FIVE ASPECTS OF FORGIVENESS
Forgiveness: the foundation of our relationship with God and fellow-believers.
Forgiveness. Generally, what is meant by forgiveness is God’s gracious act of not imputing our sins to us. Forgiveness is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the means of sustaining fellowship with Him. Likewise, it is the basis of sustaining fellowship with our brethren. We will examine five main aspects of forgiveness:
Eternal forgiveness is God’s sovereign prerogative to not impute our sins to us, on account of the sacrifice of Christ. This forgiveness is eternal because the one offering of Christ “hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). This aspect of forgiveness is what we get when we believe the Gospel, and come to know Christ as our Savior.
Judicial or eternal forgiveness has to do with God as a judge. Our sins have offended the holiness of our Creator, and we are responsible to Him for those sins. However, through the love of God, “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). God is a holy God, dwelling in light which no man can approach unto. But through the work of Christ, we have been made fit to be “partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12). It is our standing before God… through Christ we have “redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). We can never, ever lose this. The youngest believer in Jesus has this forgiveness; “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12). Eternal forgiveness comes to the believer by grace, and through faith. Forgiveness is the negative aspect of justification; non-imputation of sins. The positive aspect of justification is that we have been positionally given Christ’s place before God. Forgiveness originates from God’s heart, and Christ is the blessed channel by which it came; “God in Christ hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Before the cross, eternal forgiveness was not known. Old Testament saints never had the settled conscious knowledge of sins forgiven in the eternal sense (Eph. 1:7). This is why, in the gospels, the Lord emphasized “power on earth” such as in Matt. 9:2-6; because governmental forgiveness has to do with this life only, not for eternity. Eternal forgiveness could not be preached in the Old Testament because the work of Calvary was not yet complete. Old Testament saints could have a measure of peace, but it was really more like a hopeful optimism. After the cross (“at this time”), God could declare His righteousness on forbearing with the sins that are past, and also in justifying the one who believes in Jesus (Rom. 3:25-26). Eternal forgiveness could then be preached; “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).
Restorative forgiveness is what the Father gives to restore us to communion with Himself if we sin. The subject is taken up in 1 John 1:8 – 2:2. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Even the strongest believer is a failing saint, and we all have sin in our lives. When sin and departure from God come in, communion with our Father is broken. He does not want us to go on carelessly with sin in our lives. The remedy for this broken communion is restorative forgiveness.
If faith is required for judicial forgiveness, then confession is required for restorative forgiveness. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. We don’t need to be restored to favor with God, because positionally we stand “accepted in the Beloved”, but we do need to be restored to fellowship or communion with God. We are not told to ask for forgiveness, but only to confess it. To ask for forgiveness is to raise the question as to whether God will say yes or no. There is no question as to God’s love. He is “faithful and just to forgive us” because the sin has already been paid for. He is “faithful and just” to Christ. But God wants us to think about how we have sinned against His love. He has already forgiven us in His heart, but wants us to feel it deeply in order that communion might be restored. Although we have been brought into the light, we still have the old nature, and – let’s face it – we’ve all sinned; “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Still, it isn’t looked upon as a normal thing that a believer would sin, that is why it says; “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Our sinning is put as only a possibility (“if”) because, when we are brought into the family of God, we have a new nature that doesn’t want to sin. We have a righteous advocate with the Father even before we confess the sin. “Advocate” is the same word as “Comforter”. It is as if the our Advocate speaks to the Father, when we confess our sin, and reminds Him that of the work of the cross – reminds Him that He has been not only satisfied but glorified through the propitiatory work of the cross; “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). But notice that it is not an advocate with “God as Judge” but with “God the Father.” We will never have to do with God in the judicial character again – that is past for us – we know Him now as our Father.
A helpful New Testament illustration of the work of advocacy is in the book of Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave that had gotten saved, but Paul sent him back to Philemon to confess his sin and to be restored to communion. Paul said; “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it.” So the Lord Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, and that makes Him able to be our advocate, just as Paul was able to be Onesimus’s advocate with Philemon.
Repentance and Confession. What is the role of repentance and confession is a believer’s restoration? It is helpful to understand that confession and forgiveness are actions, while repentance and restoration are processes. The typical teaching of the Red Heifer in Numbers 19 is helpful on this subject. After a man was defiled, the ashes of the sacrificed heifer were sprinkled on the third day, but the man was not pronounced clean until the seventh day. The third day sprinkling of the water and ashes represents a complete and deep recognition of the seriousness of our sin in the sight of a holy God, and what it cost the Lord Jesus to put the sin away. The ashes of the red heifer speak of the memory of the sacrifice. The seventh day represents the time when we see that grace has triumphed over our sin. On the seventh day there is perfect restoration of communion. But the Spirit is careful to warn that if the third-day sprinkling was neglected, then the seventh-day pronouncement could not be made. So it is, unless there is a deep and thorough work of repentance in our soul, communion with God cannot be restored. We see this progression with David after his sin with Bathsheba (Psa. 51). He could say; “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (the third day, v.4), and then “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (the seventh day, v.12).
