As God Forgave Us

The flaming Sword drove our father Adam out of the Garden. That same Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, exposes our every fault and misdeed, and we are again expelled from the Garden. Jesus Himself, our Advocate, is the Door and the Door-Keeper: He lets us back in. How can this be? God forgave us. What does this mean?

Consider with me Don and Vic, the best of friends. They enjoy each other and they like to do things together. Then one day Don did something that Vic did not like -- call it the Act. He probably did not mean to offend Vic, or maybe he was feeling particularly churlish that day. God specifies a procedure for conflict resolution (down the right column, below, following the blue arrow choices), but it often breaks down when we fail to follow it (left column dead-end side roads, red arrow choices):
Vic decided that the Act is not a big deal, and said nothing. The next day
Don did the Act again. And again. It's a good thing Vic does not mind
this offensive thing happening over and over again, because Don has no
clue. Pretty soon it bugged Vic so much, he stopped doing things with
Don. That was the end of the friendship. Don never figured out what
Vic valued the friendship
highly, so he went to Don 
and said, "You know Don, 
it really upset me when
you did the Act."
Don got angry and replied that "It's a free country, and I can do
anything I want, and who are you to boss me around?"
Vic realized that Don now intended
to be doing the Act more and more, 
so he stopped seeing him.That was
the end of the friendship.
  Vic recognized that this problem
had gotten too big for him, so he
went back to Don with a friend,
Pat... (additional details omitted)
Don said, "Oh my 
goodness, I didn't know! 
It won't happen again. 
What can I do to make it 
Deep in his heart Vic knew that Don would never stop doing the Act, so
he just stopped seeing him. That was the end of the friendship. Don
thinks that he somehow lost it over the Act, but he does not know how
to make it right. He has never done the Act again, but Vic wouldn't
know that, because he was not there. 
Vic believed Don's obvious
sincerity and decided to give
him another chance. A week
later Don did the same Act
again, but he realized what
he had done. "I'm really
sorry," he said. "I'll try a 
lot harder." And he did.

This could go on. Peter asked Jesus if seven times around the loop was enough, and Jesus effectively replied, "Don't count." Consider the four essential components of the successful exchange:

A. Don (the Offender) did the Act, which offended Vic (the Victim) so much that he could not ignore it.

B. The Victim told the Offender that he was hurt by this Act.

C. The Offender decided not to do this Act again, and promised that it would not recur.

D. The Victim accepted and believed the Offender's promise.

There are theological labels for these components, and the process is taught by Jesus in Matthew 18 and Luke 17, and by Paul in Ephesians and elsewhere. The same exchange describes the expulsion from, and return to the Garden, which began in Genesis and ends in Revelation. This is
A. Sin
B. Rebuke
C. Repentance
D. Forgiveness.
There are no shortcuts, and the full process is usually unpleasant for all participants. This is the unavoidable consequence of sin. When there is sin, innocent people get hurt. Rebuke, repentance, and forgiveness -- in that order -- is the best we can do to fix it up. It is the best that anyone can do, because it is the process laid out by, and followed by, God Himself.

With that in mind, we consider now the four component events in some detail, then look at some relevant Biblical texts in the light of this understanding.

A. Offence

To qualify as an offence in this context, the Act must be voluntary and it must result in harm to the Victim. The requirement for harm is self-evident: there is no need to repent of nor forgive that which is only good or morally neutral. Furthermore, while an independent third party may deliver the Rebuke, forgiveness (as we shall see below) can only be offered by the person who has suffered harm. When Martha asked Jesus to intercede because Mary was not helping with the dinner preparations [Luke 10:40], Jesus declined. Mary may have been causing some harm to Martha by not helping, but this was not Jesus' concern; she was doing what he wanted [see also Luke 12:14].

Things people cannot prevent cannot be repented. God is neither illogical nor unreasonable. However, there may often be inevitable consequences from some intermediate situation that was initially avoidable. For example, collision with the car in front of you is unavoidable in cases of unexpected traffic circumstances when you follow too close, but choosing to follow that close is entirely voluntary. For the purpose of this discussion, the Offence is not the collision -- although it was the immediate cause of harm -- but the tailgating behavior. Nobody chooses to run into the car in front of them, so repentance of that is meaningless, but the behavior that led to it is a personal choice.

Offenses come in different forms. In the best of relationships, they are unknowing. Who wants to hurt their friends? But accidents happen. Sometimes we know what we are doing, but do not fully comprehend the consequences.

