You Cannot Deny Someone Forgiveness and Be a Christian

You Cannot Deny Someone Forgiveness and Be a Christian February 6, 2020

One of the least comprehended realities of the Christian worldview is bound up within the doctrine of forgiveness. When I make this statement, I do not have in mind the overlooking of small or insignificant offenses. Anyone can do this. Anyone can overlook the sins of their child if they love them. Any person can find it within themselves to forgive someone of something hurtful if they like the individual enough. What I speak towards is the reality bound up within the gospel of Jesus Christ wherein the person forgives an enemy. Or perhaps not so much an enemy—perhaps a loved one—but a loved one who committed some gross immoralities and sins against them that any normal person might see and find to be “toxic” behavior. In reality, I’m speaking of the type of forgiveness that produces a person who is willing to be defrauded, wronged, injured, at a loss, etc., all for the sake of exemplifying the love of Christ shown to us. I’m speaking of a forgiveness born out of the forgiveness God granted us through the death of His Son.

The reason I say this type of forgiveness is one of the least comprehended realities of the Christian worldview is simply because the gospel is foolishness to a world that is perishing. They cannot comprehend the gospel, therefore, they cannot comprehend the incredible nature of grace and mercy bound up in the act of forgiveness, especially when the world can easily find every reason why someone shouldn’t be forgiven. The two are so intimately wed that they are inseparable, so inseparable in fact that we are told directly from Scripture that we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive others (Matt. 6:14-15; Mk. 11:26). For many a professing Christian, this presents a conundrum in their minds. They rightly say that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from any works, so that no man may boast (Eph. 2:8-9). One might even correctly draw attention to the fact that we are justified, likewise, freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ alone (Rom. 3:24). Yet if they fail to take in account these warnings provided for us—they just might find themselves to have a wonderfully robust understanding of the doctrines of grace, all the while neglecting to understand the very nature of grace itself.

The painful, convicting, and hard words of Christ must not be diminished in our minds simply because we correctly affirm the inspired truths expressed by the hand of Paul. The reality is that these two ends of what seem to be a disparate spectrum find harmony in the very essence and substance of grace itself. The reason Christ can make such absolute statements on the nature of forgiveness is that if you are a person who refuses to forgive, you show you have not truly understood forgiveness. You may have the facts right; you might even agree with those facts—yet they have not penetrated your heart in such a manner that it reorients your life into a joyful submission to those facts. In other words, you might “know” all of the right doctrinal talking points about the grace and love of God without actually comprehending them. You might be able to regurgitate a series of truths, yet not love them, cherish them, nor trust in them, and therefore, you demonstrate that you do not truly know the grace of God in your own life.

That’s at the heart of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35). Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Christ answers, “No, seventy times seven.” Then He begins to recount the well-known parable: a master went to settle his accounts with his slaves and found one who owed him an amount he could never repay. The master commanded the slave be sold, along with his wife, children, and everything he possessed. While the master would never get what his servant owed him, he would at least get what he could out of it.

The slave fell to his face and asked his master to have patience so that he might repay him all that he owed him. Of course, the slave didn’t have the means to do so and the master knew it. He felt pity for the man though and forgave the entire debt. What did the slave do? He went and found a man who owed him a meager sum, and seized him by the neck and began to choke him, demanding he repay his debt. His fellow slave fell to his face and begged for mercy, but the forgiven slave threw him into prison until he could repay his debt in full.

Now what did the master do when he found out? He seized the man, saying, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” He then took the slave and handed him over to the torturers, until he could repay all that was owed him, which is in essence to say that his torture would never end. Christ then draws out the heart of the parable in saying, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

We must understand that in this parable—the reader (or hearer) takes the place of the unmerciful slave and not the Master. The Master, of course, is God Himself. The debt we owe, which is our sin before the thrice holy Lord, is likewise one that we can never repay. There is no amount of goodness one can muster, no internal righteousness that can wipe the slate clean, nor even the ability to remain that way if we were to somehow manage to clean ourselves up. Our good deeds, at best, are as filthy menstrual rags (Is. 64:6). Perhaps the clearest description of our sinful condition is brought before us in Rom. 3:10-18:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

