Tuesday, April 17, 2007

WHEN TO FORGIVE

Reader 'Anonymous' posted the following in the comments to my post just below regarding Dan Winkler's court comments indicating he has not forgiven his daughter-in-law for shooting his son:
I might suggest that it is impossible to forgive someone who has not genuingely sought such. "Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him" (Lk. 17:3). What if he does not seek forgiveness?

I think it is comparable to the fact that while God knows the things we need before we ask, he still expects us to ask. As James told some, "You have not, because you ask not" (Jas. 4:2).

While we should certainly not hold a vengeful disposition, being always ready to forgive any offense, it simply is impossible to forgive those who do not want it.

Does God forgive us without our asking? If not, are we more generous than God?

This is sort of a pet peeve of mine, so I wanted to address it more fully where it would be more widely seen by both of my readers.

Let me start out by saying that I am not addressing the issue of whether it would be easy for Dan Winkler to forgive Mary. I think it would be horrendously difficult in a way I cannot imagine. However, I would like to step back and look at the issue of personal forgiveness as objectively as possible.

I quoted the following verses in my post below; I believe it wise to refresh ourselves on them:

"For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." (Matthew 6:14-15)

"For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:2)


As we discuss the issue of forgiveness, we must remember there are two separate issues here. One is God's forgiveness of a sinner and the other is my forgiveness of another. They are not the same thing, but I believe that confusing the two is what often leads people down the wrong road in their understanding of personal forgiveness.

One problem is the idea that in order for God ever to forgive there must be a specific confession and repentance for each individual sin that I commit. If there is such a requirement then each of us is hopelessly lost. Such a position demands several things, first being a complete understanding of God's will followed by an objective understanding of my own actions and their motives. After I have all of that, I then must perfectly execute this law of specific confession and repentance for every sin. That's not grace, that's perfect lawkeeping, something the Old Law demonstrated we were not capable of (see Galatians). Jesus explained a way that is acceptable to God in Luke 18:13-14 using the tax collector: "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

"I tell you, this man went to his house justified...."


What led to this justification? Confession of sinfulness? Yes. Repentance? Yes, I believe that certainly is implied here. A complete and detailed listing of every sin ever or recently committed by this publican? There's certainly no record of it, and Jesus pronounces him justified without it.

Does that mean that I do not need ever to pray to God for forgiveness of specific sins? I'm not saying that at all. I think David certainly prayed to God for forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba and the sordid situation that developed. Do you think Peter prayed for specific forgiveness for denying His Lord? I sure do! Peter informed Simon the Sorcerer that he needed to pray for specific forgiveness when confronting him with his sin (Acts 8:21-22) I'm not talking about an excuse for obstinacy in the face of sin. That's not a penitent spirit at all. What I am saying is that I cannot possibly comprehend every way in which I fall short of God's expectations and disappoint Him. I am aware that I do fall short, I ask forgiveness for those failures, and ask for God's strength that I can lead a life more pleasing to Him.

Anonymous states that "it simply is impossible to forgive those who do not want it." My response is, that is most certainly not the case. Without question it is easier to forgive someone who wants forgiveness, but my personal forgiveness of another has nothing to do with him and everything to do with me. Forgiveness is a personal decision on my part. I have control over my own decision making and attitude. We could ask, is it impossible not to forgive someone who does want it? We all recognize that it is possible to refuse forgiveness. Someone could be embittered to the point of refusing forgiveness in the face of all pleading. We immediately think of the ungrateful slave who refused to forgive his fellow slave in Matthew 18:28-30: "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' "So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' "But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed."

I believe one of the reasons people resist the idea of forgiving one who has not specifically asked them for forgiveness is the imagined idea that the offending person has somehow gotten away with it. But in this case we confuse our own position with that of God's. I need to remember that God's forgiveness of someone and my own forgiveness are two very distinct things. I am a fellow servant, a fellow sinner with this person. Do I dare claim the moral high ground with a fellow sinful servant? Isn't that exactly what the slave did whom Jesus condemned? When Jesus states "For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you," He is reminding me that my own gratitude for the grace that I have received (remember, grace is unmerited) is something that should overflow in me. I forgive others for my own spiritual benefit, not necessarily theirs.

My forgiveness of someone's actions has no bearing whatsoever on that person's relationship with God or his standing with God regarding that particular sin. But Jesus makes it clear that my forgiveness of someone else can have a great deal to do with my own standing before God, and that God will use my own standard of forgiveness on me. Therefore, for my own spiritual well-being it is incumbent upon me that I be as forgiving as possible with my fellow sinful slaves. I will allow God to take care of His business as it relates to His slaves. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)

Finally, 'Anonymous' asks "are we more generous than God?" I will end by saying most certainly not! I could never be more generous than God, and would not presume to think so of myself. If anyone imagines that he is, then he is not aware at all of the spiritual blessings that flow by grace from our Heavenly Father.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Divine forgiveness and peronal forgiveness are the same in that the forgivee must request forgiveness from the forgiver. We say this based the model of divine forgiveness. Wish I had more time.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, your response is off on several points.

