A few months ago, while a group of single Christians were gathered on a patio toward the end of the Sabbath, enjoying sunshine and a few drinks, an acquaintance of mine posed the following question to us: If God requires repentance of us in order to forgive us, is it right of us to require the same of someone else? This was a question that intrigued me, because answers seemed to come from both directions, and because the scriptures that I knew seemed to point in varying directions. Those who argued that we must always forgive others, even if they haven't sought forgiveness, pointed to examples like Stephen, who died asking God to forgive those who were killing him. To do otherwise, they argued, would lead to bitterness and resentment, and no one can continue in a Christian lifestyle holding a grudge against another, even if that person has given you no reason to forgive. Those who argued that there were appropriate times not to forgive pointed out that to say otherwise would mean that God expects more of us than he expects of himself--that is, he is expecting us to forgive those who don't repent but doesn't do so himself. This would seem a double-standard.
The answer to the question to me, however, seemed to revolve around the word forgiveness. If we could determine what the Bible meant by forgiveness and if we could determine what it was each of us meant when we said "forgiveness," we might find our two positions not as far apart. I devoted many hours of study to the question over several months and came to see that my hunch was right. In scripture, forgiveness consists of many things, which we are to emulate and which are foundational to our relationship with others and with God.
The Bible gives multiple definitions for forgiveness. These definitions can be grouped into three major categories, levels, or types, each of which has its own subset of definitions. The first major type of forgiveness consists essentially in sparing a person from wrath. Within this, of course, there are many attributes. At its most basic, sparing a person from wrath means not destroying a person, not killing, not seeking the person's destruction. In the scripture, we see this in the manner in which God deals with his people, Israel and Judah. In Ezra 9:13, we are told that "after all that [came] upon [Judah] for [its] evil deeds, and for [its] great trespass, . . . God . . . punished [Judah] less than [its] iniquities deserve[d]." God, instead, delivered Judah from captivity. What was, in fact, deserved? Romans 6:23 tells us: "[T]he wages of sin is death." Psalm 78:36-38 makes the tie between God's forgiveness and his failure to utterly destroy Israel explicit: "Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant. But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up his wrath." However, just because God forgave Israel's sin by not destroying them, he still punished them--that is, forgiveness in this context did not involve wiping out all penalty whatsoever. Notice how God both forgave and punished Israel when they accepted the discouraging word of the spies sent into the land of Canaan: "I have pardoned according to thy word," God told Moses, after Moses begged God not to destroy Israel and make a nation of his descendants. "But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord. Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it" (Num. 14:20-23).
Forgiveness on this level might also include not holding a grudge and not becoming angry with a person. Indeed, the scriptures tell us explicitly, "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people" (Lev. 19:18). But God's example here also sets the tone. In Psalm 103:8-10 we are told, "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in his mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities." Here, God's failure to punish to the full extent of his own law is tied to his mercy and to his unwillingness to quickly give in to anger. Micah 7:18 makes the same connection, when the prophet tells us, "Who is a God like unto [God], that pardoneth iniquity . . . ? [H]e retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy." Nehemiah 9:17 and Isaiah 48:9 show us what the result of this slowness to anger and this mercy is. Even after the Jews "refused to obey, neither were mindful of [God's] wonders," Nehemiah says, God was still "ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not." Isaiah tells us that "For [God's] name's sake will [he] defer [his] anger, and for [his] praise will [he] refrain for thee, that [he] cut[s] thee not off." In both cases, God's mercy is shown through his willingness--in fact, his desire--to put off cutting off the person who has sinned against him.
In essence, one could say, God bore with the sinner--indeed, bore the sin--so that the relationship could continue. When someone does something wrong against another, that wrong doesn't just go away. The victim has to live with that wrong. This is why in Numbers 15:24-25, even sins made in ignorance required a sacrifice: "Then it shall be, if aught be committed in ignorance, without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bullock. . . . And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance." God required a penalty of sorts, even for sins of ignorance, to show the pain that any sin causes--and to show that someone ultimately must bear the pain of that sin. For humanity, that pain caused by our sin is ultimately borne by Christ, as was prophesied in Isaiah 53:11: "by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities."