If this is our true condition, which it undoubtedly is, we stand equally as incapable of repaying the debt we owe before our Master. Yet thanks be to God that He created a way for us to be forgiven through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and cleansed us from all unrighteousness. It was in His power to turn us over to be tortured, yet He forgave our debt in full and indeed, has done an even greater thing than this, because He has given us the very righteousness of Christ, and immeasurable blessings simply by being counted in Him. This is the world-tilting reality of the gospel. We had no means of hope in and of ourselves to be forgiven; God had every right to punish us to the fullest extent—yet He gave Christ to be the substitute for us, that we might then become the righteousness of God as we partake in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). If one truly understands the reality of what has taken place in this cosmic exchange, there is no possible way they can harbor unforgiveness toward anyone, let alone the people of God.

It is the gospel that enables you to live in such a way that you won’t hold it to someone’s account when they have wronged you. The gospel is the only thing in existence that can change your heart from a disposition of hatred or bitterness to love. It is the only thing we can look at and see the magnitude of what was done for us, and then look to the offenses that happen against us and say, “No. That sin? How could I possibly hold that against you? How could I possibly say you’ve wronged me so much that I can’t get past it, knowing how much I wronged the Lord, yet He forgave me in Christ?” The reason for this is simply in recognizing that while you may have someone who owes you a debt, it is a paltry sum compared to the debt you owed in your sin. That is a shocking statement when we consider the reality of what sinful men can do to us—but I believe it is shocking only because we don’t truly comprehend the full measure of God’s holiness, especially as it stands against the backdrop of our own sinfulness.

It is incredibly easy to explain away the harshness of Christ’s words to us if we minimize the holiness of God and the extent of our sinfulness, yet if we love God, we will not do so. If you truly understand and cherish the extent of mercy God has so lavishly poured out when He forgave you, you won’t reduce this truth to nothing. You will see that Christ says with no qualifications that the one who does not forgive will not be forgiven by the Father—and so you will embrace that you must forgive. You will see that you must be reconciled, that in fact, reconciliation will be your top priority. In no uncertain terms, if you cherish your forgiveness, you will grasp the magnitude of His statements, yet simultaneously, the impossibility of withholding forgiveness because of the extravagant grace given to you.

In the same breath, you will see the practice of forgiveness is a wondrous display of the grace of God in your life. There will never be a time you are more like God than when you forgive those who simply do not deserve it. There will never be a greater point where you vindicate the reality of Christ’s work in your life to a watching world, then when you forgive what the world deems to be unforgivable. The practice of forgiveness is what takes a master and his slave and puts them on equal footing before God, and then mandates that reality is actually lived out (see the book of Philemon). The practice of forgiveness is what enables those in Christ to be able to extend grace to offenders where the world would not dare.

This is one of the reasons I have gone on record by saying that you cannot truly love Christ if you hate the church. The reason being is that there is ample opportunity to forgive within the church—in fact, if you believe there isn’t, you’re not spending enough time with your fellow Christians. I have no illusions that I wouldn’t sin against you at some point if you were part of my local church. I also believe that you would sin against me. Whether intentional or not, it would happen. Yet we would be duly bound in extending forgiveness, because we share in the common bond of love, and love is the currency of the church. We are to owe no man anything but love (Rom. 13:8-10). There are two sides to that coin—there is the repentance of the one who wrongs us, and there is the one who extends forgiveness in spite of being wronged. Just as love covers a multitude of sins it seeks the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Pt. 4:8; 1 Cor. 13). Just as love enables us to overlook sin, it safeguards the church through the proper disciplinary process for the unrepentant (Pro. 19:11; Matt. 18:15-20).

In actuality then, love is going to be what frees us from the bondage of trying to explain away passages like this. It will be first the love of God upon us, as He brings us from darkness to light and from an impossible debt to a costly freedom through the sacrifice of Christ. Yet it will simultaneously become a love of the brethren because of that same love of God upon other sinners, which was given to us. There is no possible way we can harbor an unforgiving attitude against someone God has poured out His love on, if we truly understand His love poured out on us through Christ. You show me a man who claims Christ, yet will not forgive, and I say to you that same man is no Christian at all. One who is a Christian will be driven by mercy, because they have an incredibly merciful God. They will seek reconciliation and unity within the body because they know the bond of love they share in Christ surpasses both the serious and the superficial sins. They will recall the debt they owed and the fact that this debt was entirely forgiven, and they will give their debtors that which they don’t deserve: mercy. They will give it to them because they also received that which they did not deserve: mercy.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • bill wald

    I don’t hate anyone. Hate is hard work and I gave it up decades ago. I have no enemy list. There are people whom I don’t trust and with whom I don’t want to associate. That’s the best I can do.

