I Forgive You, I Think

Some months ago I preached a message on forgiveness titled Did You Lose Your Marbles? I knew as I wrote the message though that I could not touch on the many concepts of forgiveness. A couple of questions some may have are, “Am I to extend forgiveness to those who have not repented?” or “Do I forgive everyone who sinned against me?”

Some say that forgiveness is always predicated upon an offender repenting and asking for forgiveness. God, after all, does not forgive anyone unless they repent and seek forgiveness. First John 1:9 and Proverbs 28:13 are examples of Scripture used to substantiate this opinion, though this argument cannot be made consistently since all sin is against God. When David sinned he said in his Psalm of repentance, “Against thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in thy sight” (Ps 51:4). It is not that David had not sinned against Uriah and his wife, Bathsheba, but Uriah was not the originator of the universal moral code. God, on the other hand, has the Law and holds it against the sinner (Rom 3:19). So if someone sins against me it is not the same as sinning against God. God for example had to be satisfied in regard to His holy justice before He could forgive. This propitious offering and satisfaction came when Christ died for our crimes (Rom 3:25, Isa 53:10, 11).

Also all vengeance belongs to God and not to the one who was offended (Rom 12:19). Thus, the way I, as a sinner, forgive cannot find complete concord with the way God forgives. If one wants to make the divine model as the way we are to forgive, that concord is shattered in that we are not first propitiated (as it is in the case with God). Also people are not accountable to us as they are to God. It is God who takes vengeance, and it is God who has been sinned against, and it is His law, and not ours, that has been transgressed.

If I am to be reconciled to the person who sinned against me, I should let him know where he sinned against me and in humility, point out the infraction (Matt 18:15). But even if he does not acknowledge the wrong I still am to forgive him. I might not have him on my back deck for a barbeque, but I can forgive him before God in my heart. So, am I to forgive all who sinned against me whether they repent or not? The answer is, yes. I will defend my answer from two perspectives: The divine imperative to forgive all as mandated in Scripture, and second from the practical perspective.

The Biblical Mandate

We are commanded to forgive. Mark 11:25 reads, “And whenever you stand to pray, forgive if you have anything against someone, in order that your Father who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses.” Here we see again the common Greek word for “forgive” with the connotation of letting go the offence and sinner. In Ephesians 4:32 Paul used the verb “to forgive” which denotes showing grace to someone. He used the verb in participial form to answer the question, How are we to be gracious and tenderhearted to one another?

The assumption from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 is that we have already forgiven people who are our debtors. We see this kind of forgiveness in our Lord Jesus. He kept saying (the Greek imperfect tense denotes this) as He hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). They did not know the wisdom of God and that this was the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8). They did know that Jesus was an innocent man, and Jesus desired that they be forgiven. In His humanity Jesus already forgave those who were crucifying Him, though at this point they were unrepentant. Some might argue that God did in fact forgive them on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. Yet, did all become saved? There is no record that the High Priest became saved. The rulers continued to be a thorn in the side of the Apostles (Acts 4:1-31; 5:17-41), and in fact many of them never came to salvation or experienced the forgiveness Jesus desired for them. Yet, Jesus personally forgave those who put Him to death.

In Stephen we see this same forgiving spirit. The Greek features the imperfect tense for the verb “to stone.” Thus a good rendering is “And they were stoning Stephen as he was calling upon [the Lord] and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And bowing his knees he cried out with a great voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them,’ and saying this he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59, 60). More than one scholar has noted that Stephen’s word and manner of death reflect that of the Lord Jesus. The editors of the Nestlé’s Greek New Testament cross reference Luke 23:46, and 34. Stephen could not wait for his tormentors to come to repentance.

The Practical Perspective

Why should I forgive those who sinned against me when they have never reached out to me or repented? There is a practical answer. If we do not fill the reservoir of our hearts with the sweet nectar of forgiveness, then the septic overflow of bitterness will seep into that reservoir. A bitter person, wrought by an unforgiving spirit, is unmistakable. Bitter people spread their dark feelings to others. How do we know? Hebrew 12:15 warns us of a root of bitterness that springs up and defiles many. If you look at Numbers 14 you see bitterness exemplified, which the writer of Hebrews calls “the embitterment.” The incident in Numbers 14 shows how bitterness spreads. When people are bitter, they cannot let go of the infraction against them (letting go as in forgive—the Greek connotation of the word “forgive”). The infraction becomes an idol, and in the end, the love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 becomes an impossibility. First Corinthians 13:5 points out that love does not log evil. But the unforgiving person does in fact keep a log of all wrongs done and makes an idol of them.

There is so much more I can say on this topic. For example, it becomes impossible to fulfill the love that 1 John amply describes (1 John 2:9-11; 3:11-18; 4:7-21; 5:1, 2). An unforgiving spirit gives birth to unsavory children including anger, resentment, gossip, and malice, all directed to the person we refuse to forgive. In the end, that person, or persons, who receive our disdain becomes an all-consuming idol.

God knew that we cannot afford to carry around the weight of an unforgiving spirit. Do yourself, and everyone else, a favor; let go and forgive the person who has wronged you. It is a weight God does not call you to bear.