What do You Mean We Can’t Always Grant Forgiveness?

Dr. Paul J. Dean
Dr. Paul J. Dean

The world and God treat forgiveness very differently. In a recent article, I made the point that often the world withholds forgiveness but God expects us to always forgive. From the article,

Yet, what sets us apart from the world is the obligation and compulsion to forgive. We forgive others because God's forgiven us. That's what it means to be a Christian . . . because God has changed us, we can't help but forgive others . . . It's not a virtue to withhold forgiveness . . . neither do we have the right to withhold forgiveness. It's not up to us . . . God does expect His people to forgive.

God's Word is clear on this issue. When Peter thought he was obeying the law by forgiving someone seven times, Jesus said you must forgive up to seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22).

However, in that same article I said "we can't actually grant forgiveness if someone has not sought it (though we are required to rid our hearts of ill feelings and be willing to forgive)." What? How is it that we must always forgive but we can't grant forgiveness if someone hasn't sought it? Isn't that not only disobedient but won't it lead to bitterness in our hearts and all kinds of other problems? Simple: forgiving in your heart and granting forgiveness are two different issues according to Scripture.

On the one hand, one of the reasons we must rid our hearts of ill feelings and be willing to forgive is to avoid bitterness. Further, if we don't have a heart of forgiveness, we're disobeying God. Even in granting forgiveness, simply saying we forgive without dealing with our hearts is not real forgiveness. It's that willingness to forgive and ridding our hearts of anger and bitterness God is after.

On the other hand, though we must forgive in our hearts no matter what, we can't always grant forgiveness. Biblically speaking, forgiveness is not merely overlooking sin. God never grants forgiveness to someone unless he repents. Jesus said unless you repent you will perish (Lk. 13:3). In one sense, the forgiveness of sin is a transaction; only when one repents can he be judicially granted forgiveness. If you tell someone you forgive him even though he hasn't repented, you say unwittingly that sin isn't real. We can't have a sentimental view of forgiveness; to forgive sin is to deal with it and remove it. Someone who won't confess his sin denies its reality as well as the costly and powerful nature of forgiveness. If sin can simply be overlooked, the cross of Christ means nothing. It cost God to forgive.

Yes, God tells us we must have a heart of forgiveness (Eph. 4:31-32). But He also says we can't grant forgiveness if there is no repentance. That's the basis of church discipline in Matt. 18:15-17. If a brother won't repent, he's to be treated as an unbeliever (in hopes that he will repent).

In granting forgiveness, we're talking about reconciliation; the restoration of a relationship.  If someone breaches a relationship, I can forgive him in my heart but the breach isn't resolved yet. If I sin against my wife and don't seek her forgiveness, we can still be happy in one sense. She can forgive me in her heart and I can sweep my sin under the rug. But, there's still something I've done to her for which I've not sought her forgiveness. I haven't resolved the issue biblically. A few instances like that may not do any long term harm (humanly speaking). But, too many of those instances will create real problems over time.

Here's the point: if someone sins against another and doesn't confess that sin and seek forgiveness, he can't receive forgiveness and reconciliation. That's why Jesus said the granting of forgiveness is conditional: "Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,' you shall forgive him" (Lk. 17:3-4). You must forgive in your heart no matter what. But, you can only grant forgiveness where there is repentance. Those are two different issues.

If a friend hurts you and goes his merry way, you can forgive him in your heart but there is no reconciliation. He's estranged himself from you. Only if he comes to you in repentance can you then grant him forgiveness. At that point, you're reconciled and have a restored relationship. And that's ultimately what God's after and what He's in the business of bringing about.

Dr. Paul Dean invites you to discover more about yourself, God, and others . . . and develop a Christian worldview. Dr. Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. Receive a FREE commentary and learn more at http://www.trueworldview.com. To contact Dr. Dean, simply e-mail him at [email protected]

Originally published January 13, 2011.

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