Forgiveness is not free--it requires the one offended to bear pain caused by the offense. Just as Christ bears our sins and thus allows us to be forgiven, so too the New Testament church was told to bear with one another, by forgiving one another: "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do you" (Col. 3:13). Christ's bearing our sin and thereby forgiving us becomes an example of how we are to deal with our fellow man. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 13:7 even goes so far as to say that one of the attributes love has is that it "[b]eareth all things." Forgiveness, then, in a case where we have been wronged, becomes a form of bearing with the wrong done to us and indeed bearing with the person who did the wrong. This is one reason, beyond the fact that Christians are to judge the world, that suing another Christian is considered such a travesty. "Why do ye not rather take the wrong?" Paul asks the Corinthian church. "[W]hy do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren" (1 Cor. 6:7-8). We, as Christians, should not seek redress or revenge. Rather, we should be willing to bear the offenses our brothers and sisters cause us, and we should restrain ourselves from offending others. This is all part of the definition of forgiveness.
Beyond the simple level of simply not "destroying" one who sins against us, however, forgiveness can, on a second, deeper level, involve the actual removing of a penalty or a debt. The second biblical type of forgiveness revolves around various aspects of this definition. On a very basic level, forgiving a debt can mean simply canceling an obligation owed to someone else. This obligation may be one forged by a promise or a vow, as it is in Numbers 30. Here, instructions are given as to how a vow that a person makes to God can be wiped clean, or forgiven--namely if someone else having authority over the person disallows it: "But if [a woman's] father disallow her in the day that he heareth: not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound soul, shall stand: and the Lord shall forgive her. . . . But if [a woman's] husband disallowed her on the day that he heard it; then he shall make her vow which she vowed, . . . wherewith she bound her soul, of none effect: and the Lord shall forgive her" (Num. 30:5, 8).
The obligation can also be financial, as it is in Deuteronomy 15:1-2. Here, Israel was told that every seven years creditors were to "release"--or wipe clean--the debts owed to them by other Israelites: "At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth aught unto his neighbour shall release it: he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother." Financial debts are used to great effect in a parable in Matthew 18:23-35, which itself revolves around the nature and importance of forgiveness:
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due to him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
In each case in the previous examples, the item under concern--the debt, the obligation--is wiped out. The debtor starts with a clean slate, though of course the one holding the debt essentially pays for it, just as when someone declares bankruptcy, the creditor essentially loses his or her claim, loses the money owed to him or her. The parable in Matthew 18 makes the parallel between forgiveness of financial debts and forgiveness of personal transgression explicit. Forgiveness in such an instance then involves blotting out or removing a debt, an obligation, or a sin--in other words, taking an offense off of a person's record. Indeed, the Matthew 18 parable is given in the context of a question regarding forgiveness of one's neighbor: "Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21-22). Jesus then launches into the parable. The idea, the scripture seems to be conveying, is that because God's mercy and forgiveness to us is so generous--how many times has any one of us sinned?--then our mercy and forgiveness toward others should be likewise generous.
Indeed, the scriptures make plain that part of our love for one another is demonstrated in our willingness to "cover" each others' sins, to blot them out. "[L]ove covereth all sins," says Proverbs 10:12. And not to leave this in the Old Testament alone, Peter reminds us of this point again in his first letter: "And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins" (1 Pet. 4:8). But Peter speaks here not only of sins against each other but of our sins against God, which shall be covered.
