On the day back in January when the news of his sexual misconduct first hit the media, President Clinton received this piece of advice from one of his friends (Dick Morris, a man of no small experience in these matters): “There’s a great capacity for forgiveness in this country, and you should consider tapping into it.” The President has decided to take that advice. For more than a week now, he has been asking us to forgive his sins.
When I first spoke about the scandal in Washington back in the spring, I observed that Christians should be careful not to make judgments until they knew the truth. Well, now we know the truth in all its sordid detail.
In one way or another, the President has confessed to breaking the seventh (adultery) and ninth (false witness) commandments. He has identified his actions as sins, and he has stated that they stem from his arrogance. At a recent prayer breakfast, he said he wants to have a broken and contrite spirit. So far so good. It is refreshing to hear anyone call a sin a sin these days, let alone the President of the United States.
Yet there are other aspects of Mr. Clinton’s apology which seem less satisfactory. It took him along time to apologize, for one thing. And once he started, he wasn’t very specific.
If anyone has ever tried to apologize to you before, you know that most apologies are like that. Human beings do not like to admit that they need forgiveness. If someone apologizes at all, it is usually long after an apology is due. It is rare to receive a thoroughly satisfactory apology.
So how good does an apology have to be before it should be accepted? In particular, should we forgive the President?
In a word, yes. Of course we should forgive the President. The Bible has plenty to say about forgiveness, but little or nothing at all to say about when we have the right to withhold forgiveness. If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matt. 6:14- 15). We must even forgive our enemies (Luke 11:4; 23:34).
What if there are doubts about how sincere Someone’s apology is? After all, by his own admission, President Clinton has misled us before. Yet the Bible does not give us the right or the ability to judge whether an apology is genuine or not. That is God’s business because he is the only one who knows what is in a man’s heart. Ultimately, God is the only one who can forgive.
But what if the sinner is likely to sin again? Shouldn’t we wait until Mr. Clinton he can behave himself?
This is what Peter was driving at when he asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive his brother. Surely some kind of limits have to be placed on forgiveness, Peter thought. Doesn’t there come a point when it is irresponsible to keep forgiving someone for the same sin over and over again?
Peter was sure there had to be a limit, but he was starting to realize how forgiving Jesus was, so he tried to overestimate: “Lord, bow many times shall I forgive my brother when be sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v. 21).
Not even close. Peter was off by a factor of seventy. Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seventy (v. 22). Anyone who tries to place limits on forgiveness doesn’t understand what forgiveness is all about. If the President asks for our forgiveness, however imperfectly, we should forgive him. Of course, being forgiven for sin and facing the consequences of sin are two very different matters. It is at this point that there seems to be most confusion in our nation.
As every parent knows, there are plenty of times when children are to be punished even after they have been forgiven. The same principle applies to the church. A week ago we held theological examinations in our presbytery. One of the questions went something like this: “If a minister has committed a scandalous sin, and if he is sorry for that sin, is it still possible for the church to suspend him from the ministry?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” A minister may be fully and freely forgiven for his sins. Yet he still may have to face the consequences for them.
The same principle applies to the rulers of nations. King David learned this lesson the hard way. Remember how it happened. His troops were off fighting a battle. ‘While things were pretty well shut down around the palace, David had a chance encounter with an attractive young whom, became sexually aroused, and had intercourse with her. When he heard that the woman was pregnant, he was so worried that the scandal might damage his kingship that he orchestrated an elaborate cover-up. Sound familiar?
It was not until David was accused that he finally confessed his sins. He said, “I have sinned against the LORD’ (2 Sam. 12:13a). David received the forgiveness he asked for. The prophet Nathan said to him, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die” (v. 13b). Nevertheless, David still had to face terrible consequences for his actions, including the death of his son.
David did not have a team of lawyers, but he tried every strategy he knew to avoid God’s judgment. He pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground (v. 16). But the child did not survive. From that point on, there was trouble in the kingdom, even though the king himself had received full pardon for his sins.
Receiving forgiveness for sin and facing the consequences of sin are two different matters. This is true for the home, the church, and the nation. The glory of God and the good of human community often require punishment for sin even when the sin has been forgiven.
As a minister of the gospel, it is not my place to pass judgment on matters such as the censure, resignation, or impeachment of President Clinton. Those are largely political matters, and they are matters about which Christians may well disagree. But those issues should not distract us from thinking clearly and biblically about repentance and forgiveness for sin. Those I of us who have received forgiveness for all our sins through Jesus Christ should be the most forgiving of all (Matt. 18:23-35).
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