Forgiveness is central to the Christian ethic. D.L. Moody once said: "The voice of sin is loud, but the voice of forgiveness is louder." As a forgiven people the glory of the children of God is to be a forgiving people. But, important as forgiveness is, it's also misunderstood, trivialized, and in the hands of some even weaponized.
The following is a guest essay from Rev. Dr. Brant Bosserman. This essay biblically and pastorally addresses the subject of forgiveness. Even if it takes a little longer to read than a normal blog post, I highly encourage it to every reader!
Forgiveness: Objective Deeds
Forgiveness: Subjective Disposition
Forgiving the Unrepentant
Kinds of Forgiveness
Forgiveness and Consequences
Forgiveness and Imprecation
Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12; cf. Lk. 11:4). It is fascinating that the only fact that the Savior asked us to mention about ourselves in prayer is that we practice forgiving. However, exactly what forgiveness is, to whom it is due, and how it relates to correction and punishment are not widely understood. Critics of the Faith have alleged that Jesus’ lofty ideal of forgiveness is either dangerously liberal, at odds with other details of His ethic, or laudable, but widely disregarded by Christians. Given the central significance of forgiveness to the Gospel of how God saves sinners by faith in Jesus Christ; and given that a forgiving attitude is a fundamental mark of those who have been forgiven by God in Christ, believers can only benefit from sustained meditation on the topic. Jesus, after all, set forth the following promise and warning as the grounds making forgiveness central to prayer: “if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14-15; cf. Mk. 11:25; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
Below, we will advance the following points. As to essence of forgiveness, it is the non-collection of a debt (or non-application of a penalty) accompanied by the expulsion a vengeful disposition. Christ’s ethic emphasizes the importance of a forgiving disposition, without neglecting the necessity of forgiving deeds, for two reasons. Outward forgiveness can be exercised hypocritically, apart from the more difficult work of a reformation of heart. Also, those who have forgiven a neighbor from the heart may, nevertheless, seek the application of a penalty out of love for the same party. The potential objects of Christian forgiveness are all people, but in different fashions. Even toward unrepentant offenders, Christ’s disciples must be prepared to repay evil with genuine kindness, entertaining a more hopeful vision of their enemies than their deeds deserve. However, only repentant believers can be forgiven in the fullest sense, by being treated and confidently acknowledged as brothers who enjoy mystical union with Christ and oneself. To scrutinize whether another’s repentance is genuine, and to enforce ongoing consequences for egregious sins and heinous crimes is perfectly consistent with forgiveness. For, to forgive a party is to will their good, and to facilitate rather than impeded what is best for them (and others). Finally, believers must be prepared to perform radical acts of forgiveness, especially in situations where one is powerless to pursue justice and/or the total forgiveness of a significant debt is likely to advance (rather than hinder) the kingdom of God.
FORGIVENESS: OBJECTIVE DEEDS
When most people talk about forgiveness, they tend to have in mind feelings and subjective dispositions toward others. However, the Greek and Hebrew words for “forgive” often refer to objective actions. For example, the most frequent sense of the verb in the Gospel of Matthew is simply “to leave” something tangible behind, like fishing nets (4:20), crowds (13:36), stones (24:2), etc. In the context of monetary debts and criminal offenses, “forgiveness” involves foregoing the right to exact a payment (Matt. 18:23-34) or pardoning rather than prosecuting and punishing a crime (Ex. 34:9; Rom. 12:17). In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus enjoins a radically forgiving disposition, setting forth the example of one who foregoes his right to retain basic property—“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (Matt. 5:40); and again, “whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Lk. 6:30). Of course, Jesus’ directives on the topic of forgiveness are not entirely new. The Mosaic Law required objective remission of debts every seventh year toward all of one’s Israelite neighbors (Deut. 15:1-6), regardless of whether they had squandered a loan by vice or simply fallen on hard times.
It is noteworthy that the objective forgiveness of a debt and/or penalty may be extended in greater and lesser degrees. For example, in the Mosaic economy, the convicted thief of livestock normally had to make restitution by returning the stolen animal, and paying retribution by returning four or five times its value (Ex. 22:1). If, however, he confessed his theft and offered the requisite “guilt offering” at the tabernacle (Lev. 6:1-6), his crime would be significantly, but not entirely, forgiven. The thief who confessed prior to being caught only had to return the stolen property to the victim, plus a mere one-fifth of its value. But even under the Law, direct victims could forgive certain criminal offenses entirely by foregoing legal proceedings altogether. Well before Jesus’ ethical discourses, His father Joseph showed himself to be a “righteous man” by choosing not to prosecute, and thereby significantly forgiving, Mary for her apparent adultery (Matt. 1:19). And yet, Joseph seems not to have initially extended the fullest objective forgiveness that could be imagined. Although he forewent civil prosecution of Mary, he still resolved to “send her away secretly,” breaking off their plans for marriage. This clearly indicates that an offense can be forgiven in certain objective respects, even though other consequences may be retained (for more on this point see “Forgiveness and Consequences” below). What renders the Sermon on the Mount unique in relationship to the Mosaic Law is not that Jesus’ commands His followers to forgive in various ways. Rather, its novelty resides in how clearly Jesus sets forth the imperative to more than forgive; that is, to remit material debt and even extend additional favor to one’s debtors. Still, Jesus understood the substance of His ethic to have always been implied, even if not so expressed, in the Law itself (Matt. 5:17-20; Lev. 19:18).
