Forgiving an impenitent sinner is a sin. Offensive as that may sound—even blasphemous—this is Scripture’s teaching and that of the Reformed Church Order, as we saw last time (Nov. 1, 2022). The automatic and immediate declaration of forgiveness to someone who is not sorry for gross sin is “the sin of forgiveness.”
When a fifteen-year-old boy with an assault rifle murders three of his classmates, it is a sin for the victims’ parents and friends immediately and publicly to say, “We forgive you.” If a father raped his daughter, it would be a sin for the daughter to forgive him immediately and unconditionally, and a worse sin for the rapist father to require her to do so. “I forgive you, daddy, even though you aren’t sorry. And since you taught me that to forgive is to forget, I will try to forget what you did, and I promise not to tell anyone else.” It is not offensive to withhold forgiveness here. It is offensive to grant it.
Yet there are those who believe that anything less than immediate and automatic forgiveness is contrary to biblical principles and violates the essence of grace. For them, those who have been forgiven graciously must also forgive others graciously. Is this not Jesus’ teaching? It seems to make biblical sense until we look at it more carefully.
The key to understanding this is the biblical teaching that forgiveness is not a feeling I have in myself toward a sinner, is not releasing bitterness toward a sinner, is not even a decision not to be angry and to let the sin go. Rather, forgiveness is an audible declaration from the offended one to the offender: “I put away your sin; I release you from your debt; I will not deal with you based on your sin or think of you in light of it. I am finished.” In the case of the impenitent sinner, God does not permit this. Why not?
Be followers of God
First, automatic and immediate forgiveness for impenitent sinners does not follow the pattern of God’s forgiveness, who forgives us only when we repent and withholds it until we do. And our forgiveness must model His: “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sakehath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). God’s forgiveness is His declaration to us, as He declared to David through the prophet, “I put away your sin,” which did not come to David until there was a God-worked repentance in him. Before then, David was miserable. He sang in Psalm 32, “when I confessed transgression, then thou forgavest me.” Our Presbyterian brethren express the Reformed understanding of this in their creed: “None may expect pardon without it [repentance]” (WCF 15.3). John Calvin said that “forgiveness of sins can never come to anyone without repentance.” (Of course, this does not at all mean that Jesus’ death did not pay for the sin; it just means that God does not declare forgiveness of it to our conscience.) And since God does not declare forgiveness to the impenitent, neither may we. “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).
Seek the brother’s good
Second, automatic and immediate forgiveness for impenitent sinners short-circuits what God intends among Christians—the gracious correction of sinners and the healing of breaches, as both the sinner and the sinned-against stand together in the shadow of Christ’s cross. When my brother sins a great sin, my calling is to seek his good, which is not to forgive him automatically when I know he is not sorry for his sin. Instead, I must be like Nathan the prophet who came to the impenitent David first to convict him of sin, press him to “own” it, call him to repentance, and then to declare forgiveness to him. It would have been no love to David to leave him in the misery of unconfessed sin. What the proponents of immediate and automatic forgiveness fail to see is that if their practice catches on, that is, if those sinned against quickly forgive and move on, soon will be forgotten the blessed work of speaking grace to the penitent sinner: “I forgive you.”
Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 must not be forgotten: “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.”1 Christian love and grace require us who have been sinned against to go to the brother, seek his repentance to “gain” him. If he does not repent, Christian love even requires Matthew 18’s more difficult calling—to take witnesses and even bring the matter to the church. To gain him is always our goal. To do less is not love. Do not short-circuit what God calls Christians to do.
Be not selfish
Third, although automatic and immediate forgiveness sounds pious, it may even be an act of selfishness. One man described it as a “process that isn’t truly forgiveness, but simply a strategy for moving on.”2 Others have called it “therapeutic forgiveness” because it seems to be good therapy for us who are wounded by sinners. This therapeutic forgiveness is not for healing relationships but for healing the victim of sin. Christian pastors, elders, and counselors certainly must recognize the need for soul-therapy for those damaged by sin. But the therapy they need is not to declare forgiveness to an impenitent man. Besides, since our forgiveness is modeled after God’s, our forgiveness of others is not therapy for ourselves any more than God’s forgiveness of us is therapy for Himself.
Do justice to justice
Fourth, automatic and immediate forgiveness risks losing sight of God’s justice manifested in His punishment of sin in His own Son. We receive God’s forgiveness in no other way than by faith that embraces Christ in the bright light of God’s justice. Faith acknowledges that Christ was justly punished in our stead, and faith confesses that God’s justice needed to be satisfied. Likewise, the relationship between sinners in which we declare and receive forgiveness always is a mutual recognition of justice—that sin deserves punishment. On the one hand, the sinner confesses justice: “My sin is a debt for which I justly deserve punishment, but I plead that you not make me pay what I owe.” If “I am sorry, please forgive me” does not mean that, we have taken the heart out of confession of sin. On the other side, the sinned-against also confesses justice. When he declares, “I forgive you,” he means that he will not give what the sinner deserves, because God does not give him what he himself deserves. In other words, in all acts of forgiveness, mercy and justice meet, righteousness and peace kiss (Ps. 85:10). Our thankful song shall be “of mercy and of justice” (Ps. 101). Always.
