture, we don’t want to be unkind.

Christians are part of God’s family. We’re saved from bondage to Satan, and adopted into God’s household. We’re organized into local congregations; our local families. Sometimes, family members act silly. They do stupid and sinful things. These things need to be dealt with, so things can be healed.

In your biological family, people also do silly things. Eventually, things might get so bad it’s time for a “family meeting,” where everything is laid out on the table, and mom and dad call for a resolution. Enough is enough, they’ll say. Time to settle this, say you’re sorry, and move on.

Exactly. That’s what church discipline is about, in the church family. Settle this. Say you’re sorry. Admit you did wrong. Bury that hatchet (no, not into the other person’s head). The dispute is now over. Depart with the relationship healed and fixed. As long as the issue festers, there will be problems in the family.

What attitude should I have?

You should be living a life worthy of the adoption you’ve been called by God to. Your attitude, demeanor and conduct in your congregation, with the people in your congregation, should be characterized by meekness and lowliness. You must be patient with people, putting up with them because you love them. They’re not perfect, and neither are you.

Does this mean you should just sweep everything under the carpet and pretend nothing is ever wrong? Isn’t that the “loving” thing to do? Ignoring problems always makes things better, right?

Wrong. Re-read Luke 17:3-4 again.

Family strife is often the hardest. But, as the saying goes, they’re family - so you have to find a way to make it work. Why go to all that effort? ‘Cuz it’s family. It’s the same with your church family.

How often should I forgive?

An unlimited amount of times. Jesus made that clear. He didn’t mean, literally, “77 times.” He meant, “over, and over, and over, and over again.” He forgives you every day for your sin, doesn’t He? And, He’ll do the same tomorrow.

What about bitterness?

Pray for the person. Pray for the ability to love him, yet not pretend all is well. Pray for the Holy Spirit to heal the relationship. Pray for the Spirit to give a spirit of repentance and godly sorrow to the person.

Sounds easy. It isn’t. It’s very hard. The apostles responded to this by asking Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5)! What are your thoughts about forgiveness and the Christian life?  

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There are 29 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I hardly know where to start with this one.

First, forgiveness that does not include a commitment to treat a person as though the offense had never happened is meaningless, completely pointless. The usual word for forgive in the NT means to release, to let go, to leave (behind). It's frequently used in reference to debt, and after the forgiveness occurs, there is no longer any debt. The relationship is no longer a "you owe me" relationtionship, but a "we are even" relationship.

Second, not letting go is a path to bitterness and self destruction. It is called, quite simply, bearing a grudge.

Third, forgiveness always has to be understood in terms of relationships. Where much of the confusion comes in is when persons not in the debt relationship try to forgive the debt. For example, when a person commits a crime, I do not have the power to forgive him. His debt may include me, but he also has a debt to society and to the law. I can forgive his offense against me, but I can't release him from his debt to society and the law.

Similarly, sins can be against an entire local congregation, and in these situations, I can forgive the sinning brother for his offense against me, but I can't release him from his debt to the church.

Of course, none of us can release anyone from his/her debt to God. So our forgiveness is always in reference to ourselves and our individual relationship with the offender. Only the "creditor" can forgive the debt, so in the case of a debt to the church, the matter must be forgiven by the church as a group.

Disqualification is a separate category from forgiveness. With all debts released, the actions involved may still have other consequences. These are not relational consequences. Those have been released. So when, for exampled, a youth worker is found to have committed sexual abuse of a minor, there is a debt to God, a debt to society and the law, a debt to the church, and then debt to affected individuals.

In theory all of these debts could be released (not that any president is likely to pardon that sort of crime!), but other consequences would remain. The individual should be permitted to work with youth in ministry again. Ever. That's a separate matter from forgiveness.

One final matter. Scripture also speaks of forbearance (Rom. 2:4, Col. 3:13). This is nothing less than unilateral forgiveness without confrontation and without the offending party making any kind of apology. We do have the power to do this in many situations. It tends to be very small things, but there is no rule that says it has to be. Confronting people over every little thing is certainly not Christlike.... nor is holding onto offenses after doing something we're incorrectly calling forgiveness.

TylerR's picture

Editor

There were too many caveats to list here, and I suspected there would be a negative reaction. I am specifically aiming at a scenario where there is a real issue of real sin, that is causing a real problem, between two Christians in a congregation. I have seen many of these situations where Christians believe forgiveness means to "pretend nothing is wrong." I don't believe that will do anything but destroy the victim, and enable the unrepentant offender. I have seen it eat away at the victim over time, and embolden the offender, who was never confronted.

