Forgiveness and repentance (part 2): Forgive as Christ in God forgave us

(Read part 1.)

As we head into the issue of whether we should or even can forgive someone who has sinned against us but hasn’t repented, let’s begin with one of the key principles that people raised in our first post—that we forgive others as God in Christ forgave us. As it is stated in Colossians 3:13, we are to put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility and so on while “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”.

I’ll state up-front that I think this principle has been somewhat misunderstood. To begin with, the word ‘as’ in the phrase “as the Lord has forgiven you” does not necessarily mean “in the exact same way”. It can mean nothing more than “since the Lord has forgiven you” or “in light of the fact that the Lord has forgiven you”. The relevant words have this kind of semantic range both in Greek and English. So this passage is not necessarily setting up a strict paradigm between God’s forgiveness and ours.

But let’s assume it is, for I think that God’s actions in Christ are generally held up as some kind of model for Christians to imitate. The question is which part of God’s example of forgiveness do we copy?

God’s forgiveness plucks people from the dominion of darkness, transforms their status for eternity, rescues them from hell and gives them title deeds of heaven. Jesus stands before the paralytic and says, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). When God says something, his word makes it happen. The same word that says “Your sins are forgiven” is the same word that said “Stand up and walk” is the same word that said “Let there be light”. As Martin Luther pointed out centuries ago, God’s word doesn’t simply acknowledge a reality that exists prior to it; it creates that reality when it is spoken. When God says, “This person is righteous”, God is not recognizing a pre-existing righteous status, but creating it. God’s word effects what it declares and creates from nothing the reality it names.

Is that how we are to forgive—forgive just as God in Christ forgave us? Hopefully we’ll all join together with a hearty “No!” at this point. We don’t forgive exactly the way God in Christ forgave us. You need to be God to forgive exactly the same way God does. God’s forgiveness is divine, and our forgiveness is human. There are important differences between the two that are absolutely vital. We no more forgive the way God does than we create the way God did.

This, it seems to me, was the outstanding thing in Jennie’s original post
on forgiveness (if I can be forgiven the social faux pas of praising my spouse in public). She implicitly decoupled our efforts at forgiving one another from God’s forgiveness of us in a way that was quite liberating. God’s forgiveness of us is perfect and exhaustive; God is infinitely forgiving; there is no room left for God to become any more forgiving. That quality is expressed in God’s treatment of us to the absolute maximum.

But, Jennie implicitly said, not so with us. Forgiveness, like all aspects of godliness, is a work in progress among us. We love, but we are aware of how shabby it is. We are patient, but see that we could grow into it more. We believe, but we cry, “Lord, help my unbelief” if we have any self-awareness at all (Mark 9:24). And Jennie’s point was, “Think of forgiveness like that. You forgive someone, but call out, ‘Lord, help my hard, unforgiving heart’. Forgiveness, like every other bit of the Christian life is not a simple either/or—you have or you haven’t; it is a work in progress among sinful humans. It is something we grow into as we walk with our Lord. We do it, and aim to do it more.”

God is perfection; we are not. God models where we are going, but pity the fool who thinks that if we don’t manage to do something perfectly, we haven’t done it at all. That is a load that none of us can bear—a load that justification by grace through faith was offered to solve. None of us keep the law’s demand of perfection before or after our union with Christ. We forgive others as God forgave us in the sense of aspiration, not accomplishment, just as we love others, bear their burdens, are kind, self-controlled, patient and the like as God in Christ is with us. We do it because he did it, and we emulate his example, but it is something that we recognize we will always seek to make progress in.

So we don’t forgive in exactly the same way God forgave us.

We turn then to conditions as the bit that’s shared. God’s forgiveness, it is claimed (wrongly, but we’ll get there in a later post), is based on our repentance. Let’s assume that that is right for the sake of argument. The problem is that even if that is right, and God only forgives when we repent, it is wrong. Repentance cannot be the sole condition of God’s forgiveness; faith is there as well. Perhaps, out of the entire history of the church, only Pelagius has ever thought that God forgives on the basis of repentance. The rest of us either follow the Reformers (and the Bible) and believe that God justifies by faith alone or think (in line with the teaching of Rome) that God’s justification is based on faith and repentance. As that latter position is the one that we are hypothetically following at the moment, let’s consider what that means for our forgiveness of each other. (As I said, we’ll consider the two sides in a later post when we explore the question of whether God only forgives when we repent.)

If we forgive just as God forgave us, and God forgave us because we repented and had faith, then we can only forgive where faith is present. Repentance on its own is insufficient. Maybe that means we can only forgive where we have given someone a clear promise that, if they trust, we will then forgive—because that’s what God has done with us. And so they need to believe us, the ones offended against, through the promises we offer as a condition for our forgiveness.

