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When to Forgive Others

Brenton C. Ferry

When should you forgive someone who sins against you, and why? Should you forgive the person when he sins against you, or should you only forgive the person after he has asked you for forgiveness?

Jay Adams argues that you must not forgive someone until he or she first repents and asks for forgiveness, because God only forgives people who repent and ask for forgiveness.[1] What does the Bible say about this?

To be sure, you must forgive someone who repents and asks for your forgiveness. Luke 17:3-4 says, "If he repents, forgive him." But you should also forgive the offender if he or she does not repent. Mark 11:25-26 says, "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses."

The General Concept of Personal Forgiveness

By "forgive," I mean to "stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake" (New Oxford American Dictionary). Someone insults you, or your wife, or your children, or your race and heritage, or offends you, or slanders you, or lies to you or about you, or ignores you, or talks over you, or constantly disagrees with you, or acts condescending towards you, or criticizes you, or cheats on you, or hurts your feelings. To forgive someone when something like that takes place is to not harbor feelings of resentfulness and bitterness towards the one who offended you. Let it go. Bear with it. Get over it. Tolerate it.

And then go beyond forgiveness by returning the offense with gracious acts of kindness. Return hate with love. "Repay no one evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17). "Beloved, never revenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God" (12:19). "[I]f your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink" (12:20). "But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44). "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

You must replace feelings of wrath and resentment and vengeance with feelings of kindness, affection, and love. And then perform acts in keeping with your forgiving heart. All real Christians can do this to one degree or another, because we all have the Holy Spirit.

Why Does God Forgive People?

When someone like Jay Adams wrongly says you should condition your forgiveness on the repentance of the other person because God only forgives those who are repentant, remember that God also only forgives the elect. God also only forgives people whose debt was paid for by the death of Christ. God also only forgives people who are born again. God also only forgives people who trust Christ alone, who repent, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified by virtue of their union with Christ. Yet, we do not condition our forgiveness of other people upon such things. The Bible never tells individuals to grant forgiveness on the same condition(s) that God grants forgiveness.

In fact, ultimately, God, out of love, forgives the people he wants to forgive, and does not forgive the people he does not want to forgive, according to his unconditional, sovereign choice in election (Rom. 9). We don't have that kind of choice about whom we forgive and whom we don't forgive. There is no parity of conditions between God's manner of forgiving people who sin against him, and our manner of forgiving people who sin against us.

Why Do We Forgive Unconditionally?

Instead, we are required to forgive those who sin against us because vengeance belongs to the Lord. Put another way, we are to forgive those who sin against us not because they have repented, but because God will judge them (Gen. 50:19). When you begin conditioning your forgiveness upon the repentance of those who offend you, you are sinning against the throne of God, trying to assume to yourself his place. You are playing God. But you are not allowed to pick up his gavel. That is why you must forgive others. You do not have the right to withhold forgiveness. You are just a sinner like everyone else. If someone offends you, get over it, because you deserve worse. You take care of being grateful and humble, and let God take care of being offended and judgmental.

If you want to gain the repentance of one who hurts you, the Bible says to return good for evil, which will heap "burning coals" on that person's head. This means you will make the person feel guilty for what he did to you. You will prick his conscience. To wait for the offender to repent before you forgive him is to short-circuit this process.

If it is important enough, rebuke the person. But whatever you do, freely forgive the offender from your heart before the sun goes down, or before you pray, or before you worship God.

Other reasons for forgiving others apart from their repentance include God's providence (Gen. 50:20), God's common grace (Matt. 5:45), and his forgiveness of you (Matt. 6:12, 14; Mark 11:26; 1 John 4:11).

In God's providence he uses the evil intentions of our enemies to our benefit. It is part of God's larger plan for you to be offended by others (for your own good). To hold a grudge against your enemy is an indirect way of holding a grudge against God.

In God's common grace he is withholding the full extent of his wrath for a time. Therefore, you should exercise the patience of forgiveness and let the Lord deal with your enemies when he wants.

And finally, if you have been forgiven then you should reflect that in your own life, by being gracious with others. Remember the parable of the wicked servant (Matt. 18:21-35).

The Keys of the Kingdom

The only Christians who condition forgiveness upon repentance are church elders as they preside in an official capacity over matters of church discipline. This is called the doctrine of the keys of the kingdom. Elders have the responsibility to remove unrepentant sinners from church membership because whatever the elders bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:18). That is to say, there is an analogous relationship between membership in the visible church and membership in the invisible church, which the elders are responsible for maintaining. If a church member proves to be a non-Christian by a scandalous lack of repentance, the member is censured with excommunication (1 Cor. 5). When the person repents, he is forgiven and reinstated into membership (2 Cor. 2). Do not confuse the exercise of forgiveness in the judicial-ecclesiastical context with forgiveness on the personal level.

Endnotes

[1] Jay E. Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving: Learning to Forgive One Another God's Way (Amityville: Calvary Press, 1994).

Brenton C. Ferry is pastor of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Ordained Servant, January 2009.