FORGIVENESS: SUBJECTIVE DISPOSITION
Parallel to the non-collection of a debt and non-prosecution of a crime, forgiveness is a determination from within not to seek personal vengeance, and to expel the ill-will that we harbor toward offenders. Everyone knows, after all, how unpleasant it is to be despised and hated, even when disdain isn’t expressed in overt acts. When he denounced the human tendency to regard certain men as “good for nothing” (Matt. 5:22), Jesus meant to censure an unforgiving attitude that writes-off a person forever. Positively, subjective forgiveness must involve crediting an enemy with a better estimation of his person than his deeds deserve. Without this constructive effort, our best attempts to expel hateful feelings will be to no avail. If our estimation of our neighbor were a sculpture, we could think of his misbehaviors and sins as chipping away at and reducing his effigy to something distasteful that elicits ire. Forgiveness entails an active effort to reform our image and estimation of those who have sinned against us. This forgiving attitude is often described, figuratively, as “forgetting” or no longer “counting” a person’s crimes (Jer. 31:34; 1 Cor. 13:5; Ps. 103:12). This is because the non-resentment that one harbors after extending forgiveness resembles the attitude he might have had if the sin had never been committed in the first place (see “Forgiveness and Consequences” below). In its most robust expression, subjective forgiveness is not a mere disposition of indifference toward an offender as if his image were merely undeformed. Paralleling His demands for radical deeds of forgiveness—not just remitting debt but extending undeserved credit to defaulters (Matt. 5:40-42)—Jesus requires an equally robust disposition of heart. Christian forgiveness entails entertaining a better vision of our enemies than their deeds deserve, with the result that we are able to gladly heed the command: “bless those who persecute you” (Lk. 6:28; Rom. 12:14; cf. Matt. 5:44; 1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Pet. 3:9). Practiced properly, subjective forgiveness is neither an exercise in fantasy nor a surrender to naivete about just how evil and dangerous certain foes may be. Rather, there are objective grounds for crediting all men with a better estimation than their sins deserve, and unique grounds for esteeming repentant brothers the most highly of all.
The objective and subjective dimensions of forgiveness have a paradoxical relationship that forces us to appreciate the central significance of the latter. On the one hand, it is possible to forgive another person’s financial debt begrudgingly (perhaps, for example, out of a desire to be perceived as gracious), without expelling a hateful disposition toward him from within. Jesus denounces this sort of forgiveness as disingenuous, not being “from the heart” (Matt. 18:35). Such forgiveness is as displeasing to God as alms given under compulsion rather than cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). As pleasant as it might be to have a large monetary debt forgiven, even if not from the heart, it is far more dangerous (and potentially costly) to incur for oneself a life-long enemy. That is why Christians are called to make peace (Rom. 12:18), and to make friends so far as they are able (Matt. 5:25). On the other hand, one might deny a criminal complete objective forgiveness (by remitting a debt partially, or seeking a reduced penalty for a crime), and yet extend to him the fullest sort of subjective forgiveness (genuinely seeking his well-being). God’s discipline of His people epitomizes this combination. He often applies objective penalties with the most holy intention to bless and to sanctify His people, rather than to finally harm and destroy (see “Forgiveness and Consequences” below). Another curiosity is that at first glance the extension of a forgiving deed may appear rather more difficult than cultivation of a forgiving heart. Initially, one may be greatly disinclined to forgive, outright, a neighbor’s financial debt for backing into his car, but surprisingly willing to restrain the tendency to despise and/or hope the worst for that neighbor. However, in the course of time, feelings of resentment for the car-incident may resurface again and again. Thus, the conscious resolve to forgive from the heart may need to be repeated many times for one and the same crime. In that respect, subjective forgiveness often proves to be rather more difficult than the one-time deed of remitting or reducing a debt. Moreover, if one finds it difficult to renew his forgiving disposition, say, seven times, for one offense, he will find it even more challenging to expel contempt for his neighbor after seven similar offenses. Recognizing that repeated forgiveness from the heart is profoundly difficult, Jesus nevertheless requires that His disciples be prepared to forgive their brethren “seven times in a day” (Lk. 17:4), and “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22).
BELIEVERS ARE REQUIRED TO FORGIVE THE UNREPENTANT
Having discussed forgiveness as both deed and disposition, we turn to the controversial question, are Christians are obligated to forgive the unrepentant? And if so, what is the rationale? That Christ requires his disciples to forgive unrepentant foes is clear from His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible that in commanding His disciples to lend your coat to “anyone” who “wants to sue you and take your shirt” (Matt. 5:40), Jesus meant to limit the prescribed response to repentant aggressors. The picture Jesus paints is that of a heartless enemy seeking to take the very shirt off our backs. Toward this kind of person, even in his state of aggression, Jesus requires what we might call a “super-forgiving” disposition. This conclusion is reinforced by the imperatives that precede and follow Matthew 5:40. To “not resist an evil person” (5:39a), to “turn the other [cheek]” to the person who slaps you (5:39b), to go a second mile with the person who “forces you to go one mile” (5:41a), and to “love your enemies” (5:42) all imply that the offending party is still yet evil, an enemy, and unrepentant when the radical forgiveness is extended to him. Most importantly, Jesus grounds His imperatives in the character of God. The Father extends profound gestures of kindness to all men without exception (Matt. 5:45-48; Acts 14:16-17), repaying their offenses with longsuffering patience (Rom. 2:4; 3:25; 2 Pet. 3:9), rather than immediate retribution.
