Re-examining Biblical Forgiveness

Most Christians are taught today that we are to unconditionally forgive others.  In other words, we are to forgive others, whether or not they turn away from their sins.  The following passage is typically used as proof that God commanded unconditional forgiveness:

Matt 6:14-15
14    "For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15    "But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Seems clear enough, right?  But what exactly is forgiveness, biblically speaking?  Forgiveness in the Bible is primarily an ECONOMIC concept. A debt is incurred, and payment is required.   Mercy may be shown to the debtor, but the debt does not automatically disappear. "Forgiveness" is NEVER free, since somebody must pay for the debt.  If the debt is NOT paid by the debtor, then the creditor has to pay for that debt in some way, such as in taking a loss. 

Mankind's debt to God due to sin is our physical and spiritual death in hell forever.  God, as our creditor can only forgive if full payment is made.  God chose to take a major loss against Himself, by sacrificing His only-begotten Son, Jesus, on the Cross.  However, God, in His mercy, IF we repent of all our sins, will credit our account with Jesus' payment for our sins.   Thus, God will only forgive us of our sins, IF we repent of our sins.
Repentance in the Bible includes confession of our debt due to our sin, and our true attempt to turn around away from our sinful behavior. Not only that, God can only forgive such a debt if we acknowledge and accept God's method of payment of our debt: Jesus' death on the cross on our behalf.  If we choose to not accept this method of payment, we will then be expected to pay the full debt on our own.  This type of payment is simply not possible, because even a lifetime of "good works" cannot pay for even one sin.  Such tarnished human payment amounts to only being "filthy garments" (literally, dirty menstrual cloth):

Isa 64:6 For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

To lessen the full meaning of biblical forgiveness is to lessen the meaning of the Gospel.  The heathen world holds to a lessened meaning of forgiveness, because they simply do not want to acknowledge they owe infinite debt to God due to their own sin.  We need to show the world as witnesses of God a complete picture of the Gospel, which includes showing exactly what they owe their Creator.

As Christians, we certainly are to forgive others for their sins, otherwise, the Father will not forgive us. 

However, we also are commanded to forgive as the Father forgives:

Matthew 18:21-35

21  Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
22  Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
23  Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
24  And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
25  But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26  The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
27  Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
28  But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
29  And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
30  And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
31  So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
32  Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
33  Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
34  And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
35  So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

One of the key parts of this parable that Christians seem to overlook, is that we TWICE see CONFESSION and REPENTANCE occur in this parable.  Two different servants admitted they owed a debt (confession), and showed a willingness to try to make amends for that debt (repentance).  Other Scriptures make it clear that God the Father requires confession and repentance of sin in order to receive forgiveness of our sins:

I John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Acts 8:22
22    "Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.

Acts 26:20
20    but {kept} declaring both to those of Damascus first, and {also} at Jerusalem and {then} throughout all the region of Judea, and {even} to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.

The Old Testament teaches the same thing about how God forgives mankind:

Ezekiel 18:31-32
31    "Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel?
32    "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord GOD. "Therefore, repent and live."

God Himself therefore does not forgive unconditionally, but conditionally!  He requires confession of sin and repentance from it, whether one is a believer in Him or not.  If there is no confession of sin and repentance, then God does NOT forgive them!

Therefore, to be like God the Father, we do not unconditionally forgive others.  Scriptures teach us that we are to conditionally forgive others also:

Luke 17:3-4
3    "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
4    "And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him."

But what do we do about our brothers that refuse to repent of their offenses against us?  Matthew 18 makes that rather clear:

Matt 18:15-17
15    "And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
16    "But if he does not listen {to you,} take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.
17    "And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.

1 Corinthians chapter 5 deals with the very same thing, and clearly teaches that Christians are to judge other Christians, but they are not to judge UNBELIEVERS:

1 Corinthians 5:9-13
9    I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people;
10    I {did} not at all {mean} with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world.
11    But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one.
12    For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within {the church}
13    But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

Realize that unbelievers do not have the spiritual capacity to stop sinning, because they are spiritually dead.  This is why it is ridiculous for Christians to protest the sins of unbelievers.  Not only is it a waste of time, but it is unbiblical, since we are not supposed to judge "outsiders."  We are to let GOD judge them!  Instead, we need to let them know how to get out of their debt with God through the Gospel.

Is there a point in the reproving process where we forgive our brother?  Only IF he repents.  If he does not repent, we do NOT forgive him!  The Bible teaches us to conditionally forgive only. 