Does forgiveness mean to forgiveness and forget, and pretend nothing is wrong? No loving confrontation? No call for repentance? I just can't see that.

The call to put up with each other's issues (Eph 4) is important, but my scenario goes beyond that. I'm referring to deliberately, unrepentant sin against somebody else that is being deliberately ignored. Every person has to consider where the line is - to my way of thinking, you need to have a conversation with the other party once you have reason to believe the sin is deliberate. Please understand, I 'm not against forbearance. I just believe it has been used as a crutch to avoid dealing with issues in a church. 

I've seen disputes simmer and boil away below the surface, while people pretended all aas well. But, they could do that because they thought forgiveness meant "pretend nothing's wrong." That is my concern, here. I hope that makes things a little clearer. 

To be sure, this is a big topic. This is really about how Christians should handle interpersonal issues in a church, and the nature of forgiveness. I could have expanded the article out over a few weeks, but decided to stick with the short version for effect. I 've thought about this topic a lot, because I had to deal with it a lot. I am very interested in other people's perspectives. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

We should not accept "I'm sorry" as a replacement for genuine repentance in the home or in the church. Too many people today say, "I'm sorry," as a way to defuse the situation yet avoid admitting they sinned against someone else and were wrong. "I'm sorry" for what? For sinning against you or for you being offended? "I'm sorry" is often a crutch phrase people use when they want to appear contrite, but don't necessarily want to admit complete wrongdoing. It's a way to save face.

When someone has to be confronted about sin (whether in a family situation or a church situation), the only proper response that leads to forgiveness is, "I sinned against you and God by doing/saying X. Please forgive me."

TylerR's picture

Editor

If a Christian has wronged you terribly, and they refuse to repent, what should you do? I believe forgiveness is predicated on repentance, and means you promise to not hold their sin against them anymore. It's a promise among brethren.

So, what should you do in this scenario? I think you should:

  1. Speak to the person about the issue in a loving, Christlike way
  2. Determine if there is a deliberate sin and, if so, ask for repentance
  3. Give the person time
  4. If he refused to repent, let him know you're ready to forgiveness whenever he's ready to repent.

Does this produce bitterness? Not in my personal experience. It really depends how you define "forgiveness," and how you think serious, interpersonal issues among believers should be handled. Thoughts?

 

 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I agree "I'm sorry," by itself, isn't repentance at all. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

If a Christian has wronged you terribly, and they refuse to repent, what should you do? I believe forgiveness is predicated on repentance, and means you promise to not hold their sin against them anymore. It's a promise among brethren.

So, what should you do in this scenario? I think you should:

  1. Speak to the person about the issue in a loving, Christlike way
  2. Determine if there is a deliberate sin and, if so, ask for repentance
  3. Give the person time
  4. If he refused to repent, let him know you're ready to forgiveness whenever he's ready to repent.

Does this produce bitterness? Not in my personal experience. It really depends how you define "forgiveness," and how you think serious, interpersonal issues among believers should be handled. Thoughts?

A refusal to repent initiates the next step in church discipline. That being said, there may be situations when a sinning believer is given time, space, and grace to repent after confrontation before escalation is sought.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I agree 100% with that. I also think Christians should put up with each other's issues (Eph 4), and there are many issues that don't need confrontation. But, for those that do require a discussion, it would be a terrible mistake to "forgive and forget." I don't think that is real forgiveness at all. Where in the Bible do we see "forgive and forget," without repentance? The problem is how to discuss this, without assuming you're giving the offended party permission to hold a grudge and be bitter. I hope I'm not giving that impression.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Has anybody here ever:

  1. Been aware of a serious issue between two Christians in a church
  2. where one (or both parties) has legitimate grievances with the other that require attention
  3. and, instead of dealing with them like adults, the two Christians pretended nothing was wrong
  4. and, meanwhile, everybody knows they hate each other
  5. but, nobody ever talks about it

. . . and things actually ended well? I doubt it! That is my pastoral concern, here. We must solve real differences with our fellow believers as soon as we can, if the matter rises beyond the level of simple forbearance. We can't paper things over. We must resolve our differences, and repent and confess sin, if we truly love each other in our churches. I've seen the "I'll just pretend nothing is wrong, never say anything, and forgive and forget" approach, and I've seen what it does to people. I think it's a terrible mistake. It produces bitterness and hatred. It won't do anybody any good.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

...is that Strong's 3340 can also be translated "agree with" or "change one's mind".  So to repent of a sin means, in a way, to agree with God that (a) it was offensive to Him and (b) one ought to try to undo the damage which has been done.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bert, I think you're right. Repentance is a term that hasn't fared well in American evangelicalism. Some people even deny it's a component of the Gospel. You can read my own discussion about repentance here (pgs. 11-18), from a lesson I gave about how to share the Gospel with kids, located at this page

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

....that repentance isn't dealt with well in American fundagelicalism, and that's all the more striking when we consider that the lesson is given at least twice; in the context of Scripture as it's noted that it must be associated with action, and then in the very etamology of the word.  

