A college professor of mine loved to opine, "Great minds often oversimplify things." The subject of forgiveness is often oversimplified by well-meaning Christians.
To begin with, the Scripture does not teach unconditional forgiveness. Yes, it teaches us of God's unconditional love, but not of unconditional forgiveness. In John 8:24, Jesus said, "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins" (NIV). All who refuse to believe in Jesus Christ will die unforgiven. God refuses to forgive the sins of everyone who rejects His Son as their personal Savior.
The popular and present-day notion that Christians are to forgive everyone who wrongs them for everything done to them regardless of whether or not their oppressors are repentant, demands of the Christian a forgiveness that Christ Himself doesn't afford. To secure our Lord's forgiveness requires repentance from sin. Those unrepentant toward God remain unforgiven by God.
In His teaching about church discipline, Christ makes it plain that an unrepentant church member who has sinned against another should be excommunicated from the church and ostracized by his fellow-Christians (Matthew 18:15-18). The sinning church member is not to be restored to church membership or reconciled with his brothers and sisters in Christ until he has a change of heart and is willing to confess and repent of his sin.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, the Apostle Paul rebukes the church of Corinth for its failure to excommunicate a sexually immoral member. Paul does not tell the church to forgive and overlook the member’s embarrassing and egregious behavior. Instead, he demands the member’s expulsion and warns the expelled that if he continues to be unrepentant he may soon find himself shoved into a premature grave by the hand of divine chastisement.
In his second epistle to the Corinthian church, Paul implies that the expelled member had come around under the chastening of the Lord and demonstrated public contrition (2 Corinthians 2:1-11). In spite of this, the church showed him no compassion. The Corinthian Christians refused to forgive him. By doing so, the church had fallen victim to a scheme of Satan. The devil had managed to pull the rug out from under the whole church. Not only had the sinning member failed to exemplify Christ in his life, but the church had miserably failed to model the redemptive message of the Christian faith in their actions.
While Christians should never overlook the sins of other believers or hobnob with the wayward who are unrepentant, we should be the first in line to forgive and embrace fallen believers who truly confess and repent of their sins. It doesn’t matter how egregious and embarrassing to the cause of Christ a fellow-Christian’s sins have been, if they are willing to make public contrition, they should be welcomed back into the Christian community.
We must model the redemption we preach if we want the world to pay attention when we preach it. If we fail to practice it, we might as well not preach it. No one will listen to us when we do. Our actions will speak so loud that the world won’t be able to hear what our words are saying.
Permit me to pause at this point to make a few important points. First, the Bible teaches that we are to have no communion with a fellow-Christian who is guilty of a flagrant sin. We all sin; therefore, fellowship in the church would be impossible if we were forbidden from communing with everyone in our congregation who daily falls short of the glory of God. Not only would everyone in our church be forbidden from fellowshipping with us, but we would also be forbidden from fellowshipping with them.
Although it clearly teaches us to disassociate ourselves with an unrepentant fellow-believer who is hindering others from coming to Christ by their scandalous behavior, the New Testament does not teach us to avoid contact with sinners outside of the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). In fact, Paul says that the only possibility of us avoiding contact with all sinners would be to remove ourselves from this fallen world.
Contact with unbelievers is essential to our fulfilling of Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). How can we witness to them if we have no contact with them? Furthermore, as Jesus modeled and Christian history has repeatedly proved, the most effective way of winning people to Christ is friendship evangelism. As Lottie Moon, Southern Baptist’s most famous missionary, once said, “We must make friends before we can make converts.”
Another point that needs to be emphasized is that forgiveness of sin does not remove the consequences of sin. For instance, the expelled member of the church in Corinth may have truly repented of his sexual immorality and been sincerely forgiven by his church. Yet, he could never serve as the church’s pastor, since his past sin had irreparably damaged his good reputation (1 Timothy 3:7). Likewise, many a past sin of a penitent member of a present-day congregation still has repercussions that cannot be ignored.
This leads to a most helpful insight into the subject of forgiveness. One of the most liberating truths that I’ve ever learned is that I can actually love people without liking them. There are many people who have intentionally sinned against me and my family over the years. Although I do not hold a grudge against them, harboring ill-feelings toward them or wishing them any ill-will, I’m not about to invite them over to supper. Their past sin against me and my family has consequences in our present-day relationship. While I love them and pray for them, I’m uncomfortable around them and weary of them. They may be in the family of God, but that doesn’t mean that I have to spend Christmas with them.
After hearing our Lord’s instructions on church discipline in Matthew 18:15-18, the Apostle Peter immediately questions the extent of forgiveness to be offered to repeat offenders (Matthew 18:21-22). Peter asks if “seven times” is sufficient to forgive a repeat offender who repeatedly proves penitent. In response, our Lord instructs him to forgive “seventy times seven,” a number which is obviously meant to imply that the extent of forgiveness offered to the penitent should be as limitless with Christians as it is with Christ.
The question is not how many times should we forgive others who apologize to us, but how many times has Christ forgiven our sins when we confessed them to Him (1 John 1:9). If you’re like me, Christ has not only forgiven your confessed sins seven times, but more than seventy times seven. In light of this, I don’t want Christ to limit His forgiveness of my confessed sins to a certain number of times. Do you? If not, then what right do you have of limiting your forgiveness of others to a certain number of times?
In Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus adds to His admonition to Peter regarding the practice of perpetual forgiveness a most enlightening parable. He tells of a king who forgives a servant of an unpayable debt. Afterward, the servant goes out and refuses to forgive a small debt owed to him by a fellow-servant. Upon hearing of his forgiven servant’s unwillingness to forgive another, the king is outraged. He calls his unmerciful servant back in before him and “delivers him [over] to the tormentors.”
The message of the parable is unmistakable. We owe an unpayable sin debt to God. Since it is impossible for us to pay, Christ came and paid it for us on the cross. All we have to do to be forgiven of our sins is to accept by faith Christ’s payment of our debt. Once we do, our unpayable debt is cancelled and we are saved from our sins.
As those forgiven of an unpayable debt to God, what right do Christians have to keep accounts among men? As God’s forgiven ones, we have no right to refuse forgiveness to others. If we do, we will anger God and end up turned over to the tormentors. Just think about it! Have you ever met a person holding a grudge that was not a tormented soul.
There is probably no quicker way for Christians to fall into the clutches of demonic oppression than to become resentful or bitter. This explains why Paul warned Christians not to “give place to the devil” by letting “the sun go down upon [our] wrath” (Ephesians 4:26-27). If we go to bed angry, we’ll wake up in bed with the adversary. The devil will have gained a place in our lives and the tormentors will have been granted their needed base of operation. The next thing we know, we’ll be under demonic oppression and our resentfulness will turn into a ruinous, life-consuming obsession.
As Christians, we simply can’t afford to be unforgiving. According to Jesus, God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiveness of others (Matthew 6:15). Remember, our Lord taught us to pray that our Heavenly Father would “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Do you really want God to forgive you as you are forgiving others?
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