Many Christians today believe that Christian love (agape) requires unconditional forgiveness.  Love by such Christians is equated with automatic forgiveness of sin, whether or not there is confession and repentance of sin. However, biblical love requires us to forgive only if there is repentance of sin, otherwise, the passages I quoted above are wrong.

The Bible certainly teaches us that God loves all of mankind.  God's love was the catalyst for this:

John 3:16-18
16    "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
17    "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him.
18    "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Belief is the important first step towards salvation, but it must include confession of sin and repentance.  Even so, God does NOT unconditionally forgive, but requires that they have "believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."  "Name" is equivalent to authority.  This is not mere belief in Jesus, but trust in His authority to pay for our sins, which of course assumes that we have confessed our sins, and have in some way repented of them.  One may argue that a Christian can go to Heaven if they live in continual unrepentant sin after being saved.  However, they are to be rebuked, and must not be associated with by other Christians if they do not repent.

Bottom line:  God loves all mankind, but He forgives only some of them.  The Bible makes it clear that we are to do the same thing:

Matt 5:44
44    "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you

But how can we love those we do not forgive?  Most of us have heard sermons that teach us that we should unconditionally forgive, because if we do not, the anger will eat us from inside and cause us to become bitter.  First off, the Bible NEVER commands us to FORGIVE our enemies!  Here is a passage that helps us understand how we can love our enemies, but not forgive them:

Rom 12:19-21
19    Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath {of God,} for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord.
20    "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head."
21    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

How can one LOVE their enemies, yet want to heap burning coals upon their heads?  Not by forgiving them, but by overcoming their evil by doing good.  Please note that God's WRATH is promised for them, He WILL repay.  THIS is how we can love our enemies: TRUSTING GOD to avenge us!  When we TRUST God to punish our enemies, we can REST in that faith, and then in that faith, have the ability to LOVE the seemingly unlovable.  Our ANGER will subside, at least to a level that we can truly love our enemies.  This is how we prevent bitterness from entering our hearts.

Here is an interesting passage where believers in the future Tribulation have to deal with unrepentant sin done against them in this very way:

Rev 6:9-10
9    And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;
10    and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

If most of today's Christians were consistent, they would scold these believers for seeking vengeance for their deaths.  They would tell them to forgive their killers, and thus, let go of their anger, bitterness, and hardness of heart.  However, God does not say any such thing, but says this in the next verse:

11    And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until {the number of} their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also.

No scolding is done to them by our Lord.  Instead,  He simply requests them to rest upon Him and wait a little longer.  God definitely will fulfill their need and desire for vengeance, as seen in this promise from God to Tribulation believers:

Rev 13:10
10    If anyone {is destined} for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.


Rev 14:9-12
9    And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand,
10    he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
11    "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."
12    Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

The Tribulation saints are COMFORTED and given encouragement to persevere in their suffering and death by getting them to focus on GOD'S FUTURE VENGEANCE upon their enemies!  This is not just some abstract theology that should stay in some text book.  These are IMPORTANT promises that Tribulation saints will need to know in order to persevere through mankind's darkest moments.  These saints, just like us, are expected to obey God's Word, to love their enemy, and do GOOD to them, even as evil is done to them!  They do NOT have to forgive these evil unrepentant people!  Again, love does not require unconditional forgiveness.

In application, believers who are being persecuted and killed for their faith NOW in other countries could be greatly comforted, encouraged,  and strengthened by understanding biblical love and forgiveness, so they can persevere through their current trials that God is allowing them to go through!

I have a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology, and worked as a registered MFCC intern.  Even though I do not agree with all that I was taught in psychology,  I however do agree with what I was taught in regards to anger.  Anger is a valid emotional response to various negative circumstances in our lives. In psychology, we learned that anger must be managed, but not suppressed. Suppressed anger does not dissipate, but it destructively goes inward, and turns into one of various possible psychological disorders, typically depression.  I would argue that many depressed Christians are individuals who have tried to "forgive" unrepentant sinners, but instead, have merely suppressed their God-given anger. 

The Christian who trusts God to one day avenge the evil done by others against him, is given the reason and ability to put aside his anger and wrath, knowing that God's wrath will eventually make all things right.  This FREES the Christian up to love those who commit unrepentant sin against him, including his enemies (Col 3:1-17).  To unconditionally "forgive" someone who has not repented of their sin, cheapens not only forgiveness, but also lessens who GOD is before those around us.  God is Love, but He is also Righteousness and Justice.  None of His attributes conflict, but unfortunately, it is naive Christians who effectively  lower God down to pagan standards by only focusing on God's "love".  We need to raise our standards and behavior to GOD'S standards, to those found in the Bible!