There is a lesson there somewhere, maybe something about the idea that higher education and ancient languages aren't necessary or helpful for a pastor.  I remember once noting something from the Greek, and my so-called "pastor" at the time noted that the only Greek he knew came from a gyros stand.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I've been having a conversation with a man about this article. Here is something I elaborated on in a messagr to him:

If we assume we should forgive a fellow Christian who has wronged us without waiting for them to repent, then (in effect) we're advocating "forgive and forget." There''s a piece missing here, somewhere. There's a term or a construct I haven't hit on yet, that will tie this whole thing together. It all hinges on two points (1) what, exactly, is "forgiveness" among brethren? How do you define this? And (2) what should your attitude be towards a fellow Christian who refuses to repent of deliberate sin against you, and what do you "label" this attitude as? I don't think we can, or should, call it "forgiveness." If so, we're back to "forgive and forget."

I believe we're really playing a semantics game. It's mean to say, "I won't forgive," so what will you say? "I forgive, but you must still repent for your sins?" Does this mean the guy hasn't been forgiven yet? What does it mean?

So, we can claim, "Oh, I forgive," but we all realize we're waiting for the other party to acknowledge guilt, and until he does, things won't be right. That's a basic concept, all throughout the Levitical laws about sacrifices for unintentional and deliberate sins; see for example, Lev 5:5. For guilt offerings (Lev 6:1-6), when the offender committed some deliberate crime against a fellow covenant brother, should we assume repentance is not included in the restoration of stolen property? These laws are the backdrop for Zacchaeus' story of repentance and faith; he was so repentant he restored the goods he stole by 400%, not the 120% Lev 6 told him to!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There is really no mystery to what it means. aphiemi means to let go, to release from a debt, to leave. 

I think this is a case of overthinking it.

There are situations where a matter can be forgiven unilaterally (my coworker said something insensitive, someone misspelled my name in the bulletin, someone spoke harshly to me for no good reason, etc.). Sometimes these can even be big things, as in when we (a) have no access to the offending person or (b) no ability to communicate with them (they have closed all channels of communication, including--maybe especially--face to face). In this situation, the absolute best thing anyone can do is let it go and move on. (It might be necessary to let it go repeatedly!)

There are situations where a wrong needs to be confronted both for the edification of the offending person and because you just can't seem to let it go. The latter can be a problem of maturity, or it can be a situation where letting it go would be wrong (this is usually not the case unless they are harming others as well).

So when do we "forgive and forget" and "when do we confront"? There is no easy answer to this. There are obvious cases, and many not obvious ones. When a person is sinning in a major way (all the NT examples of church discipline are acts that clearly bring extensive harm), they are harming the name of our Lord, harming His church, as well as harming particular victims. This is not a matter of "somebody treated me badly" or "someone offended me" etc. It's in a different category.

We can only forgive when a debt is owed. When a debt is owed, we can always choose to either collect or let it go. Always.

When the debt is owed to more than just us personally, then it's not our place to let it go. It may also not be our place to confront it. It depends. In these situations, it's mainly about the primary and secondary victims. The offender owes a debt to them. It's mainly "them" who must collect it or forgive it.

As for "I'm sorry..." Isn't it pretty obvious that this can be an expression of genuine repentance or it can just be superficial?  But again, there is no absolute here. We can't see people's hearts and judge whether they "mean it" or not. Over time, their actions will show that they meant it.. or didn't. But the Christlike thing to do is generously, humbly, excessively, and amazingly, forgive.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:32)  

TylerR's picture

Editor

Aaron, you wrote:

We can only forgive when a debt is owed. When a debt is owed, we can always choose to either collect or let it go. Always.

