Even God’s forgiveness of us is NOT one-sided.

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Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

-Colossians 3:13, NIV

“If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

-John 20:23, NLT

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

-I John 1:9, NIV

For much of my Christian life, I considered forgiveness as a simple matter. The wronged party has absolute power to forgive the one who sinned against him. It was a one-sided deal. This is what I was taught at church on the matter as well as what I was taught professionally as a pastor and chaplain.

Reading the Bible more carefully makes me question how accurate this “unilateral forgiveness” teaching is.

From various Scriptures including Colossians 3:13 quoted above, Christians are to forgive in the manner or way Jesus forgave us. So, this begs the question:

How did Jesus forgive us?

Is forgiveness from God simply one-sided or does it require a response from the sinner in order to experience said forgiveness?

While the provision of forgiveness of God is available to all, not all will experience that forgiveness and enter God’s Kingdom (e.g. Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Corinthians 5:14). This is what I mean by forgiveness from God is not one-sided. The offer is one-sided, but it requires a response from the wrongdoer for the wrongdoer to actually be forgiven.

We can see this principle at work in one of the key verses regarding forgiveness from God in the New Testament: I John 1:9. God requires that we confess our sins (“if”) and then God “will forgive” the sins. Notice two things from that sequence:

1) The forgiveness process is conditioned (“if”) upon confession of said sins to God. This requires humility in both recognizing something that we did or did not do as sin. Further, we have to humble ourselves to admit that we wronged God by coming to Him in confession.

2) The forgiveness is granted in the future–i.e. “will forgive.” This makes absolutely zero sense if one is in the unilateral forgiveness camp. The sin–from that perspective–is already forgiven by God. It is in the past. The language in the verse is forward looking, though. That suggests one is not yet forgiven–in some sense–until one confesses one’s sin. In other words, a response from the sinner is required even by God for forgiveness to be actualized.

Another verse that is confounding to the “unilateral forgiveness” crowd is from Jesus speaking to His disciples in John 20:23. In this verse, Jesus charges them with the power and authority not to forgive!

If not forgiving someone is always a sin, then why would Jesus give His disciples such authority and power to NOT forgive someone?

The authority and power not to forgive are suggestive to me that under some circumstances–e.g. remorseless sinning–it may be inappropriate to forgive. Whether or not I am correct on that point, I think it goes without saying that Jesus would not charge His disciples with doing something that is always sinful. So, some circumstance must call for refusing to forgive as a Christ follower and leader.

This forgiveness teaching applied to adultery and infidelity:

1) If a cheating spouse repents, faithful spouses are called to forgive. I see that modeled from Christ’s teaching consistently. We are not to stubbornly hold onto the sin(s) in the face of a humble and repentant cheater. However, that does not mean the marriage is saved. Forgiveness does not erase the impact or consequences of the sin. It just frees the sinner from experiencing a just punishment for the sin.

2) Many faithful spouses never hear a full confession or experience a repentant, humble cheater coming to them for forgiveness. I think that places the cheater in the same place we are prior to seeking God’s forgiveness. It is available–as we, faithful spouses, are faithful to Christ’s teaching on the matter–but the cheater is not forgiven until he or she seeks it out in humility and repentance.

3) Forgiveness for a faithful spouse dealing with an unrepentant (ex) spouse is a matter of transferring the account to God. I am not God. It is not my job to hand of judgment and punishment as if I am the world’s judge and executioner. At some point, faithful spouses need to let go of the injustice and trust our Just God will handle the situation righteously. This also positions us to move forward without the past controlling us with rage and bitterness. We are acknowledging–by handing it to God–that the sin(s) may be forgiven but the account settling is now being handled by God. In other words, forgiveness is available but not actualized until the sinner reaches out for it in repentance and humility (see point 2).  By the way, I do not see God settling accounts without the sinner doing what he or she can to make it right with the person(s) that they wronged.

1 thought on “Even God’s forgiveness of us is NOT one-sided.”