When we survey other Scriptural imperatives that require a forgiving posture toward all, we can begin to see the practical wisdom of this feature of a Biblical ethic. We are told that the wise man seeks to “overlook an offense”—that is, to forgive rather than prosecute—wherever they can without aiding or encouraging evil (Prov. 19:11). Evidently, this is because in a fallen world we are bound to be victims of so many sinful behaviors that it is not even so much as possible to seek tangible recompense for them all. Biblical calls to generosity (1 Tim. 6:18; Eph. 4:28), some of which explicitly encompass our enemies (Lk. 6:35; Matt. 5:42), prescribe a super-forgiving stance, in part, because it garners respect and kindness in return (Lk. 16:1-9). Moreover, there are “weightier provisions of the law” about which we are obligated to correct our neighbor lest he suffer the terrible consequences in this life, not to mention the life to come (Prov. 26:5; 2 Tim. 3:24-25; Gal. 6:1; 1 John 5:16-17). On account of these, we must be prepared to simply forgive lesser debts, lest we become overbearing and lose the opportunity to gently address more serious ones. Sometimes monetary debts must be forgiven, and loss accepted, because our debtors are so financially destitute that collection is futile (Deut. 15:1-6; Lk. 7:42). Others are in such a calloused state of mind, that it would be folly on our part to enter upon any course of correction whatsoever for mere interpersonal slights (Prov. 9:8; 26:4; Matt. 7:6). This non-corrective stance toward committed fools, rebels, and belligerents is the very lowest sort of forgiveness that one can exercise in this life. For, in not collecting on his debts or seeking a corrective penalty, the hard-hearted man is being surrendered to the consequences of his own self-destructive behaviors. Even in handing the unrepentant “over to Satan,” the disposition of a believer’s heart is not to be one of cruelty, but of tough-love and hope that the evil fruits of his rebellion might be a means through which he is brought to final repentance (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). This is also one reason why Biblical prayers for another person’s judgment are compatible with forgiveness. (See “Forgiveness and Imprecation” below.)
If Jesus positively requires that believers forgive the unrepentant, and there is manifest wisdom in doing so, what compels many to conclude that forgiveness ought to be reserved for the repentant? To begin, we have already seen that the Mosaic Law only prescribes a reduced penalty for theft if the criminal confesses and repents of his crime. In keeping with this provision of the Law, Jesus explicitly taught, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Lk. 17:3-4). Although God is, in many concrete gestures, “forgiving” to all of humanity through the course of history (Matt. 5:45-48), He withholds eternal forgiveness and imputation of righteousness (what the New Testament frequently calls “justification”) from all but those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ (Matt. 11:20-24; Lk. 10:13-15). Indeed, the point of the “Parable of the Forgiving King” (Matt. 18:23-35) is that those who experience God’s forgiving patience in history but fail to repent of their own merciless disposition will assuredly not be forgiven in eternity.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF FORGIVENESS
John Calvin solved the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ calls to pardon everyone (even the unrepentant) and His limitation of the same to those who repent, with reference to the objective and subjective dimensions of forgiveness (see Calvin’s comments on Matt. 18:21-35). First, Christians must forgive unrepentant sinners (especially for non-criminal, personal offenses) by “laying aside the desire of revenge,” and repaying their evil with objective deeds of “kindness” (Matt. 5:43-48; Rom. 12:14, 17; Prov. 20:22; 24:29). However, it is appropriate, according to Calvin, “to entertain an unfavorable opinion” of unrepentant parties. Second, a more robust “kind of forgiving” must be reserved for the repentant brother. Upon confessing and turning from his evil, Christians must not only treat that brother kindly but “think favorably” of him. Calvin’s solution, although basically correct, is not entirely adequate. Whereas the extension of kind deeds and the suspension of personal vengeance must be extended to the repentant and unrepentant alike, Calvin denies that one aspect of subjective forgiveness may be extended to the latter, namely the development of a higher estimation of his person than his deeds deserve. We agree with Calvin that there is a qualitative difference between the forgiveness extended to the unrepentant and the repentant. However, we submit that in all its expressions, forgiveness must entail an alteration of our very thoughts and opinions of our fellow man. In short, we forgive the unrepentant by entertaining higher thoughts of what they may become, while we forgive a repentant brother by upholding a confident vision of the character that he presently has on account of Christ’s dwelling in Him
First, the subjective pardon that believers extend to the unrepentant does not involve erasing our low estimation of their present character. It rather involves entertaining (a) a hopeful vision of what they may become by God’s sovereign grace, and (b) a higher estimation of what might be accomplished through them on account of God’s common grace. Prior to their death, believers must look upon sinners as the potential objects of salvation. In extending forgiving gestures even to even their enemies, believers must do so in prayerful hope that they might become members of Christ’s body, on account of whom Jesus will say to us at the Last Judgment, “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me…[For] to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:35-36, 40). The prayer of Jesus from the cross, and of Stephen at his stoning that the Father would forgive their executioners (Lk. 23:43; Acts 7:60) expressed hope that their forgiving witness might work to the salvation of their enemies. In all of this, to entertain a hopeful vision of our unrepentant enemies as repentant believers, is to bless them with higher thoughts than their sins deserve. Just the same, Scripture is abundantly clear that God restrains all sinners from being as evil as they otherwise would be (2 Thess. 2:6-7), and so preserves their ability to make positive contributions to civilization (Gen. 4:17; 10-12), agriculture (Gen. 4:20), the arts (Gen. 4:21), industry (Gen. 4:22), government (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), etc. Thus, although several Scriptures anticipate the most disparaging evaluation due to the reprobate in the Final Judgment—as “useless” (Rom. 3:12; cf. Ps. 53:3); those for whom it would have been better if they “had not been born” (Matt. 26:24); etc.—Jesus prohibits making such final evaluations of one’s neighbor in the present (Matt. 5:22). By God’s common grace, fallen men may act and achieve better than their sinful hearts are capable of by themselves. By God’s saving grace presently unrepentant enemies may become adopted sons of God. On both accounts, believers have grounds for forgiving their enemies by entertaining higher hopes for them than their offenses deserve.