Let me ask a few questions along this line. Pretend a person in your church is gossiping about you, saying you're a terrible worker with the K-6 kids at your church, and the pastor should remove you. This comes to your attention via several other church members:

  1. Will you ask for the man's repentance?
  2. What will you do if he refuses to admit his wrong, and refuses to repent? Do you "let it go" at that point?
  3. If you decide to "let it go," what does that mean? Has he been "forgiven?" Is the matter over? Is "forgiveness" contingent on anything this man does?
  4. How is "let it go" different than "forgive and forget?"
  5. How does the "let it go" approach (in the case of deliberate, unrepentant sin) help anything?
  6. If, for the sake of argument, you acknowledge there is now a breach of relationship that must be healed (even with the "let it go" approach), then is just partial forgiveness? Is the process complete if the man never repents or acknowledges his guilt?
  7. If there are personal and eclesiastical consequences for the man's deliberate, unrepentant sin - how is this "forgiveness" complete?
  8. What Biblical basis do you have for "letting it go?" What about Lk 17:3-4? What about the principle of repentance as a precondition of forgiveness throughout Scripture?
  9. Is there a Biblical basis for the distinction between complete forgiveness (e.g. repentance and restoration) and the concept of "I've just forgiven him in my heart, instead?"

Of course, anyone can answer these questions. I don't believe there is such a thing as "partial" forgiveness, and I believe everybody acknowledges the process is not complete if and unless the other party acknowledges his guilt and repents. I think "forgive and forget" or "let it go" are well-meaning, but counterproductive and mushy concepts that have no Biblical basis. I understand many people disagree. I wrote the article anticipating this.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I understand what people mean when they have a serious dispute with a fellow Christian, the person refuses to repent or acknowledge guilt, and the offended party says, "I've forgiven him in my heart." I get it. I agree with the sentiment. I'm just not sure we can call that "forgiveness." I think we ought to call it something else - not sure what:

  1. If you have a serious, legitimate issue with a fellow Christian, and he refuses to repent or acknowledge guilt
  2. and you "let it go" and "forgive him in your heart"
  3. and if this terminology means "I release him from his debt to me" (to borrow Aaron's definition, above)
  4. but you acknowledge the relationship is ruined and will continue to be ruined until he acknowledges and confesses his guilt
  5. then have you really "released him" from a debt, at all?

I don't think you have. This is why I agree with the sentiment, and have used it myself on many occasions, but I don't think we can call this "forgiveness," because the matter isn't over, and the relationship will continue to be broken unless and until the other party confesses and repents. Whatever we call this intermediate stage, I don't think it's "forgiveness" at all. Perhaps we should call it "honest willingness to forgive." This is what I'd appreciate feedback on. I hope ya'll understand the distinction I'm making; I think our terminology of "forgiveness" for this intermediate stage is wrong.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Isn't this a debate that is at the heart of tragedies like the silencing of sexual assault victims documented in the Grace Report for BJU?  Yes, there are things I can "let slide", and quite frankly some things that I have to--I cannot object to workplace gossip without getting in trouble with HR, because policy is "talk to your manager first."  But for serious, significant wrongs, there is a Biblical pattern that ought to be followed, and real repentance ought to be insisted on.  

(one caveat; I would argue that if someone is assaulted, especially sexually, the confrontation does NOT need to be done 1 on 1 since that confrontation has already occurred during the crime)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

TylerR wrote:

Aaron, you wrote:

We can only forgive when a debt is owed. When a debt is owed, we can always choose to either collect or let it go. Always.

Let me ask a few questions along this line. Pretend a person in your church is gossiping about you, saying you're a terrible worker with the K-6 kids at your church, and the pastor should remove you. This comes to your attention via several other church members:

I'll insert anwers with the questions...

Will you ask for the man's repentance?

  • I would have a biblical obligation to have a conversation with him. The first thing I'd want to do is find out if this is true and if so why he thinks so. Maybe he's right. So much would depend on that conversation. If his only error is "talking to the wrong person" but he's otherwise got good intentions, the conversation might well end with "Let's have a meeting the pastor and see if we can sort this out or if maybe someone else should be in the role I'm in."  If it's nothing more than that, I might or might not ask for repentance. I might well simply let it go. Impossible to answer with certainty without more info.
  • In any case, I would be very intrested in finding a way to avoid making the conflict bigger than it truly is.

What will you do if he refuses to admit his wrong, and refuses to repent? Do you "let it go" at that point?

  • For this one, I'll assume worst case scenario. Let's say he knows I'm the right person for the job--or at least adequate--and is intentionally lying because he hates my guts... and that in our first conversation he's honest enough to say so. I tell him he's got problems that are bigger than me and he needs to spend some time in prayer and deal with the Lord about it. 
  • Supposing he insists he's done nothing wrong, my next question is, are you going to keep doing this?
  • Supposing he says yes, I kind of have to escalate per Matt 18 and because he's going to eventually do some actual damage. (As far as I can tell, he actually hasn't done any yet.)
  • So, I'd want to have a sit down with maybe a deacon or the SS Super. or someone who is closely vested in the issue. Might be the pastor.

