Ronald H. Steele, Langeley, BC, Canada
Is forgiveness by a Christian unconditional?
It is commonly taught that a spiritual Christian will always forgive anyone who wrongs him. Yet, common sense indicates that there are circumstances in which this is not possible or even unjust. Even God does not forgive all men unconditionally, so how is it the will of God that believers should always forgive and leave the results to Him?
The subject of forgiveness is central to the plan of salvation. Christianity is characterized by forgiveness available through the work of Christ. Christians are to be known by their forgiving attitude towards each other and towards others. Because of this some feel that the honourable thing for a Christian to do is to forgive, whatever the circumstances. It is believed that the only person hurt is the one who refuses to forgive.
Christian opinion differs considerably on the matter
Some Christian groups go so far as to state that God has provided forgiveness freely for all – just enjoy it! Certainly we would all agree that universal forgiveness is available but it is not unconditionally provided to all men. The Lord Jesus said clearly, ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish’, Luke 13. 3.
Because we are forgiven, does ‘forgiving one another’, as taught in Ephesians 4. 32, mean that we are to forgive our fellow believers unconditionally simply because they are our brethren? There is a difference in what eminent believers teach. GILL states, ‘Forgiveness should be granted without asking for it’. SPURGEON recommends a prayer, ‘Lord, I most heartily forgive all who may have done me wrong’. On the other hand, W. E. VINE writes, ‘If certain conditions are fulfilled there is no limitation to Christ’s law of forgiveness, Matt. 18. 21, 22. The conditions are repentance and confession, Matt 18. 15-17; Luke 17. 3’. Or, ROWAN JENNINGS, ‘If forgiveness is to be granted, then the offender must be repentant, must confess wrongdoing, and must be changed in outlook’. The above discussion indicates that good brethren differ in their understanding of how forgiveness ought to be applied. What is the answer? What does God’s word really teach? How then are we to best understand these contrary views?
Forgiveness in the Lord’s teaching
When the Lord Jesus, in the New Testament, introduces the subject in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ it is notable that He first addresses the one offending with the words, ‘If thy brother hath ought against thee . . . go, be reconciled to thy brother’, Matt 5. 23. Having said this, the Lord then introduces in the well-known ‘Lord’s Prayer’ the saying that we have forgiveness ‘as we forgive our debtors’ introducing a condition, Matt. 6. 12-15. Two principles are taught here, first, forgiveness follows confession or repentance, second that our forgiveness of fellow men is to be consistent with God’s character.
Distictions are provided by the use of two differing Greek words
The matter is made much clearer when we realize that the New Testament uses two different words to explain forgiveness whereas English uses only one word to describe two different concepts. The first word, aphiemi, is used for true forgiveness effecting full reconciliation. The second word for forgiveness is charizomai which is bestowing an unconditional forgiveness and this is the kindly treatment of a brother who has offended, spoken of in Ephesians chapter 4 verse 32.
Let us look at the application of forgiveness as charizomai, ‘forgiving . . . if any have a quarrel (complaint) against any’, Col. 3. 13. Two brethren or two sisters, such as Euodias and Syntyche in Philippians chapter 4 verse 2, may have had a difference of opinion over an issue or a misunderstanding about something. One or the other may have since shown a change of mind. Instead of demanding a formal apology or holding out against the other, the matter can be dropped. Another situation would be if someone does something not meant to hurt but irritating just the same, the offence should be ignored, as in Luke chapter 7 verse 42, the debtor had nothing to pay and was forgiven. Doubtless, the debtor would have if he could have paid. The sincere desire to pay despite inability was evident. The lender should forgive if at all possible. In 2 Corinthians chapter 2 verse 7 the brother has been disciplined and he has suffered enough, now it is time to show love to him.
Let us look at forgiveness using the word aphiemi. Matthew 18 verses 15 to 17 says, ‘Moreover if thy brother shall trespass (sin) against thee’ he is to be told about his fault. If he will not listen he is to be brought before the assembly and then if still unrepentant, and therefore not forgiven, ostracized. This is where forgiveness as represented by aphiemi applies.
Aphiemi is different from charizomai, as more judicial in character and involves not so much kindness but complete release from the wrongdoing and full reconciliation with the wronged person. This is forgiveness for intentional wrong. Justice demands that wrong should be acknowledged in order for forgiveness and reconciliation to take place. The ‘Court Room Epistle’ Romans, uses the words of David, ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven (aphiemi)’, Rom. 4. 7. It is necessary for the offender to acknowledge his or her behaviour and not continue as if no wrong had been done. Perhaps the greatest use of aphiemi is that of the Lord Jesus in Mark chapter 15 verse 37. The cry of the Lord Jesus as He finished the work of the cross was with a loud voice – the voice of victory and power – and is described as aphiemi. Although the syntax and connotation cannot be translated into English, this cry seems to indicate that the great work of the cross is done and all those who repent and believe in Him are released or forgiven from all their sin. Oh, how marvelous is the work of the Saviour! ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out’, Rom. 11. 33.
In the New Testament forgiveness is often associated with instructions
Luke chapter 17 verse 3 is very instructive in saying, ‘If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him’, not forgive him. And if he repents, forgive (aphiemi) him. As W. E. VINE states in his description of the use of aphiemi the condition for forgiveness or aphiemi is repentance and confession. This condition for forgiveness is borne out in Peter’s rebuke of Simon, in Acts chapter 8 verse 22, and in the requirement for confession as the means of forgiveness as stated in 1 John chapter 1 verse 9. The requirement for dealing with one another is the same as the requirement for our having fellowship with our heavenly Father. This is consistent with the sentiment of the Lord’s Prayer.
There are other instructions associated with aphiemi, or forgiveness, given to us. Not only is confession required and is forgiveness to be given consistent with the forgiveness we have received, but it is to be from the heart, Matt. 18. 35, and it is to be given without limit as often as confession is made, Matt. 18. 21. Just as our forgiveness is so complete that our sins will never be brought before us again so we are to completely free our brethren who have confessed their sin and never bring up the matter again.
The pathway of forgiveness
In conclusion, if a situation is such that we can, in love, ignore it, particularly if the brother or sister has already done all that is possible under the circumstances, we should show kindness or love consistent with charizomai and not make an issue of the believer’s weakness. On the other hand, where a brother has intentionally wronged another the matter should not be ignored but in faithfulness brought before him, in order to correct wrong and prevent others being hurt as well with a view of restoring genuine fellowship.
May the Lord grant us the kindness to excuse the weakness of our brethren and sisters. May we exhibit the humility to apologize when we are wrong, the courage to rebuke a brother who has done wrong, the willingness to ostracize the erring brother and grace to forgive the repentant.