Second, Jesus limits the fullest sort of forgiveness to repentant brothers in Christ (Lk. 17:3-4; cf. Matt. 18:15; 2 Cor. 2:5-11). Objectively, times without number (Lk. 17:4; Matt. 18:22), and even for the gravest offenses, a repentant brother must have the worst of all penalties applied by men withheld from him, namely, excommunication from the church (Matt. 18:15-18; Jn. 20:23; 1 Cor. 5:13). Accompanying this remission of penalty, the same individual must have the highest human gift extended to him, that is, public acknowledgment by believers as a “brother.” Willingness to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), to be especially vigilant to bless one another (Gal. 6:10), and to “regard one another as more important than” ourselves (Eph. 2:3), are among the ways that Christians more than forgive one another. It is only because we have too low a regard for being declared and regarded as “saints” (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2), that many doubt that forgiveness has been extended if the receiver is still met with consequences for his misbehaviors. (See “Forgiveness and Consequences” below.) Subjectively, the repentant brother must be loved from the heart as a prize whom the church has “won” (Matt. 18:15; Jas. 5:20); confidently regarded as one whose character has been and will continue to be transformed in Christ (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24); and highly esteemed as an irreplaceable member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12-13), and of the forgiver himself (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:25). Clearly, the benefits of church membership and estimation of one’s present character as, at root, “godly” cannot be extended to the unrepentant. The forgiveness extended to believers is qualitatively different from that hopeful vision by which we free our hearts from the lowest estimation of our unrepentant enemies. The forgiveness due to repentant believers is accompanied by the conscious and active restoration of confidence that the offending brother belongs to the Lord.
Finally, there is a third type of party to whom forgiveness is due, namely the unbeliever who confesses his crimes and seeks personal reconciliation with a believer. Apart from repentance in the name of Jesus Christ for all his sins, one cannot be esteemed as a brother in Christ, no matter how contrite he may be (Heb. 12:16-17; 2 Cor. 7:10). However, the principle applies that where there is confession, a reduced penalty for a crime is appropriate (Lev. 6:1-5). Even a reprobate like the wicked King Ahab (1 Kings 16:29-34; 21:25-26) was shown divine mercy within his lifetime on account of his external acts of contrition (1 Kings 21:27-29). Whenever an unbeliever voluntarily admits guilt for a specific evil, it is indicative that his character has (by God’s common grace) been kept from the darker habits of human sin, and he is justly esteemed accordingly. Such tenderness of heart is also a ground for entertaining greater optimism that the unbeliever may be an object of divine grace, in whom the Spirit of God is beginning to work (Ps. 51:17). Nevertheless, the forgiveness extended to the remorseful unbeliever is not qualitatively different from that which is due to the unrepentant in general. For whatever good character he may seem to possess is but temporary, and in spite of his basically fallen condition, lest he repent and believe in Jesus Christ. In this case, to entertain a forgiving vision of him as potentially better than his deeds deserve is a matter of hope, and not yet, of confidence as to what he ultimately is in Christ.
One criticism of Jesus’ sweeping demands that we extend repeated and holistic forgiveness to the repentant brother (Matt. 18:15, 21-22; Lk. 17:3-4) is that it reduces the church to a harbor for dangerous and deceptive abusers. To our shame, we must admit that churches have naively opened their doors to abusers. Yet, this is only on account of their unfaithfulness to Jesus’ ethic, and by no means their bold adherence to it. For, at least two Biblical qualifications apply to that whole-hearted forgiveness due to the repentant. Expressions of repentance must not be accepted uncritically. And, forgiveness from the heart must often be accompanied by the enforcement of consequences for an offender.
