The forgiveness controversy
Back in 1999, I preached a series on the subject of forgiveness. Many folks in our congregation had never heard the approach I took. A number commented that they heard Christian leaders on the radio or in magazines take the opposite position during the weekdays between my sermons.
The world and much of evangelicalism believe that we should forgive unconditionally. Secular psychologists and popular preachers have formed an alliance that intimidates many of us from even considering the alternatives. Yet many Bible teachers believe that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. I am in the latter group.
Bible-believing Christians agree that we are to forgive others as God forgives us. If you believe God forgives unconditionally, this would logically lead you to Universalism, the belief that everyone is saved; no one is under the wrath of God because God’s wrath is not directed toward those who are forgiven. If God forgives unconditionally, then none are unforgiven. Most evangelicals recognize that multitudes are lost, yet many say that God forgives unconditionally. Do you see the contradiction here?
That the Lord does not forgive unconditionally is clear in Scripture: “Surely at the command of the LORD it came upon Judah, to remove them from His sight because of the sins of Manasseh… and the LORD would not forgive…” (NIV: 2 Kings 24:3-4).
So lets set aside our preconceptions and consider what the Bible actually teaches about forgiveness. See if my points are validated by God’s Word.
The manner of forgiveness
First, we are to forgive others in the same manner God forgives us. Ephesians 4:32 reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
God’s condition for forgiveness
Second, God’s manner of forgiveness requires our repentance. Acts 3:19 gives us a taste of Apostolic preaching: “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord….” Note that repentance (a change of mind, including regret for sin) is the required condition for God’s forgiveness. God does not hold us to a higher standard than He holds Himself. His grace extends only to those who repent; He does not expect us to be more gracious than He is.
In Acts 8:22, after Simon had sinned by seeking to buy the Holy Spirit, Peter rebuked him with these words: “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.” Note that forgiveness is neither presumed nor assumed. It is conditioned upon repentance.
So if we forgive as God forgives, and God forgives in response to repentance, logically we are to forgive others when they repent.
Levels of forgiveness
Third, we must ask the question, “Forgiveness at what level?” When we turn from our sins (repent) and turn to Christ, all our sins are forgiven: past, present, and future—at least, as far as salvation goes. Nothing can take us out of God’s hand. We are given the righteousness of Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit, and we are already legally seated in heaven (Ephesians 1-2).
Even though we cannot lose our salvation, we can lose our fellowship with God. When the believer lives in rebellion against God, sin blocks his ability to communicate with God (Psalm 66:18) and places him in a position to be disciplined by the Lord (1 Cor. 11:32). If we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30)—the One who assures us of our salvation (Rom. 8:16)—we could logically lose our sense of assurance as we quiet His voice.
How do we remedy this situation? 1 John 1:9 makes it clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” To my way of thinking, this implies that if we do NOT confess our sins, he will NOT forgive us our sins. If God forgives us unconditionally, the verse becomes meaningless.
Sometimes forgiveness involves God not zapping people physically here on earth. I think that when Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who crucified Him, He meant, “Don’t zap them.” His example clearly makes a distinction between sinning in ignorance (“for they know not what they do”) and sinning with full knowledge.
Forgiveness in relationships
Fourth, we must boldly apply these concepts to our relationships. If others confess how they have sinned against us, we are obligated to initiate the forgiveness process. That does not mean we immediately trust them, for credibility can only be restored through faithful behavior over time. Sometimes credibility can never be fully restored. In such a case, forgiveness (a restoration of relationship as if the offense had never occurred) can never be complete.
Jesus put it this way: “So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Although shorter accounts of Jesus’ teaching could be wrongly interpreted to suggest unconditional forgiveness, the longer passage in Luke presents a more detailed truth and qualifies our obligation to forgive.
We cannot always simply choose to forgive; forgiveness can be a struggle that may take a long time; it sometimes involves a process of sorting through emotions and moving gradually toward forgiveness (complete reconciliation). Sometimes we might need to say, “With God’s help, I will try to forgive you, but I am not there yet.” Honesty is crucial at this point. Christians who believe they must immediately forgive an offense often become good liars—to themselves first, and then to others.
Even when someone does not repent, it is often in our best interest to let a hurt go, if we can. We should do so because we know that bitterness drains us and keeps us from enjoying the life God has given us. We should not do so out of false guilt, but for our own benefit. Do not confuse this with genuine forgiveness, which brings complete relational restoration.
I have seen people horribly victimized and then plagued by guilt because they cannot seem to forgive the one who abused them. This guilt adds to their heavy burden. Often such guilt is unwarranted because the offender has not even requested forgiveness or evidenced genuine repentance. Sometimes people simply do not want to forgive because they are grasping for control—withholders of grace. Forgiveness evens the score, and some of us want the advantage and excuse of being a wronged person.
God recognizes that some situations are so evil that it is natural for us to want to get even. God Himself is a God of justice, so since we are in His image, we desire justice. Paul wrote: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21). Find consolation in knowing that God will hold everyone accountable; none can evade Him.
I have presented what I believe to be the correct teaching of Scripture about forgiveness. My challenge to you is to study the Scriptures and test the above, especially since my understanding is the minority viewpoint. If you disagree with me, I’ll forgive you!
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (in 1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed later felt a call to ministry and enrolled at Moody Bible Institute (B.A., Pastoral Studies/Greek). After graduating, he served as pastor of Victory Bible Church of Chicago (a branch work of Cicero Bible Church) and married Marylu Troppito. In 1983, the couple moved to Kokomo where Ed began pastoring Highland Park Church, where he still serves. Ed and Marylu have two adult children, Hannah and Luke. Ed loves to write. He has written over 500 weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and populated his church’s website with an endless barrage of papers. You can access them at www.highlandpc.com.