(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.