Volume 13, Number 2, July-August 2009

What is True Forgiveness?

By Norman Edwards

Forgiveness is a rather complex subject in the Bible. There are many verses that discuss it from many points of view. It always involves at least one offender, who needs to seek forgiveness and be forgiven, and the offended, who, at the appropriate time, needs to forgive. There are times when forgiveness is not warranted, and even God does not forgive. But more often, there are situations where forgiveness should occur: sometimes it does, sometimes it does not.

The offended can be any of these:

1.  God forgiving the offender

2.  God not forgiving right now

3.  A person forgiving (sometimes they should be forgiving, sometimes not)

4.  A person struggling to forgive but having trouble with it

5.  A person not realizing they need to forgive

6.  A person not forgiving (sometimes they should be forgiving, sometimes not)

The offender can be any of these:

a.   A person who has truly and clearly repented of their sin

b.  A person who has repented of their sin, but who has not made it clear to the “offended”

c.  A person who does not know they sinned, but would probably repent if they understood

d.  A person who has partly repented of their sin, and not in danger of repeating the sin

e.   A person who has partly repented of their sin, but is still in danger of repeating it

f.   A person who has no idea that they sinned, and who is not interested in finding out

g.  A person who has been confronted about their sin, but who does not believe they have sinned

With such a great number of possible situations of the “offended” and the “offender” (42, mathematically), it is easy to see why there is no “one size fits all” formula for forgiveness. Real life is even more complicated: There are many subtle shades between the above points, some offenses are trivial while others are life-threatening, and there are often multiple offenses that occur together, with which the parties may deal differently. For example: “I’ve forgiven her for breaking my blow-dryer, but not for her telling me it was all my fault because I had a cheap one”.

This is not to say that the solution to forgiveness is to classify each offense properly into one of some huge number of possible categories. But it is vital to realize that all situations are not the same and to think about the differences. Here are five factors that come into play after an offense occurs:

Five Factors to Forgiveness

Communication – It is good for the offender and the offended to come to a mutual understanding of what happened and why. This takes courage on the part of both. Often, one or both of the parties are not interested in honest communication and may even cloud the issue by refusing to talk about it, refusing to perceive it accurately or by deliberately lying about it. On the other hand, here are times when communication is impossible—the parties have lost contact with each other, or may be dead.

Repentance – The offender realizes they did wrong and desires to change. Example: A thief admits to his theft and expresses a desire to stop stealing.

Restitution – The offender does something to compensate the offended for his offense. Example: A thief restores two to five times the value of the stolen item (Ex 22:1, 4). Zacchaeus restored fourfold for what he stole (Luke 19:8). For non-economic offenses, this may not be necessary or even possible. As another example: Fred calls Tom evil names and later repents, but Tom does not want Fred to contact everyone that heard his name-calling and retract it somehow. That could be almost as bad as the original problem. Tom wants to accept Fred’s apology and to pray that everyone forgets what Fred said.

Recovery – The offender has exhibited a pattern of change to where others can reasonably expect him not to repeat the offense. Example: people feel no need to hide their valuables around a former-thief, because they have become confident that he no longer desires to steal from them.

Forgiveness — The person offended is at peace with the situation, and expects nothing else from the offender in regard to the particular offense in question. In some situations, repentance needs to be sincerely communicated for this to happen. Recovery, and sometimes restitution, may take much longer, so forgiveness can often take place before those two items complete. On the other hand, even in situations where there is poor communication, evidence of restitution or recovery ought to elicit forgiveness on the part of the offended. Beyond these things, there are times when the offended realizes the offender acted in ignorance, and may choose to forgive when there has been no communication, repentance, restitution or recovery.

Forgive as We Want to Be Forgiven

The “bottom line” on forgiveness is that we need to forgive others in the way that we would want to be forgiven. When we fully repent, we want it to be over—no longer held against us, no longer brought up. But when we are sinning—and may not even know it, do we want to be mindlessly forgiven, not growing to be ready for the Kingdom of God? We know that God corrects us because he loves us (Heb 12:5-6). We would want others to do the same for us, and we should do the same for others when they will accept it.