God, too, as the embodiment of love--"for God is love" (1 John 4:8)--covers our sin, setting the example for how we should treat others' sins against us. "Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people," writes the Psalmist of God: "thou hast covered all their sin" (Ps. 85:2). Similarly, David writes, in describing God's mercy, in Psalm 32:1: "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." God covers this sin by blotting it out, by allowing the sinner to start fresh. As noted earlier, Micah 7:18 describes God's mercy through his pardoning of sin, but Micah 7:18 also denotes how he pardons that sin: he "passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage." He ignores the sin.
This practice can be seen quite clearly in God's eventual treatment of Israel, both in the form of his nation and of his church, the spiritual embodiment of that nation. "And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity," God says of Israel in Jeremiah 33:8, "whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me." This cleansing, as seen in other scriptures, involves a wiping out, an erasure of the past. "I will forgive their iniquity," God says of Israel in Jeremiah 31:34, "and I will remember their sin no more." In Jeremiah 50:20, the author describes a time when "the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found." God has pardoned. God has erased. The sin is gone.
With the removal of the spur of interference in the relationship between two individuals--between God and man, between one man and another--forgiveness at its third and deepest level equates to restoring someone to a previous state, a state of friendship, of belonging, of relation. This type of forgiveness, the restoring to a relationship, is made concrete in the example of Israel. An especially interesting passage in this regard involves Solomon's prayer to God at the dedication of the first temple. "When thy people Israel be smitten down before the enemy," Solomon intoned his maker,
because they have sinned against thee, and shall turn again to thee, and confess thy name, and pray, and make supplication unto thee in this house: Then hear thou in heaven, and forgive the sin of thy people Israel, and bring them again unto the land which thou gavest unto their fathers. When heaven is shut up, and there is no rain, because they have sinned against thee; if they pray toward this place, and confess thy name, and turn from their sin, when thou afflictest them: Then hear thou in heaven, and forgive the sin of thy servants, and of thy people Israel, . . . and give rain upon thy land." (1 Kings 8:33-36)Here, restoration takes on a very physical manifestation: the restoring of land and of water, things needed to be sustained, things needed to live.
So too is healing, in this restorative sense, seen as a form of forgiveness. This relation plays a role in both the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, one of the most pertinent passages in the Old Testament in this regard also revolves around the dedication of the temple made by Solomon. However, in this other passage, this one in 2 Chronicles, God couches his promise of forgiveness and restoration to Solomon as a type of healing: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways: then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14). Here, the restoration involves a healing of the land, and thus allows the people's return to it, and to a relationship with God, the giver of the land. On a somewhat different track, but still revolved around healing, in the New Testament, James places the healing of bodily infirmities--and hence, the restoration to health--in the realm of forgiveness: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him" (James 5:14-15).
So forgiveness then may involve three basic levels or types. At its most basic is a sparing of a person from wrath, a promise not to avenge or to hold a grudge--in essence, a willingness to bear with the person, to bear with the offense the person has caused. At a deeper level, forgiveness is about removing the debt that the person has accrued in offending another, about wiping out the offense, ignoring it, pretending it never happened. And at its deepest level, forgiveness is about restoring that person to the full status of friendship, about renewing one's relationship with that person. In some ways, these levels go hand in hand, but in others they don't necessarily have to. One could, for example, not take vengeance on a person but still not hold a person to the same level of relationship that one had before the offense occurred. Understanding what the Bible says forgiveness is then helps us to understand what it is we are being asked to do when we are told to forgive one another.
Scriptures make plain that we should never seek our own revenge on another person or hold a grudge against the person that will someday bear out in action when the right opportunity presents itself. We are not to seek to do in a person for what he or she has done to us. In other words, that first level of forgiveness always applies. "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, "But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt. 5:38-39, 43-44). Christ here is talking about a general spirit of love for all people, even those who seek to do us wrong. Forgiveness means never looking to get back at such people, in fact, never seeking ill for such people at any level. "[A]venge not yourselves," Romans 12:19 tells us, "but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
Yet while the scriptures clearly show us we are not to seek to get back at those who have offended us, the Bible does point to times when it is appropriate to cut people who do such things out of our lives. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul notes to the church that, in an earlier letter to them, he had told them "not to company with fornicators." Someone of the faith, who was clearly disobeying God, was not to be allowed to remain an associate. Although the church members weren't to seek revenge against the person or to hold a grudge--were to in fact continue to love the person, as they were to love all people--forgiveness at the level of ignoring a transgression or allowing such a person to continue in a full-fledged relationship was not to be extended so long as the person remained in the sin.