If you decide to "let it go," what does that mean? Has he been "forgiven?" Is the matter over? Is "forgiveness" contingent on anything this man does?

  • I have alot of options here for how letting go plays out in the particulars, because there are so many ways the story could go. He could, after I tell him he's got a hate problem (which he's admitted to) maybe he says I'm right and apologizes. I let it go. End of story. He may need to talk to some people as damage control, but otherwise, it's over.
  • If I have to escalate, it's out of my hands at that point in the Matt. 18 scenario. He may have had a debt to the congregation before, but if he didn't before, he does now. I can let go of his debt to me (move on an forget about it/act as though it never happened), but only the congregation can forgive him of his debt to them.
  • Supposing it goes all the way... The man stubbornly refuses to repent and eventually removed from the church. In that scenario, I let it go in the sense that I get on with life and ministry and if I meet him somewhere, he's effectively an unbeliever and so I'm friendly and look for opportunities to evangelize. The church lets go in the same way.

How is "let it go" different than "forgive and forget?"

  • I'm not persuaded that there is generally any difference... as far as debt-of-offense goes. But disqualification and "other necessary consequences" are in a different category.

How does the "let it go" approach (in the case of deliberate, unrepentant sin) help anything?

  • If we're going to look at it biblically we have to do some weighing here. THere is much that people do in the category of "offenses" that may or may not be sin ... and we really don't know. The difference between a sin and an honest mistake is murky at the margins. In extreme cases of major sin, we don't "let go" until we've carried out the biblical obligation to get the congregation involved. But there's no clear line in Scripture between what's "big enough" to take through the Matt 18 escalation process and what isn't. What we do have are a couple of examples in the NT and they are both very damaging kinds of sin... in cases where the facts are not in doubt.
  • So when it's not one of those kinds of issues, how does it help to just let it go? So many many ways. It avoids a fight/quarrel where there does not need to be one. It obeys the biblical calls to peace, unity, and gentleness (as well as judging others by the standard we would wish to be judged by.. .the point of Matthew 7:1ff). It avoids the disgrace that comes on the name of Christ when believers just "can't get along."    So, what I'm getting at is that there battles worth fighting and there are matters that should just be let go... and there are matters that we let go because repentance has occurred... and matters we let go of because we no longer have any power to do anythig about them.

If, for the sake of argument, you acknowledge there is now a breach of relationship that must be healed (even with the "let it go" approach), then is just partial forgiveness? Is the process complete if the man never repents or acknowledges his guilt?

  • We can only forgive what is owed to us. If the man is unrepentant of sin, my letting go doesn't erase his debt to God or whomever else he has wronged. So, in that sense, my forgiveness can never be anything but partial.

If there are personal and eclesiastical consequences for the man's deliberate, unrepentant sin - how is this "forgiveness" complete?

  • Consequences are a different category. For example, if I get mad and my neighbor and shoot his dog, he has forgiven me if he we manage to be friends again after that. But he is not being unforgiving if he insists that I stay away from his dog. Disqualification is just a different category from personal moral debt. It can be a fine line in some situations, though, to be sure... For example, if the neighbor insists I can't go near his new dog, he might be full of resentment toward me and doing it for that reason. In this case, he has not forgiven. So motive is huge in this.

What Biblical basis do you have for "letting it go?" What about Lk 17:3-4? What about the principle of repentance as a precondition of forgiveness throughout Scripture?

  • See passages I quoted earlier about forbearance. Nobody wants to be near a person who insists on repentance for every single wrong he thinks has been done against him! So golden rule (Matthew 7 also I think, if memory serves) comes into play here as well. We do not want others to make a big deal out of our every misstep. We shoud return the favor. 

Is there a Biblical basis for the distinction between complete forgiveness (e.g. repentance and restoration) and the concept of "I've just forgiven him in my heart, instead?"

  • Forbearance. Golden rule. Christian love. Add in the passages that tell us to follow after the things which make for peace and which edify one another, etc. But I would remind at this point that when a human forgives a human, and sin is involved, the forgivness is always partial. It's only complete when the person has taken care of the God part of it. But we can always choose not to hold an error against someone so far as it concerns only that person and ourselves.

I confess, most of these questions are difficult to process because I think 90+% of the time, the problems and offenses that happen between people are not in the "definitely sin" category. Usually the intentions and motives and information the person was working with are quite uncertain even to themselves let alone the offended party. So usually it's a "maybe he sinned" thing, not a "he needs to repent" thing.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I want to elaborate a litte bit more on this one:

What Biblical basis do you have for "letting it go?" What about Lk 17:3-4? What about the principle of repentance as a precondition of forgiveness throughout Scripture?