  1. Generally, I agree with what you say. Much of the following is based on comments I made on another forum recently. I will provide links to them for anyone who wishes to see the entire discussion. Perhaps you will find it of interest.

    First, we need to look at the definition of forgiveness. I find two definitions of forgive:
    1. Stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for (an offense, flaw, or mistake).
    2. Cancel (a debt).

    So, we already have two definitions that differ greatly. As you can imagine, that leads to significant difficulties in discussion. It is my perception that Definition 1 is what is commonly understood today as forgiveness. Definition 2 is what I believe is usually meant in the New Testament. For simplicity, going forward I will refer to this as FD1 (Forgiveness Definition 1) for the first, and FD2 for the second.

    “The wronged party has absolute power to forgive the one who sinned against him. It was a one-sided deal.”

    Well, only the wronged party has the power to forgive (FD2). No one can make you forgive (FD2), so, in that sense, it is a one-sided deal.

    “From various Scriptures including Colossians 3:13 quoted above, Christians are to forgive in the manner or way Jesus forgave us.”

    I agree, but some interpret this passage to mean that we must always unconditionally forgive (FD1 or FD2?) others because God has forgiven (FD2) us. Sometimes stated like: How can we not forgive (FD1 or FD2?) others when we have been forgiven (FD2) so much?

    They will also argue with passages like this:
    [Matt. 6:15 NASB] 15 “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
    They contend that you must forgive (FD1 or FD2?) others unconditionally or you will not be forgiven (FD2, I presume).

    It seems that the church today has subscribed to a worldly, psychological theory that you must forgive, with or without repentance, to avoid bitterness, etc. I strongly disagree that forgiveness (FD2) is necessary to avoid these negative consequences. What is actually necessary is to forgive (FD1), that is, release their sin to God. Just like making a child say “I’m sorry” does not make them repentant, “forgiving another’s sin” does not mean you have released their sin to God.
    Note: Before continuing, one person “forgiving another’s sin” is not providing absolution for the sin. Only God can do that.

    By the time of Jesus, the Jewish scholars had developed a comprehensive understanding of forgiveness, repentance, and all associated behaviors. Repentance was required before forgiveness, and restitution was expected when possible. Understanding this is important, because this Jewish understanding of forgiveness would have been presumed by the Jews at the time of Jesus. In other words, Jesus did not need to mention repentance as necessary for forgiveness (FD2) because they already understood it was necessary.

    I realize that Jesus never says repentance is necessary for forgiveness. However, it is also true that Jesus never says repentance is not necessary for forgiveness. So, let’s consider the totality of the New Testament. Jesus’ statements in Matt. 18:15-17, Luke 17:3,4, and John 20:23 are relevant. In my opinion, they are more in line with conditional repentance than unconditional.

    It is my opinion that the totality of the New Testament scripture is more consistent with conditional forgiveness (FD2) (repentance is necessary first) than unconditional forgiveness (repentance is not necessary). However, I do not think either position can be proven directly from the scripture.

    For example, Eph. 4:32 [NASB] says “… forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”. Those who support unconditional forgiveness interpret this to mean that we are to forgive others because God has forgiven us. I emphasize “because” since it is key to the understanding. However, the verse reads “just as”, not “because”. In fact, I can find no major English translation that uses “because”. It is my belief that “just as” in this verse means we are to forgive others according to the same fashion God uses in forgiving us. From this understanding, and presuming you agree that God requires repentance before forgiveness, we should not forgive others without their repentance.

    Here are links to my comments on the other blog:

    Comment 1

    Comment 2

    Comment 3

    Comment 4

    “Forgiveness does not erase the impact or consequences of the sin. It just frees the sinner from experiencing a just punishment for the sin.”

    We may or may not be in a position to punish another. It may even be best if the sinner is punished appropriately.

    “By the way, I do not see God settling accounts without the sinner doing what he or she can to make it right with the person(s) that they wronged.”

    I presume you are referring to restitution. Although this was often required in the Mosaic Law, I don’t see that God requires this for forgiveness in the New Testament. Perhaps it was also assumed as part of the Jewish understanding?

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