  • Prof. Fisherman

    1 John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What I find intriguing about this verse is that God’s forgiveness appears to depend upon our confession. So, if God requires true confession prior to forgiving humans, what is wrong with believers requiring true confession from our fellow humans prior to forgiving them (if in fact they have truly been wronged)? I’m thinking of people who have been severely abused, sometimes by family members who refuse to confess and take responsibility for their wrongdoing. Do those who prey upon the innocent without remorse deserve forgiveness? In my estimation, a good deal of believers pour salt on the wounds of the abused by shaming them for not finding the strength to forgive their unrepentant abusers. I can’t help but believe this is not healthy or helpful. This is not to ignore the supposed sayings of Jesus about forgiveness elsewhere in the New Testament, but Jesus seems to have been fond of hyperbole – overstatement to make a point. Jesus is also quoted in the Gospel of Matthew as claiming that humans need to be perfect, as their heavenly father is perfect. That’s clearly an unrealistic standard for humans, and Jesus must have known this if in fact he ever really said it. Of course, there is a practical value to raising the standard this high. If one aims for excellence, clearly one will achieve more than if one’s standards are lower, and perhaps the same could be said of aiming to forgive one’s enemies.

  • Gidupngo

    Oh for goodness sake. What a waste of space that was!

  • kaydenpat

    Send this article to Trump.

  • Biblical forgiveness is, and has always been, transactional.
    Repentance and contrition are required by the Father; consequently, we must apply those standards.
    Even New Testament forgiveness was transactional: Christ teased, needled and enraged the cartoonishly villainous Pharisee class, but did He forgive? Explicitly not. And why? Because they never asked and certainly never repented.
    Finally, the New Testament Church chronicled in the letters of the Apostles lay out a prescription for forgiviness which is… wait for it… transactional. If the offending member cannot be reconciled to the Body through repentance, the member is cut off.

    So, with all due respect, don’t come at the children of God with notions of “free” forgiveness.
    Nothing is “free,” let alone this most precious commodity.
    God is a Capitalist, after all.
    The currency is contrition.

    • James

      I don’t know you, but you don’t write like someone who really knows God. Or how to overcome bitterness – as per your prior post. Are you certain that Jesus didn’t forgive the Pharisees? Who was he speaking about when he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”?

      We can forgive like Jesus did because we trust that God is both just and loving. He’s coming again to make all things new, to make the last first, and to wipe away every tear. When I refuse to forgive someone who has hurt me deeply, what does it accomplish? I think many people see the act of refusing forgiveness as a kind of justice – it feels wrong that sin against me should go unpunished. But we don’t need to take the burden of punishing others on ourselves. For one thing, we’re not qualified; we’re not just judges. For another, God is judge, and he’s not only qualified, he’s loving. In the end, he won’t let sin have happened without the appropriate consequences, and he won’t let the damage done by sin go unrepaired either – except for those who categorically reject him. God is not a “capitalist” who takes a perverse delight in our groveling. He’s seeking reconciliation with people who have hurt him.

      • James, your concern for me is touching. I choose to believe it is concern, rather than assuming that you, like many men on this forum, put the label of “bitter” on women who offer their perspective based on a rational application of biblical study.
        What is it about your world that feels threatened by my study and conclusion?
        Is your happiness threatened by a woman who can read and discern?
        Is that why you’ve decided it must mean that I’m bitter and unforgiving?
        You dare greatly when you assume that I don’t practice forgiveness.

        • James

          It is concern. As I said, I don’t know you. I can only see what you have written here, and very little of it is written in a forgiving tone – in fact, the tone is almost savage. For instance, “You can’t learn everything about this life from Veggie Tales.” Or calling the author of the article pathetically uneducated.

          I didn’t know you were a woman based on your post, but I guess I do now. To answer those questions, no, I don’t think so. I don’t feel personally threatened, though it bothers me to see Christian forgiveness characterized so coldly, and especially to see God characterized as a capitalist. If that’s the way you understand God and forgiveness, it seems to me that you are missing out. Not only that, you’re hurting people along the way.