“And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors….For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:12,14-15).

Refusing to forgive can often hurt the “unforgiver” more than the unforgiven. The stress of being angry and unforgiving causes mental stress which frequently leads to a great variety of physical illnesses. Our Savior took the time to tell the following parable, which is well worth our time reading:

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. 28 But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Mat 18:21-34).

How God Forgives

If we want to learn perfect forgiveness, we should learn to forgive like our Father in Heaven, who is perfect (Matt 5:48). The overwhelming teaching of the Scriptures is that God is a forgiving God, in the past, present, and future. Here are four of the many verses explaining this:

“Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now” (Num 14:19).

For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You (Ps 86:5).

[God] Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases (Ps 103:3).

In those days and in that time,” says the LORD, “The iniquity of Israel shall be sought, but there shall be none; And the sins of Judah, but they shall not be found; For I will pardon those whom I preserve” (Jer 50:20).

Unfortunately, there are times when mankind does not seek repentance and forgiveness, but desires to go on sinning. Our Father, in His perfect wisdom and judgment, does not always forgive sins, but sends corrective punishments in an effort to reach people. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 explain this in detail. Other specific warnings include:

But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good" (Josh 24:19).

Thus says the LORD to this people: “Thus they have loved to wander; They have not restrained their feet. Therefore the LORD does not accept them; He will remember their iniquity now, And punish their sins” (Jer 14:10).

How Christ Forgives

Did Jesus, the Christ, change all that? Did He forgive all the sins of the world? He certainly came for that purpose (John 1:29; 1Jo 2:2). Unfortunately, some Christians wrongly teach that all sins have already been forgiven, so there is no particular need to avoid sin. The Apostle Paul answered that question directly:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? (Rom 6: 1-2).

Christ paid the penalty for all our sins (1Pet 3:18), but forgiveness does not usually occur until we actually ask for it.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that 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 (John 1:7-9).

There are many people who do not even understand—or even want to understand—that they have sin. There are many people who know they have sin, and do not want to repent. Here are three of the many scriptures about that:

“Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit [declaring a work to be of Satan when one knows it is of the Spirit] will not be forgiven men” (Matt 12:31).

And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them’” (Mark 4:11-12).

Jesus said to them [religious leaders], “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains (John 9:41).

“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22).

The last two scriptures help us understand that a person who is blind, who really does not know what he is doing, does not have sin. “Sin” means to “miss the mark” or “miss the standard”. A person who is not even aiming at a standard can hardly be faulted for missing it. The overwhelming message of Christ, like His Father, is forgiveness for sins. Christ used His miracles to prove his authority. Christ forgave not only those who sinned against others, but He also forgave the very soldiers who nailed Him to the cross

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” — He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house” (Luke 5:21-24)

“Therefore I say to you [religious leaders], her [a sinful woman’s] sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:47-48).

And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they [the soldiers] crucified Him… Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots (Luke 23:33-34).

In this last example, Christ asks the Father for forgiveness for the soldiers, not because they repented, but because they did not know what they were doing. As far as they were concerned, they were obeying the orders of their leader, and they considered Jesus to be just one more criminal like the other two thieves that were being crucified—and like many others who had been crucified at previous times. Christ realized that the soldiers were not like the Jewish leaders who falsely accused Jesus to keep political control (John 11:48-50) or like Pilate who found it easier to go along with them than do what he knew was right (John 19:12-16).

When someone has caused us great harm in ignorance—like the soldiers who killed Jesus, we are much better off to forgive them, even without any communication or repentance. 

Does God Forget Our Sins?

Lastly, when we consider the forgiveness of God, we need to understand the scriptures that talk about God forgetting—not remembering—our sins. Some Bible teachers go as far as saying that when God forgives us, he no longer has any memory of the thing that we did that was a sin. As far as this writer knows, these are the only three scriptures used to support this idea:

“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins (Isa 43:25).

