Friday, October 05, 2007

HOW GOD FORGIVES, IS HOW WE FORGIVE

"If a man does not repent, He (God) will sharpen His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready." (Ps. 7:12).
It is not uncommon to hear it taught that Christians are to forgive unconditionally, but is that what God requires? In the Old Testament, God did not forgive the unrepentant. The passage from Psalm 7 shows that God brings severe judgment on those who do not repent. We see from the passage above and others like Acts 17:30 that God's forgiveness is contingent on man's repentance. These passages should silence those who say that God's forgiveness is unconditionally given. We learn in Scripture that forgiveness from God, vertical forgiveness, requires a change of heart and the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). But what about forgiveness that man gives to man, called horizontal forgiveness; is that also contingent on repentance?

We too forgive sins. "Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us." When studying this subject in a classroom, you will have people arguing that we ought to forgive unconditionally if we want to be forgiven ourselves. But then when we get to a certain point in the study, the same persons will argue something else seemingly unaware that they are contradicting themselves. When they begin arguing against withholding forgiveness to the unrepentant, they will say "only God can forgive sins, we can't forgive sins." I have encountered this phenomenon more than once. At an early point of the discussion, they agree completely that we have to forgive others. But then later they will say that we can't forgive because only God can do that. The truth is that we obviously do forgive. We don't wash their soul clean, but we do start afresh in the relationship when we forgive.

Similarity of forgiveness from God and from man. Vertical forgiveness is the forgiveness from God and horizontal forgiveness is from man to man. There is no debating that Christians are to be forgiving people, just as God has forgiven them. "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Though that passage is used to suggest unconditional forgiveness horizontally, it does not teach how or on the basis of what God forgives man. To "forgive even as you have been forgiven" begs the question "how have you been forgiven?" Only when that is figured out, can we say how we ought to forgive. Some people recognizing the logic of this, and already pushing their belief that Christians are to offer unconditional forgiveness, will try to argue backwards to say that therefore God must forgive unconditionally. But what does that passage in Psalm say?
"If a man does not repent, He (God) will sharpen His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready." (Ps. 7:12).
It's obvious that God does not forgive unconditionally. God does not save those that do not repent. John, God's messenger, would not baptize unless the people "brought forth fruits in keeping with repentance" (Lk 3). "Remission of sins" was withheld until there was true repentance. Jesus said, "unless you repent, you shall likewise perish." And on Pentecost, when 3,000 souls were washed at Baptism, they were told to "repent and be baptized" for the remission of sins (Acts 2:37,38). So to imitate God IS NOT to forgive your neighbor who does not repent. If someone says that God saves the unrepentant, he is also saying that God saves the faithless.

Forgiveness without requiring change is the modern liberal approach that continues to coddle and enable those who stay in a cycle of dysfunction. Forgiving the unrepentant is the same as casting your pearls before the swing, something Jesus said not to do. And in practice, my experience is that those who claim to forgive the unrepentant seem to, at best, offer a kind of forgiveness in word only, where there is no real change in relationship. That is certainly not what Jesus had in mind.

What is Jesus' instruction on the matter of forgiving others?
"Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him" (Lk. 17:3,4).
Luke 17 and other passages seemed to strongly supports the idea that we only give forgiveness to others when they repent. Notice from the passage that Jesus gave two commands, not one, in the Luke 17:3,4 text. Two commands are problematic for the unconditional forgiveness position. First he commanded to "rebuke" the sinner, and following that is the command to "forgive". Jesus did not give a blanket command to unconditionally "forgive". He first says you are to "rebuke". And between the two commands is the implied condition that the sinner repent. It is nonsensical to rebuke someone and then forgive if they have not repented. The guidelines by Jesus on church discipline in Matthew 18 shows that the disfellowship, not forgiveness, is the last resort if a sinner won't repent.

Why is it important to get this subject right? First, because we want to be like God. I can't be more forgiving than God unless I start forgiving the unrepentant. Second, Christians need to know who and when they are to forgive. To forgive is a gift too precious to give to an unrepentant person. First of all it is pointless, and secondly it is akin to "casting your pearls before the swine", something Jesus says not to do. And third, this false teaching of telling people they have to forgive unconditionally those who have wronged them and who have not repented is a burden that God does not ask of them. Can they take vengeance or be filled with hatred? No, but giving forgiveness is a different matter altogether: forgive those who repent.
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Witholding Forgiveness: Who must I forgive?
Forgiveness: Quantity or Quality, Superficial or Genuine

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