1. In Luke 17;3, is Christ addressing God's forgiveness of man or man's forgiveness of his fellow man? You never addressed this. If the latter, then all you said subsequent to this is irrelevent to the question at hand.

2. Must we confess every specific sin to God? Of course not. It is impossible to confess what you are unaware of--but what right-thinking person argues that? This, too, was not germane to the question at hand. Nor was how "easy" it would be to forgive. This was never argued.

3. Only God can forgive sin in the absolute sense. "Who can forgive sins, but God only?" We can forgive no one in this strictest sense of the term. What we can do is be kind to others, hoping that they will seek the reconciliation that Christ demands (cf. Mt. 18:15). You still seem unaware of the fact that it is impossible--by definition--to forgive those who do not seek it.

With all due respect, you are offering commentary on a situation with which you are apparently unfamiliar, and are evidencing both an insensitivity to the individuals most closely affected, and an ignorance of some of the most basic of Bible matters. Do you honestly believe you know more Bible than Dan Winkler on this matter? Do you presume to instruct him? You remind me of Job's friends--a physician of no value.

World Evangelist said...

Well said Alan. I really appreciate you sharing these thoughts on forgiveness.

Alan said...

In my post I made the point that I was moving beyond the Winkler situation per se to address the larger question. That said, as this is a weblog addressing religious issues as they tie in to current events, I offer no apology for commenting on public statements made in a public setting.

I am not contending I "know more Bible" than anyone in particular, but I apparently do disagree with Mr. Winkler on this point. However, no man is beyond instruction, is he? Or do you claim absolute knowledge in all matters Biblical? Your own words expose your arrogance.

Keep in mind that even Job was humbled by God when he presumed too much in a situation about which he had limited understanding.

Anonymous said...

I believe you are the one presuming--your post began by calling brother Winkler's actions in question.

I'm not certain that anyone who describes their commentary as "mordant" and has an apparent predilection for saying "Just so" can accuse anyone else of arrogance.

Anonymous said...

Anon writes: "You still seem unaware of the fact that it is impossible--by definition--to forgive those who do not seek it."

This is just silly. It is not impossible, by any objective or commonly understood definition of the word, to forgive those who have not actively sought forgiveness. No one is entitled to impose their own personal definitions on scripture and the English language.

There is much wisdom in your post Alan.

Sean

Jeff said...

Divine forgiveness and peronal forgiveness are the same in that the forgivee must request forgiveness from the forgiver. We say this based the model of divine forgiveness.

This begs the question. Anonymous assumes that divine forgiveness is a model for human forgiveness ("We say this..."), draws a similarity from divine forgiveness to human forgiveness, and then concludes that human and divine forgiveness are the same in this respect. The argument assumes its conclusion.

Alan is quite right in this matter. In fact, neither God's forgiveness of us nor our forgiveness of our fellow image-bearers is or should be based on a request for forgiveness. That we are able to ask God to forgive our sins is itself a work of God's grace--he makes us aware of our sin, which we would not see as sin otherwise, convicts us of our guilt before him by the work of his Spirit, and enables us to put our trust for forgiveness in Christ. It is the finished work of Christ on the Cross ("while we were yet sinners") that is the ground of the forgiveness we receive from God and the forgiveness we extend to others.

We forgive others regardless of whether they ask for it because we know God is the one who punishes sin. Whenever we are sinned against, we forgive because we know He is faithful to punish that sin--either in Christ's death as a substitute, or in that person's own eternity lived out in hell.

Drew Kizer said...

I was surprised to hear Alan make a distinction between the manner of God's forgiveness and ours. The following verses seem to imply there is no difference:

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mt. 6:12).

"Forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Col. 3:13).

"Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph. 4:32).

This may be a battle over semantics. Nobody who knows Scripture believes that the Christian should dwell on the wrongs he has suffered: "Let all bitterness...be put away from you" (Eph. 4:31).

Forgiveness includes the removal of bitterness, but it also involves restoring relationships. This latter component requires repentance on the part of the offender.

I believe Dan meant he would not restore his relationship with Mary as long as she continued to mar the memory of his son, deny her guilt, and maliciously slander and hurt his family. If that is what he meant, I believe his judgment to be wise and godly. Otherwise, what did Christ mean by the conditional statement recorded in Luke 17:3-4?

On another note, there's no point in making personal attacks, just because you disagree on a subject as profound as forgiveness. I don't believe Alan intends any ill-will towards the Winkler family. If this example helps us to understand forgiveness more accurately, we are the better for it.