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus never taught that believers are to carry about uncritically, abstaining from every form of judgment of their neighbors. Instead, He taught that believers must refrain from judging hypocritically, applying a different standard to themselves (not to mention their friends, or parties who bribe them) and to their enemies (Matt. 7:1-5; Lk. 6:37, 41-42; cf. Lev. 19:15). While He denounces drawing hasty conclusions, Jesus positively requires judgment by way of careful investigation—“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24; cf. Prov. 18:17). In fact, immediately after prohibiting hypocritical judgment, Jesus charges His disciples to identify some men as “swine,” and to withhold from them the pearls of His kingdom, of which the fullest forgiveness is certainly one—“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt. 7:1, 6). Too many Christian efforts at being radically forgiving have actually been foolish and abdicative of our responsibility to protect the church from malicious parties. John the Baptist displayed a protective stance when he refused to allow the Pharisees and Sadducees to participate in his “baptism of repentance,” unless they “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:7-8; Lk. 3:7-9). Well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures, this wilderness prophet knew that the greater part of a nation might make a show of repentance, “not with all her heart, but rather in deception” (Jer. 3:10; cf. Isa. 29:13; Jer. 12:2; Hos. 7:14). In the same vein, the Lord Jesus prefaced His call to forgive the repentant brother saying, “Be on your guard” (Lk. 17:3); on your guard, that is, neither to accept the unrepentant brother back into fellowship, nor to treat falsely repentant as if they were genuine brothers (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:28; 2 Pet. 2:1).
So then, what sorts of evidence ought to come to bear in evaluating another’s spoken repentance? The initial fruit, without which full orbed forgiveness must be suspended (Acts 8:18-24), is a humble and broken demeanor (Ps. 51:17; 34:18; Acts 2:37). Even more important is a manifest resolve to walk in obedience to Christ’s commandments. Especially when a person’s lapses have been egregious, true repentance will show itself in a willingness to undergo a more thorough investigation of his heart by direct questioning (John 21:15-17; Acts 9:21, 26); to receive, in some cases, public rebuke (Gal. 2:11; Phil. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:12; 1 Tim. 5:20); to receive anew a more solemn charge to submit to Christ’s will (John 21:15-17); to embrace ongoing scrutiny (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 2:14); and even to be deprived of certain privileges as a protective measure (2 Thess. 2:6, 10-11, 14; 1 Tim. 3:5; 5:9-10). Of course, it must be made clear to the repentant brother that in submitting to such, he is neither earning the acceptance of God nor of His Christian neighbor. As we expound below, the forgiven party himself is being loved and protected, along with his neighbor, from the disillusion, strife, and harm that could result if he should lapse again into egregious sin.
FORGIVENESS AND CONSEQUENCES
Several times in this essay, and especially in the paragraphs above we have advanced the claim that forgiveness need not be at odds with enforcement of penalties and consequences. The rationale for this is clear. One forgives from the heart by replacing ill-will with good-will toward an offender. It is often on account of this good-will, and not in contradiction to it, that a believer extends correction, or even seeks a civil penalty so that the forgiven party may appreciate the seriousness of his offense and undergo a deeper reformation of character. Parents, who are the most inclined to forgive their children, are repeatedly reminded that “He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Prov. 13:24; cf. 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17). God Himself, whose forgiveness is unparalleled, is a faithful disciplinarian of His people (Deut. 8:5; Heb. 13:5-11), applying all the standard penalties which parents know so well— corporeal punishment (Num. 14:27-29), loss of privileges (Num. 14:30), assignment of burdensome tasks (Num. 14:31-33), etc. In the very same breath that Nathan the Prophet disclosed God’s ultimate forgiveness to David, he articulated consequences that would afflict His whole household: “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall die,” and “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:13-14; 12:10).
In normal circumstances, the total non-prosecution of criminals is neither loving nor particularly forgiving to criminals, since it invites them to perpetuate evil and incur its merciless natural consequences (Prov. 26:11; cf. Ps. 141:5; Prov. 6:23; 13:18; 15:31-33; 25:12; Eccl. 7:5). Moreover, to forgo punishing criminals is to afflict society with grave evils. God frequently indicts judges for their failure to exercise just judgment in a manner that provides palpable protection to the powerless (Ps. 58:1-2; 82:2-4; Jer. 22:15-17; cf. Ex. 23:17; Prov. 17:15). It is not, therefore, appropriate for a Christian acting in his capacity as a civil judge to simply forgive the penalties of each and every party brought before him. He would be an “unjust steward” (Lk. 16:8), guilty of forgiving offenses at other’s (rather than his own) expense, not least of which would be their direct victims. For similar reasons, individual Christians cannot neglect the task, even in the name of forgiveness, of upholding generally safe and equitable conditions in society (Prov. 31:8-9; Matt. 7:12; 22:39). In fact, as we will see in our discussion of “Forgiveness and Imprecation” below, it is most gracious to pray that the wicked be restrained by the civil, and international sword—1 Tim. 1:9-11; Rom. 13:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:14.