Personal forgiveness. Sins against God are one thing, but what about offsenses between brethren? The teaching of scripture is clear that it is my responsibility to forgive one who trespasses against me. Our forgiveness toward a brother or sister who has offended is connected with the judicial forgiveness that we have in Christ. In Ephesians the love of God that motivates us; “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32), and in Colossians it is the love of Christ that motivates us; “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any should have a complaint against any; even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:12-13).
When someone has done something to offend me, first, I must forgive them in my heart (see Matthew 18:35). We may not be able yet to express our forgiveness for them audibly, but the Christian ought to always have a forgiving spirit as forgiveness is the basis of our relationship with God. You don’t audibly extend forgiveness to someone who has sinned against you until they have audibly expressed repentance; see Luke 17:3-4. Those verses indicate that the rebuke, the expression of repentance, and the expression of forgiveness are all vocal. But we are to have forgiveness in our hearts immediately.
But when we do hear the brother that has offended us express his repentance audibly, we need to forgive audibly in return. The offending brother may not repent right away. This could be due to the fact that he either is not truly repentant, or he may not know that he has offended another. If sufficient delay occurs, scripture puts the responsibility on the offended party to follow Matthew 18:15-17 until either the offender hears me and repents, or refuses. “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” The goal of seeking out the offender is to gain them… to restore them to the Lord. It isn’t to get a load off our chest, or to lash out in retributive anger.
If the offender will not hear, “then take with thee one or two more,” not because their is added authority with a plurality of persons, but “that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” If the offender will not listen to two or three, “tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” There is authority in the local assembly, and if such authority is refused, the process is over, and we must treat such a one as an unsaved person. Usually, the process ends with the first step: going to the one who has offended us one-on-one. Rather than spread rumors about the offense, we ought to keep it to the smallest circle possible, which in the beginning is just us and the Lord.
Once I hear an audible expression of repentance, I am obliged (and privileged) to give an audible expression of forgiveness. I have already forgiven him in my heart, so I ought to be looking forward to this point. I cannot say “I don’t think your repentance is real”. In Luke 17:3-4 the only requirement before I am obliged to express forgiveness is words as simple as “I repent”. We may never get a confession out of the person that is satisfactory to us. All we must wait to hear is an expression of repentance, even if it as simple as “I repent”. But we should not extend verbal forgiveness if there is no verbal expression of repentance, because it would not be in the interest of restoring that one to the Lord.
A question may come up: am I to follow Matthew 18:15-17 every time someone offends me? Wouldn’t I be tied up in the various processes of Matthew 18:15-17 for the rest of my life? This is a good question. We must now bring up longsuffering and forbearing. Not every offense needs to be pursued. The subject of Matthew 18 is grace, and the way by which we “gain our brother.” Only in the cases where the offense left unaddressed will be to the spiritual harm of our brother should we pursue the process of Matthew 18:15-17. For all minor offenses, we can simply forgive and forbear with our brother, and not count up the minor offenses as Peter was inclined to do (Matthew 18:21-22). To forgive until seventy times seven (490 times) is to have no limit to our grace. “…Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Governmental forgiveness is an aspect of forgiveness that pertains to the government of God. The principle of God’s government is summarized nicely in Gal. 6:7; “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (see also 1 Peter 3:12). The government of God is the moral administration of God’s providential ways with men. It is not limited to believers; hence “whatsoever a man soweth, etc.” The basic principle is that, if you do good, good will come to you, and if you do evil, evil will come to you through the providential dealings of God. Even the Gentile world is aware of this, and will say when a liar or cheat gets hurt accidentally, or when a pious person wins the lottery, “they got what they deserved”. The government of God is not to be taken lightly, which is why Paul warned “Be not deceived; God is not mocked”. It is easy for us to think that we can get away with our sin free of consequences. But evil actions have consequences, and so do good actions. Governmental consequences do not extend into eternity; they are for this life only. Each one of us has accrued the governmental judgment of God over a lifetime of offenses committed against Him. But God is very gracious and patient, and has passed over those sins in a governmental sense, so we can live day to day free from many of their consequences. This exemption from the governmental consequences of our sin is called governmental forgiveness. For the believer, God has chosen to make governmental forgiveness dependent on: (1) a contrite spirit about our own failures, and (2) a forgiving spirit towards those who have offended us.
