FORGIVENESS: MUST HE REPENT BEFORE I FORGIVE HIM?

By Dr. Stephen Kim

There is an insidious lie being taught in certain Christian circles that Christ never commanded His followers to unilaterally and completely forgive and absolve all sinners who wrong them.

The teaching goes something like this: “Remember Ephesians 4:32, guys! ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ Did you read that? We are to forgive others as God in Christ forgave us. And just how exactly did God forgive us? Please keep in mind that God only forgives those who first repent and come to Him with a contrite heart. Likewise, we as Christians should not forgive others until they too, first repent of their wrongs against us.”

This false teaching ensnares countless souls in debilitating bitterness, for as Augustine (supposedly) once said, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Withholding forgiveness from a person only harms your own soul. It creates a darkness within the soul that begins to turn you into a person that no one wants to be around. In this sense, the offender wins twice—first through his offense, then through your lack of forgiveness, he turns you into a child of hell. A pessimistic, bitter, angry man/woman that snaps at anyone and anything around you.

At the heart of Christianity is the doctrine of forgiveness. The entire Bible could be summed up in these words: Jesus Christ died to pay for my sins so that God, through Christ, could forgive me. All the Old Testament sacrifices? Yes, they were about forgiveness. Noah’s Ark? Yes, that was about forgiveness. Jonah and Nineveh? Again, it was about forgiveness. It is an incalculable understatement, therefore, to say that this one doctrine has massive implications. We have to get this one right.

IMAGINE THE SCENARIO

Imagine an imaginary individual named, Sam. Sam was terribly physically and verbally abused by his father as a child. As the years passed, Sam yearned for the day when he could bolt for the abuse-less pastures called, “college.” As the day drew nigh, Sam (a devout Christian) was told by his pastor to forgive his dad if and only if his dad repents of his offenses. Sam musters enough courage to sit with his dad one day to confront him on the issue. Sadly (and not surprisingly), his dad does not repent. In fact, he becomes indignant and claims that Sam is a spoiled brat for dwelling on just the negatives of his past. Furthermore, to make things worse, Sam’s dad claims that Sam deserved all the abuse because Sam was a “bad kid” growing up. With no repentance, the dad storms out of the room and Sam goes off to college.
Years pass by. Sam now has his own family. He doesn’t beat his own kids, but there is a part of him that remains very bitter and angry towards his dad. He still hasn’t forgiven his dad because, like his pastor said, his dad has never repented. Slowly, but surely, the bitterness and anger within Sam becomes more evident in his everyday life. He can’t seem to compartmentalize the anger toward his dad anymore. That part of his life is now affecting every other part of his life.
Finally, one day, his dad dies of an aneurysm. His mom invites him to the funeral, but by that point he’s so bitter that not only does he not attend the funeral, but he is also inwardly glad that his old man is now dead. A few years later, Sam also dies suddenly of an aneurysm (it ran in the family). To an objective observer, by the end of his life, Sam had become eerily similar to the man he vowed to never become—his father.
When Sam stands before God, what will God say to him?

WHAT GOD EXPECTS

Let’s go back to the often misused and abused Ephesians 4:32 text: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Yes, God will not grant salvation to anyone who does not repent of sin and turn to Christ in faith (Luke 24:47). However, you are not God.  I recall John Stott in his classic The Cross of Christ stating, “Forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems.”  How a holy and just God can forgive sinners like me (without Himself becoming unjust in the process) is a cosmic problem that God wisely resolved through the cross of Christ.  The command for humans to forgive one another, however, is nothing like what God had to overcome in order to forgive us.  Yes, there are some similarities, but there are also vast differences in the way God forgives and the way we forgive.  Simply stated, redeemed sinners are outright expected by God to forgive other sinners.  The Ephesians verse is simply stating that you ought to forgive others and that the model or example for this ought to be God. In other words, just as God forgave you of your massive, eternal debt; in like manner, you ought to forgive men their sins against you. In view of what God has done for you on the cross, you (as a Christian) ought to be able to forgive anyone for anything.