“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb 8:12).

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb 10:16-17).

Checking Strong’s or other Hebrew/Greek language references, they all give a definition of the word translated “remember” as “call to mind”. This would be a much better rendering. Indeed, the Bible in Basic English uses it:

And I will have mercy on their evil-doing, and I will not keep their sins in mind (Heb 8:12, BBE).

In other words, God still knows what we did that was a sin, but he does not bring it to mind in any future judgments, either for punishment or reward. He will not bring up forgiven sins to us and they will not be used against us. If God actually completely forgot all information about forgiven sins, He would have to forget large portions of the Bible—because it discusses many sins committed and forgiven. Most of us, somewhere in the family tree between ourselves and Adam, probably have an ancestor who was born from an adulterous relationship. Will God no longer be able to trace our family tree when those sins are forgiven, because he has forgotten who the parents were that committed adultery?

God’s memory of history is not like Swiss cheese—full of holes wherever there are forgiven sins. He will not continually bring to mind the sins of those whom he has forgiven. That is a very helpful clue to us to know when we have forgiven someone. When we see our friend John, if we always think “there’s John that wrecked my car three years ago”, then our forgiveness may not yet be complete.

An opposite would be the person who was mistreated when he was a child, but now loves and embraces his parents with open arms. He can intellectually remember what happened as a child, but no longer thinks about it when he sees them, nor does he hold it against them. He has forgiven them, as God forgives us. God no longer “calls it to mind”.

God Does Not Always Remove Consequences of Sin

While God often promises forgiveness from sin, the Bible clearly teaches that the consequences of sin often remain. Our life experience teaches us that if a murderer repents, the person he killed does not come back to life. Similarly, when adulterers repent, a baby they conceived does not disappear or somehow take on the genes of legitimate parents. The Bible contains many examples—even warnings—of situations where consequences of sin will not be removed, even when the sinner repents.

Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears (Heb 12:16).

And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots…. [Six more verses explain how a king will tax and oppress his people] 18 And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the LORD will not hear you in that day (1Sam 8:11,18).

One of the best examples of forgiven sin with continuing consequences was David, a man with the Holy Spirit (Pslm 51:11; Mark 12:36). God said he will have eternal life (Jer 30:9; Ezk 37:25; Hos 3:5—all of these verses were written after David was dead). He is listed as one of the “faithful” in Hebrews 11:1-3, 32). But David sinned. He committed adultery with Bathsheba, then had her husband, Uriah, killed (2Sam 11). Such sins deserved the death penalty (Lev 20:10; 24:17), but God forgave or “put away” David’s sin (2Sam 12:13).

Second Samuel 12 explains how Nathan the prophet told David the story of a wealthy man who had many sheep, but took a poor man’s only lamb to feed some visitors. David said, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for the lamb four times over” (v5-6). This was based on Biblical law (Ex 22:1). “Then Nathan said to David, ‘“You are the man!’” (v7). God gave David consequences based upon his own judgment to Nathan. “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house… Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight…. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt, the son born to you will die” (v 10, 11, 14)

These consequences came to pass. David’s son, Absalom, appointed himself king and appropriated David’s harem (2Sam 15:10; 16:22). While David’s life was spared, he had to “restore fourfold” by the death of four of his sons. His child of adultery with Bathsheba died (2Sam 12:18). Later, David’s firstborn son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar, then was killed by her full brother Absalom (2Sam 13). Even though David made a great effort to save Absalom when he rebelled and made himself king, Absalom was caught by the hair in a tree and killed by Joab, David’s nephew (2Sam 15-18). Finally, when David was on his deathbed, another son, Adonijah, tried to make himself king and was ordered to be executed by his half-brother Solomon (1Kngs 1-2).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul, who at one time persecuted the church (Acts 8:1-4; 9:1-2), was called by God and told that he must suffer for Christ (Acts 9:16). Paul certainly understood forgiveness in Christ’s blood (Col 1:14), but also knew that his great suffering (2Cor 11:23-28) was a consequence of his persecution of the church (1Cor 15:9).