Unconditional forgiveness is how the WORLD "forgives," and we should not behave in such a manner. 
By trying to forgive unconditionally, WE LEAVE GOD OUT OF THE PROCESS.  We have allowed pagan thinking to creep into much of our own Christian theology, and forgiveness is one area where we have allowed that to occur.  The only way to properly manage our anger is by TRUSTING IN GOD'S FUTURE VENGEANCE FOR US!  When we trust God to take care of avenging us, we are free to truly love our enemies, even while they are doing evil against us. We need to properly learn to forgive as the Father forgives, in order to truly lead the world out of their eternal debt to God by our example!  

How about when Jesus on the Cross prays, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34)?  It is important to know that the word "forgive" is the Greek word, aphiemi, and that it is translated VERY differently in many places in the Bible.  Here are some examples, with the word translated from aphiemi is capitalized:

Mt 4:11 - Then the devil LEFT Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

Mt 4:20 - Immediately they LEFT their nets and followed Him.

Mt 8:22 - But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and ALLOW the dead to bury their own dead ."

Mt 27:49 - But the rest of them said, "LET us see whether Elijah will come to save Him."

Mt 27:50 - And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and YIELDED up His spirit.

Since God does not unconditionally forgive, then, this verse must mean something other than forgiveness.  I would argue that the English translation should be, "Father, ALLOW them, for they know not what they do."  Jesus wanted to ALLOW His own sufferings to not be interrupted by the Father stopping it, so that He could pay for the sins of the world.  I do not think those who killed Jesus were forgiven for what they did here.  However, the Father, in theory, might have stopped the killers before they completed their task, if not for His Son's prayer to hold off punishment.

As one can see, the CONTEXT of the passage helps to determine how aphiemi should be translated.  Just as the word "save" in the Greek (sozo) does not ALWAYS refer to salvation from sin, aphiemi does not always mean "forgive."  The context is what determines its meaning, as we can see.

Some might question my assertion that Jesus did not ask God to forgive His killers but merely DELAY their judgment in order that Jesus could complete the full payment of sin by His suffering and death.  If you do, please consider what is taught in Psalm 69:21-28. This psalm is understood by both Jews and Christians as being a Messianic Psalm, one that speaks of the Messiah's future suffering.  In particular, it gives specific details about what Jesus was actually thinking and praying during His suffering:

Psalms 69:21-28
21 They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22 May their table before them become a snare; and when they are in peace, {may it become} a trap.
23 May their eyes grow dim so that they cannot see, and make their loins shake continually.
24 Pour out Thine indignation on them, and may Thy burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be desolate; may none dwell in their tents.
26 For they have persecuted him whom Thou thyself hast smitten, and they tell of the pain of those whom Thou hast wounded.
27 Do Thou add iniquity to their iniquity, and may they not come into Thy righteousness.
28 May they be blotted out of the book of life, and may they not be recorded with the righteous.

Does this sound like Messiah Jesus asking the Father to forgive His killers?  No, quite the opposite!  Jesus therefore did NOT ask the Father to FORGIVE those who were killing Him!

How about Stephen's prayer, in regards to his own murder, in the book of Acts? 

Acts 7:60  - "And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" And having said this, he fell asleep."

The phrase "hold against" comes from the single Greek word, histemi.  Histemi means "to stand."  Keep in mind that this is the same Greek word used just five verses earlier, which I will capitalize:

Acts 7:55 - But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus STANDING at the right hand of God;

In the Bible, when God stands, it is a sign of JUDGMENT:

Psalms 82:1,8
1 - God takes His STAND in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers.
8 ARISE, O God, judge the earth! For it is Thou who dost possess all the nations.

Jesus' normal position at the right hand of God is SITTING.  I would argue that Jesus was at that moment was preparing to JUDGE Stephen's killers.  At least this is what it clearly looked like to Stephen, biblically speaking.  Stephen was asking Jesus to SIT DOWN, and hold off judgment of his killers until some future time, probably in hopes that they would REPENT and turn to the true God.  

Also, think about it.  Why would God have to be asked to forgive someone?  This implies that God would NOT forgive if no such request to do so occurred.  Unfortunately, we all have had the unblical notion of unconditional forgiveness drilled into our brains for so long, that the insanity of it seems to make sense to us.  What kind of insanity does this lead to, practically speaking?

Unconditional forgiveness RE-DEFINES what forgiveness actually is:  Most of today's Christians who believe in unconditional forgiveness, unbiblically redefine forgiveness in this way:

"Forgiving certainly isn't forgetting."