This might seem like the strangest aspect of forgiveness, but it is well documented in many locations in the Word of God, including the Old Testament and the gospels. The Lord Jesus taught this truth in His sermon on the mount; “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15; see also Luke 6:37). In Matt. 7:1-2 we learn that if we harbor a judgmental attitude, it will result in God judging us governmentally. In Mark 11:25 we learn that, without forgiveness for others in our hearts, even our prayers will be hindered.
The Lord expanded on this subject in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. A certain man owed 10,000 talents. At a denarius a day, and at 1 talent = 6,000 denarii, this man owed 60,000,000 days’ or 164,000 years’ worth of labor. In 1,600 lifetimes he could never pay this back. He was frankly forgiven by his lord, but refused to forgive his fellow servant a debt of 100 denarii (would take three months work to repay). We are the 10,000-talent debtor, in that our sin against God is far more than the offenses our brother has committed against us. We need to forgive our brother in light of what we have been forgiven ourselves. The governmental judgement for all our offenses has been forgiven by God on account of His grace; but He has the prerogative to revoke that forgiveness. As a side note, the 10,000-talent debt must represent governmental forgiveness, because God can never revoke eternal forgiveness.
God sometimes waits until thing are cleared up to His satisfaction before granting governmental forgiveness. Often a single action has long range consequences. The Lord restored to David the joy of his salvation, but the governmental consequences of his sin were never removed, and four of his sons were lost. Sickness can sometimes be allowed as governmental judgment on the believer for sin; “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15). In certain cases, a person may never be forgiven this side of heaven, such as when someone refuses to forgive their brother. If we harbor an unforgiving spirit, God will deliver us up to bitterness, anxiety, and resentment; these are destructive forces pictured by “the tormenters”. God will wait as long as it takes. He will be glorified in judgment, even if it means never lifting His mighty hand until we are taken home. Some sins have consequences beyond the reach of governmental forgiveness; “There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it” (1 John 5:16). Yet there is no sin beyond the reach of eternal forgiveness! And we can still enjoy the sunshine of God’s presence while passing through the governmental consequences of our sins if we have confessed it, and been restored to communion with God. Remember, the government of God works for us when we sow to the Spirit, as well against us when we sow to the flesh. But generally, God is pleased to grant governmental forgiveness when we have a spirit of forgiveness toward others. A good example of this is Job. The Lord “turned the captivity of Job” when he prayed for his friends.
Administrative forgiveness has to do with loosing sin from a believer so that they might be restored to fellowship in the assembly. The authority to forgive sins administratively was given to the apostle Peter first (Matthew 16), and then to the gathering of believers to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, acting on behalf of the assembly (Matthew 18).
The local assembly has been invested with authority to bind or loose a person’s sin; i.e. to “retain” or “remit” their sin (John 20:23; see Matt. 18:18). Binding and loosing are two administrative actions that are done “in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and are backed by His authority (1 Cor. 5:4). To bind a person’s sin upon them is to associate them with that sin in an official sense. Morally, they were associated with it the moment the sin was committed, but this is a special association of an official character. In 1 Cor. 5 we have an example of binding, and in 2 Cor. 2 we have the loosing. Once a person has turned from their sin, and their repentance is manifest, the assembly ought to loose the sin, or formally disassociate the person from it. Read more…
When sin becomes known to the assembly, the believers ought to be grieved about the sin (2 Cor. 2:5; 2 Cor. 7:7-11). Then assembly must put out the wicked person (2 Cor. 2:6; 1 Cor. 5:13). The assembly is responsible to act for the Lord’s glory, and excommunicate the wicked person. This is done by “binding” the sin, and then removing the wicked person from the assembly. Since the local assembly is an expression of the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), the body at large (“the many”) is responsible to recognize and submit to that action. The excommunication serves as a rebuke to the wicked person, making them feel the seriousness of their own sin. God may use that to aid in the work of repentance in the person’s heart, provided they are truly a child of God, which is manifested outwardly in sorrow. Repentance is the desired outcome of excommunication. If repentance is evident, the assembly must administratively forgive the person (2 Cor. 2:9-10). “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” The assembly is required to forgive the excommunicated person once repentance is evident. The individuals in the assembly should have forgiven the offender immediately in their hearts, but an official action is required to officially loose the sin that was bound on the person. This action would restore such a one to full fellowship in the assembly. Finally, the body at large should recognize the action taken in the local assembly, and they likewise should forgive the person; “To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ”.
Forgiveness! ’twas a joyful sound
To guilty sinners doomed to die:
We’d publish it the world around,
And gladly shout it through the sky.
‘Twas the rich gift of love divine;
‘Tis full, effacing every crime;
Unbounded shall its glory shine,
And know no change by changing time.