The heart of Ephesians 4:32 is found in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-35. In the story, a king forgives a servant who owed him 10,000 talents (1 talent was worth about 20 years of laborer’s wages). The text literally says that the king “forgave him the debt” (Matt 18:27). (This, by the way, is one way of viewing sin—as an accountant’s ledger. Every time someone wrongs you, he owes you a debt. Every time you forgive him, you wipe his debt clean from your heart.) The forgiven servant, however, goes out and meets a man who owed him a 100 denarii (1 denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer). Instead of forgiving the man and showing him the same grace that was once shown him, the servant who was forgiven 10,000 talents throws his debtor into prison. The king hears about this and is enraged! Bringing the servant before him, he excoriates him by saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:32-33). The king then throws him to the torturers until his debt is paid. Jesus then ends the lesson with an imperative for us all: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:35). The points of Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 18:35 are one: forgive everyone of all their sins, just as God has extravagantly forgiven you of your heinous sins committed against him. They’ve wronged you (a mere mortal), but you’ve wronged God (Supreme Creator). Which is worse? Haven’t you (through Christ) been forgiven much? If you know you have, then go out and lavishly forgive others–just as you’ve been forgiven.

FORGIVE: NO EXCEPTIONS

The only thing that will condemn anyone to eternal hell is unforgiven sin. That’s what makes Matthew 18:35 so scary. If we don’t forgive others, then God will not forgive us. If we are not forgiven of our sins by God, then we end up in hell. There’s no question about it. But it’s not fear that drives us to forgive others—it’s love, the love of God. Because God has loved and forgiven us, we too can forgive others. It’s not the fact that we forgave someone that “secures” our spot in heaven, for only faith in Jesus Christ can do that. It’s the fact that because God, through Christ’s death, richly forgave us, so we also ought to forgive others their sins. In other words, instead it earning our salvation, the act of forgiving others demonstrates our salvation. The point of Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 18:35 is that through a person’s inability to forgive someone, he demonstrates his own unbelief in the gospel. It’s no wonder that the writer of Hebrews wrote: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb 12:15). It’s interesting that the “root of bitterness” is linked with one’s failure to obtain the grace of God. One cannot impugn the damning nature of our inability to forgive men their trespasses. Indeed, heaven and hell hinge on this doctrine. Only someone who’s truly saved could forgive everyone and anyone of their sins. Such lavish forgiveness could only stem from a heart that has already received extraordinary forgiveness from God.

QUESTIONS

  1. What exactly does God expect? God expects you to forgive everyone all their trespasses that they’ve trespassed against you.
  2. What if I don’t see that person anymore? Forgive him from your heart (Matt 18:35). That’s the key. God knows.
  3. What if the person committed a crime?  You forgive that person of the wrong he’s committed against you, but he goes to jail and rightfully bears his punishment.  Forgiveness and civil justice can, and should, co-exist.  Allow the legal system to take its course and serve justice.  Remember, good law enforcers are actually God’s own ministers and avengers for vengeance: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4).  So you forgive the rapist for raping your daughter, but you also call law enforcement and turn him in so that he can be punished for his crime–both are right things to do.
  4. What if the person never repented? It doesn’t matter. Your job is to forgive him “from your heart.” Genuinely forgive and love the person. Let’s be frank. Most people who wrong you in life will never come back to apologize to you (e.g., the guy who curses you out while driving away in traffic). Does that mean you hold back from forgiving them? Certainly not! For if you only forgive those who first apologize, what’s your reward? Do not unbelievers do the same? Rather, be like Jesus, who—while the Romans were driving the nails through His hands—cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Love your enemies. Forgive them. Your duty is to forgive men their sins. Let God worry about the offender’s repentance. Don’t wait for the offender’s apology. Rather, do as Jesus commanded: as you daily stand praying, if you recall that someone has wronged you, forgive him on the spot! Jesus said, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
  5. Did Jesus ever command us to forgive “everyone?” Yes, he did, in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). The Greek word used there is the word panti (παντὶ) and it literally means “everyone”—including those who have not yet repented. As a Christian, your job is to clear that person’s offense and guilt from your heart. If he ever returns to you, may he find that your heart is clear of any ill towards him.
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About Dr. Stephen Kim

Dr. Stephen Kim is the senior pastor of Mustard Seed Church in New York City. He has also served as Associate Director of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, NYC Extension Center. Pastor Stephen is the happy husband of one beautiful woman and the joyous father of four beautiful children. As a pastor and writer, he is passionate about accurately feeding Christians the Word of God: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?" (Matthew 24:45).
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18 Responses to FORGIVENESS: MUST HE REPENT BEFORE I FORGIVE HIM?