Or maybe we can only forgive if they have faith in God. In that case, we can’t forgive unbelievers for the wrongs they do us, even if they repent of the harm they did us.

Either way you jump, this linking of our forgiveness to God’s seems to obscure completely the place of faith in how God has forgiven in its attempt to uphold the place of repentance in the way we should.

So we’ll begin our discussion with this point. Forgiving as God in Christ forgives us is, like all the Bible’s moral teaching, something that we work towards and never actually arrive at in this life. So it cannot be used to suggest that we have to forgive perfectly and completely, or else forgiveness has not taken place at all (or should not take place at all). And it cannot be used to say that repentance is a condition for forgiveness without also making faith a condition as well. The link between our forgiveness and God’s is being overstressed by those who argue that we forgive just as God forgive us, without giving due attention to how different the perfect Father is from sinful creatures.

Missing this makes our forgiveness too God-like, and makes God’s forgiveness too human, and so distorts both. We need the space to acknowledge that we have genuinely forgiven someone, but that we haven’t entirely forgiven them yet. And so we do not try to forgive perfectly in one simple either/or instant. (Well, we still try; we just don’t kid ourselves that if we don’t do it perfectly, we haven’t forgiven at all.) Instead, we grasp the need to regularly return to our forgiveness, repent of its shortcomings and discover ever new levels of depth and wholeheartedness in the forgiveness we extend to those who wrong us. We need this sense of “it’s genuinely there, but there needs to be more of it still” if we are going to come to grips with forgiveness as a way of life in our relationships.

That’s what we will turn to in our next grouping of posts in this series, as we consider the two alternatives in light of some the more tricky pastoral situations concerning being sinned against and the place of forgiveness.

11 thoughts on “Forgiveness and repentance (part 2): Forgive as Christ in God forgave us

  1. If I can just speak for a moment on behalf of those who need forgiveness from others (as opposed to those doing the forgiving—you are doing a sterling job speaking on their behalf, Mark wink ), my apologies and my repentance are—to judge by my subsequent reoffending—never completely adequate.

    And if you ask me to have repentance *and* faith—very Roman Catholic of you, I must say—then that is two bridges too far. I will fail in both, seventy times seven times.

    So I will let you keep arguing the case on behalf of those doing the forgiving, but from where I sit the ‘conditional upon my repentance’ argument is looking pretty ugly, try as I might.

  2. Your first post brought up Luke 17:3-4, which seems to make human forgiveness conditional on repentance (only).  Will you be addressing these verses?

  3. Hello Gordon,

    We’re of one mind on this issue it seems.  Your observations about the imperfection of repentance is almost a spoiler for some of my later posts in this series…

    Hello Alex Greaves,

    The short answer is no, the posts won’t address it. 

    In my view, posts aren’t articles (even if my posts feel as long as one) and so they should be ‘incomplete’ – leaving space for others to interact with it.  So I usually won’t cover the flanks of my argument – I’ll just present the case positively, and look to people to address the ‘yes but what about’ in the comments. Luke 17:3-4 is clearly counter evidence to my case, a difficulty I need to adress, so I will generally leave it for someone so inclined to raise in the comments and we can discuss it there.

    Certainly, it didn’t seem to fit in this post.  If anything, Luke 17:3-4 is counter-evidence for those who argue that we forgive just like God does – because God does not forgive on the basis of repentance alone.  So reading passages like Col 3:13 directly in light of Luke 17:3-4 seems highly problematic for our doctrine of salvation.

    While of course people are free agents on a blog, and if someone really wants to raise it now, we can discuss it now, I’d ask that we wait another post or two to get a feel for the shape of my position before raising that passage.  This series will be running for a couple of weeks, and there’s going to be time to raise the problems.  It might work better if we let the argument take a bit of shape before moving straight to the rebuttal. I’m keen for someone (or someone’s) to take up that case, but they’ll do it better if they get more of a sense of where I’m coming from than I think would be apparent at this point.

  4. Hi Mark, & just back from a few days annual leave. I will also follow with interest.

    At this stage, it seems right to do the exercise that ensures I am reading you rightly.

    You are observing that

    (i) the “as” in the “forgive as the Lord has forgiven you” command of Col 3:13 (and Eph 4:32) does not necessarily mean exact equivalence; and

    (ii) our forgiveness can never be exactly like God’s because he alone is God and his word creates reality, and in addition,

    (iii) before the new creation, our efforts at forgiveness are very imperfect anyway.

    You have also made some points about repentance never being the (sole) condition for God’s forgiveness of us either, given we are justified by faith in Christ, without works.

    In so doing, I think you were implicitly reminding us about need for care when talking about conditions for salvation and wanted to preserve the unique place for faith in all this (lest we become Pelagians or Roman Catholics!)