People often slip into a reasoning error here. When we say "if A happens, we should do B" that doesn't mean "only if A happens we should do be." That's a leap.

Here's the logic. Supposed it's raining hard and you say:

* If you go shopping, you'll get wet.

It doesn't follow that 

* If you mow the lawn you won't get wet.

Similarly, "if someone repents, forgive him" does not declare "if someone doesn't repent, don't forgive."

Jay's picture

But I want to go back to something Aaron said much earlier in the thread, because it's something I've thought for a while.  Aaron wrote:

First, forgiveness that does not include a commitment to treat a person as though the offense had never happened is meaningless, completely pointless. The usual word for forgive in the NT means to release, to let go, to leave (behind). It's frequently used in reference to debt, and after the forgiveness occurs, there is no longer any debt. The relationship is no longer a "you owe me" relationtionship, but a "we are even" relationship.

Second, not letting go is a path to bitterness and self destruction. It is called, quite simply, bearing a grudge.

What do you do in an instance where, for example, one believer (A) tells you that another has slandered him, and the other person (B) tells you that they did no such thing and therefore sees no need to 'repent', leading to a counter-accusation that A is maliciously accusing them?  It's essentially he-said, he-said, and only God knows the truth.  Ideally A accepts that B did not gossip and B assures A that they meant no harm, but neither side believes the other. 

In that case, I think that it is best for both parties to admit that this is a legitimate difference of opinion, not necessarily a sin issue, and they should each 'release' the other from the perceived offense and move forward.  Or, of course, you could church discipline both of them for not letting it go.

I think that's where Tyler's position breaks down, because both sides are still hanging on to the fact that the other 'offended' them instead of choosing to let the offense go in Christian love (1 Peter 4:8).  I'd be curious for others' input, though.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that the question hinges on whether people see what was said as the same.  If they both agreed "Bob called Jim such and such", it will be either true or false, or one will be keying on the question of whether it actually defames another person.  I can see a bunch of cases where the church elders ought to be able to determine whether it's defamatory, whether it ought to have been handled differently (tell Jim alone instead of in front of the whole gang), or whether other testimony simply contradicts that person.  

Which is a long way of saying that while there may be cases where it's not a cause for discipline, my gut feeling is that generally it will be--the question is of who.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

There are so many different circumstances and contexts, that it is very difficult to prescribe a "one size fits all" approach. The back and forth on this topic has helped me work through a few things. For clarity, let me lay out a realistic scenario, to take this out of the clouds and into real life

  • You're a Sunday School teacher, who teaches the teens every week. Mrs. Finkelmeyer is gossiping to at least four different ladies (and one man) about what a terrible teacher you are. She criticizes your teaching style. She criticizes the teens. She criticizes your alleged lack of qualifications. You've been approached by three people, who admit she's been slandering you to them. You and Mrs. Finkelmeyer aren't the best of friends. Truth be told, you know she doesn't like you, but you have no idea why. You generally try to keep your distance from the woman. But, with criticism mounting, you feel something must be done.

I'll summarize my position:

  1. If you have a serious, legitimate issue with a fellow Christian (like Mrs. Finkelmeyer),
  2. and she refuses to repent or acknowledge guilt after you speak to him about it (like Mrs. Finkelmeyer),
  3. and you decide to "let it go" and "forgive him in your heart,"
  4. and if, by this terminology, you mean you consider the matter closed, or you've released her from his debt due to you for her offense,
  5. but you still acknowledge the relationship is ruined and will continue to be ruined until he acknowledges and confesses her guilt
  6. then I don't believe "forgiveness" has happened at all, because there hasn't been a reconciliation based on genuine repentance

To my way of thinking, the offended party should not extend forgiveness by "forgiving and forgetting," because this is a false reconciliation. Nothing has changed. The other guy will likely continue doing whatever he's doing to you, or somebody else, or both. You're sweeping it under the rug. I think this is incredibly dangerous and destructive. It is pretending there's nothing wrong. The crux is that you have to decide when to put up with something (i.e. "forebear;" Eph 4), and when you should confront the person (my scenario).

To be sure, this raises a thorny issue - if I refuse to "forgive" (understand that I believe forgiveness is a promise to not hold a man's sin against him anymore, based on sincere repentance), then am I therefore holding a grudge? I don't believe so. I think a Christian must be honestly willing to forgive, and not be consumed by bitterness. I'm willing to completely forgive and reconcile, if the other guy repents for his sin. I'm effectively advocating what is commonly called "forgive him in my heart," but I don't call that "forgiveness," because I don't believe it is.  