We do not naturally grow up to be loving, caring people; we are taught that by our parents at an early age, and by good and bad experiences all our life long. The untrained and unredeemed selfish nature in me wants my own benefit at the expense of others. The expression of that selfishness is offensive. It is Sin. Other people get hurt. I can choose to do otherwise, and I often do. Unfortunately, there are also times when I do not.

Because we ought always to love our neighbor as ourselves, any failure to do so is a debt, and the harmed person has a right to come collect damages. Often this right is codified in law, but civil law must be careful not to define damages where the Act is unavoidable, so some offenses get left out. In modern jurisprudence there is also the frequent right to collect compensation for "pain and suffering." Although these are not really quantifiable in money, they are real losses which the law seeks to restore. The thief who steals my car takes not only something of cash value (the cost to replace it), but he also interferes with my mobility and deprives me of those presumably beneficial activities I might have engaged in instead of reporting the loss to the police and shopping for a replacement. The law of Moses specified both restitution of the stolen property, and additional payment, presumably to cover pain and suffering; note that the excess damages are reduced (but not eliminated) when the original animal is restored unharmed [Ex.22:1,3].

Social etiquette is another, less formal, form of law, which also specifies right and wrong (social) obligations, and (sometimes) appropriate consequences.

B. Rebuke

In its simplest terms, the Rebuke is an invoice, a statement of debt. It announces to the offender what damages the victim has a right to collect. A rebuke is worthless if it is not specific enough that the offender can identify what he did wrong and what he must do to correct the fault. To claim "You owe me $1000" means nothing at all; to specify "You dented my car and it will cost me $1000 to fix it" gives sufficient detail so that the facts can be examined objectively: Is the car really dented? Is there a better or less costly repair available? Without objectively verifiable claims, there is too much opportunity for fraud, which is a reverse offense. "You owe me $1000" might mean nothing more than "you looked at me cross-eyed and I think I can milk some cash out of it."

The unknowing and unintended offense cannot be stopped by the offender unless he knows what he did to offend. If he is a person of goodwill, and if the rebuke is presented gently, he will accept it with grace. Ah, but how often we are less than gracious in our rebuke. It comes off self-righteous, or accusing: "You did that on purpose to annoy me!" But even the deliberate selfish act needs rebuke.

After King David's famous sin, did he feel remorse? Not until Nathan came with stinging rebuke! See how the prophet wisely painted a word-picture so that the shepherd David could feel the pain of his victim before pointing the accusing finger at him.

More interesting is the fact that it was an innocent bystander who delivered the rebuke to the king. The sinner, almost by definition, cannot see his own fault. If the victim comes to explain it, the sinner may brush it off as whining at the recognized unfairness of life; in King David's case the victim was dead and could say nothing at all. God is especially pleased when His people seek justice for widows and orphans and all others who cannot take care of their own needs.

The most loving rebuke will likely provoke hostility. Nobody likes to "make a scene," so we try to avoid this unpleasantness. It is not the rebuke, but the original sin itself that causes the unpleasantness. There is no cure for the sin until the sinner is led to repentance, and there is no repentance until he sees the need for it. Who repents of what he sees no wrong?

The Rebuke should be made in such a manner that the offender can do something about it -- if not to make restitution, at least to prevent it from happening again. Just as the involuntary action does not qualify as an offense, so also an accusation of involuntary action is not a rebuke, but only a statement of fact. Thus the proper Rebuke in the case of the rear-end collision is not "you hit me" but "you were following too close." A rebuke that does not help the offender correct the problem is Pharisaical [Matt.23:4, Luke 18:11]. It amounts to telling the offender, "You are wicked, and I like it that way."

C. Repentance

Repentance is turning around and going the other way. It is the action that counts, not the words, as John warned the Pharisees at the Jordan river [Matt.3:7-10]. [Matt.5:29-30] When we recognize that we are going the wrong way, and choose to change direction, and turn, then healing and reconciliation is possible. Often this is as simple as deciding to do it differently. More often built-up habits are hard to break, so repentance involves taking positive steps to change the circumstances that make it easy to do the wrong thing. "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out." [Matt.5:29] It sounds so severe. It is severe. Do it. Whatever it takes. It is not repentance if there is no change.

A conditional apology is no repentance at all. People who say "IF I did wrong, I'm sorry," do not believe they did wrong. And because it is conditional, and they do not believe the condition has been satisfied, they are under no obligation to change their behavior. Thus they can appear to apologize without actually making any changes. They usually come back later and claim to have apologized. It's a formality without substance. It is not repentance.