An exploration of the scriptures on the subject of forgiveness shows that God has in fact outlined a process by which we are to forgive people. This process moves from one of continuing to love a person, of holding no grudge, of not seeking revenge, to one of fully restoring a person to our company. This process, as applied to how we are to forgive other people, mirrors the process that God uses in his forgiving of us. The first step in this process, as noted above, is not to seek revenge. Rather, scriptures show, all of our actions toward a person who has wronged us should be motivated by love--love for that person. This is, in fact, how God treats us. In the same context in which Christ tells his followers to love their enemies, he also makes this observation about God, "[F]or [God the Father] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). Just as God provides for all people and treats all people with concern, so too Christians are told to "[r]ecompense to no man evil for evil. . . . [I]f thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:17, 20-21).
Just as we are to love all people, as God does, so too we are to be willing to--in fact, even desirous to--forgive all people, even as God maintains such a desire. "For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee," writes David (Ps. 86:5). God is in a constant spirit of forgiveness. It's what he wants to do, and it's what he hopes a person allows him to do. Such is how we should be. This is why Christ could say in answer to Peter's question regarding how many times we should forgive a person who sins against us, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:22). We are to forgive frequently and easily, as God does. In fact, we should be on the lookout for people with whom we need to reconcile. "[W]hosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment," Christ says in his Sermon on the Mount, "and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca [vain fellow], shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matt. 5:22-24). Note that Christ stipulates "angry without a cause"--so there is righteous anger. Note also who goes to his brother--not, in this example, the one who is angry but the one who may have caused the anger, not the one in danger of judgment but the one who is causing his brother to be in danger. We must all be in a spirit of forgiveness, of wanting to forgive and wanting to be forgiven (for the sake of others in addition to ourselves). In other words, we should give priority to forgiving--and to seeking forgiveness--so that we can keep our relationships whole.
In this context of love through forgiveness, sins against us that are done in ignorance are not excuses to stop showing love toward the person or to fail to forgive that person. Rather, examples in scripture show that, instead of seeking revenge, we should seek God's forgiveness for that person--out of love for that person. We see this in the example of Stephen, who as he was being stoned to death, asked God to "lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:60) His concern, even in death, was for those who were committing the sin against him. We see the same example in Jesus himself, who at his death on the cross, asked God to "forgive them [his crucifiers]: for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). As Peter notes, Christ "when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not" for the purpose, in part, of "leaving us an example, that [we] should follow his steps" (1 Pet. 2:23, 21). In seeking forgiveness from God for their persecutors, both Jesus and Stephen in a sense were begging God not to cut these people off for their sins.
Indeed, if our heart is set toward love for our neighbor, when that person sins against us, or against God, our motivation will be one of helping that person overcome, of restoring that person to fellowship with us and/or with God, rather than seeking revenge for the sin committed. But God will not forgive a person if that person continues in sin. Forgiveness, as opposed to love, from God is conditional--contingent on that person's moving away from the sin. Scriptures to this effect abound. "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord," James 4:10 tells us, "and he shall lift you up." "Let the wicked forsake his way," reads Isaiah 55:7, "and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." "If we confess our sins," says 1 John 1:9, "he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
In fact, the very gospel of God is about repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That's just how important forgiveness is. This gospel is preached throughout the New Testament, from before Christ came to after Christ ascended to heaven. Both Mark and Luke note, when describing John the Baptist's ministry preceding the arrival of Christ, that what John preached was "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). And Peter, in his sermon to the church on the first Pentecost following Christ's resurrection, climaxed his speech with a call to repentance for the forgiveness of sin: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you," he noted, "in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38).
