I've been following another thread recently where some women have been abused and injured during their walk with Christ. Somewhere along the way, they turned their backs on everything of the Lord and decided that they didn't need to forgive those who hurt them because the abusers were above them in their station in life - husband, pastor, etc. - as written here. I had never considered that forgiveness only applied from the higher ranking toward the lower ranking, as in the parable of the king who forgave his servant 10,000 talents, but the servant wouldn't forgive another 100 denarii, a measly amount. This author advocated that we were only commanded to forgive either those below us in situation, or our equals (forgive your brother 70 times 7). So these women have decided that they don't have to forgive their husbands or pastors or other men who were above them in some way who all abused them because of this teaching. They think, as do most people probably, that forgiveness equates to no consequences.
With this fresh on my mind, I was so pleased by the sermon I heard today about the two sides of forgiveness. Whenever we think of forgiveness in general, we must think that there are at least two sides: the offender and the offended. I think most Christians agree that if we forgive those who sin against us, as the offended one, we are the ones who are then free from what unforgiveness does in our lives. We've all seen unforgiveness grow into bitterness, and from there into anger, and some have even seen it grow into very irrational behavior, which only causes more hurt for everyone involved. I am going to assume here that we all agree that forgiveness is a requirement for Christians. "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
What really interested me, though, about today's sermon, which seemed to speak directly to what these women's concerns are, is the other side of forgiveness - the offender. Have you ever noticed that there are certain principles in Scripture that are not laid out all in one place, all in one verse or passage, but when we put them together, we can see the full picture? One such topic would be salvation. I am not going to go into detail here, but there is the aspect of seeing how depraved we really are, seeing that we can do nothing of ourselves, seeing our need for a Savior, admitting and confessing our sins, repenting, and believing that only Jesus can save us because He died to atone for our sins and set us free from the wages of sin. I am simplifying greatly, of course, and it is really simple, but we don't really see this laid out all at once in Scripture. I really like this example, though, because when we repent, God is faithful to forgive. We clearly see here that forgiveness and repentance go hand in hand. God offers us forgiveness, but we must willingly receive it, we must repent.
This is really no different from our relationship with the offender, then. As the offended one, we can forgive the offender, but the offender cannot receive that forgiveness until he repents from the offense to begin with. Luke 17:3-4 adds this aspect to forgiving one another: "If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” This is not saying that we don't have to forgive unless he repents, as we can clearly see from other passages that we must forgive the offender; but rather that the offender cannot receive our forgiveness until he himself repents. Forgiveness offered is what we must do; forgiveness received is up to the offender.
Does this forgiveness necessarily mean that there are no consequences then? What about justice? Do we just forget that anything ever happened? No. It is an attitude of the heart that changes, but often there are outward consequences that cannot, or should not, be changed. If a "brother" owes you $1000 and refuses to pay, you can forgive him, and not have any bitterness toward him. But does it necessarily follow that he doesn't owe you the money any more? that you will continue to loan him money? that you will be in fellowship together? Of course not. He has refused to receive your forgiveness by the mere fact that he has not "repented," which would be shown by him paying you the $1000. You could "forgive" the debt as well, but without a repentant spirit on his part, you have now encouraged him to sin even further. This is a minor example. I know of one church for instance, where there were multiple adulteries (one woman, seven pastors) and all eight people continue to "fellowship" together because they said, "I'm sorry." Confession without repentance is not enough. A natural consequence should have been the loss of fellowship for all and removal from the ministry for all the pastors, at a bare minimum. Yet, these eight people and their spouses all continue to go to this church every Sunday, "fellowshipping" together. Can you feel the tension? There is no repentance here. These spouses might have forgiven the adulterers, but the offenders have not received that forgiveness yet, as they have not truly repented. Where is their shame?
Many sins have built in consequences that will remain even after full repentance and forgiveness. Think about a baby out of wedlock. Those involved may repent and be fully forgiven, but if there was an abortion, that consequence cannot be undone. If a young lady ends up a single mother, that consequence cannot be undone. She's forgiven, but she is still responsible for taking care of that baby for the rest of her life. Oh, there are lots of examples, and I'm sure we each have examples in our own lives we can point to.
One example of an unrepentant heart is pride. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee was so full of pride that he couldn't be forgiven that day. The tax collector, on the other hand, was so humbled by his own sense of depravity, that he was able to receive the forgiveness that comes with repentance. Sweet forgiveness.
People want forgiveness, approval, and acceptance without change or repentance. If we show compassion, mercy, and forgiveness to one who refuses to repent, we are encouraging the offender to continue in their sin. God is a God of forgiveness, compassion, and mercy - to the repentant - and He is also a God of justice. We must not interfere with justice, especially when it would also interfere with repentance that leads to forgiveness! Those who refuse to repent alienate themselves not only from God, but also from the church as a whole.
Romans tell us to "note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them." See clearly who is causing a division in the church, who is offending. Do offenders cause division in the church? Always! And offenses are always contrary to the doctrine we have learned, so we are told to avoid them, not to fellowship with them. This is hard, even harsh, but those who refuse to repent should not continue to fellowship as if nothing happened just because they say, "I'm sorry." There must be repentance in order to receive forgiveness. Proverbs tells us that "the way of the unfaithful is hard," which is what helps him come to repentance. Let's not interfere with the hard way he sometimes needs.
As a Christian, I must forgive anyone who offends me, who hurts me, who abuses me, who causes me harm. I must. But forgiveness does not mean justice is not carried out; the one who sins must face justice. Forgiveness also not mean that the offender is ready to receive forgiveness. Until there is genuine repentance, he cannot receive that forgiveness that I so freely offer him, just as we cannot receive Christ's forgiveness that He offers us until we repent. So forgive. Forgive from the heart. But also realize that we are not letting anyone "off the hook" by our forgiveness. They are still fully accountable to God for their sin and there are almost always consequences that come because of their sin. Our forgiveness does not justify someone else's actions, it only sets us free.