Words are an important part of repentance, first in acknowledging the fault (confession), then in announcing the change to people who can hold you accountable to it. Confession is agreeing with the victim as to what the offense really was. You cannot change what you don't understand. The victim may be able only to say, "You ran into me," while the true confession is, "Yes, I was following too close" or "I was going too fast." Confession is agreeing "I did this thing, and it was wrong." Repentance is choosing to not do the same thing again. Repentance before God accepts God's divine power to make changes we cannot make in our own strength, but there is no repentance if there is no decision to change.

Announcing that decision to your victim does two things: First it affirms his loss and your fault in it (this is confession). Then it is a promise that gives him hope and reason to believe he will not suffer further loss. He cannot truly forgive the offender until he has reason to believe the offence has been repented, and to believe it he must (at least) hear that confession.

When there is no repentance, the only way for the victim to prevent recurrence is to put distance between himself and the offender, as we saw in the first two side-trips with Vic and Don. When Vic does not believe there is repentance he may feel the same way (the last side-trip), but it is unjustified. The Unmerciful Servant's wickedness was that he did not believe his debtor would repay the small amount owed, and took legal action to recover it [Matt.18:30].

The sin was costly to the victim. It is only right that the perpetrator pay the price, if at all possible, in addition to turning from doing it again. By his confession, the offender has already agreed to the debt; it is now his responsibility to repay it -- in full. In the parable of the Unmerciful Servant, the servant in the title role did repent, and he did set about to repay the entire debt as promised. Of course his debt was astronomical -- a billion dollars in our economy -- but he tried. The point of the story hinges on the fact that collecting $1,000 from a few people here and there was not going to do it. The story was about forgiveness; if the servant had repaid his debt in full, no forgiveness would have been necessary. Because the offender has no right to expect forgiveness, true repentance requires that he also compensate his victims if at all possible, just as Zacchæus understood [Luke 19:8].

If repentance leads to full restitution, then the offense is fully satisfied. Jesus made no offer of forgiveness to Zacchæus [Luke 19:9], yet he granted him full acceptance as a "son of Abraham." When the debt is paid in full, that is the end of it. But most offenses involve "pain and suffering," for which there is really no adequate restitution. Perhaps a million-dollar court judgment might adequately compensate it, but failing that, whatever cannot be restored must be forgiven -- or left hanging.

D. Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the cancellation of a debt instead of repayment. When Don committed the Act against Vic, he owed a debt of restitution to Vic. If he had taken money, paying it back (with reasonable interest to compensate Vic for not having the use of his own money) is full restitution. The debt is cancelled by repayment. If he cannot pay it back, or if the nature of the offense is such that no repayment is possible, then the debt can only be cleared by forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not cheap, it is as costly as the offense being forgiven. When God atoned for the sins of the whole world, it cost Him the life of His unique and beloved Son. We must not forget that. When the king forgave his servant, he lost a billion dollars! Perhaps the debt was irrecoverable anyway, but it was on his books as an asset until it was forgiven.

The sinner has no right to demand forgiveness, not even from a Christian. The only rights are the right of the victim to be repaid in full. If the victim has any obligation to forgive, it flows from his much greater unpaid (but forgiven) debt to God. Forgiveness is a debt we each owe to God, not to our offenders, and if we fail to grant forgiveness, Jesus repeatedly said that God will settle the score by cancelling His forgiveness of our much greater offense against Him. If Vic forgives, or fails to forgive, Don for the Act, how does that impact Don? Not at all! Don still has not paid the debt -- indeed he cannot pay it.

Forgiveness is more than just cancelling the debt, it is accepting the promise not to repeat the offence. Implied in the full cancellation is the realization that the books are cleared. Whatever trust was properly there before the offense is restored. This part is far more costly to the forgiver than any monetary damages, because in forgiving he must not hold against his offender the implied debt that says "There is a black mark on your record, which reminds me that I cannot trust you not to repeat it." True forgiveness erases the black mark. That is very, very costly, and not to be taken lightly. But Jesus demands it of us, even in turning the other cheek. Love keeps no score [lCor.13:5c].

When there has been no repentance -- and therefore the victim can only expect recurrence -- Jesus teaches a modest form of cancellation anyway [Matt.5:39-42]. You turn the other cheek with the full expectation that the offender will strike it also. You give to every one who asks to borrow (there it is: debt), expecting no repayment. But Jesus never called this "forgiveness." Paul explains the principle more clearly in his letter to Corinth [1Cor.6:7]: "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" In a sense the debt still stands, unpaid. God will repay it, and as Christians we accept that. Note that the righteous martyrs still cry out to God to recover repayment for their blood [Rev.6: 10]. And God indeed settles all (unrepented and) unforgiven accounts in the last judgment. Releasing the debt (to God) in this life frees up the victim to pursue more profitable activities: he is not stuck wallowing in bitterness with uncollectable receivables, but is free to seek new opportunities. Cancelling the debt apart from repentance can also have a profound effect on the offender: if he sees the injustice of it, it may help him to understand and seek God's redemption.