In this context, it's important to note what Jesus Christ himself said with regard to his ministry and to why he chose to speak to most people in parables. Knowing this, we'll discover something about the nature of God's forgiveness and therefore what it really means when we ask God to forgive others. We can read Christ's explanation for why he spoke in parables in Mark 4:12: "That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them." Christ's fear was that, if he spoke plainly, some people would actually convert--change--and their sins would thus be forgiven. He didn't want, at that time, for certain people to be forgiven or changed. Why is a whole other subject, though it has to do, in part, with God's plan for humanity with the timing of his calling for each person in particular (Rom. 8:29 shows that some are to become like Christ before others do). Regardless, Mark 4:12 reveals something interesting about forgiveness: it involves conversion--or change. Thus, when we ask God to forgive someone for what he or she has done, perhaps in ignorance, we are in effect asking God to change that person, to call that person to repentance so that the sin can be forgiven, for the person to be allowed to enter into a full relationship with God. Hence, when Stephen asked God to "lay not this sin to their charge," while he was being stoned (Acts 7:60), he was in a sense asking God to change the heart of his attackers so that such sins could be blotted out. Later, in Acts 8:1, we learn that one of the men "consenting unto [Stephen's] death" was Saul, or Paul. It is no minor point that Paul's role in the stoning is mentioned here; when he is converted in Acts 9, it is, in part, an answer to Stephen's prayer. Paul, moved to change from attacking Christians, moved to repent of his sin, can now be forgiven by God and enter into communion with him. His sin, against Stephen and others, is no longer laid to his charge.
Just as Stephen asked God to forgive his attackers, asked God, in a sense, to convert his attackers, scriptures tell us that when we see another person involved in a sin, we should, out of love, attempt to bring that person back to the right path in life so that God can forgive him or her and restore to a relationship with him. One step in that process--often the only step we can take--is to pray for that person, as John tells us: "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death" (1 John 5:16). We see a concrete example of this in Job 42:8, where God tells Job's friends to "go to my servant Job, and . . . my servant Job shall pray for you, for him I will accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that you have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job." Here, Job acts as a kind of intercessor for his friends who have sinned, and so too, when we pray, we can act as a kind of intercessor for people we know who have fallen out of favor with God for things they have done.
Another step in the process of interceding for another person is actually bringing the sin to the person's attention so that he or she can repent of it and can thus be forgiven. Whereas prayer is often all that can be managed for those who do not share the same point of view in life--as turned out to be the case with Stephen's attackers--for those one deals with on a regular basis and who share common views, a face-to-face confrontation can be beneficial. Where both are in agreement that certain laws must be followed--be they spiritual or civic--bringing the law to the other's attention is an act of love, preventing the person from continuing in a way that will bring punishment or trouble, that will separate the person from God or from society. "Brethren," Paul tells us in Galatians 6:1, "if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." Note here that Paul emphasizes the humility that must be accompanied with the act, the idea that any one of us could also fall into the same offense, and the fact that the act must be accomplished by one who is "spiritual." We must be in the right frame of mind to correct another, the frame of love, not lording a false sense of superiority over a person. An Acts 8:22, we see an example of just this kind of action, when Peter, confronted with Simon the sorcerer's attempt to buy the Holy Spirit, admonished Simon to "[r]epent . . . of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee."
