Good and Necessary Consequences of Withholding Forgiveness (What is “Conditional Forgiveness”?)
“There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender. In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option.” (John MacArthur, p. 128)
“The Bible is a pile of steaming $#:!,” shouted the atheist, waiting for my heated response. Inside I was waiting for my theological genius to take over and win the day. I waited. Genius wasn’t happening for me at the moment.
He paused long enough to wait for my reaction and I said, well, nothing. Then in a more calm voice he said, “So what do you think about that? Aren’t you offended?”
Not really trying to sound spiritual, I said, “The Scripture says that I should expect a lot worse from a person who hates God. Do you hate God?”
“Yes. I HATE, HATE, HATE your God.”
“Well then, I’m not upset with you. I rather expected much worse.” I talk like that a lot.
Then he apologized for being hateful.
To me, this felt like a movie-moment. It felt like one of those times where as an afterthought you wished you had said something, but this time you really did.
Around that same time, I knew of a man instructed to ask forgiveness for an offense that he did not commit. It was a minor thing. School related. He argued that if he apologized for a thing he did not do, it would be a lie. So what would or should he do? Admit to something he did not do by way of apology or deny the accusation and, in other’s eyes, refuse to seek reconciliation? Tricky.
I tell those two stories to highlight an issue that has captured my attention since those events. It is the issue of conditional forgiveness. A few of the questions it has raised in my mind are:
Of course, those are not the only questions that I have asked while studying the question, but those two things are the focus of this little paper. (see Works Cited below)
Repentance qualifies, heralds and necessarily precedes forgiveness. If the offending party repents, we are to forgive them, but only if. If we take it upon ourselves to forgive without the qualifying repentance, we have done nothing to reconcile the damage, but may in fact compound the problem.
Repentance is the banner announcing forgiveness is soon to come; conditional pardon is an obligatory response to repentance, God requires it (Matthew 18:21-35) and is the model of forgiveness in Christ as seen in the passage from Luke 17:3-4: “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
“But you don’t need to hold on to that in a vindictive way that desires harm for your husband. You can hand it over to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23) again and again, and pray for the transformation of your husband. Forgiveness is not feeling good about horrible things. And he encouraged her to forgive him in this way, if she hadn’t, and to take communion as she handed her anger over to God and prayed for her husband.” (John Piper)
The Apostle Paul uses the term charizomai as kindness or being gracious to another. An explicit example of “being forgiving” shines through in Paul’s instructions to the Christian about how they are to carry themselves toward one another in Ephesians 4:25-32 and directly bears on our topic.
In verse 32, Paul calls the Christian to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you.” On the surface, this passage may seem to fly in the face of our thesis, in short, forgive an offender only when they repent for their offense.
The English language is a limited language when confronted with the Greek intent of many New Testament passages. This is the case in verse 32. When Paul calls us to “be kind,” we accurately interpret him to mean “obliging, gracious or gentle.” Yet, when Paul writes “tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you,” he does not mean “forgiveness” in the sense of freedom or deliverance.
“Being forgiving” is the ideal character trait of any person experiencing some offense against them. In this passage, “forgiving” someone means being gracious or obliging. It means being tender-hearted and willing to pardon, not holding grudges and certainly not withholding the forgiveness leading to restoration for any offense or any offender.
When wronged, the Christian is to:
- Be kind toward one another, gracious to those who have wronged us.
- Be tender-hearted, not being bitter, but manifesting a spirit of love.
- Maintain a forgiving heart, be pleasing in nature and willing to forgive.
We should not manifest hate toward our transgressors as is also clear from the use of charizomai in Colossians 3:13. We should “be forgiving,” with that still same gracious love and with a mind toward unity, not just those we would be happy to re-establish fellowship with, but “whoever has a complaint against anyone” is to seek out restoration with anyone who has done wrong against us.
This quality of character is a good consequence of Paul’s instruction. Those bulleted points above, perhaps, don’t reflect the absolute, by-the-letter, necessary consequences of Paul’s advice, but it is good and wise.
Turning this wisdom into specific commands teeters on adding to the commands clear directives of the Scriptures. These things naturally follow, but they are not mandated by the text.
“One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person.
In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3–4, “Be on your guard! 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.” So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.
But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matthew 18:17), we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).
The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.” (John Piper)
We should understand this category of consequences as obligatory and binding on the conscience. It is didactic and it necessarily follows from the text.
Matthew 5:21-26. In this passage, Jesus says that it is as severe an offense to commit murder as it is to remain bitter and unreconciled. He said “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty” and will be held accountable. Jesus uses highlights and illustrates Old Testament law to emphasize His point on reconciliation.
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.
We can extend the application to our own lives by suggesting that if we are holding grudges against another, we cannot come before God before we have resolved that bitterness.
It should also be noted that when Christ says “leave your offering,” He is using aphiēmi. The Christian is to leave all else to the side and seek reconciliation first.