          • Dear James,
            Perhaps I underestimated your good will. It’s interesting that you could see my name and photo, yet were unable to identify me as a woman. However, I categorically reject your assertion that rightly interpreting the many lessons of both Old and New Testaments is somehow “hurting people.”
            What really, truly hurts people is forced “forgiveness” by victims without acts of atonement from abusers.
            My email address is micduckett@gmail.com.
            I challenge you to accept my invitation to explore these concepts with me.

          • James

            Thanks for your response. I didn’t look too closely at your photo. My interest was in what you wrote. To be clear, I don’t assert that rightly interpreting the many lessons of both Old and New Testaments is somehow “hurting people.”
            Speaking the truth without love is hurting people, though. I appreciate that you want to follow up; I’ll send you an email.

      • Study Luke 5:27-32. It’s a good start.

  • ” The gospel is the only thing in existence that can change your heart from a disposition of hatred or bitterness to love.”

    And another thing: this bizarre noodling that somehow erases the vastness of human experience prior to, and apart from the Gospel of Christ… I can’t even.
    It’s the most daringly hubristic statement I’ve read today, and that includes reports about Trump.
    Your notion that humans cannot overcome bitterness and forgive each other without the “help” of Christian belief is such a pathetically uneducated viewpoint that I wonder if you’ve ever read a piece of literature or taken a humanities course.
    Go educate yourself, son.
    You can’t learn everything about this life by watching Veggie Tales.

  • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

    Pressuring someone to forgive their abuser is abuse.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    It is not that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven, but rather that we forgive because He first forgave us. True grace transforms, it turns around hearts and minds and lives, and turns haters into lovers. When people identify themselves as “Christian” in some way but the forgiveness of others is absent, one does have to wonder how much reality there is behind that “Christian” label.

  • swbarnes2

    The GRACE report on Bob Jones University tells anyone everything they need to know about the evangelical notion of forgiveness.

    What a great story about a molester being forgiven on page 98! I’m sure you sincerely and wholeheartedly approve.

    https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b0a335c45776ee022efd309/t/5bb72a12a4222faf0f8bd4da/1538730518938/Bob%2BJones%2BU%2BFinal%2BReport.pdf

  • Douglas Cline

    I have an opposing opinion. If God forgave everyone as we are told to forgive, everyone would go to heaven, which will clearly not be the case. This viewpoint instructs us to do more than God does. God forgives sin on the basis of confession and repentance, which then leads to reconciliation. We are to never harbor bitterness, but t hat is not necessarily the same as forgiveness. There are times when forgiveness is not appropriate because it does further damage to the victim.

  • Douglas Cline

    Additionally I am quite tired of the evangelical emphasis on the negativity of humanity: ““None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” If this is our true condition, which it undoubtedly is, we stand equally as incapable of repaying the debt we owe before our Master.”
    The total depravity view of humanity is no longer a Christian’s default condition because the New Covenant promises us a new heart and mind (Jer 31; Ezekiel 36-37). The fourth soil in the parable of the sower in Luke 8 bore much fruit from a good and noble heart. Paul said in Acts 24:16 that he took pains to always have a blameless conscience before God and people. Clearly, Paul did not believe he was incapable of making a good choice.
    Yet evangelicals continue to pound how evil we are and incapable of doing any good. Is it any wonder that the church is dying under the weight of such negativity and imbalanced Bible teaching? When is enough going to be enough and some biblical balance restored in forming a biblical anthropology?

  • Rick Cordell

    It seems to me that the most popular and widespread response to the challenging teaching of Jesus re. forgiveness is not to maintain a contradictory position, or even to rationalize it and explain it away (whether hermeneutically or culturally). In contemporary Christianity in the West, anyway, the most common response is to simply redefine forgiveness, making it simply into a subjective personal (=one-sided) decision to release oneself (the offended party) from any feelings of resentment or bitterness, thus achieving personal “peace.” “I want you to know that I have forgiven you; but I have no obligation to remain in relationship with you, at least until you meet my conditions.” John Townsend (in Beyond Boundaries) rebuked this misuse of the boundaries issue. The gospel and its aspects are not foundationally transactional, but relational. The forgiveness being espoused by such thinking leaves the other party shunned if not dehumanized. They feel as if the first party has peace, and all they get are the pieces. Divorcing forgiveness from any sincere working toward confession, repentance, reconciliation, and restoration is a cheap counterfeit of what the Bible teaches. At root it denies the enabling grace of God in the hearts of both parties, brought about by the power of the Spirit of God.

