Richard D. Phillips Question Box
Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia August 13, 2000
Copyright reserved Internet access via www.tenth.org
The question for us to consider tonight has to do with the forgiving of other peoples' sins. It begins with a reference to Romans 12:19-21, where the apostle Paul writes this:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The question is whether we must forgive people when they have yet to repent. Is forgiving the unrepentant to condone sin? The passage in Romans 12 is very clear. Instead of revenge we are to look for practical ways to minister grace to people who have hurt us. If they are hungry, we should be the ones to feed them; if they are thirsty, then they we should give them a drink. These are behaviors, but the attitude of forgiveness is implied. Christians are told to love their neighbors; it is God's to avenge.
You will sometimes hear it taught that only those who have repented should be forgiven, on the grounds that to do so is to encourage impenitent sin. Such people cite Luke 17:3-4, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him." This says that we need to speak truth to one another about our sins while eagerly receiving one another back when there is repentance. People therefore infer that without repentance we ought not to forgive. But that is not said here, nor elsewhere.
One of the main passages on this theme comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said in Mt. 5:43-46:
"You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
The point there is that if we only love people who are good to us then we are no different from the ungodly. Our relationship with God, our knowledge of forgiveness for our own sins, has made no impact on our attitude. Jesus says very plainly, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." It is by nature impossible to love those against whom you cherish a grudge. In the Lord's prayer we are taught to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mt. 6:12). Debtors are those who have not yet made things right, not those who have. We are not forgiven because we forgave, for we are saved through faith in Christ and not by any work we might do. And yet the holistic connection between our being forgiven and our forgiving others is so strong that Jesus could say, "When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins" (Mk. 11:25).
The key issue is our attitude towards others. The Greek word for "forgive" also means "letting go." Forgiveness is not about the other person but about you. The question is this: "Do you have the grace of Christ in your heart?" If you do it will enable you to let go of destructive feelings that otherwise would consume you. Yes, this is a process, even a difficult one, as is the whole of our sanctification. But it is a necessary part of our Christian life. Without forgiveness you are not yet free from the sin, unable to receive the healing grace and the love of God in the place of your pain and hurt.
Christians can forgive because we have a place to put our bitterness, even a God who is able to make things right. How can you forgive? Let me ask, "What difference does it make to have a God who has forgiven you? What right have you to hate when God sent His Son to die "while we were yet sinners" (Rom. 5:8). What difference does it make that we have an omnipotent God who will judge all sin at the end and who is going to take care of you, to heal you, to establish you in glory forever? This is why forgiveness is a divine grace, even a gift from God. We forgive by faith in Christ, just as we live by faith.
We need to see that the mandate to forgive is not only a command from God but also a gift from God. Forgiveness is necessary to purity of heart and gladness of soul, both of which are partners to godliness. We take our hands off our anger, because God is holding our hands; we can put sin away because God's love is pushing out our darkness.
Let's try a test case. You are a woman and a man takes you on a date. Then let's say he tries inappropriate sexual advances, which you refuse. Jesus tells you to forgive him, and that means that you should take your resentment and your anger to the cross for death. Therefore, you do not spew venom about him, you do not cultivate the ill root of bitterness, but you commit your cause to God and you choose by faith the Christian life of love.
But let's say he asks you out again. First of all, forgiveness does not mean fool-hardiness. You should politely decline. It would even be appropriate to inform of how his conduct has offended you. If he is sorry, I still wouldn't go out with him again, but forgiveness will be much easier. But if he does not you should pray for him. If he is hungry you should feed him, but not in your own living room!
But what if he raped you? That's a bit more difficult isn't it? Let me say this: the principles here don't change. But the process is a lot harder. You will need much grace; you will need close fellowship with the Savior of sinners; you will need a warm light to pierce the darkness. But to be free of that sin and its bondage, you still must forgive for the sake of Christ and with the love of God.
In Phil Ryken's recently released book, When You Pray, he tells the account of a Romanian pastor so badly beaten in a Communist prison that he was about to die. Startlingly, as he lay there the very guard who tortured him was thrown in, also terribly broken in body. He had been betrayed and beaten by his fellow jailers. That night the former torturer cried out in terror, "Pastor, please say a prayer for me. I have committed such crimes. I cannot die." The man who witnessed this event tells of how amazed he was when the pastor struggled over and said to the man who had viciously destroyed his body, while gently caressing his head, "I have forgiven you with all of my heart and I love you. If I who am only a sinner can love and forgive you, more so can Jesus who is the Son of God and who is love incarnate. Return to Him He wishes to forgive you much more than you wish to be forgiven." That pastor then listened, having first forgiven, to the long confession of this man's wretched crimes. Then they prayed to Christ together for their mutual forgiveness. Then they returned to their cots. And then they both died.1 It is hard for me to imagine anything I might do in all my life that would glorify God so much as that.
Let me conclude with some points about how to forgive. First, acknowledge that there has been sin. Forgiveness is not pretending; it is applying the balm of God's love to the scarred tissue of sin. Second, think about the person who hurt you as God sees them. They are not strong, but weak. Jesus could honestly say of those who plotted and carried out His hideous death, even while He was suffering, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34). Third, remember God's judgment. That was Paul's point. They will not win in the end, but will pay an eternity of judgment for what they have done unless they are forgiven. Fourth, remember the grace where you found your forgiveness. Grace was not merely applied to you, but given to become a part of you. Fifth and finally, there is a reason why forgiveness is so often spoken of in context with prayer. The best way to forgive another person is to talk to God about the sin, about the person, about the pain. Cry to Him. He is the God of grace, and the grace to forgive will come only from Him.
But you must forgive, if you are forgiven by God. That much the Scripture is very plain about. Paul writes, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." He is talking partly about the evil within you, which can only be taken away with the forgiving love of Christ.
1 C.f. Philip Graham Ryken, When You Pray, Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000. P. 143