The time has come to conclude the pastoral dimension of the question of forgiveness being linked to repentance. The final issue is whether we are doing the wrong thing by forgiving someone because then we simply sweep the sin under the carpet and don’t challenge them, thereby removing the opportunity for them to repent. For those who have followed this discussion over the last three posts, you are probably in a position to see what my response is going to be. But we’ll briefly spell it out anyway.
I consider this a similar charge to the idea that if God justifies people apart from their works, it removes any motivation to do good works. The issue is not whether the act takes place, but what motivates it and a presumption that people will only do the right things for selfish reasons. Along with the Reformers (and the Bible), I claim that the person who does good works to get to heaven will find it difficult to be motivated by love for others as the reason for those good works. At the end of the day, such a person is motivated by the pursuit of their own salvation—their good, not their neighbour’s good. I would also suggest that self-love and love for others (whether God or my neighbour) are generally going to be in tension; it is almost impossible to seek one’s own interests at the same time as seeking someone else’s. No matter how good you are at multi-tasking, this is one of those instances where you have to choose to shoot at one target or the other. That’s why the Reformers argued that you can only truly do good works when you are not doing them for selfish reasons (e.g. not in order to earn your own salvation).
So let’s consider our problem. If I do not forgive you, then I am owed something: your repentance, which includes your recompense to me for the harm I suffered at your hands. That recompense may be nothing more than an apology, or it may involve financial recompense, putting my reputation right, paying for or offering yourself to give me the physical aid I need because you permanently crippled me, and so on. So if I seek your repentance under these circumstances, whose best interest am I seeking? Yours? Or do I have a vested interest in getting my recompense for the harm I suffered? (I really want that apology; I’ve certainly got it coming to me.) And do you seriously think that a sinner like me is not going to find it difficult (to say the least) to keep my obligation to be repaid (because I am not allowed to forgive until I have been repaid as a necessary part of your repentance) from corrupting my appeal to you to repent for your own soul’s sake?
Bluntly, I am surprised that this concern could even be raised. If I see someone sin, do I have to be harmed by their sin before I can confront them, rebuke them and encourage them to repent? If yes, then I really am not my brother’s keeper, and Cain was right (Gen 4:9). If no, then doesn’t forgiving the offender before they repent simply place me in the same situation as any other brother or sister who wasn’t harmed by the sin—seeking repentance from the wrongdoer purely for their own sake and not for what is coming to me if they repent?
So I would turn the concern on its head: if you truly want to help someone repent—if you love them and care about what will happen to them if they do not turn from their wicked way—you are best off if you have no personal stake in the outcome, but can honestly say to them that you are only seeking their best interests. Forgiving them before they repent will mean that when you challenge them, you are no longer interested in being compensated, but are motivated purely by love and concern for them. A challenge to repent coming from someone who has not forgiven is not an act of love, but has the flavour of a debt collector seeking repayment. Forgiveness before repentance actually helps to free you from the burden of needing to be repaid. Furthermore, that freedom enables you to seek purely what is in their best interests—to encourage whatever repentance is possible, however inadequate it might be in a strict judgement, simply because they need that repentance.
Trying to make our forgiveness match God’s too closely creates all sort of problems. Yes, God’s forgiveness effects reconciliation. But we’ll look at why that is in our next grouping of posts. For us, I want to suggest that while forgiveness seeks the goal of reconciliation (as does its bigger brother, love), to fuse them together so that they can only exist simultaneously and never apart from one another almost makes reconciliation the basis for forgiveness: once the person has propitiated us by their repentance so that they have repaid the debt and therefore have been reconciled for all intents and purposes, we then ‘forgive’ them. This amounts to a ‘forgiveness’ that is little more than a recognition that the debt has been paid.
We do what is right simply because it is right, irrespective of whether the other person meets their obligations or whether we can be sure that the end result is what it should be. Withholding forgiveness until repentance, or until there is a good chance of reconciliation, binds us too much to things outside our control. Forgive and then love the unrepentant sinner in a way that seeks their repentance and reconciliation. Do it for their sake, not yours, because, paradoxically, in doing so, you’ll benefit yourself far more than you benefit them. Next time around, we’ll pick up the question of whether God only forgives us when we repent.
(Read part 7.)