Changing everything you thought you knew about forgiveness...

I wrote this as my massive paper on forgiveness of reconcilable offenses. This is how King's Seminary, Jack Hayford, and the like (one of my other books quoted has the forward by D. James Kennedy) are treating forgiveness. I'm inclined to agree with what I wrote (not just wrote it because the prof would want it written like this), but still not sure I would preach this yet. Feel free to comment on this latest brand of heresy :)... Oh, and do pardon the grammatical errors. I finished this thing at 2:00 in the a.m. and only had a half hour to proof read it. Oh, and I think I meant to say that forgiveness is both a decision and a discovery. I think I emphasized the discovery part. With no decision, there will be no discovery of it, though. Anyway, feel free to tell me everything that I said wrong :).
- your bro in Christ,
Resentment, bitterness, and unforgiveness are one of the largest issue involved in inner healing in today’s church and is perhaps one of the largest causes of physical sickness and disease. With many messages about the topic of forgiveness in virtually every denomination of church, it should seem like this would be an issue that the church would excel at. Sadly, this is not always the case and there may be a reason for that. Perhaps some of the underlying ideas related to forgiveness need to be removed because they are not biblical. Perhaps people do not always need to forgive when someone wrongs them. There are all sorts of new ideas about what the Bible really wants Christians to understand about forgiveness that are not exactly what is thought to be common knowledge for the church. To better understand forgiveness, one needs to first dismantle the wrong ideas concerning it, understand the Bible and forgiveness through two dimensions, and then see what biblically should occur for those who have committed an offense against another or had an offense committed against them.
In order to build a healthy foundation of what forgiveness is, one first needs to dismantle some of the wrong ideas about it by defining terms related to forgiveness and understanding the difference between forgiveness and other words that it is confused as being. Leah Coulter quotes the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament in defining forgiveness as “a voluntary release of a person or thing over which one has legal or actual control.” It involves canceling, removing, or releasing a debt that came through wrongdoing. It is not that the sin disappears, but rather the guilt from it is no more. Debt language is part of the definition of forgiveness because sinning is actually putting one into moral debt to God and to whoever they have sinned against. Those debts are only cleared through repentance – both to God and whoever has been sinned against. Repentance is not simply godly sorrow, confession, regret, a feeling, or an emotional experience at a church alter – although all of these can be important. True repentance is changing one’s mind and to do things differently. Jay Adams argues that the idea that may closely represent biblical repentance comes from Isaiah 55:7-8 where the wicked are called to forsake their ways and the evil are called to forsake their thoughts. It not only involves the decision to change and making all necessary apologies and restitution, it also involves the process of walking out the change. One other term that needs to be defined is the term avenge. It means simply to “give justice to someone who has been wronged.”
There are also a number of ideas that get confused with forgiveness. It is important to realize that there is a difference between accepting and forgiving. Accepting a person is based on the good that they are or do; forgiveness relates to their evil behavior. There also is a difference between excusing and forgiving. Excusing is when someone is no longer responsible for what occurred; forgiveness involves holding people accountable. Tolerating and forgiving are also different things. The former involves overlooking or ignoring what is occurring. Forgiveness involves what cannot be ignored or overlooked. Forgetting and forgiving also are different processes. People do not need to forgive what could simply be forgotten. According to Augsburger, “forgetting is passive, avoidant, repressive; it denies, detaches, dismisses… forgiving is active and aware; it is recognizing the injury, owning the pain, and reaching out to reframe, re-create, restore, reconstruct, rebuild, reopen what can be opened.” It should be clear then that forgiveness does not remove boundaries. There may be situations where a person will need to forgive a repentant individual who is in the process of change, but to force the person who has been sinned against to allow the offender complete access to their life while in the process of change is simply not wise or safe. Boundaries help the healing process until safety and trust can be restored – if they can ever be truly restored.
In order to truly understand the biblical idea of forgiveness, it will involve, not only dismantling the myths related to it, but also understanding the Christian walk and forgiveness in two dimensions rather than one. Due to the individualism of the American religious community, there can be a major overlooking of how important one’s walk with God is in the context of community. So often comments can be made about how “my walk with God is just between God and me” or that “I don’t need to ask someone for forgiveness because I already took care of it with God.” While these comments may not seem too wrong in the context of American culture, they run very contrary to the Bible’s approach. The Bible always indicates a link between one’s walk with God and their walk with others. 1 John 4:20, 21; 5:2 clearly shows this.