God is love (1Jo 4:8). And love sometimes involves not forgiving people who are unrepentant, or allowing sin’s consequences to continue upon those who do repent, so that they and others may learn not to sin.

But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you (1Pet 5:10).

Human Forgiveness

It would be best if Christians could forgive others in just the same way God does:

    Forgive those who are truly repentant or who sin in ignorance, and do not bring up the sins any more.

    Continue consequences to those who need to make restitution or learn lasting lessons.

    Do not forgive those who are not repentant, but continue to show them their past and ongoing sins.

Unfortunately, we lack God’s capabilities, so we cannot do these things like He does. But helping other’s who have offended us is an important part of a Christian’s life (Matt 7:2; 2Cor 5:10).

God knows the hearts of other people perfectly. We have to struggle to understand others and their motivations. We can think that others are doing us great evil when the main problem is with ourselves. Nevertheless, when someone offends us, Matthew 18:15-17 tells us what to do. If we do not think the issue is important enough to go to our brother, and then take witnesses, etc., then we should just forgive them, assuming they made a mistake, and let go of the issue. But there are issues that are better off resolved.

“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (Matt 18:15-17).

When this writer has seen the above verses put to use, most cases were resolved in the first step, and there is often less forgiving to do than the parties initially thought. More offenses probably result from misunderstanding than from sin. But sin and evil certainly do occur. Sometimes, the Matthew 18 process will show that the other party is clearly not repentant—they may not want any forgiveness. While this is sad, it at least clears up the matter.

The Bible teaches us we should forgive whoever asks for, or is willing to accept, our forgiveness, unless their actions plainly show their request to be in vain. For example, Simon the Sorcerer asked the disciples to pray for his deliverance, but history shows that he continued on his evil path (Acts 8:9-24). In most cases, if a person realizes they have sinned and asks our forgiveness, a Christian should grant it. It is not only a matter of our Christian attitude; it is important to the offender in their repentance and overcoming of sin.

We must also consider when it is better to forgive those who sin in ignorance—even when we have no communication with them. The forgiveness may not matter to them, but it allows us to resolve an issue that might otherwise plague us..

Showing Our Brother His Sin

Memory Spot

If you only remember one thing, remember this:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt 6:14-15, NIV).

Both the Old and New Testaments teach us that we have a responsibility to let others know when they are sinning, for their benefit and our own. We cannot make them accept our help, but we do not know if they will until we try.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Lev 19:17).

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted (Gal 6:1).

Paul adds a wise point at the end of his admonition: Do not get involved if you will be tempted to sin. Supposing that someone whom you asked to keep your child was careless, resulting in a major injury to your child. While that careless person may need someone to teach them responsibility, you may not be the person to do it if all you have is anger for them. For deep hurts, it may take prayer and fasting to get over them.

Jesus clearly indicated that there would be times to overlook that which we rightfully deserve in order to be His son.

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. 29 To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. 31And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. 32 But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil (Luke 6:27-35).

It is good to remember this principle of “forgiving others like we want to be forgiven”—or even going above and beyond that.

Forgiveness Compatible With Restitution & Consequences

Just because we have forgiven someone does not mean that there is no need for restitution or that consequences go away. We can forgive a thief that takes something from us, even though we require him (or a court may order him) to make restitution for it. We are not asking him to restore it to get even with him, but to help him and others avoid sinning in the future. Solomon said:

Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil (Eccl 8:11).

Dealing with someone who has sinned against us is a lot like disciplining children: It should be done in love for the child, not in anger against him. Supposing a homeless person offered to cut your lawn for a fee and you let him use your riding mower. He claimed to know how to use one, but lied, crashed it and did minor damage. He apologized and asked if there is anything he could do to make up for the damage, but said he does not have any money. You asked him to cut the lawn for free with the hand-mower instead and he agreed—that was restitution. You also realized that he was just not ready to drive a riding mower, so you do not offer him that choice again. That is a wise consequence. Both the restitution and the consequence are for his good. You can still forgive him and be at peace with him.