    At the very least, in regards to conditions, you wanted to demonstrate that applying a strict analogy to God’s forgiveness of us, we should also make faith (either in our promise of forgiveness or in Christ) a condition additional to repentance for our offer of forgiveness to someone who sins against us.

    In the end, it seems you see the point of analogy as “aspirational”. God’s forgiveness of us is where we’re aiming at but not something we accomplish perfectly in this life.

    Have I got you right?

  5. Hi Sandy,

    Welcome back, and great to have you in the conversation.

    I think you’ve distilled the post pretty well spot on.

    My acceptance of repentance as a condition for God’s forgiving of us is only hypothetical – I’ll reject that explicitly in the final post of the series.  I think the Bible teaches that repentance is an effect or fruit of salvation, not a requirement or condition for it. 

    As far as what the ‘as’ means in ‘as the Lord forgave you’ I’ve explicitly rejected one option: a strict parallel between God’s forgiveness and ours.  I’ve offered two concrete aspects to the meaning of the ‘as’ – we forgive because God forgave us in Christ, and his forgiveness of us is a model for how we go about forgiving each other. My point about aspiration is grounded in my doctrine of the Christian life more generally – I never arrive in this life, I never perfectly model my Father in heaven. 

    There may be more dimensions as well that I can’t put my finger on at this stage, but I’d say that the strict parallel is definitely out, and at least those two I’ve nominated are in the mix.

    Partly what I’m trying to do, without making a song and dance about it, is reflect some of where I was coming from in my impassibility series, and particularly my debate with Nathan Lovell over analogy.  God’s forgiveness is, in many ways, nothing like ours at all – something us evangelicals grasp at one point, when we insist that there could be no forgiveness of sins without the blood of Christ being shed, even though us humans forgive all the time without requiring a sacrifice.  And yet, when it comes to drawing on God’s example of forgiveness, we seem to collapse the difference and make God’s act of forgiveness more or less like ours.

    I’m starting off by saying, “No, God’s forgiveness is radically different than ours.  But it’s different in the kind of way that enables us to do something profoundly similar in our human way.”  Hence the “In light of the fact that God has forgiven you” is just as important as the “God is a model for you”.  God’s forgiveness of us creates the context, gives the resources, changes the nature of the game (whatever turn of phrase you prefer), in which it is now possible for us to forgive in a way shaped by God’s forgivness of us.  “As those forgiven by God, forgive one another.”

    Hope that’s helped, and not made things muddier than where we were with your excellent summary.

  6. Hi Mark, you must be up early and I obviously don’t have a sermon tomorrow, or I’d be working on that (unless I was procrastinating).

    Glad I heard you, and I certainly realised you were only accepting repentance as a condition for the sake of the argument!

    I certainly can agree that our forgiveness is not and cannot be exactly the same as God’s in every respect.

    In the end the discussion with Martin and Nathan became too much for me. However I think I get your point and have made a similar point in regards to Eph 5:25-27. Many preachers use this analogy to stress that a man’s job is not just to love his wife like Christ loved the church, but to do whatever he can (joint devotionally?) to encourage her in her faith, so he can present his wife before God, spotless. But that cleansing and presentation seems to be Christ’ unique work (vv26-27), and not the key point of the comparison applied to husbands, which may be about love and possibly sacrifice more broadly, and especially about protection and provision (feeding and caring, v29).

    Anyway, I get that the comparison cannot be total.

    I am not sure that your causal option (“because/since”) for “as” is the most likely, although I am no expert.

    The standard lexicon, BDAG, mentions it as the third meaning for the relevant Greek word, and gives Eph 4:32 as an example, but also says this normally happens when the word occurs at the beginning of a sentence as a conjunction, which is not the case here!

    Ironically BDAG gives the Pauline close parallel Col 3:13 as an example of the first and primary meaning listed, the comparative “just as” option. I guess this overlaps with the ‘model for how’ option you gave.

    I have also been inspired to search for how the more specific phrase used here, “as also” (kathõs kai), is used in the NT and will report back.

    I take your point that I should not jump to the conclusion that a condition such as repentance not mentioned in the context here must be included in the area of comparison. (That’s why I would turn in addition to a text like Luke 17:3-4.)

    But on the other hand, it just feels a little strange to be stressing dissimilarity, more than similarity, in regards to the comparison.

  7. Mark, just to report on my research on the phrase “just as also” (kathõs kai

    This occurs 32 times in the NT (in 31 verses, and I am including 3 times where kai occurs with a pronoun in a compound word).

    Sometimes it stresses conformity of a circumstance with a prior Scripture, prediction or report (e.g. Luke 24:24; 1 Cor 14:34; 1 Thess 3:4; 1 Thess 4:6; Heb 5:6; 2 Peter 1:14; 2 Peter 3:15).

