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.