Common Questions Christians Ask About Forgiveness

Forgiveness presents a lot of questions as we try to work out the implications of living faithfully as Christians.

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon from Matthew 18:21-35, where Jesus teaches his followers that God’s forgiveness of us shows us why and how to forgive others. In conclusion, I attempted to answer some of the most common pastoral questions I receive. I share them here hoping they provide some help or at least provoke deeper consideration of the topic.

 

Forgiveness is central to our experience as Christians. It is at the heart of our relationship with God and our relationship with others. Jesus talks about forgiveness a lot and even inscribes it on the template for our prayers (Matt. 6:9-13). At the same time, forgiveness is hard. It’s unnatural. This presents a lot of questions as we try to work out the implications of living faithfully as Christians.

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon from Matthew 18:21-35, where Jesus teaches his followers that God’s forgiveness of us shows us why and how to forgive others. In conclusion, I attempted to answer some of the most common pastoral questions I receive. I share them here hoping they provide some help or at least provoke deeper consideration of the topic. (The rest of the sermon may be accessed here.)

1. What if the person doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Am I still obligated to forgive?

This is an important question, because it’s tremendously practical. If you work to faithfully apply the words of Jesus then you will likely encounter people who do not repent, ask for your forgiveness, or even seem like they think they have done anything wrong. How does this change your responsibility to forgive? Does it?

I don’t think it changes our responsibility. The answer to the question is, we can and we must forgive them.

Let’s think about it this way. Forgiveness has two sides, there is the extension of forgiveness and the reception of it. The emphasis in this passage before us is the extension. Jesus is not here talking about receiving forgiveness, but extending it. Certainly to feel the full effect of forgiveness we desire to have both sides sync up, but it does not always happen.

Jesus other teaching supports this view. We have to do our part in the forgiveness. This is what Jesus meant, I think, when he said, “Love your enemies . . . bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). They don’t stop being our enemies when we bless them. And this is what makes this so powerful. They haven’t asked for our forgiveness, and perhaps they don’t think they have to. They are content being our enemy and making life difficult for us. One has said, “We are to bless them, and that blessing means that our part of the inward forgiveness has happened. The opposite of forgiveness is holding a grudge, but blessing is the opposite of holding a grudge, and so blessing is a kind of forgiving.” (John Piper‘s whole answer is worth the read.)

I find it helpful to consider our Savior’s words when he was on the cross. He said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus was setting an example for us to follow. He prayed for those who did harm to him. He prayed for their forgiveness. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

2. Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?

Yes. Remember, sin is messy, and cleaning it up is often a lengthy, nuanced process. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in our relationship with God apart from interaction with the person who sinned against us. There are many reasons why we might not be able to speak with the person and extend forgiveness.

Forgiveness is different from reconciliation. Our reconciliation with another often depends upon the attitude and actions of the one who sinned.

In many cases, even if an offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is personal freedom from a vindictive or vengeful response (Rom. 12:17-21), but not always an automatic restoration of relationship.

Even when God forgives our sins, he does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are often not enough to restore trust. When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. (Read Steve Cornell’s full post here.)

We can and must forgive others of their sins against us. But there may be other factors that can prevent full reconciliation and restoration of the relationship.

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