If, following careful consideration (Prov. 14:15), it is reasonably clear that the non-collection of a large debt or non-prosecution of a great evil, holds unique promise of achieving greater ends, Christians must be ready to extend unimaginably forgiving gestures. As Paul prevailed upon Onesimus to forgive his fugitive servant Philemon, by setting him free (Philem. 1:10); as Barnabas prevailed upon the Apostles to forgive Paul for his former hostility to Christians (Acts 9:26-27), by eventually extending him the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9); likewise, all Christians must be open to the Holy Spirit’s reasonable persuasion to remit truly great debts of others, with a view to advancing the Kingdom of Heaven.
All Things Forgiveness
Forgiveness is central to the Christian ethic. D.L. Moody once said: “The voice of sin is loud, but the voice of forgiveness is louder.” As a forgiven people the glory of the children of God is to be a forgiving people. But, important as forgiveness is, it’s also misunderstood, trivialized, and in the hands of some even weaponized.
The following is a guest essay from Rev. Dr. Brant Bosserman. This essay biblically and pastorally addresses the subject of forgiveness. Even if it takes a little longer to read than a normal blog post, I highly encourage it to every reader!
Forgiveness: Objective Deeds
Forgiveness: Subjective Disposition
Forgiving the Unrepentant
Kinds of Forgiveness
Forgiveness and Consequences
Forgiveness and Imprecation
Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12; cf. Lk. 11:4). It is fascinating that the only fact that the Savior asked us to mention about ourselves in prayer is that we practice forgiving. However, exactly what forgiveness is, to whom it is due, and how it relates to correction and punishment are not widely understood. Critics of the Faith have alleged that Jesus’ lofty ideal of forgiveness is either dangerously liberal, at odds with other details of His ethic, or laudable, but widely disregarded by Christians. Given the central significance of forgiveness to the Gospel of how God saves sinners by faith in Jesus Christ; and given that a forgiving attitude is a fundamental mark of those who have been forgiven by God in Christ, believers can only benefit from sustained meditation on the topic. Jesus, after all, set forth the following promise and warning as the grounds making forgiveness central to prayer: “if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14-15; cf. Mk. 11:25; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
Below, we will advance the following points. As to essence of forgiveness, it is the non-collection of a debt (or non-application of a penalty) accompanied by the expulsion a vengeful disposition. Christ’s ethic emphasizes the importance of a forgiving disposition, without neglecting the necessity of forgiving deeds, for two reasons. Outward forgiveness can be exercised hypocritically, apart from the more difficult work of a reformation of heart. Also, those who have forgiven a neighbor from the heart may, nevertheless, seek the application of a penalty out of love for the same party. The potential objects of Christian forgiveness are all people, but in different fashions. Even toward unrepentant offenders, Christ’s disciples must be prepared to repay evil with genuine kindness, entertaining a more hopeful vision of their enemies than their deeds deserve. However, only repentant believers can be forgiven in the fullest sense, by being treated and confidently acknowledged as brothers who enjoy mystical union with Christ and oneself. To scrutinize whether another’s repentance is genuine, and to enforce ongoing consequences for egregious sins and heinous crimes is perfectly consistent with forgiveness. For, to forgive a party is to will their good, and to facilitate rather than impeded what is best for them (and others). Finally, believers must be prepared to perform radical acts of forgiveness, especially in situations where one is powerless to pursue justice and/or the total forgiveness of a significant debt is likely to advance (rather than hinder) the kingdom of God.
FORGIVENESS: OBJECTIVE DEEDS
When most people talk about forgiveness, they tend to have in mind feelings and subjective dispositions toward others. However, the Greek and Hebrew words for “forgive” often refer to objective actions. For example, the most frequent sense of the verb in the Gospel of Matthew is simply “to leave” something tangible behind, like fishing nets (4:20), crowds (13:36), stones (24:2), etc. In the context of monetary debts and criminal offenses, “forgiveness” involves foregoing the right to exact a payment (Matt. 18:23-34) or pardoning rather than prosecuting and punishing a crime (Ex. 34:9; Rom. 12:17). In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus enjoins a radically forgiving disposition, setting forth the example of one who foregoes his right to retain basic property—“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (Matt. 5:40); and again, “whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Lk. 6:30). Of course, Jesus’ directives on the topic of forgiveness are not entirely new. The Mosaic Law required objective remission of debts every seventh year toward all of one’s Israelite neighbors (Deut. 15:1-6), regardless of whether they had squandered a loan by vice or simply fallen on hard times.