James 5:19-20 shows the end result of actions taken on behalf of our neighbor when the person is caught up in an offense: "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." Transgressions, unaddressed, can breed other transgressions. Looking out for our neighbor's wellbeing, correcting the person when given opportunity, brings that person to a place of repentance, thereby allowing God to forgive the person, to blot out that person's sins, and thus to be considered blameless in the eyes of God, worthy of a continuing relationship with God and of eternal life. This principle of looking out for our neighbors goes back to the Old Testament. In the same passage in Leviticus that tells the Israelites not to bear a grudge or to seek to avenge, the Israelites are told to "rebuke [their] neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him" (Lev. 19:17) This is further placed in the context of the command to "not hate thy brother in thine heart" (Lev. 19:17) and to "love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18). Bringing an offense to the attention of another is showing love to that person, because it allows the person to be forgiven and saves the person from trouble and, ultimately, from banishment from the community.
Just as this principle applies to transgressions a person might commit against God or against the State, the same principle can apply to sins committed personally against us as well. Luke 17:3-4 outlines the process, one that involves letting the offender know how he or she has wronged you and correspondingly forgiving the person when he or she repents of the offense. "Take heed to yourselves," Jesus says in this passage, "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him." The same process is outlined in Matthew 18:15-17: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."
The tail end of this scripture in Matthew 18, however, also spells out actions we should take if a person doesn't repent, and thus, it spells out, in a sense, times in which it is appropriate to "not forgive." But this nonforgiveness must be considered in the context of the scriptures and principles already laid out. First, God only forgives if we repent. If we don't, as Joshua told the Israelites: "[H]e is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you" (Josh. 24:19-20). Second, God treats all with love, and as a part of that love, he actually wants to forgive--it's not his desire to do us "hurt" or to "consume" us. This is what happens only when we refuse to do right. Third, we should echo God in this love to all people and in this desire to forgive anyone who offends us. Hence, we should bear no grudges and should not seek revenge against another or seek another person's destruction for what that person has done to us.
However, as Matthew 18 and other scriptures make clear, we are not to forgive--that is, to continue in fellowship--with one who continues to sin or who continues to sin against us. Rather, we are to treat such a person, as Matthew 18:17 says, as "an heathen man and a publican." For the Jews, Jesus's primary audience here, that meant not socializing with the person. One might have been cordial as necessary in a public place, might not have sought to do evil to the person, but one wouldn't be friends with the person, wouldn't do social things with the person, wouldn't even eat with the person. Galatians 2:12 gives a sense of how the Jews treated "heathens." Here, Peter, fearing those of the circumcision, the Jews, "withdrew and separated himself" from eating with the Gentiles once the Jews arrived.
Scriptures that parallel the advice given in Matthew 18:17 abound. In each, church members are told to avoid certain types of people. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Christians are told to "withdraw . . . from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received." Romans 16:17 tells Christians to "mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them." In both of these cases, the church is told to avoid people who go against doctrine and thus create division. This going against doctrine can take the form of false teaching or of, as in the earlier referenced 1 Corinthians 5:9, simply living in a way not in accord with the morality that said doctrine espouses, such as by committing sexual sins contrary to scripture. (Note that Paul makes clear in verse 10 that he's specifically talking only of church members--of people who supposedly share the same views; if we don't have a shared basis for our views, then it's impossible through rebuke to win over a neighbor from a sin--hence, only prayer in those cases will truly avail.) In the end, the basic advice to fellow Christians is, as Ephesians 5:11 notes, "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them."
The reproof mentioned in this last scripture clues us in to why we don't want to stay in fellowship with--in some sense then, "forgive"--one who continues in a sin. Although we should be of a forgiving nature--should want to forgive--we should aim not to partake in that person's life and thus risk partaking in that sin. This is for the other person's good, at least as much as it is for our own. Note that in the scripture earlier mentioned regarding bearing with those who defraud us, rather than going to court, Paul goes on to address those who do the defrauding: "Nay, ye do wrong," he says, "and defraud, and that your brethren. Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:8-10). So it is not just a matter of bearing with such neighbors, or with what evil they do to us, but also letting such neighbors know the dangers in which they are placing themselves if they continue down that path--loss of contact with God, permanently. Bearing one another's burdens does not mean allowing one another to continue in wrongdoing. Paul here is warning such people of the danger they're in--out of love.