Do not weaponize forgiveness
Finally, to teach that impenitent sinners must be forgiven automatically and immediately furnishes a deadly weapon to ungodly men and women who want to continue in their sin. I have heard from victims of terrible abuse who said that their abuser always taught them automatic and immediate forgiveness. And since forgiveness meant that the matter was finished, no one else was to find out what happened, and the murderous abuse could continue. False teaching has rarely been weaponized against the innocent as effectively as this false teaching.
In this light, some expected objections can be addressed.
Does refusal to forgive promote bitterness in us?
The most common reason given to require automatic forgiveness is that not forgiving will allow bitterness, anger, and vengeful attitudes to fester. But this is a misunderstanding. Two things must be kept in view: First, Christians must always put away bitterness, anger, and vengeful attitudes. Victims of horrible crimes pray daily that Christ’s Spirit would keep them from bitterness and fill them with kindness, love, mercy, and grace. Bitterness and anger are permitted no one. Even when we withhold forgiveness, we must show kindness. Second, remember that forgiveness is not a letting go of evil thoughts and feelings, but a declaration to the sinner that lets him go from any obligation to pay for his sin.
Didn’t Jesus forgive those who crucified him even though they were not repentant? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
When Jesus was being crucified, He prayed a beautiful prayer that His Father would forgive those who unjustly put Him to death. It is like the last prayer of the martyr Stephen as he lay dying from being stoned: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). Notice that in Jesus’ prayer He did not declare forgiveness to anyone. He did not say to the ungodly soldiers, “I forgive you of your sin, release you of your responsibility to pay.” He did not say to the chief rulers who conspired against Him, “I hold nothing against you; you will not be obliged to pay anything for this most serious offense of all human history.” Instead, Jesus asked His Father to take up this work of declaring forgiveness. “Father, forgive them” is a request for His Father to speak to the guilty hearts and convicted consciences of His murderers.
His Father answered that prayer, too. After Pentecost, when Peter preached to these very murderers of Christ, Peter first showed them their sins. I paraphrase: “Jesus was a just man, and you know it by the miracles you witnessed Him perform among you. Yet you wickedly crucified Him and deserve to pay for that sin” (see Acts 2:23-36). Then, Peter called them: “Now repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” And when they cried out in distress, Peter pointed them to repentance for sin and baptism in Jesus’ name. As a result of that sermon, three thousand sinners repented and received remission: they heard God speak to their heart: “I have put away your sin.” God answered the prayer of Jesus when these sinners repented. Not automatically and immediately. And the notable answer to Stephen’s prayer was when one complicit in Stephen’s murder, Saul, repented and became apostle Paul.
When Jesus calls us to forgive seventy times seven, that surely does not expect repentance each time, does it? Should we not just keep on forgiving?
There is nothing to make us believe that this text contradicts Luke 17, which instructs us to forgive those who repent. “If he repent, forgive him.”
Do you wait until your wife is sorry for every little sin she commits against you before you forgive her? Do you make her repent for the petty things she does before you forgive her?
My marriage would not be the happy one it is if my wife and I lived that way. I am thankful—to reverse the situation— that she overlooks many of my sins, if we may call them “petty” sins. In a marriage, as in other Christian relationships, “love covers a multitude of sins.” Sometimes this “covering” is by ignoring them. And we are able to ignore these faults because we know that our spouse is, as we are, a truly penitent person, that she goes to bed each night praying with the sentiment of this old Evening Prayer, perhaps holding our hands while we pray: “Forgive the sins I have confessed to thee; Forgive the secret sins I do not see; O guide me, love me, and my keeper be. Amen.
Now, the warning against an improper forgiveness must not incline any of us to forget the main thing in the Christian life—that we show ourselves to be children of the Father by our eager forgiveness of undeserving sinners (Eph. 4:32-5:1), and that we seek to restore fellowship. In other words, our refusal to forgive impenitent sinners must never have the result that we do not want to forgive, that we do not show ourselves to be “ready to forgive” as God is always “ready to forgive” (see Ps. 86:5).
Why, if the one who sinned against me sees in me no disposition to forgive, no grace, no merciful spirit, they will no more want to confess to me than the prodigal son if he had seen his father as a ‘hard man.’ But the prodigal “came to himself” remembering who his father was, the kind of gracious man he knew he would face when he came back down that path home. It was, truly, the goodness of God that led him to repentance (Rom. 2:5). Pray that the goodness we manifest to others may be part of what God uses to work repentance in those who sin against us. They will know that we will receive them with open arms, kill the fatted calf, and truly forget what they did to hurt us.
My Father deals with me that way.
“An Evening Prayer” (sometimes known as: “Dear Lord, Forgive”) If I have wounded any soul today, If I have caused one foot to go astray, If I have walked in my own willful way, Dear Lord, forgive! If I have uttered idle words or vain, If I have turned aside from want or pain, Lest I offend some other through the strain, Dear Lord, forgive! If I have been perverse, or hard, or cold, If I have longed for shelter in the fold, When thou hast given me some fort to hold, Dear Lord, forgive! Forgive the sins I have confessed to thee; Forgive the secret sins I do not see; O guide me, love me, and my keeper be. Amen.
1 Keep in mind what I wrote in September—that the victim of a sin that is a crime, like sexual assault, must not be expected to confront a sinner alone.
2 Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology, v. 8.1 (August 2021), ii.