It is noteworthy that the objective forgiveness of a debt and/or penalty may be extended in greater and lesser degrees. For example, in the Mosaic economy, the convicted thief of livestock normally had to make restitution by returning the stolen animal, and paying retribution by returning four or five times its value (Ex. 22:1). If, however, he confessed his theft and offered the requisite “guilt offering” at the tabernacle (Lev. 6:1-6), his crime would be significantly, but not entirely, forgiven. The thief who confessed prior to being caught only had to return the stolen property to the victim, plus a mere one-fifth of its value. But even under the Law, direct victims could forgive certain criminal offenses entirely by foregoing legal proceedings altogether. Well before Jesus’ ethical discourses, His father Joseph showed himself to be a “righteous man” by choosing not to prosecute, and thereby significantly forgiving, Mary for her apparent adultery (Matt. 1:19). And yet, Joseph seems not to have initially extended the fullest objective forgiveness that could be imagined. Although he forewent civil prosecution of Mary, he still resolved to “send her away secretly,” breaking off their plans for marriage. This clearly indicates that an offense can be forgiven in certain objective respects, even though other consequences may be retained (for more on this point see “Forgiveness and Consequences” below). What renders the Sermon on the Mount unique in relationship to the Mosaic Law is not that Jesus’ commands His followers to forgive in various ways. Rather, its novelty resides in how clearly Jesus sets forth the imperative to more than forgive; that is, to remit material debt and even extend additional favor to one’s debtors. Still, Jesus understood the substance of His ethic to have always been implied, even if not so expressed, in the Law itself (Matt. 5:17-20; Lev. 19:18).
FORGIVENESS: SUBJECTIVE DISPOSITION
Parallel to the non-collection of a debt and non-prosecution of a crime, forgiveness is a determination from within not to seek personal vengeance, and to expel the ill-will that we harbor toward offenders. Everyone knows, after all, how unpleasant it is to be despised and hated, even when disdain isn’t expressed in overt acts. When he denounced the human tendency to regard certain men as “good for nothing” (Matt. 5:22), Jesus meant to censure an unforgiving attitude that writes-off a person forever. Positively, subjective forgiveness must involve crediting an enemy with a better estimation of his person than his deeds deserve. Without this constructive effort, our best attempts to expel hateful feelings will be to no avail. If our estimation of our neighbor were a sculpture, we could think of his misbehaviors and sins as chipping away at and reducing his effigy to something distasteful that elicits ire. Forgiveness entails an active effort to reform our image and estimation of those who have sinned against us. This forgiving attitude is often described, figuratively, as “forgetting” or no longer “counting” a person’s crimes (Jer. 31:34; 1 Cor. 13:5; Ps. 103:12). This is because the non-resentment that one harbors after extending forgiveness resembles the attitude he might have had if the sin had never been committed in the first place (see “Forgiveness and Consequences” below). In its most robust expression, subjective forgiveness is not a mere disposition of indifference toward an offender as if his image were merely undeformed. Paralleling His demands for radical deeds of forgiveness—not just remitting debt but extending undeserved credit to defaulters (Matt. 5:40-42)—Jesus requires an equally robust disposition of heart. Christian forgiveness entails entertaining a better vision of our enemies than their deeds deserve, with the result that we are able to gladly heed the command: “bless those who persecute you” (Lk. 6:28; Rom. 12:14; cf. Matt. 5:44; 1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Pet. 3:9). Practiced properly, subjective forgiveness is neither an exercise in fantasy nor a surrender to naivete about just how evil and dangerous certain foes may be. Rather, there are objective grounds for crediting all men with a better estimation than their sins deserve, and unique grounds for esteeming repentant brothers the most highly of all.