Is this biblical?  Compare this to how God forgives:

Psalms 103:12 - As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

Isa 54:4 - Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; neither feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; but you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.

Isa 1:18 - "Come now, and let us reason together," says the LORD, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.

Psalms 25:7 - Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to Thy lovingkindness remember Thou me, for Thy goodness' sake, O LORD.

Isa 43:25 - I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins.

Isa 64:9 - Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD, neither remember iniquity forever; behold, look now, all of us are Thy people.

Heb 10:17-18 17 "And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more."
18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer {any} offering for sin.

The Bible teaches that God FORGETS the sins of those He FORGIVES!

God does just the opposite for those who do not repent:

Jeremiah 14:10 - Thus says the LORD to this people, "Even so they have loved to wander; they have not kept their feet in check. Therefore the LORD does not accept them; now He WILL REMEMBER their iniquity and call their sins to account."

Hosea 9:9 - They have gone deep in depravity as in the days of Gibeah; He will remember their iniquity, He will punish their sins.

Rev 16:19 - And the great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath.

Rev 18:5 - for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.

Somewhere during the development of psychology, the concept of "boundaries" came into being.   A psychologically healthy person creates and maintains healthy boundaries between themselves and all other people.  Boundaries typically vary depending upon a number of factors, such as kind of relationship, and behavior of those in a relationship.  

Unfortunately, many Christians and non-Christians have convinced themselves that they have forgiven somebody else, when in fact they have not.  Two indicators will tell us that there was no real forgiveness:

1 - There was not a complete reconciliation, a normal and full relationship was not restored
2 - The person who allegedly forgave another,  has not removed the boundary they put up shortly after they learned of the related offense.

In other words, God made reality so that NOBODY can truly forgive another, unless there is true repentance!  Forgiveness is meaninglesss to an unrepentant sinner who thinks that there is nothing they have to confess and repent about.

Boundaries are a good thing.  We SHOULD put up boundaries between us and people who are trying to hurt us, or do wrong to us.  GOD puts up bondaries between Himself and those trying to hurt or do wrong to Him.  

True forgiveness involves the ability to FORGET the sins of another, and to be RECONCILED with the sinner.  Reconciliation means:

the restoration of friendly relations.
"his reconciliation with your uncle"
synonyms: reuniting, reunion, bringing together (again), conciliation, reconcilement, rapprochement, fence-mending
(Google's definition of the word, reconciliation).

In other words, you have NOT FORGIVEN someone that you have not been reconciled with.  

If God forgave like many Christians and non-Christians forgive, God would say something like the following to unrepentant sinners when they first enter the Kingdom of Heaven:

"I forgive you.  BUT, I need to have boundaries between us. I am going to put you in a far away corner of my Kingdom, out of my sight, because I still remember what you did to Me that was bad."

Thankfully, God does not forgive any of us in this way.  

I am certainly no expert on how to fully forgive like God. However, with God's wisdom and strength through the Holy Spirit, we can forgive others the very way God forgives. I believe that many obedient Christians already forgive properly, but they do not word it the way I do.  

The theory of biblical forgiveness is easier to understand, than the actual PRACTICE of it.  We as Christians have to be WILLING to forgive other believers.   We MUST forgive them when TRUE confession and repentance of their sins occur.  Not only that, we must lovingly NOT forgive them when true confession and repentance of sin does NOT occur.  Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a believer is to stand strong against an unrepentant believer, who provides you with incomplete confession and repentance of their sins. Believers need to have discernment to tell the difference between this and true confession and repentance.  Jesus provides us with a biblical picture of  what the heart of the truly repentant looks like:

Luke 18:13
"But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

Matt 18:26  "The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.'

As the predicted falling away (apostasy) of Christians continues until Christ's return,  it is more important than ever to lovingly require full confession and repentance of sins we KNOW about in our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  Allowing the bad fruit of unrepentance in other believers make them no different in behavior and appearance than the evil APOSTATES that have infiltrated all our churches:

Matt 7:15-23
15    "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
16    "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn {bushes,} nor figs from thistles, are they?
17    "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
18    "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.
19    "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20    "So then, you will know them by their fruits.
21    "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.
22    "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'
23    "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'

True biblical forgiveness, and the reconciliation it provides,  is what makes us ONE in the Body of Christ.  God's ULTIMATE goal of biblical forgiveness is to take away the barrier between each other as strangers and enemies, and to have all believers to be built into ONE body and structure, the place where GOD can literally dwell in:

Ephesians 2:17-22
17    And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near;
18    for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
19    So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household,
20    having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner {stone}
21    in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord;
22    in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

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