Relevant Scriptures

Matthew 18:15-17 If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that "every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Matthew 18:21-22 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."

Luke 17:3-4 If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, "I repent," forgive him.

Notice the difference between the Matthew sequence and the Luke sequence: Luke describes what happens when the offender repents: Forgive him, as many times as he repents. Jesus does not even allow us to second-guess the quality of repentance: if he says "I repent," forgive him. Peter wanted to know how soon it is permissible to recognize insincerity in the repentance, and the answer is unequivocal: Never. Do not keep score. Counting to 7 or 77 or 490, or even to one, is to fail to forgive.

Matthew is about what happens if the brother refuses to repent: you raise the level of rebuke. So long as there is no repentance, neither Matthew nor Luke require forgiveness. Indeed, the ultimate cost of unrepentance is excommunication, which God himself ratifies with eternal damnation [Matt. 18:18].

Matthew 6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:14-15 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.

Matthew 18:32-33 Then the master called the servant in. "You wicked servant," he said, "I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?"

Ephesians 4:32 Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Mark 11:25 When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

Each of these texts (as well as others) teaches a strong connection between God's forgiveness of our sins, and our own forgiveness of others. If we fail to forgive other people, God will not forgive us. Whether God first offers us forgiveness, and then withdraws it when we fail to pass it on, or if His forgiveness is initially contingent, is beside the point: the effect is the same. For this discussion, however, we are interested more in what kind of forgiveness God has given us, so that we can know what kind of forgiveness we need to show other people. Does God forgive sinners only in a context of repentance, or can they remain unrepentant in His forgiveness? Again, the question is not whether the repentance precedes or follows the forgiveness, but is it necessarily there at all? If God completely and fully forgives all sins of all sinners, regardless of their state of repentance, who then populates the lake of fire after the Last Judgment? Jesus and the other Biblical teachers spent much time warning people to repent -- just to escape the wrath to come -- and the conclusion is inescapable: God ultimately does not forgive sinners who remain unrepentant, and God does not invite them still unrepentant (and therefore still sinning) into his Heaven.

If we are to forgive our debtors in the same manner that God forgives us, it stands to reason that God does not ask us to forgive the unrepentant offender. Otherwise it would seem that God expects of us more forgiveness than He himself grants! Of course God can foreknow and anticipate (and even cause) the sinner's eventual repentance, while we enjoy no such luxury. We notice in passing that the Greek word (carizomai) translated "forgive" in Eph.4:32 literally means "freely give." In most other places in the New Testament "forgive" translates the Greek word (afihmi) "release." A more literal translation here might be "freely giving to each other as God in Christ gave to you," but what is it that God gave us in Christ, if not forgiveness?

On the other hand, if we want God to be so generous as to forgive those of our sins we somehow failed to confess and repent, should we not demonstrate before God the kind of forgiveness we seek, by forgiving also our own unrepentant offenders? Of course it is not we who make the rules, but God, but the argument does have a logical ring to it. Nevertheless, do we expect to continue in those unrepented (but forgiven) sins when we reach Heaven? Is not the cessation of those sins before that blessed time the essence of repentance? Indeed, the very hope for God's forgiveness in the matter of our unconfessed (because unknown) sins demonstrates a spirit of repentance that would surely find particular expression upon our further enlightenment. Which brings us to:

Luke 23:34 Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

1 Corinthians 2:8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

From the cross, Jesus calls upon God to forgive his crucifiers, and even admits that they have not repented! But Paul explains this: If they had known, they would not have done it! They did not know, he reminds us; there had been no intelligible rebuke. When they finally come to realize what they have done, they will surely repent. Jesus appears to impute to them that repentance which will come with understanding. Fifty days later, 3,000 of them did repent, and God of course forgave them.

Curiously, Jesus did not say to his crucifiers, "I forgive you," as he very strongly argued in the case of the paralytic lowered through the roof [Luke 5:20]. Instead he invited God to forgive them, presumably at some later date (after they repented). And God did just that.

Saul stood consenting to the death of Stephen, who uttered a similar prayer [Acts 7:60, 8: 1]. Not too long after that, he too heard God's rebuke and repented. He later explains to Timothy that it was in ignorance he persecuted the church [1Tim.1:13]. But for the Pharisees, who "sit in Moses' seat" to properly interpret God's law [Matt.23:2-3] and therefore do know, there is no forgiveness, not in this age nor the next [Matt.12:32].