The objective and subjective dimensions of forgiveness have a paradoxical relationship that forces us to appreciate the central significance of the latter. On the one hand, it is possible to forgive another person’s financial debt begrudgingly (perhaps, for example, out of a desire to be perceived as gracious), without expelling a hateful disposition toward him from within. Jesus denounces this sort of forgiveness as disingenuous, not being “from the heart” (Matt. 18:35). Such forgiveness is as displeasing to God as alms given under compulsion rather than cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). As pleasant as it might be to have a large monetary debt forgiven, even if not from the heart, it is far more dangerous (and potentially costly) to incur for oneself a life-long enemy. That is why Christians are called to make peace (Rom. 12:18), and to make friends so far as they are able (Matt. 5:25). On the other hand, one might deny a criminal complete objective forgiveness (by remitting a debt partially, or seeking a reduced penalty for a crime), and yet extend to him the fullest sort of subjective forgiveness (genuinely seeking his well-being). God’s discipline of His people epitomizes this combination. He often applies objective penalties with the most holy intention to bless and to sanctify His people, rather than to finally harm and destroy (see “Forgiveness and Consequences” below). Another curiosity is that at first glance the extension of a forgiving deed may appear rather more difficult than cultivation of a forgiving heart. Initially, one may be greatly disinclined to forgive, outright, a neighbor’s financial debt for backing into his car, but surprisingly willing to restrain the tendency to despise and/or hope the worst for that neighbor. However, in the course of time, feelings of resentment for the car-incident may resurface again and again. Thus, the conscious resolve to forgive from the heart may need to be repeated many times for one and the same crime. In that respect, subjective forgiveness often proves to be rather more difficult than the one-time deed of remitting or reducing a debt. Moreover, if one finds it difficult to renew his forgiving disposition, say, seven times, for one offense, he will find it even more challenging to expel contempt for his neighbor after seven similar offenses. Recognizing that repeated forgiveness from the heart is profoundly difficult, Jesus nevertheless requires that His disciples be prepared to forgive their brethren “seven times in a day” (Lk. 17:4), and “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22).
BELIEVERS ARE REQUIRED TO FORGIVE THE UNREPENTANT
Having discussed forgiveness as both deed and disposition, we turn to the controversial question, are Christians are obligated to forgive the unrepentant? And if so, what is the rationale? That Christ requires his disciples to forgive unrepentant foes is clear from His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible that in commanding His disciples to lend your coat to “anyone” who “wants to sue you and take your shirt” (Matt. 5:40), Jesus meant to limit the prescribed response to repentant aggressors. The picture Jesus paints is that of a heartless enemy seeking to take the very shirt off our backs. Toward this kind of person, even in his state of aggression, Jesus requires what we might call a “super-forgiving” disposition. This conclusion is reinforced by the imperatives that precede and follow Matthew 5:40. To “not resist an evil person” (5:39a), to “turn the other [cheek]” to the person who slaps you (5:39b), to go a second mile with the person who “forces you to go one mile” (5:41a), and to “love your enemies” (5:42) all imply that the offending party is still yet evil, an enemy, and unrepentant when the radical forgiveness is extended to him. Most importantly, Jesus grounds His imperatives in the character of God. The Father extends profound gestures of kindness to all men without exception (Matt. 5:45-48; Acts 14:16-17), repaying their offenses with longsuffering patience (Rom. 2:4; 3:25; 2 Pet. 3:9), rather than immediate retribution.
