June 19, 2018

Indiscriminate Forgiveness?

Many people, including Christians, believe that we are obligated to forgive someone whenever they commit a sin. For instance, if a man steals $500 from me, is arrested and put on trial, many believe I should go ahead and forgive him—even though he remain unrepentant. Some see this as the noble thing to do; something that will help me. However, there is no biblical basis for this type of thinking.

The Bible does teach we are to forgive others, but the forgiveness has conditions attached to it. The person who committed the sin must seek forgiveness. Jesus said, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Lk. 17:3, 4).

What happens when that same person does not repent and seek forgiveness? Are we obligated to forgive anyway? No. We are under no greater obligation than God. Paul wrote, “…forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). He will forgive us after we repent (Acts 8:22-24).

If we are authorized or even compelled to forgive someone before he or she repents, what does that do to church discipline? The person from whom a church withdraws is to be forgiven only after that person repents (1 Cor. 5:1-5; 2 Cor. 2:6-11; 7:8-11). Forgiveness before the point of repentance would make the entire process a futile exercise in chaos.

Further, consider the scenario Jesus gives us in Matthew 18:15-17. One brother sins against another. If a one-on-one conversation brings repentance from the sinner, then the issue is solved. However, if the one in the wrong does not make correction, then the offended brother does not forgive him; he takes the next step to bring repentance. The principle laid down is that forgiveness, and thus reconciliation, is extended when the sinner repents, not before.

Christians need to hold people accountable for their actions. Sinners need to know they are sinners and we do not accept them in that condition. If they have personally sinned against us and/or the church, they need to feel the burden of their sin. Our desire for peace or to simply not deal with the problem will not solve the issue. Too, God does not approve of us brushing aside sin in the absence of repentance; something that may endanger our souls.

— Steven F. Deaton