If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.

Clearly, John makes a clear link in how the Christian walk is lived in two dimensions – between oneself and God and oneself and others – not simply in a unilateral approach. John is not the only one to do this.
The Bible lists the two greatest commandments. Not only are Christians called to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” but also a commandment that is “just like it,” according to Jesus: to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39, NIV). Jesus did not make much distinction between loving God and loving one’s neighbor which is why He had two greatest commandments when He was only asked for one. The two were just like each other in His mind.
Through out the Bible the vertical and horizontal are nearly always linked. In fact, if one were to study the Greek New Testament, they would discover that Greek is far more specific in its verb choices than English. Greek always makes a distinction between you in the singular form and a “ya’ll” – you in the plural form. English does not; there is only one word - you. In the context of the American individualistic lifestyle, many can read the Bible through their individualistic lens and think that when it says “you” over and over throughout the epistles, that these are meant in the singular. They really are in the plural. What is read in God’s Word was meant to be lived out in the context of relationship. Christians are individuals in the context of community. When one understands that forgiveness is meant to be lived out in two dimensions rather than only one, it will change how one approaches the topic. The proper place for reconciliation and forgiveness is through one’s relationship with God and community, not just the former.
Christians are commanded to forgive just as the Lord forgives (Col. 3:13) and to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven them (Eph. 4:32). Some would argue that Christians must forgive every sin against them because of this. However, perhaps this is not how Christ forgives. If one starts to study the Bible, repentance always proceeds God forgiving. This is seen in Acts 2:37-38 where Peter tells everyone to repent to be forgiven of sins. 1 John 1:9 hinges forgiveness on confession of sins. Luke 24:47 links repentance and forgiveness of sins. God loves to forgive sin and wants all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). However, He does not forgive sins that are not repented over. Exodus 34:6-7 records that God desires to forgive, but that He is just and will not hold the guilty unpunished. Those that have not repented do not receive forgiveness. Adams states, “Repentance is a prerequisite to forgiveness because until one rethinks his attitudes and actions, bringing them into conformity to God’s so that he thinks like Him, there is no possibility for the change of lifestyle implied in the plea, ‘Forgive me.’ Neither reconciliation nor communion with God and neighbor is possible.” The emphasis on healthy horizontal relationships to have a healthy vertical relationship is mentioned in Matthew 5:23-24. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
There are verses in the Bible, however, where one may try to come to a unilateral view of forgiveness that need to be explored. Mark 11:25 says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." However, it should be seen that the “you” is really a “you” in the plural. This verse shows the importance of forgiving others in order to receive forgiveness. Another difficult verse for the model of “no repentance, no forgiveness” is Luke 23:34, where Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” However, one does not know who “them” is. Is it those that are repenting about what they are seeing done like the centurion who realizes that Jesus is a righteous man in verse 47? Or perhaps this is simply Jesus fulfilling his role as High Priest in interceding for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12)? Matthew and Luke also record forgiving others and asking for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer and make no distinction as to whether or not the person has asked for forgiveness. If these were the only verses in the Bible in regards to forgiveness, one would have to think that the Bible endorses a unilateral view. If one takes in the full council of Scripture, though, the unilateral position does not seem as favorable.
After studying what the Bible says in regards to living and forgiving in two dimensions rather than one, there needs to be clear guidelines of what a person needs to do when they sin against another. Leviticus 6:1-7 gives clear and practical guidelines how sinning against another is to be handled. The one who sins against his neighbor is to go to them and pay back what was taken and after making things right with them, then go to the priest to offer his sacrifice for the Lord. The Bible clearly show from Leviticus, and from Numbers 5:6, that sinning against one’s neighbor is sin against the Lord. The New Testament did not change things. Mark 5:24 says to go and be reconciled to that person before even being reconciled to God (but one should be able to feel to pray for God’s hand on the reconciliation process as they go). There needs to be true repentance, not just in words but deeds if appropriate to pay retribution. If the offender decides not to go, they should expect to find hindrances to their prayers as their will be no true repentance before God for forgiveness of that sin.