To many, the application of penalty and enforcement of ongoing consequences seems to be at odds with the supposedly dictum, “forgive and forget,” at least as it is popularly understood. It is true that divine forgiveness is often correlated with the non-remembrance of sin—“I will forgive your iniquities and remember your sins no more” (Jer. 31:34), “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12); “You have cast all my sins behind Your back” (Isa. 38:17); “he…who believes him who sent me…does not come into judgment” (Jn. 5:24); etc. “How,” the incredulous brother asks, “can I be judged, much less penalized by the church or other Christians, for offenses that God himself has forgotten?” The answer resides in the fact that God only forgets sin in the specific sense that He refrains from counting them against the repentant (Ps. 32:1; Rom. 4:7-8; 2 Cor. 5:19) with a view to repaying it with the eternal vengeance that it deserves. For, the omniscient God (Prov. 15:3; John 16:30; 1 Cor. 2:10; Col. 2:3) is not capable of erasing his knowledge of anything, not even human sin (Job. 14:17). Even more to the point, the Spirit of God frequently recalls His people’s misdeeds in graphic detail (Deut. 32:1-43; Ps. 95; 105-106; Neh. 9; Isa. 63:7-14; 65:1-7; Ezek. 16; 22-23; Acts 2:22-24; 3:14-26; 7:35-60) with a view to magnifying His patience, warning them about their moral weaknesses, and bringing them to repentance (Acts 2:27-28; 3:19). Indeed, the Bible is itself an indestructible witness to human sin since the Fall (Matt. 24:35; John 10:35; Isa. 40:8). Hence, as surely as God forgets and forgoes the full penalty due to repentant sinners, God lovingly remembers our sins and applies to them lesser, but still lasting, corrective penalties. God’s response to Adam and Eve after their lapse is a case in point. As a grand expression of forgiveness, God promised the father and mother of humanity a Savior who would ultimately deliver them from their sins (Gen. 3:15). Then, he provided them a sacrificial covering as a token of His good graces (Gen. 3:21). At the same time, God imposed lasting consequences on women, cursing them with pain in child-bearing (Gen. 3:16); on men, cursing them with the burdensome task of toiling under the sun (Gen. 3:17-18); on humanity, cursing them with physical death (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 5:12; 6:23). These lasting curses provide a solemn and loving witness to the reality of divine justice, that inspires God’s elect to repent and find refuge in God’s graces. It is also noteworthy that God deprived Adam and Eve of the former access that they had to the Garden, so that neither they nor their offspring could sin more gravely by abusing the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). Portending subsequent judgments that God would impose on His people throughout redemptive history (1 Sam. 3:27-36; Jer. 7:1-15), God demonstrates from the beginning that it is loving to remember past sins and deprive His people of certain privileges to keep them from future lapses.
With the divine example in mind, we are in a better position to understand how Paul’s robust description of loving forgiveness—“Love…does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Cor. 13:5)—comes to bear on the Christian life. The non-accounting of wrongs suffered is a matter of expelling the appetite for personal vengeance, whereby one attempts to inflict a measure of suffering on his enemies equal to that which he has received from the same enemies (cf. Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). Entirely compatible with such loving forgiveness, is the enforcement of lasting consequences for those who have sinned in grievous ways. An adulterous spouse may be forgiven from the heart, and still yet divorced by his partner (Matt. 1:19; 5:32; 19:9). A church officer who has scandalized the ministry may be forgiven, and still deposed with a view to protecting the peace, purity, and reputation of the church (1 Tim. 3:2; 3:8; 5:20; Tit. 1:6). A notorious but genuinely repentant abuser of God’s children may be forgiven, and still kept entirely from the objects of his former abuse with a view to the protection of all parties (Mk. 9:42-43; cf. Matt. 18:6; Lk. 17:2). In fact, all Christians are advised to give appropriate space to one another as a preemptive measure becoming overbearing, and so sinning against one another—“Let your foot rarely be in your neighbor’s house, or he will become weary of you and hate you” (Prov. 25:17).
One cannot necessarily call foul if his misbehaviors lead a Christian friend to elect to spend less time with him. Yes, the forgiving party must acknowledge that the repentant offender is a brother with whom He is one body in Christ. And yes, the forgiving party must replace any feelings of animosity with the highest estimation of the offender as God’s special treasure (Ex. 19:5; Deut. 4:20; Ps. 135:4; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9). However, whether the weakness of character resides chiefly on the part of the offended or the offender, it may be perfectly forgiving, loving, and wise to limit interaction to contexts where all are the least likely to sin against one another. Nor is it impossible that following a dispute, two believers who have forgiven one another may elect to worship and/or minister in different congregations (Acts 15:36-41). By God’s grace, the church was a presbytery of congregations from day one (Acts 2:41-47), so that all Christians carried on in greater proximity to some (the parishioners with whom they regularly worshiped) than others. That said, we are warned against withdrawing and depriving others of significant degrees of friendship as our knee-jerk reaction to every offense (Prov. 18:1; Phil. 4:2-3). We have not exercised anything like “tolerance for one another in love” (Eph. 4:2; cf. Col. 3:13) if we find ourselves unable to carry on in fellowship with anyone for an extended period. Rather, we are likely deceiving ourselves that we practice forgiveness from the heart, rather than eagerness to be angry and bitter (Eccl. 7:9; cf. Matt. 5:22; Jas. 1:19-20; Prov. 16:32). Just the same, Christians must be very careful to distinguish between sins and behaviors that are bothersome, expressive of foreign manners, or simply unappreciated. These, not being sin, need not be repented of before we dissolve our hateful feelings. It is especially problematic when believers make it their practice to prosecute subtle offenses—e.g. a slight tone of voice, body language, avoidance of interaction, etc. Not only are these among the infractions that a wise man will overlook (Prov. 19:11; cf. 17:9), but it is especially possible that our interpretation of them may be wrong. To be “reasonable” (Jas. 4:17; cf. Prov. 12:15), or more literally “deferential, willing to yield,” is to take up a forgiving stance whereby we are prepared to give up our perspective on a subtle point, and actively entertain that of our opponent.
Hence, we may confidently conclude that Christian forgiveness is quite in agreement with upholding different kinds of consequences for transgressions. However, Christians must be given to fearless soul searching as to whether they have really forgiven their brothers from the heart, being ever prepared to correct and part ways with any code that is secretly intended to repay evil with evil.
