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What Is Forgiveness?

When I was a teenager, I can remember being forced to watch some video in church about a family who forgave a man for killing one of their children.  They went to him while he was in jail and simply said through the bars, "I forgive you."  The man did not ask for it, but the family gave it, and we were encouraged as teenagers to live out that kind of "Christian" forgiveness in our own lives. In a similar vein, a few years ago I sent a letter to a former pastor of the church that I was serving that had been wronged by the church.  I asked him if there was anything that the church could do that could show genuine repentance toward him and restore broken relationships.  He quickly blew off my idea by saying simply, "I forgave them a long time ago."  He forgave them, but they were not sorry.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are actually, "What does forgiveness truly mean?" and "Can there be forgiveness apart from repentance on the part of the one who needs the forgiveness?"

Forgiveness, at least in the way that the Bible speaks of it, is not a blanket covering stemming from the injured party to the injurer.  Rather, it is all about reconciling one party to another.  Forgiveness is not a declaration, but a restoration.  And there cannot be a true restoration until both parties are willing to move toward one another.  Thus, if there is no true repentance from the injurer, then no matter how willing the injured one might be to forgive, true forgiveness cannot take place, because the relationship cannot be restored.

This idea may sound foreign to some people.  As I said earlier, most of us have been taught through various means that our duty as Christians is to forgive those who hurt us, regardless of whether they seek it or not.  But what does the Bible say on the matter?  Jesus shows the process best when He says, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).

This is the true, Biblical process of forgiveness.  There are four parts to it: the hurt, the acknowledgement of the hurt (the rebuke), the repentance, and then the forgiveness.  Most "Christian" forgiveness tries to jump directly from the hurt to the forgiveness - completely bypassing the rebuke and the repentance.  As a result, there is no true forgiveness - no true restoration of the relationship to the joy and closeness of what it once was.  In fact, in many cases, so many hurts can be 'swept under the rug' like this until eventually the relationship cannot continue at all and ultimately fails.  And the sad part of all of that is that one or both of the parties in that failed relationship may not even really know why it failed, because wrongs were never truthfully discussed.

By the way, it should be pointed out that God's own forgiveness works this way.  When we disobey God, that is the very definition of 'sin' against Him.  As sinners, we are desperately in need of God's forgiveness, so that we will not have to face His righteous judgment.  But He does not extend this forgiveness as a blanket over every human being in His creation.  He calls men to repent - repeatedly, and in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Repentance on the part of the sinner is a necessary ingredient in forgiveness.  He says over and over again that He will not grant forgiveness unless there is repentance: "If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow" (Psalm 7:12), "Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent" (Matthew 11:20), "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3), "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent" (Revelation 2:5).

So throw away whatever unbiblical notions you may have had in the past of forgiveness without repentance, and embrace the Scriptural teaching - both as the one who injures and the one who has been injured.  Make sure that if you wrong someone, you immediately seek their forgiveness by repentance and heartfelt apology.  Don't just expect them to issue some blanket declaration of your forgiveness because of the context of the relationship that you are in.  Your sin has damaged that relationship, and it needs to be restored.

Likewise, if you have been wronged, don't just sweep that hurt under the rug.  You may think that doing so is the "Christian" thing to do, but that hidden hurt will end up destroying the relationship in the end - especially if other hurts are added to the pile.  Instead, be sure to go through the 'rebuke' part of the process.  The one who has hurt you needs to know that the hurt has been done.  And you should expect a genuine repentance before the forgiveness can be completed.  If the injurer refuses to repent after the sin has been made known, then it is easy to see why true forgiveness cannot be accomplished.

It is true that a Christian should be "willing" to forgive anyone - and I believe that it is this willingness that most Christians confuse with the forgiveness itself - but we must understand that in order for the Bible's kind of forgiveness to take place, the relationship must be reconciled through repentance followed by restoration.

Changing Clothes

Most presentations of the gospel preach our clothes off but leave us naked afterward.  Okay, that was a rather provocative first sentence, but it gives us an image that I believe can help us explain some of the negative effects that most contemporary offers of the gospel produce. The great majority of the time when we hear the gospel preached, what is preached is forgiveness of sins.  We are told that Jesus died to forgive us of the awful things that we have done and that if we just believe in this, then we will no longer be under condemnation.  Little or nothing is said about righteousness - either the righteousness of Christ or the righteousness of the believer - unless the preacher also chooses to focus on the need for repentance (sadly out of vogue in many places today).  What results is an appeal that seems to offer (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a sort of "get-out-of-hell-free card" - a one-time removal of the stain of sin that, when coupled with some form of 'eternal security', makes the convert "good to go" for the rest of his or her life.

Many, many converts have responded to this kind of message only to later drift out of church never to return.  Now, I know that there are other factors beyond simply the way that the gospel is proclaimed that should probably come into a discussion of what went wrong with those particular converts, but I am also aware that we can't really over-stress the importance of what is communicated in a gospel appeal since that is what the convert is responding to.

So what is missing from the aforementioned gospel presentation?  What's missing is the new set of clothes.  We've removed the old dirty clothes (our sin), but we've not put on anything else.  We're left naked by this gospel appeal.

In Zechariah 3, we can watch the process of salvation unfold in a picturesque way in the life of the High Priest - Joshua.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?" Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments." And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.  (Zechariah 3:1-5)

Here we see the need for and then the process of salvation.  Joshua is filthy with sin.  Satan stands to accuse him of this iniquity.  By the grace of God, though, the filthy clothes are removed.  But Joshua is not left to stand before the King of the Universe with no clothes on!  He is given "pure vestments".  God does not just take away his unrighteousness.  If that was all that happened, then Joshua - or any of the rest of us - would still be infinitely lacking in God's eyes because God does not just demand the absence of sin, He demands the presence of righteousness.  Joshua cannot be righteous in himself, so God has these special garments of righteousness made for him.

The second part of this change of clothes is what is often neglected in most presentations of the gospel.  We don't just need forgiveness, we need righteousness in addition.  We need the whole package.  This garment of righteousness - this pure vestment - is also a part of Christ's work.  It is true that on the cross He suffered the penalty for my sin, removing the filthy garment from me, but He also lived a perfect life and was resurrected so that I could have His perfection and His resurrection.  Those are the pure vestments that I need to cover my nakedness.

So how is this kind of gospel presentation better?  It does not just proclaim a rescue from the horrors of hell, it proclaims the righteousness of Christ and the glory of being able to stand in His presence.  It changes the focus from something that may appeal to any old worldling without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (who wouldn't want to "get-out-of-hell-free"?) to something that will only appeal to those whom the Holy Spirit is bringing to life in Christ.  Only those who have truly been saved hunger and thirst for righteousness, so that's how we ought to make our appeal.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)