Let's be honest:

  1. I know there's been a breach of relationship
  2. The other guy knows there's been a breach of relationship
  3. We both know things won't be reconciled unless and until the offender repents

So, let's stop pretending "all is forgiven and all is well." It isn't, and we all know it. Don't we?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

I believe Tyler understands the situation correctly.  It is possible to be eager and willing to forgive, to seek reconciliation, and to pray for its achievement, but be unable because the other person refuses to cooperate.  They may refuse to meet for discussion.  They may refuse to listen to any perspective that differs from their own.  They may refuse to accept evidence or testimony that contradicts their opinion.  In short, they refuse to acknowledge their offense, and thereby refuse to be reconciled.  Their perspective may be, "I'm right, and you're wrong no matter what evidence you present, and I'm not going to change my opinion."  

In such situations, forgiveness is impossible, if we mean forgiveness that accomplishes reconciliation with the offender.  We can, and must, have a forgiving and contrite spirit before the Lord.  No bitterness allowed.  But no forgiveness without a willingness for reconciliation on the part of the offender.  The matter continues to be a barrier to God honoring relationships, and remains so until appropriately addressed.

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

You're a Sunday School teacher, who teaches the teens every week. Mrs. Finkelmeyer is gossiping to at least four different ladies (and one man) about what a terrible teacher you are. She criticizes your teaching style. She criticizes the teens. She criticizes your alleged lack of qualifications. You've been approached by three people, who admit she's been slandering you to them. You and Mrs. Finkelmeyer aren't the best of friends. Truth be told, you know she doesn't like you, but you have no idea why. You generally try to keep your distance from the woman. But, with criticism mounting, you feel something must be done.

I'll summarize my position:

If you have a serious, legitimate issue with a fellow Christian (like Mrs. Finkelmeyer),
and she refuses to repent or acknowledge guilt after you speak to him about it (like Mrs. Finkelmeyer),
and you decide to "let it go" and "forgive him in your heart,"
and if, by this terminology, you mean you consider the matter closed, or you've released her from his debt due to you for her offense,
but you still acknowledge the relationship is ruined and will continue to be ruined until he acknowledges and confesses her guilt
then I don't believe "forgiveness" has happened at all, because there hasn't been a reconciliation based on genuine repentance

Before you go to Finkelmeyer, you need to consider what her sin is, if any.

Is it sinful for her to have an opinion that you are a poor teacher? No. (It might be true, and regardless, it's a matter of opinion.)

Her sin is gossip. In my view, it would be fine for her to go to you and express her opinion about your teaching. It would be fine for her to go to the church elders/pastors and express her opinion about your teaching. To tell others is gossip.

Part of the difficulty here is that it HURTS to hear that you're a poor teacher. And it's easy to think "you-hurt-me" = "you-sinned." But that isn't necessarily the case. So in your relationship with the Finkelmeyer, you have to start with humility and be willing to admit that she might be right or at least have a legitimate opinion about your teaching. Until you do that, you are going to mix the hurt of her message with the sin of her gossip. Once you separate them, you'll see that the sin of her gossip is not that big a deal and actually pretty easy to let go of whether she repents or not. 

Nevertheless, the Matt 18 model is:

1. Go to her and tell her that while you welcome her criticism, her gossip is sin and she should repent (realize it is sin and quit).

2. Take a friend who knows what she has done and mutually appeal for her repentance.

3. Talk to the church. (The leaders should be involved first, so they can lead the church in asking her to repent, etc. That will no doubt involve their expression to her of their view that it's gossip. They should make it clear that they welcome her opinion that your teaching is poor. She might repent at that point.)

The other thing is, other people should be asked about your teaching. Maybe others find it very interesting and profitable. So she should be able to rejoice in the growth of others, even while she finds it meh.

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR:    To be sure, this raises a thorny issue - if I refuse to "forgive" (understand that I believe forgiveness is a promise to not hold a man's sin against him anymore, based on sincere repentance), then am I therefore holding a grudge? I don't believe so. I think a Christian must be honestly willing to forgive, and not be consumed by bitterness. I'm willing to completely forgive and reconcile, if the other guy repents for his sin. I'm effectively advocating what is commonly called "forgive him in my heart," but I don't call that "forgiveness," because I don't believe it is.  

GNBarkman:      ...In short, they refuse to acknowledge their offense, and thereby refuse to be reconciled.  Their perspective may be, "I'm right, and you're wrong no matter what evidence you present, and I'm not going to change my opinion."  

In such situations, forgiveness is impossible, if we mean forgiveness that accomplishes reconciliation with the offender...