  1. Heathenandfree says:

    So we’re forced to forgive? No wonder people abandon gods. Useless.

    Like

  2. imsetfree82 says:

    This is excellent! I agree with this article one hundred per cent. I had a childhood like Sam`s and had to learn that if I didn’t forgive it would hurt ME in the long run and poison other relationships in my life. If we are bitter it can spoil our witness for Christ. Also if forgiveness was dependant on whether the person came to us and said I’m sorry, well that would apply to us too. Often we don’t say sorry to people who we have hurt but if we confess our sins to God He still forgives us. Notice than 1 John 1:9 is how we get forgiveness. It is of course good to say sorry to the person we have hurt if possible but it isn’t what redeems us in God`s eyes. It is God who has the power to redeem not us. Sam`s dad could have confessed his sin of abuse to God before he died. God would have forgiven him therefore Sam has to

    Like

  3. Gerry says:

    Forgiving whether the offender asks for it or not gets the load of bitterness off one’s own back. It is self-protective. Bitterness eats us up. I’ve seen it repeatedly. I’ve had to deal with it myself. Sometimes it takes a while to settle down and forgive.
    If you can’t forgive without the offender asking, you likely will not truly forgive if asked. You may say you forgive, but it typically will boil out later.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dcbarry2014 says:

    Sin separates us from Father Yahweh?

    I thought God’s love is unconditional. I was always taught that unconditional love means to love someone in spite of themselves. If sin separates us from the Father then his love is conditional to our repentance. Which of course makes a mockery of the understanding that his love is unconditional.

    We are told in scripture that nothing separates us from the love of God. Sin is a something. So it can not separate us from his love. God still continues to love us even if we sin. No where in the Bible does it say that sin separates us from God. If it does I would appreciate you showing me.

    So your premise is wrong from the get go. Which makes your assumptions about Father’s forgiveness wrong as well. Because there is no gap to be bridged by the Father.

    You say that confession and repentance bridges that gap. It’s up to US to demonstrate “fruits meet for repentance” as we work “our measure” and our own salvation with “fear and trembling”.
    Similar transgressions separate us from our fellow man.

    So there is no real forgiveness unless the sinner repents. And you would be acting out of the same framework that Pastor Kim says that God the Father does. No real forgiveness until there is repentance.

    The way you treat forgiveness is really no different from how most people in the world do. It is a human way of looking at things. I will forgive but I won’t forget. What is so hard about that. And actually by having this standard then you are arguing against what Pastor Kim is saying here that his Calvinist friends should do and what you stated was Christ mission:

    You also say “His was a supernatural calling to restore and redeem and save the sinners and lost people. Mine is not.”

    I would ask how is the servant suppose to be any different than the master?

    But you however seem not to be a Calvinist like Pastor Kim, I would assume you might be a Messianic Jew, or possibly Adventist? So you might not hold to the Calvinist view here. Is that right?

    You stated that my exegesis might be labeled “adding to” the word of Yahweh. You got to help me here. At what point did I add to scripture? Please I would want to know. If quoting scripture is adding to the word then tell me what I am to do with: In Christ, God was reconciling the world unto himself not counting their trespasses against them. Or as John put it as we look upon Jesus the Christ “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” or the promise of the new covenant spoken of in Acts 2:17 I will pour out my Spirit on all humanity. and even Christ being the light that shines in every man even if they can not understand it. And in him we live and breathe and have our very being. In Christ we are told that he was before all things and by Him all things hold together… For God the Father was pleased that all His fullness dwell in Him and through Him to reconcile everything unto himself…whether things on earth or things in heaven. ALL IS FORGIVEN AND ALL HAS BEEN RECONCILED.

    To participate in this properly we have to recognize this gift. Confession and a change of heart is our way of enjoying the benefits of this love, but is not the condition whereby he will love us.

    How else can I harmonize this unconditional Love of the Father which does not keep a record of wrongs, It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. His love will never end or ever fail. His promise is that he will never leave or forsake us.

    His mercy triumphs over judgement. And it is said of his mercy that it endures forever. As you stated I have added to but I would submit that you have “taken away” from the word which I am not prepared to do.

    Again thanks for continuing to have fellowship with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. dcbarry2014 says:

    Have not heard from you brother. Does this mean you agree with my conclusion?

