Reflections and Blog

The Two Parts of Biblical Forgiveness

Imagine the scene; you hear about such in the news every so often. A man has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He is not remorseful for his crime, nevertheless a close relative of the victim soon visits the murderer in prison and tells him through tears, “I forgive you.” No doubt, the scene is remarkable, and, if this relative is sincere, he is showing great courage and humility in declaring his forgiveness. But is his forgiveness biblical?

Yes and no.

As we heard in the Sunday sermon on Matthew 18:21-35, God’s fundamental call to Christians when it comes to practicing forgiveness is “forgive as you are forgiven.” All righteousness ultimately means to be like God, therefore, it only makes sense that truly righteous forgiveness toward others ought to look like God’s forgiveness toward us (Eph 4:32). However, if we consider the model of God’s forgiveness more thoroughly, we must realize that God’s forgiveness has two parts: a part dealing with the heart and a part dealing with the relationship. We must understand these two parts because one part of forgiveness is unconditional and the other part is conditional.

Heart forgiveness is the unconditional part. In true, godlike forgiveness of any offense, the heart must trust God to take care of the injustice, love the person in spite of his sin, and be eager to see repentance and reconciliation in the relationship. You must always forgive in your heart whether or not the other person is repentant or seeking your forgiveness because you love God and love others—even your enemies. God shows himself in the Scriptures to be a loving and forgiving God eager to see those who sin against him reconciled to him (e.g. Ex 34:6-7; Isa 55:7; 65:1-5; Ezek 18:23). We are to imitate God in this, thus Jesus gives us an unconditional command in Mark 11:25,

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”

But relationship forgiveness is the conditional part. Though God is a forgiving God in his heart, sin brings a real breach in relationship with God (Isa 59:2). That relationship is only healed (and the just punishment for offenses removed) when the one who has offended God seeks his mercy in repentance and faith (e.g. Ezek 18:32; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19). Apart from repentance, there is no relational forgiveness with God, only the fearful expectation of judgment (Heb 10:26-27). Now, God has not given us personal authority to exact punishment for sins (Rom 12:14-21), but we do imitate God’s forgiveness in extending relationship forgiveness only to the repentant. Note the condition attached to Jesus’ command 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.”

Now, of course, the above truth about conditional relationship forgiveness does not mean that God gives us permission to give an unrepentant person the cold shoulder or to treat that person harshly; no indeed, a forgiving heart would still seek to do that person good and to entreat him to repentance so that the relationship can be restored! Nevertheless, it is proper for us to acknowledge to someone who has sinned against us that his sin has produced a breach in our fellowship and that the relationship will not be whole until there is repentance. And where there is repentance, we should immediately extend relationship forgiveness and begin rebuilding the relationship. Far from looking for an excuse not to forgive others, we who have been forgiven our great debt by God should be the most eager to see others forgiven, both in our hearts and in our relationships (cf. Rom 12:18).

For more instruction on the two parts of biblical forgiveness, please see our recent Sunday school lesson on Forgiveness and the Past.

Questions to Consider:
1. With whom do you need to apply the above instruction about forgiveness? Consider Matthew 5:21-26 and Proverbs 3:27-28.
2. Does every specific sin against or offense from others need formal relationship forgiveness?
3. How should you respond to those who refuse to grant you relationship forgiveness when you are repentant?