Question: When do we forgive others?
Answer: When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581)
I think this is a very biblical definition of forgiveness. Each of its parts comes from a passage of Scripture.
1) Resist thoughts of revenge: Romans 12:19, "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord."
2) Don't seek to do them mischief: 1 Thessalonians 5:15, "See that no one repays another with evil for evil.
3) Wish well to them: Luke 6:28, "Bless those who curse you."
4) Grieve at their calamities: Proverbs 24:17, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles."
5) Pray for them: Matthew 5:44, "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
6) Seek reconciliation with them: Romans 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men."
7) Be always willing to come to their relief: Exodus 23:4, "If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him."
Here is forgiveness: when you feel that someone is your enemy or when you simply feel that you or someone you care about has been wronged, forgiveness means,
1) resisting revenge,
2) not returning evil for evil,
3) wishing them well,
4) grieving at their calamities,
5) praying for their welfare,
6) seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
7) and coming to their aid in distress.
All these point to a forgiving heart. And the heart is all important Jesus said in Matthew 18:35—"unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
What Forgiveness Is Not
But now notice what is not there in this definition. Notice what forgiveness is not.
1. Not the Absence of Anger at Sin
Forgiveness is not the absence of anger at sin. It is not feeling good about what was bad.
... You are not expected to feel good about what happened. Anger against sin and its horrible consequences is fitting up to a point. But you don't need to hold on to that in a vindictive way that desires harm ... You can hand it over to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23) again and again, and pray for the transformation [of the offending party]. Forgiveness is not feeling good about horrible things.
2. Not the Absence of Serious Consequences for Sin
... sending a person to jail does not mean you are unforgiving to him. My pastor friend has been part of putting two of his members in prison for sexual misconduct. Can you imagine the stresses on that congregation as they come to terms with what forgiveness is!
More Help from Watson
Thomas Watson was helpful to me again on this point. He asks,
Question: Is God angry with his pardoned ones?
Answer: Though a child of God, after pardon, may incur his fatherly displeasure, yet his judicial wrath is removed. Though he may lay on the rod, yet he has taken away the curse. Correction may befall the saints, but not destruction. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 556)
This gives us a pointer to how we may at times have to discipline a child in the home, or a leader in the church, or a criminal in society. We may prescribe painful consequences in each case, and not have an unforgiving spirit.
The biblical evidence for this is found in numerous places.
One example, in the book of Hebrews. On the one hand the book teaches that all Christians are forgiven for their sins; but on the other hand it teaches that our heavenly Father disciplines us, sometimes severely. In Hebrews 8:12 it says, "I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." Then in Hebrews 12:6, 10 it says,
Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives . . . [Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.
So our sins are forgiven and forgotten in the sense that they no longer bring down the wrath of a judge, but not in the sense that they no longer bring down the painful spanking of a Father.
Another example is found in the life of king David, the man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). He committed adultery and killed Uriah. Nathan the prophet came with stinging words to him in 2 Samuel 12:9, Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.
David is broken by this indictment and says (in verse 13), "I have sinned against the Lord." To which Nathan responds on behalf of God, "The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die." But even though God had forgiven him—his sin is taken away—Nathan says (in verse 14), "However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die." In fact Nathan says that the consequences of the sin will be even greater. Verses 10–13: Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife . . . Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your companion, and he shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.
A third example is found in Numbers 14 where Joshua and Caleb tell the people of Israel that they can indeed go up and possess the promised land. The people are angry and want to stone them and go back to Egypt. God intervenes and says to Moses that he is about to wipe out the people and make him a nation greater and mightier than they (v. 12). But Moses pleads with God (in v. 19) for their forgiveness. "Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, just as Thou also hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now."
So the Lord responds (in v. 20), "I have pardoned them according to your word." But this does not mean that there are no painful consequences for their disobedience. In verse 21–23 God says, As I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers.
They were forgiven but the consequence of their sin was that they would not see the promised land.
Psalm 99:8 takes all these examples and sums them up like this: "O Lord our God, Thou didst answer them; Thou wast a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds."
So forgiveness is not the absence of serious consequences for sin.
3. Forgiveness of an Unrepentant Person?
One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn't look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person.
In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3–4, "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." So there's a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.
But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matthew 18:17), we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).
The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.
Thomas Watson said something very jolting: "We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him." (Body of Divinity, p. 581)
You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don't trust you. That is what the woman whose husband abused her children had to say.
But O how crucial is the heart here. What would make that an unforgiving thing to say is if you were thinking this: What's more, I don't care about ever trusting you again; and I won't accept any of your efforts to try to establish trust again; in fact, I hope nobody ever trusts you again, and I don't care if your life is totally ruined. That is not a forgiving spirit. And our souls would be in danger.
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