Ezekiel 3:18-19 When I say to a wicked man, "You will surely die," and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself.

Proverbs 17: 15 Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent -- the Lord detests them both.

If we presume to grant forgiveness where God has not, we ourselves walk on dangerous ground. Repentance affirms the justice of God and begs for His mercy, and God is both just and merciful, but forgiving the unrepentant spits in the face of justice. It is not mercy at all but only co-dependency, which enables and encourages more sin. God does not command it, and neither does common sense.

Numbers 14:20-23 The Lord replied, "I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times -- not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it."

What kind of forgiveness is this, that does not cancel the penalties? What is not so clear, here and elsewhere, is that partial debt cancellation is still a form of forgiveness. In the larger context of this account, God decreed two penalties for the Israelite rebellion: first, none of them would be able to enter the land they despised, and then the covenant promise to Abraham would be transferred from all the people to Moses alone. Oh, yes, there is one more important factor: the people did not repent. It was Moses who prayed to God for forgiveness, and after God agreed to Moses' request, the people remained rebellious. It's a wonder that God forgave anything at all! For the ten spies who brought back a discouraging report, there was no forgiveness: they all died immediately. The forgiveness offered to the rest of the people was only partial.

It is not uncommon in our experience to grant partial forgiveness: "I will forgive the inconvenience (pain and suffering), but you (or your insurance company, which is the same thing because your rates will go up) must pay for the repairs to the car." Or "I forgive you, but don't you ever come near my daughter again." Is this the forgiveness God requires of us? Maybe. Did the offender repent, or are you offering this forgiveness because somebody else spoke up on his behalf?

Letting a repentant sex offender come near your daughter a second time has some interesting implications:

Luke 17:1-2 Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.

If a man has a drinking problem and you hand him a beer, whose fault is it that he got drunk? When he sobers up the next morning, and repents, are you going to hand him another drink in the guise of forgiveness? God forbid! He should be forgiving you for exposing him to more temptation than he could bare (after duly rebuking you and hearing your repentance). If a man has a problem restraining his libido around children, do we hire him as a babysitter? If he has fallen, and repented, do we now show him forgiveness by hiring him as a babysitter? God forbid! Just because he repented does not mean it is no longer a temptation. An important part of his repentance is removing himself from temptation, and we do him no favors by making that difficult for him. This is true both after he has repented, and likewise before he has fallen the first time. This is not keeping score, it is respecting his weakness in the spirit of Romans 14. The forgiveness you offer him after he has fallen and repented, restores him 100% to the state he should have been before the offense, namely a respectful distance away from excessive temptation. If in your ignorance you had put that temptation in front of him, your repentance is demonstrated by not repeating the error.

2 Corinthians 5:19 God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

The bottom line of forgiveness is reconciliation, the restoral of relationship. We are reconciled to God through the forgiveness paid for by Jesus Christ's finished work on the cross. And we now must seek reconciliation with each other, again by granting forgiveness to cancel any debts remaining after any restitution effected by repentance. But just as God Himself does not (dare we say, cannot?) force His forgiveness on sinners who remain unrepentant, how can there be reconciliation here below if one party is unwilling to do his part in the give-and-take process which is repentance followed by forgiveness?

When we go to the altar and confess our sins to God (and promise to try harder), He forgives fully: we are admitted back into the Garden because His Son paid the price in full. It is not "I can no longer trust you," but "Here, let me help you do it right this next time; here is my Holy Spirit to give you the desire and the power to do good" [Phil.2:13]. And the contrite, repentant heart accepts whatever help we can get. We want to do good, and by God's grace we will do better next time. And if we fall, he picks us up again. And does not keep score.

Rebuke leads to repentance. Repentance is the promise (and assurance) that it won't happen again. Forgiveness is accepting that promise, and fully restoring the relationship. Nothing less works.

Tom Pittman
P.O. Box 480
Bolivar, MO 65613

First draft 1997, rev. 08 Feb.16 to clarify diagram with graphics, and 08 July 7 to exclude conditional apology; 11 Jan 12 added Mark 11:25 ref.
For future consideration: Where does Heb. 10:26-31, 12:11 fit into this? Clarify debt payment (1Jn.2:2, Jn.19:30) vs application to particular sinners (contingent on repentance and/or some other qualification, because universalism is clearly denied in Scripture). Also "to err on the safe side." Redefining "forgiveness" as selling the mortgage = releasing the unpaid and unforgiven debt to God for collection.

Scripture quotations from oNIV