When the offender goes to repent to the person who has been sinned against, an authentic apology needs to be made. This kind of apology is not giving an account of what happened nor is it attempting to appease the person. It involves responsibility and integrity. It does not make excuses, comes with Godly sorrow for the harm committed, realizes that it may not deserve forgiveness, takes full responsibility for its share of the problem, and either implicitly or explicitly declares that it will not make that same offense again.
If the other person refuses to forgive upon offering genuine repentance and authentic apology, there is no third party forgiveness by someone else. One who was not the sinned against party cannot forgive what was not done against them. Ultimately, the situation will need to be left to the Lord and follow His leading in how to pay restitution back, if it is even possible.
There not only needs to be clear guidelines of what to do for those who have sinned, there also needs to be clear guidelines of what the person who has been sinned against should do. If one is in this position, they first need to give a vertical forgiveness of sorts. While they cannot forgive someone who has not repented, they can prepare their hearts to forgive if they do repent. Just as God eagerly desires repentance for those who have not turned to Him, the person who has been sinned against must eagerly desire to forgive should the person become repentant. The sinned-against needs to give up their right to revenge, bitterness, or resentment and put the debt into God’s court.
After preparing their hearts before God to forgive, they next need to go to the person (if possible for reconciliation and there is no risk of being abused, etc.). Mark 5:23-24 makes this clear when it says to leave one’s gift at the altar and then to go to the person and confront them. This is also seen in 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 first step, along with the second and third if the offender refuses to repent are given in Matthew 18:15-18:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Therefore, it should be clear that there is a process of confronting three time with progressively larger groups to help bring about forgiveness and reconciliation. If there is no repentance after three times, grieving for the person who refused to forgive may be necessary. The sinned-against should keep themselves open to forgive should the person become repentant. If the person is a non-believer, the same basic principles apply.
When a person gets sinned against, there is a cry for justice that needs to be validated and affirmed. What the person did to them was wrong and needs to be seen as such and not glossed over. God is the defender of the weak and He is a just God. Therefore, if the offender never repents of the offense, the person who has been sinned against needs to release the debt into the Lord’s hands for Him to take care of. While there is no forgiveness without repentance, there also is not allowed to be bitterness, resentments, or revenge. Romans 12:18-21 gives a clear course of action:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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.

It should be seen that there is no place for revenge, but there needs to be a releasing of the hurt and offense into God’s hands for Him to deal with. It is important to be led by the Spirit in regards to whether to make boundaries to limit contact with the person or whether to invest in them as the end of Romans 12 indicates.
Reconciliation with God and even forgiveness is not something that can be done, worked for, or achieved; but rather discovered. Ability for forgiveness comes with the humility to realize that they are not in a position to forgive because of how great their need for forgiveness. The person who has been sinned against and the offender are more alike in their need for forgiveness than their differences. Therefore, “forgiveness is not an act of generosity or superiority but rather an act of similarity. It is the admission that it is all right to be like everyone else that at last sets us free.”
As forgiveness is granted, it does not mean that trust needs to be immediately reestablished. Forgiveness can be given and trust can be earned back in time. If the person has truly repented to the person who has been sinned against, they should have no problems freely doing whatever is reasonably necessary to rebuild that trust.
After dismantling the wrong ideas concerning forgiveness, understanding the Bible and forgiveness through two dimensions, and seeing what biblically should occur for those who have committed an offense against another or had an offense committed against them, one should have a better understanding of forgiveness. Through understanding the biblical course required in forgiveness, inner healing will hopefully be discovered through relationship with the Lord sooner rather than later.

End Notes: (still not sure why I can't cut and paste the little numbers... oh well at least you can see who my sources are by putting them here)
Leah Coulter, Two Dimensions of Repentance and Forgiveness, Class Handout from Theology of Forgiveness (May 20, 2009), 1.
Jay E. Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), 97.
Ibid., 98.
Coulter, Dimensions, 1.
David Augsburger, Helping People Forgive (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) 28.
Leah Coulter, Rediscovering the Power of Repentance and Forgiveness (Atlanta: Ampelon Publishing, 2006), 30-31.
Augsburger, 159.
Adams, 99.
Coulter, Dimensions, 6.
Augsburger, 51.
Ibid., 40-41.
Leah Coulter, Class Notes for Ministry and Theology of Forgiveness (2006), 7.
Coulter, Rediscovering, 60-61.
Coulter, Dimensions, 6.
Augsburger, 155.
Coulter, Class Notes, 15.