    Like

  6. dcbarry2014 says:

    Also just saw where you showed me the love. Thanks

    Like

  7. dcbarry2014 says:

    I would like to discuss forgiveness. In the above article by Pastor Kim under the heading of WHAT DOES GOD EXPECT he states the following:

    The command for humans to forgive one another, however, is nothing like what God had to overcome in order to forgive us.  Yes, there are some similarities, but there are also vast differences in the way God forgives and the way we forgive.  Simply stated, redeemed sinners are outright expected by God to forgive other sinners.

    He goes on to state that the vast difference lies in the fact that redeemed sinners are expected to forgive even if the ones who wrong them don’t repent.

    Not only that pastor then goes on to say that if we the redeemed sinners don’t forgive then God will no longer forgive us. This is because with God you can’t get forgiveness unless you repent. Pastor Kim references the parable of Matt. 18 to prove his point.

    So in essence God is asking us to do something that he is unwilling to do himself or can’t do himself.

    This makes us by definition more loving or more forgiving than God. How can that be. He actually starts of the article with this statement:

    There is an insidious lie being taught in certain Christian circles that Christ never commanded His followers to unilaterally and completely forgive and absolve all sinners who wrong them.
    The teaching goes something like this: “Remember Ephesians 4:32, guys! ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ Did you read that? We are to forgive others as God in Christ forgave us.

    I can agree with this statement where I could not agree with the 1st statement where he states that there are vast difference in the way that God forgives and the way we forgive. We are to forgive others as God in Christ forgave us. In fact Paul goes on to elaborate this statement even further in 2 Cor 5 where he states that; God was in Christ reconciling the world(all of mankind) unto himself not counting men’s sins against them. Not only has he forgiven all people but he has reconciled as well. Paul seems to be clearly teaching that forgiveness comes before repentance because of the love of the Father for us.

    So yes we can and should forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. But then Pastor goes on to say that:

    Please keep in mind that God only forgives those who first repent and come to Him with a contrite heart.

    Again he is appealing to the vast difference in how God forgives and how we are to forgive. He has now changed how God forgives and that is only after we repent. And if we don’t continue in repentance then he will not forgive us. As eluded to in the Matt 18 passage and in the Luke 24 passage. He then goes on to make the point that we can not forgive in this same way that he says God forgives. Again from above we have to forgive whether there is repentance or not.

    You say that:

    forgiveness ……………means you purge yourself of the bitterness and rancor that prevents you from opening up your heart to others. I am in agreement that is what happens when we forgive without the need for repentance by the offender. So in the story in Matt. 18 maybe the lesson Jesus is trying to teach in the parable is that if we don’t forgive others then we in essence suffer the consequences of non- forgiveness, bitterness and rancor. The very thing that God the Father has tried to deliver us from in his own forgiveness of us. It is not something God has put on us but rather something we have allowed ourselves to be wounded by. So this passage might not be about heaven and hell and God having to have repentance before he forgives.

    You also stated that:

    Forgiveness does not mean you are reconciled with the offender. So what you are really saying then is that you can’t reconcile unless the offender repents. Which is what I think Pastor Kim is trying to say is not true forgiveness.

    I believe scripture teaches that God not only forgives and but has also reconciled all. Where you say you forgive many, but break bread with a few. I would say that God forgives all and would break bread with all regardless if they had repented yet or not.

    Paul’s message to us would be to encourage people to be awakened to the fact that God is alright and loving toward them already and that their real need is to live in the forgiveness and reconciliation that has already been provided. So in the Luke passage maybe what Jesus was saying if the greek word for repentance (metanoia)means to have a change of mind toward how you think about how God thinks about you. Then repentance is acknowledging that God has already reconciled with us and we need to trust in it.

    To me this is the vast difference that God is indeed different from us in that he forgives and reconciles teaches us to do the same before repentance. Without his example we not not know to do the same.

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    • Patrick Pedat Ebediyah Golston says:

      Sin separates us from Father Yahweh.

      Confession and repentance bridges that gap. It’s up to US to demonstrate “fruits meet for repentance” as we work “our measure” and our own salvation with “fear and trembling”.

      Similar transgressions separate us from our fellow man.

      I may forgive you, but I’m not REQUIRED to break bread with you. No where in scripture does it say that I’m required to break bread with someone who transgresses me or to not walk circumspectly in my life.