Again, learning from the child analogy, if a child is too strong for a parent to effectively discipline, the parent would be better off not to try to discipline him than to start a contention that the parent will lose. Similarly, an offended person is not wise to try to enforce restitution or consequences against an offender if they have no effective way to do it. In the example above, if the homeless person refused to make restitution, or insisted that he be given another chance to use the riding mower, you would be better off just to avoid them. There is likely no way you can personally enforce this, nor is there an effective way to do it in a court.

Balancing Recovery with Avoiding Sin and Sinners

Consequences can include decisions we make that last until we are sure an offender has recovered. For example, we might not trust a thief with our money until many years later, after he has a proven track record of not stealing. Similarly, we may forgive a child abuser, but may not trust him with our children until we are sure he has recovered—which may not occur until they are grown up. In a simple example, someone might regularly use profane language or be otherwise offensive in their talk. If that person asks our forgiveness, we should grant it. However we still may choose not to invite that person to be around our family or around other new believers until we are sure that he has recovered from these undesirable patterns.

The Bible teaches the avoidance of people known to be flagrant sinners.

A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, But the simple pass on and are punished (Prov 22:3).

Cast out the scoffer, and contention will leave; Yes, strife and reproach will cease (Prov 22:10).

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (1Cor 5:1-2, NIV).

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us (2Th 3:6).

When somebody has offended us, especially if it is a serious offense, it is often very difficult to sort out our feelings. It is difficult to tell if we are still angry and unforgiving, if we are trying to make sure he learns his lesson through consequences, or if we just feel a need to keep our distance lest we be hurt again. There is a great tendency to avoid someone who has greatly offended us, even if we think we have forgiven them. One must ask oneself, am I avoiding them to help them make restitution, to help them recover or to avoid some real, ongoing, danger to myself? Or am I avoiding them just because I am still angry at them? This is a sign that forgiveness may not be complete.

Sometimes we avoid people because we think they are angry at us, and they may avoid us because they think we are angry at them. The easiest way to break this deadlock is to say something like this to them, “I still want you to know that I have forgiven you in this matter. Are you at peace with me about it?”

Another good way to decrease hurt is to realize the true purpose of our earthly life. Whatever wrong somebody has done to us does not take away from our Eternal life. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10). If someone stole our fortune, killed a close friend, destroyed our marriage or abused us as a child, it will certainly lessen the quality of our life on Earth. But it should strengthen us in God and cause us to draw closer to Him and His Word—which has Eternal value. Jesus Christ certainly suffered unjustly more than anyone:

And if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom 8:17).

When we cast our cares upon our Father (Pslm 55:22, 1Pet 5:7) and forgive those who have offended us, we can be at peace with them. We do not think “there is the person that did that to me” when we see them. Even if they have not yet finished making restitution or if they have not fully recovered from a habit of sin, we can hope and encourage them to do well in those processes rather than disdain them because of it. Even if they have stumbled and fallen, but there is still hope for them, we can pray for them.

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that (1Jo 5:16).

Forgiveness Flowchart

The following steps summarize the biblical admonition regarding forgiveness. One should always pray their way through these situations, asking for God’s specific guidance and instruction in each case.

1.  Offender’s Knowledge & Significance. If you can see that offends have no idea what they did, then follow Christ’s example with the soldiers who crucified him. Forgive the offenders in their ignorance, and the process is over. Do the same for tiny offenses too small to bring up. In cases where the offenders are unknown to you, forgiveness can help one put the issues to rest in their mind, and no longer dwell on it. In situations where the offenders are known, and the offense might be repeated, figure out the best way to communicate to the person that they are causing offense. If you do this in love, it will be good for everyone involved. If that is not worth doing, then be prepared to go on patiently forgiving future minor offenses..