FORGIVENESS AND IMPRECATION
Yet another challenging question regarding the Biblical doctrine of forgiveness is how it can be reconciled with the many “imprecatory” songs and prayers which beg for the (sometimes quite violent) death of God’s enemies (Ps. 5, 6, 11, 69, 109, 137, 143, etc.). The temptation to write off this phenomenon as belonging to a sub-Christian, “Old Testament” ethic will not do. For, unabashed curses and prayers for divine vengeance are issued by New Testament Apostles and saints (1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9; Rev. 6:10). They even appear on the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 23:13-36; Lk. 11:42-52; cf. Matt. 21:18-22; Mk. 11:12-21). How then are imprecations compatible with the forgiveness that believers extend even to their enemies? First, prayers for the death of God’s determined enemies in the course of human history are never entirely merciless. Rather, when God cuts short the life of His enemies (Gen. 6:3), He prevents them from lapsing into darker depths of sin and incurring for themselves greater degrees of eternal torment (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; Lk. 10:15; 11:47-48; Jas. 3:1). To hate God’s enemies in this fashion (Ps. 139:21-22; cf. 26:5; 31:6) is to desire better for them than their sinful nature, as given to the endless multiplication of sin, would incur for itself. Second, Christians lack divine insight into exactly which of their enemies are destined to persist in hardened unbelief and unrepentance. Thus, it is their primary hope that prayers for the death of their enemies would be answered in a redemptive fashion, so that their opponents might one day testify alongside of Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Imprecatory prayers that would prefer for “Saul’s” to be killed and raised anew as “Paul’s” are perfectly consistent with a forgiving disposition. Moreover, such prayers are not entirely different from believers’ pleas to be delivered from the remnants of their fallen nature (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9), which they justifiably hate (Rom. 7:14-24) and actively put to death (Rom. 8:13; Matt. 5:29-30).
Finally, where some criticize the Christian doctrine of forgiveness on the ground that it is dangerously liberal, others allege that the picture of forgiveness developed at length above (even if based on Scripture and Jesus’ teaching in various places) falls short of Jesus’ radical demands in His Sermon on the Mount. In maintaining that lasting consequences, and even civil penalties can be enforced toward the objects of forgiveness; that the genuineness of repentance may need to be scrutinized before the fullest forgiveness is extended; and, that imprecatory prayers are legitimate expressions of piety and mercy, have we effectively neutered Jesus’ unqualified charge to pardon our enemies (Lk. 6:37), and to not so much as “resist an evil person” (Matt. 5:39)? Or, are we to conclude that Jesus never intended Christians to literally “turn the other cheek” toward aggressors? The short answer is that believers are, indeed, called to exercise radical forgiveness when faced with extreme circumstances, and/or presented with the prospect of higher ends being accomplished by the total remission of a debt.
Upon examination, it is clear that Jesus intended the radical imperatives in Matthew 5:39-42 to serve as extreme examples of how one may exercise loving forgiveness in extreme circumstances, and not to present a normal mode of conduct. First, if any of the imperatives were heeded literally even one time, it would almost surely be for the very last time. For example, to sue for a shirt (Matt. 5:40) rather than for money implies not only extreme poverty on the part of the defendant (Ex. 22:26-27; cf. Deut. 24:13), but a shameless effort to deprive him of his life. To freely concede both one’s shirt and cloak is tantamount to accepting death. Again, to “give” without any reservation to “him who asks of you” (Matt. 5:42), would involve shortly, if not immediately losing everything one owns. If heeded literally a few times, or, depending on how big the “ask,” but one time, a Christian would never be able to exercise such generosity again. Second, if a disciple heeded any one of the imperatives literally, he would immediately deprive himself of His ability to keep the other commands with the same radical spirit. Should he forego resistance to any captor who forced him on a journey and freely offer extra-travel after being released (5:41), the married disciple would effectively abandon his wife (contra 5:32); fail to reconcile quickly (or at all) with the brother who has something against him (contra 5:23-25); default on other vows and promises (contra 5:37); neglect to show up to court, where yet another aggressor intends to take his belongings (contra 5:40); etc. Third, Jesus—the supreme embodiment of His own ethic—does not heed the imperatives of Matthew 5:39-42 as His regular course of behavior. When asked for miraculous signs from His determined enemies, Jesus does not freely “give to him who asks” (Matt. 5:30). He not only denies their requests He promises an omen portending their rejection by God (Matt. 12:38-45; 16:1-4; Mk. 8:11-12; Lk. 11:29-32). Jesus likewise denies His enemies’ requests for answers to certain questions (Matt. 22:23-27; 26:62-63; 27:12-14); His disciples’ request to dismiss bothersome crowds (Matt. 14:15-21; Mk. 6:35-44; Lk. 9:12-17); etc. Again, Jesus did not forego every opportunity “to resist an evil person” (Matt. 5:39). To the contrary, with respect to several hostile crowds we read that Jesus intentionally “eluded their grasp” (Jn. 10:39; cf. Matt. 12:14-15; Lk. 4:30) and “hid Himself” from them (Jn. 8:59). Other times, Jesus purposefully posed questions to His enemies which, if answered honestly, would incite the crowds against them in His defense (Matt. 21:23-27; cf. 22:45-46; Mk. 11:27-33; 12:12; Lk. 20:1-8). At least twice, Jesus violently drove away the money-changers who monopolized the temple precincts and exploited pilgrims (Matt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-18; Lk. 19:45-46; Jn. 2:13-17).
