The Christian Life: Must We Always Forgive?

Must Christians always forgive those who sin against them?

How would you answer this question?

I asked it at a recent youth retreat, but was greeted by a bunch of blank faces. Honestly, I think their confusion was understandable. Christians talk a lot about forgiveness, but we don't talk too much about this particular issue. On the one hand, it seems like the answer should be yes, we must always forgive because we know we've been forgiven all of our sins through Jesus. At the same time, it seems like this response would turn us into human doormats who can be sinned against with impunity. 

What makes this question even more confusing is that it's so practical. We all know what it's like to experience betrayal, pain, and loss. It's especially hurtful when that pain comes from those we trusted and considered our friends. How are we supposed to respond? What are we supposed to do?

A Look in the Book

Unfortunately, the problem isn't instantly cleared up by simply reading what the Bible has to say about the issue. For example, we have Jesus' words in Mark 11:25:

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

It sounds like Jesus is telling us that when we pray, we have to forgive everyone who has sinned against us if we ourselves want to be forgiven by God. But then we read Jesus' words in Luke 17:3:

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

Here, Jesus seems to be saying that we should forgive someone only if he or she repents first. We're not obligated to forgive the sinning brother or sister, only to rebuke him or her for sinning.

Paul Tripp and Tim Lane shed some light on this quandry in their book, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. Here's what they say:

The verses are talking about two different aspects of forgiveness. Mark 11:25 is talking about forgiveness as a heart attitude before God.... When I consider someone's sin as I stand before the Lord, I am called to have an attitude of forgiveness toward the person who sinned against me. This is non-negotiable....

Luke 17:3, on the other hand, is talking about forgiveness as a horizontal transaction between me and the offender. This is often referred to as reconciliation. The point Luke 17:3 makes is that, while I am to have an attitude of forgiveness before the Lord, I can only grant forgiveness to the other person if he repents and admits he has sinned against me.... The vertical aspect of forgiveness is unconditional, but the horizontal aspect depends upon the offender admitting guilt and asking for forgiveness.

Forgiveness: Vertical and Horizontal

Recognizing the vertical and horizontal dimensions of forgiveness is crucial. Vertically speaking, we must harbor no bitterness towards others in our hearts because we've been forgiven by God. Instead, we must be willing and eager to forgive (Col 3:13; 1 Pet 4:8).

That's hard! In fact, it's impossible. Being willing to forgive anyone, especially those who have caused deep pain and suffering, is counterintuitive—it isn't normal. It means being willing to shoulder the emotional and physical cost yourself instead of trying to get revenge. You and I won't naturally do that.

But just think for a moment of Jesus' crucifixion. As he hung there on the cross, surrounded by his enemies, experiencing unimaginable physical suffering and shameful verbal abuse, Jesus prayed for them. Do you remember what he said? "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus was praying, not just for his enemies all around him, but for his enemies throughout time. It was OUR sins that sent Jesus to the cross. It was for you and me that Jesus hung there, despised by men and rejected by God the Father. Jesus was asking the Father to forgive us, to show us mercy...and God answered that prayer! Just think about that! Jesus was willing and eager to forgive us even as he was being sinned against. Only when we know that our sins against God have been forgiven can we then forgive others. That's the vertical aspect of forgiveness.

At the same time, sin creates a real barrier in the horizontal relationship between the offended party and the offender that can't be ignored. That barrier can only be broken down through repentance—humbling yourself, admitting your sin to the other person, and turning away from that sin. But there's a problem—that rarely happens. Just as it's unnatural for people to forgive, it's also unnatural to repent of sins and ask for forgiveness. It requires a true change of heart and a deep humility. Without those things being present in the offender, the wounded and broken relationship can't truly be restored.

That's why Jesus gives us instructions for working towards reconciliation in Matt 18:15-17:

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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 collector."

Jesus tells us to rebuke our brother, not out of spite or vengeance, but out of love for him. It's a wakeup call, an attempt to make the other person see his sin and turn from it so that the relationship can be restored.


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