    The extreme examples–usually involving severe and continuing abuse–do not upend the doctrine, and thus imply that there are things that are too hard for the Almighty God; they must be seen as a point in the process, yet unfinished, when either or both are not willing to avail themselves of that grace, in submission to what God wants to happen in their relationship. [Of course there need to be prompt steps taken to stop violence and abuse! Only foolish people suggest otherwise. But strong effort must be made to establish protection without closing the door to future healing of the parties and their relationship.] Not availing oneself of that grace can either be due to (1) lack of spiritual maturity (including lack of faith which underlies the disobedience), or (2) to the veneer of religiosity covering the lack of regeneration, which of course makes any complete reconciliation and restoration on a spiritual level clearly impossible. I think that this latter situation is what Veith is warning about. Full-orbed forgiveness as portrayed in Scripture is really a work of transforming grace in the heart, by the Holy Spirit, and serves as authentication of that relationship that exists within the Body of Christ that is both vertical and horizontal.

    Since our culture has rejected the words and work of God as a reality, it cannot produce on its own what only God as Redeemer can do, even though it can strive to make helpful and partial moves in that direction (civility, courtesy, magnanimous actions, and other such socially admirable qualities). But when the “church” waters down the teaching of Jesus and Paul and John to what is culturally palatable, things are in a desperate way. Then all we can offer is the “stone” of psychologized adjustment: the palliative of pain management and comfort recovery that remains curved in upon the self.

    • Douglas Cline

      Your writing is impressive, but it’s not very clear to me what your main point is.
      “It seems to me that the most popular and widespread response to the challenging teaching of Jesus re. forgiveness is not to maintain a contradictory position, or even to rationalize it and explain it away (whether hermeneutically or culturally).”
      This sentence confuses me Did you mean to insert the word ‘not’? It’s not clear to me what your stance of “Jesus re. forgiveness” actually is except at the end of the paragraph when you write: I’m not sure if you agree or disagree with the blog’s description of forgiveness.
      “Divorcing forgiveness from any sincere working toward confession, repentance, reconciliation, and restoration is a cheap counterfeit of what the Bible teaches. At root it denies the enabling grace of God in the hearts of both parties, brought about by the power of the Spirit of God.”
      I think we are saying the same thing that God forgives on the basis of confession and repentance, and to expect Christians to forgive the unrepentant is something beyond what God does. Do I understand you correctly?
      And as one retired from law enforcement, part of which was to investigate child abuses, extreme abusers are more common than most people think. And the abusers abuse because they are narcissistic, otherwise they would not abuse their children. And in my experience, narcissists seldom repent. My late mother-in-law is a perfect example, who abused her children horribly.
      Your response appears to me to be characterized by statements of extremes.

    • “The extreme examples–usually involving severe and continuing abuse–do not upend the doctrine, and thus imply that there are things that are too hard for the Almighty God; they must be seen as a point in the process, yet unfinished, when either or both are not willing to avail themselves of that grace, in submission to what God wants to happen in their relationship. [Of course there need to be prompt steps taken to stop violence and abuse! Only foolish people suggest otherwise. But strong effort must be made to establish protection without closing the door to future healing of the parties and their relationship.] ”

      “There are, I presume, very fine people on both sides.”
      -Donald J. Trump

    • fractal

      It is up to the perpetrator to prove their commitment to lasting change.
      It is not up to the victim to forgive and hope for the best.

      That sounds like an abuser meme.

  • Johanan

    Paul and Peter preaches gospel of grace and not of condemnation.

    “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:42-43)

    “Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through Him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the Law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)

  • fractal

    Big difference between forgiveness and trust.

    Yes, you should forgive, if for no other reason than not to be weighed down by undischarged emotional goop.
    But you don’t have to, and often should not TRUST a person who has harmed you or another.

    I don’t think a lot of women in particular, understand this.

    • yeah, also, i don’t see a ton of offenders “falling onto their faces and begging forgiveness” of us, or anyone, really.