      Your take on scripture is interesting. Such Eisegesis might fall under “adding to” the Word of Yahweh, which I’m not prepared to do.

      There is a married woman at work who thinks I’m handsome. She says clever things frequently. One day she came into my office without asking permission. I do not allow women into my office under any circumstance, especially with the door closed, unless it’s a relative or TRUSTED friend who stops by. If a woman wants to meet with me, we’ll do it in a conference room.

      I asked her to leave and told her not to come into my office again. The climate in Corporate America is such that men and women cannot co-exist without rancor and the threat of misunderstandings that lead to sexual harassment and hostile work environment and the like. So, it’s always best to keep a good professional distance. It’s simply not safe, and vulnerability of any sort can lead to termination and/or ruination.

      She apologized. We still work together and have a good time. My take is just stay in your lane and don’t do anything unprofessional or inappropriate and we can continue to engage in a friendly manner as co-workers. Not to mention that she’s being extremely disrespectful to her husband which is infuriating to me.

      I forgave her. But she’s not allowed in my personal space. I associate with her, but we do not, nor will we ever have Phileo or Storge love.

      We are told to love our neighbors. Do good to them and not mistreat THEM. But we are not required to INVITE mistreatment from those who do not exhibit fruits meet for repentance.

      Yeshua told us to turn the other cheek. Well if we’re wise as serpents (as we are INSTRUCTED to be), then we won’t get close enough to get the other cheek slapped.

      My answer might seem primitive, but it’s as clear as I can be.

      If I invite you to my home and you steal from me, you’re not permitted to come back to my home.

      I might not punch you in the nose, I might not go to the cops, and I might not go to Pastor Kim and snitch on you.

      When I see you out in the community or in church, I may greet you and wish you well and even give you a hug.

      But you just can’t come to my house anymore because I don’t break bread with thieves and neither did Yeshua. His was a supernatural calling to restore and redeem and save the sinners and lost people. Mine is not. He didn’t HANG out with them and allow them to INFLUENCE Him…he influenced THEM by showing them love and mercy. So will I.

      I’m going to forgive the thief and show him mercy by not delivering him for punishment, but continue to be kind to him when I encounter him, and hope that the kindness INFLUENCES and CONVICTS him to a change of heart.

      But if he then BREAKS into my home and steals from me, then brother man is going to jail. Shall we go on and sin that grace abound? Heaven’s no!

      Like

      • Gerry says:

        The civil laws require anyone who has knowledge of certain classes of crimes, mainly crimes of moral turpitude and crimes of violence (exact details vary state by state).
        If you fail to report what you know about “serious” crimes, the perpetrator(s) are free to go on to victimize others. Do you think that shows love to the next victim?
        Many rape victims do not report, for various reasons. Some are not angry enough to go through an investigation and prosecution. Some feel at least partially responsible for attracting the rape. Some have heard of bad treatment of other rape victims by the authorities. Some may have experienced bad treatment by the authorities in connection with a previous rape or rapes. Some are embarrassed. Some are ashamed of being a rape victim. Others fear ill treatment by families and friends, by church brethren. And some do not want to “relive” the experience. Many are the reasons that raped women, girls, men and boys do not report to the authorities or tell to anyone.
        Yet failure to report allows the perpetrator to victimize others. Even if there is insufficient evidence for prosecution in one’s own case, one’s testimony and physical evidence, such as semen, hair, blood and skin under the victim’s nails, may be useful if the same perpetrator is reported by another victim.
        The civil government is not an instrument of forgiveness. Its ordained rôle is to impose God’s vengeance on the doers of evil. We are obliged to cooperate with the civil authorities in carrying out their ordained duty. Personal forgiveness does not cancel that obligation.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. dcbarry2014 says:

    Come on Patrick show me a little love.

    Like

  9. Patrick Pedat Ebediyah Golston says:

    This is good. Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation…it means you purge yourself of the bitterness and rancor that prevents you from opening up your hear to others.

    I have been lied to, betrayed, and had false witness imputed upon me.

    I don’t hate or harbor any resentment, I am just wiser and attempt to make better choices and ask the Holy Spirit to help me to be more discerning of the spirits with whom I interact in my life.

    I forgive many, but break bread with few.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. MJ says:

    Pastor, I love your articles. This one is particularly timely! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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