Why, then, did Jesus articulate His ethic of forgiveness in such a radical fashion in Matthew 5:39-42? The answer is that every believer must be prepared to extend sweeping gestures of forgiveness, even toward the worst of offenders, when divine providence demands it. Jesus knew that at the crescendo of His own obedience to the Father, He would have to heed the most extreme demands of His ethic, in the only fashion that they could be, only once, and to the point of death (Phil. 2:8). During the roughly 24-hour period known as His “Passion,” Jesus was non-resistant (Matt. 5:39) and even loving (Matt. 5:44) toward His captors, healing the one whom Peter struck with the sword (Matt. 26:47-56). Jesus accepted his enemies’ demands to walk (Matt. 5:41) from Gethsemane first to the court of Caiaphas the high priest (Matt. 26:57), second to the governor Pontius Pilate (Matt. 27:1-2), and third to the Hill of Golgotha (Matt. 27:33). He experienced legal hostility (Matt. 5:40) before multiple courts (Matt. 26:59-68; 27:11-26) before being stripped of all his clothes (Matt. 27:28). Turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), Jesus was mocked, slapped, struck, beaten, and ultimately crucified (Matt. 26:67-68; 27:29-31, 35-50). From the cross he blessed His enemies (Matt. 5:44) praying that the murderous crowd might be forgiven by the Father (Lk. 24:34).
In light of Christ’s example, under what conditions does divine providence require such radical sacrifice? At least two answers present themselves, namely, when one has no means of pursuing a corrective penalty for the wicked, and when total non-requital of some party holds great promise for advancing the kingdom of God. The picture in the Gospels is that Palestine was largely beyond repentance, as a demon-afflicted nation (Matt. 12:43-45; 23:), very close to committing the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32). Her Roman overlord was also afflicted, carrying about like a blasphemous beast (Dan. 7:7-8, 19-22) whose legions of soldiers (Matt. 27:27-31), appointed rulers over the Jews (Matt. 2:16-18; 14:1-12), and procurators (Lk. 13:1-2) had ravaged Palestine as if demons themselves (Mk. 5:9; Lk. 8:30). A reader of the Gospels is hardly surprised, therefore, that Jesus suffers a miscarriage of justice at the hands of such corrupt nations. In this sort of context, where there was no lawful remedy whereby one might pursue the correction of his enemies, the servant of God must be prepared to exercise radical forgiveness, neither resisting nor seeking recompense for wrongs suffered. He must do so in hope that his witness of forgiving kindness in the face of hostility might be used to break the hearts of the lost. He must do so in hope that God would avenge His death in a special way, namely, by striking his enemies down and raising them up as new creations. Conspicuously, Jesus’ radical forgiveness in His passion was honored and answered by God rather immediately by the saving faith of the thief on the cross next to Him (Lk. 23:39-43), and the conversion of the Roman centurion after Jesus breathed his last breath (Matt. 27:54; cf. Mk. 15:39; Lk. 23:47).
Of course, Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion was not a mere tragedy, intended to sway human hearts. It was the divinely appointed means whereby the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit determined from eternity past to bring about the salvation of the elect (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Eph. 1:3-14). In other words, Jesus forgave all those who crucified Him, foregoing any effort to seek a correctional punishment for their evil, not only because such was practically impossible. He freely laid down His life (John 10:17-18) with a positive end in view, namely, to serve as the redemption price for His bride, the Church (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Eph. 5:25-26; Rev. 5:9).
Ultimately, Christ’s example has been seconded by countless Christian martyrs—Stephen in New Testament times (Acts 7:60); Justin Martyr in the second century; Vibia Perpetua in the third century; Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century; to thousands of Nigerian Christians in the 21st century. These martyrs exercised radical forgiveness, foregoing all resistance when conditions rendered it futile; and offering prayers that God would accomplish the impossible for His hardened enemies, namely, the salvation of their souls (Matt. 19:25-26; Mk. 10:26-27; Lk. 18:26-27). Whether divine providence brings a believer into such extreme circumstances or not, Jesus was abundantly clear that all Christians must be prepared to follow His example, teaching that “if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; cf. 10:38; Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23; 14:27). Likely, most believers will be called to lesser, but still intense acts of forgiveness borne of the conviction that they stand to advance God’s Kingdom. If, following careful consideration (Prov. 14:15), it is reasonably clear that the non-collection of a large debt or non-prosecution of a great evil, holds unique promise of achieving greater ends, Christians must be ready to extend unimaginably forgiving gestures. As Paul prevailed upon Onesimus to forgive his fugitive servant Philemon, by setting him free (Philem. 1:10); as Barnabas prevailed upon the Apostles to forgive Paul for his former hostility to Christians (Acts 9:26-27), by eventually extending him the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9); likewise, all Christians must be open to the Holy Spirit’s reasonable persuasion to remit truly great debts of others, with a view to advancing the Kingdom of Heaven.
Brant Bosserman is a pastor in the PCA and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Northwest University. He has previous guest authored "Marxism, Postmodernism, and Critical Race Theory," "Obedience to Civil Authorities," and "Employee Vaccination Religious Exemption" on Gentle Reformation.