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean restoration. If a husband beats his wife, she should forgive him, but still call the police. And not necessarily just move right back in. 

If Mrs. Finkelmeyer says she's sorry for gossip, you forgive her, but when she starts meeting with you to berate you every week, you should eventually say, "No, I don't want to meet any more."

-----

Or, when you do "step 1" and confront her, maybe she says, "Well, I did talk to others. I told them what I thought. They didn't agree. So I dropped it. Doesn't change my opinion." Then what do you say?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Does God forgive without reconciliation?  Doesn't forgiveness mean the barrier that caused the breach is removed so that reconciliation takes place?  I think we confuse a willingness to forgive with the act of forgiveness.  I can't forgive you unless you ask me to, in which case I'm obligated to forgive.  Until then, I express my willingness to forgive to God and ask Him to enable forgiveness and reconciliation to occur.  I may even express my willingness to you, so that you know my desire.  But I can't forgive you until you acknowledge the trespass and seek forgiveness.

Is God's forgiveness conditioned upon my asking ("forgive us our debts"), but my forgiveness is unconditional ("as we forgive our debtors")?  When I pray the Lord's prayer, I express to God my desire and willingness to forgive others, and I ask Him to bring circumstances to pass to enable this to occur.  I also acknowledge that this may never happen, and I express my willingness to move on without brooding about the offense.  But reconciliation with the offender requires an acknowledgement of wrong and a promise to forgive.  That doesn't mean that I ought to shun the offender, necessarily.  (That depends upon the gravity of the offense.)  But if I have communicated the offense, and the offender refuses to deal with it, there will always be an unresolved problem between us until it is Biblically addressed.

I believe there may be a distinction between my forgiving the offender to God, which clears my conscience, and my forgiving the offender himself.  How can I forgive someone who does not want to be forgiven?  To whom do I pronounce forgiveness?  "I forgive you."  "But I didn't ask you to forgive me, and I don't want you to forgive me."  Now what?

G. N. Barkman

Dan Miller's picture

There's a lot in there, GN. God forgives when we confess. Yes. But our confession is never complete. Neither our awareness of our sin nor our willingness to confess what we do know are ever complete. So complete confession isn't required. Yet God forgives us - He grants to us a perfect identity. And that identity in Christ includes a lot of things we didn't even know need repentance (yet).

I think one thing that we get confused in this process (comes out in your last paragraph) is the notion that making someone confess is punishment. I want to see you feel bad. That can be a thing (contrition), but it can also become a sense in which we want them to feel bad to pay for their sin.

There's a lot of aspects of this process that are utterly confusing, even contradictory (Aaron is going to chide me for using that word). Our sin is shameful, and in a sense, we should feel that shame. But Jesus bore the shame, and so in another sense, as we are forgiven, we should not feel ashamed.

We should want Mrs. Finkelmeyer to feel ashamed of what she's done, and so we might not want forgiveness to seem easy. But, as Christians (forgiven and forgiving servants) we should so love the idea of forgiveness because it has been done to us that we should be eager to forgive others. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Agree with Dan that restoration is distinct from forgiveness--related but distinct.
One way I've heard it explained is this:
* Picture two people at odds with one another.
* They're standing back to back, arms folded, scowling.
* One decides to forgive, turns around and says "Let's fix this. I'm willing to let this go."
* The other remains firm with back turned and says nothing... Or maybe something rude.
* So far as it concerns him, person has forgiven person b. Person b is not objectively forgiven--as in, having made things right and owing nothing in God's eyes.
But person a is no longer holding it agsinst perdon b. Person a is free of that burden. He has let everything that is in his control, and that is his responsibility, go. He is moving on.
Restoration can happen as soon as person b decides to let it happen.

Jay's picture

Aaron's example is exactly what I was thinking of earlier in the thread.  If person A turns around and extends their arms and says they want to fix it and B refuses to do so, there really isn't much A can do other than say 'I am going to let go of your offense and move on'.

In that case, I think there is such a thing as 'unilateral forgiveness', and that holding on to the offense is spiritually dangerous, breeding bitterness or hatred. Better to say I have done all I can for now and let go.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that if someone says I'm a poor teacher, I'm perfectly in line putting them on the spot to ask them how I'm a poor teacher.  If they cannot define it beyond "I just have this feeling" or some such thing, I think one is perfectly in line saying "if you can't draw a bead on how I'm teaching poorly, I'm going to infer that you really don't know what you're talking about, and as such, you might do well to learn what you're talking about before spouting off to others." 

OK, one might soften it a little bit, but if you're going to criticize, be specific about the matter.  Feedback of this kind should, if done right, enable someone to improve.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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