When we survey other Scriptural imperatives that require a forgiving posture toward all, we can begin to see the practical wisdom of this feature of a Biblical ethic. We are told that the wise man seeks to “overlook an offense”—that is, to forgive rather than prosecute—wherever they can without aiding or encouraging evil (Prov. 19:11). Evidently, this is because in a fallen world we are bound to be victims of so many sinful behaviors that it is not even so much as possible to seek tangible recompense for them all. Biblical calls to generosity (1 Tim. 6:18; Eph. 4:28), some of which explicitly encompass our enemies (Lk. 6:35; Matt. 5:42), prescribe a super-forgiving stance, in part, because it garners respect and kindness in return (Lk. 16:1-9). Moreover, there are “weightier provisions of the law” about which we are obligated to correct our neighbor lest he suffer the terrible consequences in this life, not to mention the life to come (Prov. 26:5; 2 Tim. 3:24-25; Gal. 6:1; 1 John 5:16-17). On account of these, we must be prepared to simply forgive lesser debts, lest we become overbearing and lose the opportunity to gently address more serious ones. Sometimes monetary debts must be forgiven, and loss accepted, because our debtors are so financially destitute that collection is futile (Deut. 15:1-6; Lk. 7:42). Others are in such a calloused state of mind, that it would be folly on our part to enter upon any course of correction whatsoever for mere interpersonal slights (Prov. 9:8; 26:4; Matt. 7:6). This non-corrective stance toward committed fools, rebels, and belligerents is the very lowest sort of forgiveness that one can exercise in this life. For, in not collecting on his debts or seeking a corrective penalty, the hard-hearted man is being surrendered to the consequences of his own self-destructive behaviors. Even in handing the unrepentant “over to Satan,” the disposition of a believer’s heart is not to be one of cruelty, but of tough-love and hope that the evil fruits of his rebellion might be a means through which he is brought to final repentance (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). This is also one reason why Biblical prayers for another person’s judgment are compatible with forgiveness. (See “Forgiveness and Imprecation” below.)
If Jesus positively requires that believers forgive the unrepentant, and there is manifest wisdom in doing so, what compels many to conclude that forgiveness ought to be reserved for the repentant? To begin, we have already seen that the Mosaic Law only prescribes a reduced penalty for theft if the criminal confesses and repents of his crime. In keeping with this provision of the Law, Jesus explicitly taught, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Lk. 17:3-4). Although God is, in many concrete gestures, “forgiving” to all of humanity through the course of history (Matt. 5:45-48), He withholds eternal forgiveness and imputation of righteousness (what the New Testament frequently calls “justification”) from all but those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ (Matt. 11:20-24; Lk. 10:13-15). Indeed, the point of the “Parable of the Forgiving King” (Matt. 18:23-35) is that those who experience God’s forgiving patience in history but fail to repent of their own merciless disposition will assuredly not be forgiven in eternity.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF FORGIVENESS
John Calvin solved the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ calls to pardon everyone (even the unrepentant) and His limitation of the same to those who repent, with reference to the objective and subjective dimensions of forgiveness (see Calvin’s comments on Matt. 18:21-35). First, Christians must forgive unrepentant sinners (especially for non-criminal, personal offenses) by “laying aside the desire of revenge,” and repaying their evil with objective deeds of “kindness” (Matt. 5:43-48; Rom. 12:14, 17; Prov. 20:22; 24:29). However, it is appropriate, according to Calvin, “to entertain an unfavorable opinion” of unrepentant parties. Second, a more robust “kind of forgiving” must be reserved for the repentant brother. Upon confessing and turning from his evil, Christians must not only treat that brother kindly but “think favorably” of him. Calvin’s solution, although basically correct, is not entirely adequate. Whereas the extension of kind deeds and the suspension of personal vengeance must be extended to the repentant and unrepentant alike, Calvin denies that one aspect of subjective forgiveness may be extended to the latter, namely the development of a higher estimation of his person than his deeds deserve. We agree with Calvin that there is a qualitative difference between the forgiveness extended to the unrepentant and the repentant. However, we submit that in all its expressions, forgiveness must entail an alteration of our very thoughts and opinions of our fellow man. In short, we forgive the unrepentant by entertaining higher thoughts of what they may become, while we forgive a repentant brother by upholding a confident vision of the character that he presently has on account of Christ’s dwelling in Him