Anonymous said...

No, Jeff, Alan is quite wrong in this matter, as are you and anyone else who makes the argument you just made--though I am sure you are well-intentioned.

You have essentially made the denominational argument for "faith-only" salvation. The Bible teaches that a gift can have conditions without the grace of the giver being negated. Jericho was a "gift" (cf. Josh. 6:2, 16), and yet the Hebrews had to receive that gift by obedience to the divine commands (cf. Heb. 11:30).

In similar fashion, forgiveness is a gift, but there are divine conditions which must be followed. What Alan and those who agree with him are really suggesting is nothing more than "I hold no ill feelings toward this person." That is wonderful, but it still does not prove the fact that we cannot truly "forgive" a person who has not sought it. I cannot baptize an individual against his wishes, I cannot confess Christ on behalf of another, nor can I forgive someone who does not desire to be forgiven.

This is elementary, really. This is my last post.

Bill said...

Alan,

I agree with Sean that you provide good thoughts on forgiveness (I also agree with his comment on the proper definition of "forgiveness").

I have heard other brethren make the point asserted by Anonymous. I think it reflects a common confusion among American Christians between fulfilling one's duty before God and believing you are entitled to demand that another fulfill his duty before God as well. The scripture makes clear both that a sinner must seek repentance and that a Christian must forgive. But these commands are fulfilled to God first. They will also doubtless create benefits among men (such as peace in the brotherhood). But one should not forget that obeying this command is fulfilling a duty to God. This is a misunderstanding also seen in the divorce debate, where people try to assert a spouse's failure to fulfill marital duties (to financially support a spouse, spiritually serve a spouse, etc.), as a basis for claiming that the other spouse is relieved of his or her duties.

It simply isn't true in the marital context or in other contexts. We each must fulfill our duties to God, even if it is a duty expressed in a relationship with another person (which, if you think about it, most commands to Christians are carried out in relationship with others). That another fails to fulfill his duty before God does not relieve me of my obligation to obey God.

I have no knowledge of Bro. Winkler's circumstances nor even of what he has said (since the news report you refer to appears to be a second-hand characterization of his opinion). But he (like any) certainly has an obligation to forgive irrespective of the (alleged) wrongdoer's duty to repent and seek forgiveness. That doubtless is a difficult thing for him to do in this circumstance (as are many of God's commands). Fortunately, we have a God of mercy and grace, who is patient in our weaknesses, has cleansed us with the blood of Jesus Christ and gives us the Holy Spirit to labor with us in our weaknesses.

As for the analogy to the way in which God forgives, that is a rather impertinent and irreverent analogy. Sinful men cannot presume to judge in the same manner God does (I think that's at least one point from Matthew 7). God, for example, is not dependent on watching fruits of man's deeds, but can "see the heart." Also it misconstrues our duty to forgive. We are not imparting grace or forgiveness when we forgive (that's why Christ was hyperbolic in instructing Peter on his duty to forgive). Rather, forgiveness is our duty before God.

I think Anonymous also inaccurately characterizes God's forgiveness. Christ forgave his killers while on the cross and prior to repentance. Men cannot restrict the nature of God's forgiveness. Romans 9:15 "For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." Nothing in that statement say man may presume to dictate when and to whom God will extend forgiveness. Rather, men must obey the commands God has given to him, and leave to Him matters that are beyond us.

Drew Kizer said...

The "irreverent" analogy I made was based in the Model Prayer and repeated twice in Paul's Epistles.

Our duty to judge another's heart, insofar as he has expressed his intention to repent, is enjoined upon us in Luke 17:3-4.

So far, I have not seen these Scriptural principles addressed by those who are espousing unconditional forgiveness. Before I can accept that idea, they have to be addressed.

The Lord did not forgive his persecutors from the cross, He prayed for their forgiveness. There is a big difference. If he had already forgiven them, as He had forgiven the thief, then they would not have been charged with sin on the Day of Pentecost. Acts 2:38 commanded them to "repent and be baptized." Until that happened God would not extend unto them the "remission of sins."

Jeff said...

My response ran a bit long, so I posted it here.

Jeff @ truth-in-love.com said...

I will admit I haven't spent a great deal of time studying whether we must forgive others if they don't ask for it. However, the reason is that it's obviously something that's healthiest for all concerned if I do. It's very easy for bitterness and hatred to build up ins such a circumstance. When the difference between the two positions is "must" vs. "should," I don't get too concerned; I just try to do it.

However, I have noticed here an attempt to redefine forgiveness. Forgiveness simply means pardon. A bit more literally, it means taking a debt and considering it paid. That's something that doesn't have to be asked for to be granted.

And we find Jesus forgave people their sins without them ever asking for it. The paralytics of Matthew 9 and Mark 2, the sinner woman of Luke 7, and the thief on the cross come to mind.