He does the same earlier in the same letter when he tells the Corinthians to turn out a man who is committing fornication with his stepmother. Note why he tells them to turn the man out: "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5). It was for this man's own good--not for his destruction but for his salvation. Paul's intent here was love, not vengeance. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians, Paul tells the church to welcome the same man, who had repented, back into the group. Forgiveness, thus, rapidly followed the man's change of behavior: "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that you would confirm your love toward him" (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Paul calls this forgiveness "confirmation" of the church's love, not the whole of the love--the punishment was part of that love as well. This process of dealing with one who had strayed is similar to that which Paul outlined to the Thessalonians in instructing them about how to deal with those who had strayed doctrinally and were thus causing division and trouble: "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle," Paul told them, "note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed, Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thes. 3:14-15).
A good modern-day equivalent to which one might compare this process is that of an Alcoholics Anonymous intervention. People notice a serious problem with a friend's drinking. They bring it up as friends, individually or among smaller groups, but nothing changes this person's pattern of drunkenness. So finally, all of the friends and family get together to confront the person, and they essentially tell the person that he or she has a problem and that if that person refuses to get help, they will no longer associate with him or her. These are friends. These are family. These people are not wanting to see their friend hurt. Rather, they are aiming to help this friend, to turn this friend from a path leading to destruction, and to do that, they must risk sacrificing the very relationship they have with this friend. This is love--one that is followed quickly by forgiveness, and a concomitant return to the social circle, once the person agrees to change.
Avoiding those who continue in wrongdoing, however, is also a means of keeping ourselves from falling into the same destructive path, as scriptures make clear. "Forsake the foolish, and live," Proverbs 9:6 tells us, and Proverbs 13:20 tells us, "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed." When we have as companions those involved in doing wrong, we risk being pulled into the same offending behavior. This is one interpretation we can apply to Paul's warning to the Galatians when he tells them, "If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). It's not just that we might theoretically fall into the same sin, given the proper circumstance, but that the offending person's behavior is a threat to our own ability to withstand such sins--is a temptation to us to do the same.
The abundance of instruction in scripture on how to forgive and when such an action is appropriate shows the degree of importance that God assigns to it. Indeed, how we treat others--that is, our willingness and desire to forgive combined with a proclivity to look out for our brother--is foundational to our relationships not only with others but also with God. Perhaps in no other way is this made so plain than in scriptures that reveal how our willingness to forgive others affects God's willingness to forgive us. This is after all the point of the parable of the unforgiving servant already recounted: "And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matt. 18:34-35). Numerous other scriptures make the same point. "And forgive us our debt, as we forgive our debtors," we are told to pray in the prayer Christ modeled for his disciples (Matt. 6:12). Christ went on to explain why: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15). James 2:13 explains that "he [God] shall have judgment without mercy, [to one] that hath shown no mercy." Luke 6:37-38 puts it slightly differently, but the effect is similar: "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: Give, and it shall be given unto you. . . . For with the same measure ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again." Here, Luke puts the concept of reciprocal forgiveness into the broader context of the golden rule, of treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matt. 22:39).
Forgiveness is also important for our own health--physical and spiritual. Failure to forgive, as scriptures show, can open the door to negative emotions that allow Satan to take advantage of us. As noted earlier, Paul warned the Corinthians, with regard to a man who had fallen into sexual sins and had since repented, to "forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow" (2 Cor. 2:7). Failure to forgive the man, Paul warned, would let "Satan . . . get an advantage of [them]: for [they were] not ignorant of his devices" (2 Cor. 2:11). In Hebrews 12:14-15, we read of such a device: "Follow peace with all men . . . Looking diligently lest any man fall of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled." A failure to forgive can lead to sorrow on the part of one who is not forgiven. A failure to look out for our neighbor can lead to bitterness. And such emotions can then spread throughout a group of people until many are "defiled"--made unclean, made offenders.