Aphiēmi basically means to send away. It has a variety of applications in the New Testament, ranging from Christ “yielding” up His spirit (Matthew 27:50), the dismissal of a spouse (1 Corinthians 7:11-13), to the forgiveness of debts or debtors (Matthew 6:12).
Aphiēmi can mean to forsake or leave. This is most evident in Matthew 4:20, 22; 5:24, 40; 26:56 and John 14:18; 16:28, 32.
When Jesus “was walking by the Sea of Galilee,” He saw two men, Simon Peter and Andrew, his brother (Matthew 4:18). In verses 19-20, Jesus calls out to the men, “’Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” What is most interesting is the word in other passages translated as “forgiveness” is here translated as “left.” The men left their nets behind them; they left their boats too, forgotten and disregarded (verse 22). The nets and their boats still existed, but they were forgotten, placed out of mind. This is the forgiveness the Christian should emulate. We are to “walk away” or “leave behind” the sins against us.
Remaining in a state of guilt is the necessary consequence of failing to leave behind everything else if someone “has something against you.” Considering the seriousness of temple offerings in the Jewish culture, Jesus makes a very strong point about seeking reconciliation with another person. Here Jesus says that seeking reconciliation is more important than temple sacrifices to God. That’s seriously tremendous.
We must realize repentance is not meritorious. Calvin said, “repentance is not made a condition in such a sense as to be a foundation for meriting pardon; nay, it rather indicates the end at which they must aim if they would obtain favour…” (Calvin p. 526).
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9
The passage from Luke 17:3-4, again, is: “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
If we do not confront and rebuke first, awaiting the admission of sin, there is no cause for repentance or forgiveness. Now, this does not account for knowingly erring against another person. Often a person will accidentally brush against another or hit them with an object, only to say a split second later, “Oops, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” It’s just a common decency evidenced in many cultures. It’s an automatic confession of guilt, with the express denial of evil intent.
The clearest demonstration of how we should reconcile ourselves in the face of controversy is found in Matthew 18:15-17:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
This instruction is quite clear concerning the course Christians must take to confront and correct sin in interpersonal relationships and the methods by which we must apply ourselves if the offending party is not convinced of wrongdoing or possibly denies any wrongful acts. Here is the process for interpersonal forgiveness given by Christ in unequivocal terms.
First, if the “brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” Jesus Christ Himself gives the command that if another Christian sins against another, the offended person is to confront that person in private.
But what are those offenses for which we must rebuke? Matthew Henry offers three categories based on Matthew 18:
1. To persecutors, who offer any injury to the least of Christ’s little ones, in word or deed, by which they are discouraged in serving Christ, and doing their duty, or in danger of being driven off from it.
2. To seducers, who corrupt the truths of Christ and his ordinances, and so trouble the minds of the disciples; for they are those by whom offences come.
3. To those who, under the profession of the Christian name, live scandalously, and thereby weaken the bands and sadden the hearts of God’s people; for by them the offence comes, and it is no abatement of their guilt, nor will be any of their punishment, that it is impossible but offences will come. (Henry p. 148)
If any Christian comes to a point where they feel offended, it is their duty to pursue, at all costs, resolving the sin or misunderstanding.
The question that every Christian should ask themselves before even coming to the table of rebuke, is whether there was actually a wrong committed against them or not.
For example, if someone disagrees with you, it does not necessarily mean the person has sinned against you. They simply just don’t agree with you. Now if that person with whom you disagree slanders you or assaults you, then yes, that is sufficient cause to come together and work things out. One way to avoid this is to head Proverbs 17:14: “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out.”
As Proverbs 25:8 instructs us, “Do not go out hastily to argue your case; otherwise, what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame?” Verses 9-10 tell us to “Argue your case with your neighbor, and do not reveal the secret to another, lest he who hears it reproach you and the evil report about you will not pass away.”
The Christian is to verify, in humility and love, that real wrong exists and not just a perception of offensiveness. We should “not be a witness against our brother without cause” (Proverbs 24:28).
If we were to confront a truly guilty person on such an issue, and they listened, you would have “won your brother” from continuing in sin. And if they do not listen, we are obliged, according to the Writ of God, to take others with us and confront the person in hopes of winning them back. If they still maintain their denial of wrongful actions, we are to go before the whole congregation. In the case where the individual is still unrepentant or will not confess their sin, they are subject to being disciplined with expulsion (“excommunicated,” or withdrawn from the privileges of membership including attendance at church).
Calvin, John. 1989. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
Harris, Ethan E. 2010. Conditional Forgiveness: Don’t Forgive Them Just Yet. Portland, Oregon : CreateSpace, 2010. 978-1452809496 .
Henry, Matthew. A Commentary on the Holy Bible. London : Funk & Wagnalls Company. p. 148. Vol. 5.
MacArthur, John. 1998. The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness. s.l. : Crossway, 1998. 9780891079798.
Piper, John. 1994. As We Forgive Our Debtors. Desiring God. [Online] March 20, 1994. [Cited: August 10, 2012.] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/as-we-forgive-our-debtors.
(Most of the above was adapted from Conditional Forgiveness by Ethan E. Harris)