    Sometimes very close similarity seems to be on view (e.g. Acts 15:8, where Peter cites the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles “just as also” to the Jews was evidence of their acceptance by faith without needing circumcision; also 1 Thess 2:14 where the close similarity not only of churches suffering, but churches suffering at the hands of one’s own countrymen – Thessalonians and Jews respectively – is stressed.

    Sometimes there’s a close comparison to be avoided. E.g. don’t walk the way the Gentiles walk (Eph 4:17) and don’t grieve without hope, like the rest of men (1 Thess 4:13).

    Sometimes it means a continuation of the same thing already being done (1 Thess 4:1, 5:11).

    A couple of times, it occurs in the context of imitation or modelling (1 Cor 11:1, Eph 4:32-5:2).

    The point is that the phrase is clearly used for comparison, consistency. It may not be absolute, although it often is, but the point is similarity.

  8. Hi Sandy,

    you must be up early

    Yep, it’s a very early midday here in the UK smile

    In the end the discussion with Martin and Nathan became too much for me.

    LOL.  Became too much for me too – took me so long to reply the last time around that comments closed on the post before I could squeeze in another reply.  Still, I think it was a great quality discussion that they offered, even though the whole thing took a lot of work to follow.

    I like your observation about Eph 5:25-27 and have tweaked my approach to it accordingly.  I think I was implcitly going that way already, but you’ve made it explicit here in a great way.

    I take your point about meanings.  If people want to limit the meaning of the word to one, then I agree ‘like’ or even ‘just like’ is the most likely option.  But I think that writers can sometimes draw on the fact that a word has a semantic range and keep more than one option in the mix in their use of the word.  I’m trying not to narrow the word too much too prematurely.  But I don’t think anything in my argument really hangs on it.

    Addendum: You’ve just posted your findings.  Okay, I’m happy to run with that – ‘As’ only means comparison.  I need to look elsewhere to bring in the ‘in light of the fact that’ aspect.  I don’t think it changes my argument any.  I’m not saying that God is not being held out as a model for us. I’m saying God is a model for us, but is so as someone who is very different from us.

    I take your point that I should not jump to the conclusion that a condition such as repentance not mentioned in the context here must be included in the area of comparison. (That’s why I would turn in addition to a text like Luke 17:3-4.)

    Why conditions at all?  I didn’t go this route in the post, but, in the context of Ephesians and Colossians, do you think that Paul invokes the example of God’s fogiveness as a way of indicating the conditions under which we are allowed to forgive?  All the variegated exhortations to godliness, and then God’s own example is introduced to say, ‘only do it when there’s repentance’?  In context, isn’t it more likely that the comparison is more like ‘forgive in the manner, or style, that God forgave you’?

    But on the other hand, it just feels a little strange to be stressing dissimilarity, more than similarity, in regards to the comparison.

    Well, that’s due to our context primarily.  Saying ‘forgive as God does’ in the first century is radical and earth shattering.  Drawing a strong similarity between God and us would be mind blowing.  But when we’ve reached the point where it is seriously argued, “Why can’t God just forgive sins without a sacrifice, after all we do,” then I think I need to start by reminding us just how different God is, before, in the posts to come I (admittedly often implicitly) encourage us to be imitators of God in how we forgive one another. We imitate God, that doesn’t mean God is like us.  That’s my basic point here.

  9. At the risk of overkill, there is a smaller subset construction of a verb, then “just as also”, then the same verb repeated, but predicated of someone else: be merciful, Luke 6:36; teach, Luke 11:1; welcome, Rom 15:7; fully know, 1 Cor 13:12; walk, Eph 4:17; love, Eph 5:2 & Eph 5:25; and our word, forgive, Eph 4:32 & Col 3:13). (In other cases the same verb is clearly implied, e.g. imitate, 1 Cor 11:1.)

    I suspect the repetition of the same verb reinforces the idea of comparison, and certainly in some cases, the causal option (“because” or “since”) just does not fit.

    The evidence pushes me towards understanding comparison for this construction, and of the closer variety (in some circumstances, very close) rather than dissimilarity!

    The same (or a very similar) thing is being done or is to be done.

    In the case where God is the point of comparison, obviously (from our theology of the otherness of God), there are some limits to the comparison, although any dissimilarity is not what the texts are drawing attention to.

  10. Yep, we cross-posted and I probably overdid it with the research, but it was a good exercise for me.

    Anyway, I think we agree there is a comparison being made, but the nature of the comparison needs to be teased out. I am sure you are correct Mark, that the lavish generosity and love of God in his forgiveness through Christ is likely what is on view and should shape our attitude to forgiving others, rather than any conditions here.

    But if there are conditions (and the precise nuance of the word might need careful attention) such as repentance elsewhere in Scripture, in regards to receiving God’s forgiveness, then the God-shaped model of forgiveness may have implications for how we forgive others.

    Therefore I guess I should await your other posts now.

    Good night. And happy midday to you!

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