The importance of forgiveness is also demonstrated by the fact that it is central to the God's very gospel. Reconciliation with God and with others is only possible when there is forgiveness. Without it, there is no good news of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, as Luke 24:46-47 states, "[I]t behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: . . . that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations." Christ's very purpose for coming was so that repentance and forgiveness could be preached. "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins," Paul told the attendees of the synagogue in Antioch (Acts 13:38). Indeed, what Christ commanded his apostles to preach was "that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of the quick and dead . . . that through his name whosoever believeth in him [should] receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:42-43). Likewise, both John the Baptist and Christ preached repentance--which allow for the forgiveness of sin--in conjunction with the gospel. "In those days came John the Baptist," we read in Matthew 3:1-2, "preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And Christ said similarly, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15). So repentance, as part of the gospel, was preached from before Christ's ministry right on through it and beyond. If the apostles were to preach of God's forgiveness through repentance, they could not well fail to be forgiving themselves.
The gospel has many aspects, but at heart, it is about the kingdom of God and about how a person can become part of it by essentially becoming like God. A kingdom is a nation, and a nation is essentially a large family. So what the gospel recounts is how we can become part of God's family. Indeed, this is as much as Christ said, when he was confronted by a group of relatives who were seeking him: "Who is my mother, or my brethren?" he asked. "And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother" (Mk. 3:33-35). And what is more God's will than that we obey him, that we do what he tells us to do? Hebrews 10:16 describes what God will do with mankind--with his children, his family, his kingdom--at the end of time: "I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them." And for what purpose? Hebrews 10:17 tells us: "And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." With God's will as part of our mind and our heart, of what we know to do and what we want to do, we will have changed--repented--and thus God will forgive us, all of humanity. And the end result will be, as recounted in 1 John 3:2, that "we shall be like him,; for we shall see him as he is."
If through repentance and forgiveness we are to be like God, then we also will bear God's name, being part of his family. Indeed, those who follow God now do bear his name, for they are called Christians. They are named for God's son. God doesn't want a name that is besmirched by wrongdoing, by sin. Hence, if we sincerely repent of any wrong we do, he blots those sins out. Scriptures say as much, telling us that we are forgiven, not just for our own sake but because our actions affect God's own reputation. "[Y]our sins are forgiven for his [Christ's] name's sake," 1 John 2:12 tells us. And so too David requested of God, "For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity" (Ps. 25:11). If God forgives us both to protect and to demonstrate his own reputation, to protect the righteousness of his reputation and to demonstrate the mercy he is known for, then so too those who bear his name should aim to protect it and to demonstrate its glory, even as Ephesians 4:32 tells us: "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." As "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Cor. 5:20), bearing the name of God's kingdom, it then becomes our job to demonstrate the mercy that God himself has on all people. This is why being forgiving is absolutely essential for those who claim to follow Christ. "The discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression," Proverbs 19:11 tells us. If passing over a transgression demonstrates glory, then imagine how much glory God must have, having passed over all transgressions. If we are to mimic that glory, we must be doing the same.
Our ability and willingness to forgive, then, is important then not only to preserve our own health or that or our neighbor but to represent God and to help others move toward that representation also. It is, at heart, a part of preaching the gospel. This is why love and forgiveness go one with another, as do repentance and forgiveness. Love is helping all move toward being Godlike. Simple forgiveness is not enough--it is just the beginning. We must look out for our neighbor, through correction and through always having a forgiving heart. So does God then expect us to forgive when a person doesn't apologize--or change? Does he expect us to do more than he himself would? He doesn't expect us to do half of what he does. He asks us merely to be of a loving and forgiving heart with any who might offend us--and, therefore, to forgive any who ask for forgiveness; God, by contrast, is in the process of forgiving the entire world, including our own selves, for offenses that he himself has never committed. May we all attain his mercy.