2.  Communication. Before one can decide to forgive, there must be agreement on what the offense is. Sometimes, there is already agreement, other times you may need to talk to the person—even though they may not want to talk to you. If they refuse to talk, you may safely treat them as non-repentant in step 3. If they do talk, you must be willing to consider that the problem is not as bad as you think, or that you are part of the problem. When the other party can no longer be contacted, they are effectively “out of your life” and steps 3, 5 and 6 are irrelevant, so all that is left is to be willing to forgive when the person repents someday, and then to go on to steps 7 & 8, making peace with the situation. The same is true when we refuse to talk to a person—either because we wisely realize that we might not be effective, or because we are afraid to do so. If we cannot establish whether a person has repented or whether they are continuing in the same sin, we must be willing to forgive (step 4), then go on to make peace (step 7 & 8).

3.  Repentance? When people say they have repented, a Christian will normally accept it, even though he might be somewhat suspicious that the repentance is not genuine. These decisions are not set in stone and one can change one’s actions if a self-professed repentant person proves unrepentant. When the offender is repentant, the Christian’s focus should be on forgiveness and the steps thereafter. When a person is not repentant, the Christian should prayerfully decide if it is best to “turn the other cheek” or to do something else. If the offender is indeed a danger to others and the Christian can take some corrective action designed to bring repentance, that may be best. He might take the matter to witnesses or the church, or for unbelievers, to a secular court or administrative agency. When the person does not repent, the best one can do is be willing to forgive when they do repent (step 4), and be at peace with that until repentance occurs—maybe not until the Kingdom.

4.  Forgive / Be Willing to Forgive. If repentance has been generally established, then the Christian should forgive the offender. Unpardonable sins are in God’s domain, so we don’t have to worry about them when somebody sins against us. When the offender is unavailable or when we do not believe that we can be effective in going to the offender, we can simply determine that we are willing to forgive the individual when they repent, and go on to step 7.

5.  Restitution. If the offender offers restitution, it is a very good sign that he is truly repentant. If the offended asks for restitution and receives it, that is also good. If the offender refused to restore, does that mean that he is not repentant? Not necessarily. It may be a problem with his understanding of the Scripture—he may not believe restitution is ever necessary. There certainly are Biblical examples where it was not required of some sinners. Restitution is a good thing when everyone involved sees it as a biblical way to settle an offense. It is not as effective when either party sees it as a means of vengeance against the offender. If you have settled a dispute with someone and forgiven them, do not later decide that you are due some kind of restitution and go demand it. Any restitution should be agreed upon when apologies are made and when forgiveness is granted. Later desires for additional restitution often indicate that forgiveness has not really taken place, but that the offended is holding a grudge. How can the offender ever feel forgiven if the other party could come at any time in the future and demand additional restitution? Has the offended really forgiven if he is still thinking about how much restitution he should receive?

6.  Recovery. It is up to the offended when to accept that an offender has recovered from a pattern of sin. It is more a personal matter of trust, than the legal amounts stated for restitution. Any limitations or consequences exercised upon the offender should be done for Godly reasons, not as an excuse for avoidance or non-forgiveness. Skip this step if the offense is an un-typical, non-repeated sin. For example, if a friend has many years of driving experience with no accidents, but then on a very stressful day have a freak accident with you in his car, should you refuse to ride with him for many years? Do you refuse to ride with other friends who have had more accidents, clearly their fault, but just none with you in their car? We must be fair in our judgment of when others have recovered to the point where we can again trust them in their area of offense.

7.  Peace Now. If we have forgiven those who offend us and if our ongoing actions toward them are for their good—not for our vengeance or avoidance—we can be at peace with them now. “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them” (Pslm 119:165). As God no longer brings to mind our forgiven sins, we should not bring to mind or hold anything against those whom we have forgiven. “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1Pet 3:8).

8.  Peace in God’s Kingdom. “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim 2:3-4). God will not keep people out of his Kingdom just because we were offended by them or cannot get along with them. His kingdom is a place of unity and peace for all peoples (Isa 2:4). If we are not at peace with someone now, and they are willing to communicate with us, we need to make an effort to make peace now, so we can be ready for His Kingdom. .    &

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