Prof. Barrett Gritters, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Hudsonville PRC

It may be hard to believe that, in certain circumstances, it may be sinful to say, “I forgive you.” But it should not be surprising. One of the most blessed activities among the people of God—the declaration from one sinner to another, “I forgive you”—can be misused to serve a purpose the very opposite of the one for which the Lord designed it.

Christians should not only recognize that this is possible, they should expect it. Since the devil masquerades as an angel of light and recruits men and women to work on his behalf (II Cor. 11:14, 15), we should not be ignorant of his devices (II Cor. 11:2), not in this case either. The devil is so determined to ruin the blessed works of God that he can, in fact, take what is supposed to be at the pinnacle of Christian conduct and make it antichristian.

It is possible that the act of forgiveness becomes an act of sin.

The primary way in which this sin is committed is when the response to a very serious sin is automatically to declare, “I forgive you.” Those who have done so may not realize that such was sinful, but we must be instructed to see it as sinful.

I first saw the expression, “The Sin of Forgiveness,” in the title of a newspaper article some 25 years ago in which the author expressed horror at such a declaration. A fourteen-year-old high school student in West Paducah, KY, murdered three of his teenaged classmates while they were praying. Almost immediately, students in another prayer group declared to the murderer, automatically, “We forgive you.” The horrified author of the article called their forgiveness “the sin of forgiveness.”

This expression may be surprising for the reader, but the occasion for an editorial about it will not be. When a horrible sin is committed—for example, when a strong person uses his strength to damage someone weaker, for example, for his own sexual pleasure—it is sin to grant automatic forgiveness to the sinner. The sin is worse when the victim is pressed to forgive the abuser immediately and automatically. This is a current example many will relate to, but the subject applies in other occasions as well. No one may grant automatic forgiveness to someone who commits a serious sin. To do so is sin.

God’s forgiveness

To understand how such a blessed act can become sinful requires careful understanding of what our act of forgiveness actually is. What is it to forgive another?

Because our act of forgiveness must be modeled after God’s, first examine God’s. Here, we lay the foundation carefully.

Fundamental and central

The blessing of hearing God declare to us, “I forgive you,” is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. Jesus taught us to pray, after material provisions, for this spiritual one: “forgive our debts.” Among all salvation’s blessings for this life, the Apostles’ Creed mentions forgiveness, not because the others are not important but because this one is fundamental. Only because of forgiveness is there “resurrection of the body” and “life everlasting” and all the other graces of salvation. Calvin said “the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins…” (Commentary on John 20:23). The Belgic Confession says that “our salvation consists in the remission of our sins.” After Jesus’ resurrection and before His ascension, He taught the travelers to Emmaus that the message to be proclaimed to the world is “repentance and remission (forgiveness) of sins.”

A declaration not a decision

God’s forgiveness of us is a declaration He makes to us. To be sure, God’s forgiveness has an eternal source— His decree; but this decree is not yet forgiveness. God’s forgiveness has a judicial ground—Christ’s sacrifice to pay for sin; but neither is this forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s declaration to a man’s consciousness, in the forum of his conscience, “I forgive you.” According to the meaning of the Greek word for forgiveness (“release, let go”) His declaration is: “I release you from the responsibility to pay for your sin; I will let it go, not think of you in light of it, and not let it be a barrier between us.” What God determined in eternity and grounded in the cross’s payment, He must now declare to us: “I forgive you.” To illustrate, a judge may have written his decision to pardon a convicted and imprisoned criminal; but the convicted criminal must hear the judge declare that decision to him. This is forgiveness.

At times, here is where confusion enters. Some refer to God’s decision to forgive (His eternal decree) as forgiveness, and so put forgiveness in eternity. Others refer to the satisfaction made at the cross as forgiveness and see forgiveness as an event of 2,000 years ago. To speak so may be legitimate if the cross represents forgiveness in a figure of speech, as hand means help in “give me a hand,” or wheels means car in “I like your wheels,” or the crown means the king. In all these examples, one thing closely related to another thing is said to be the other thing. Then “the cross” can be said to be “forgiveness” because the cross is so basic to forgiveness.

But the failure to see the difference between the cross and forgiveness causes confusion. This explains, I believe, the common practice to pray for assurance of forgiveness rather than for forgiveness itself. If forgiveness took place in eternity, or was finished at the cross, my only present need is to be assured of those realities. But if forgiveness takes place daily as God’s declaration to me, then I must ask for forgiveness, not merely for the assurance of it. Of course, we must always connect forgiveness to God’s decree and Christ’s cross. But God’s eternal decree and Christ’s perfect sacrifice must now be applied to the sinner in God’s act of forgiveness—His declaration to the sinner daily: “I forgive you.”

Forgiveness for repentant sinners

God declares forgiveness to His people when they repent and embrace Christ by faith. “When I confessed transgression, then thou forgavest me,” we sing from Psalm 32. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (I John 1:9). The Belgic Confession teaches that the blessings of Christ, forgiveness in particular, become ours “when we believe on him” (Art. 23). If a man does not repent and lay hold on Christ, it may well be true that Christ satisfied for his sin at the cross because God chose him in eternity, but the impenitent man will not hear God declare to his conscience, “I forgive you.” Instead, his bones wax old in their roaring all day. Day and night God’s heavy hand is upon him. But when he owns (acknowledges) his trespass, hides not his sin from God, then God speaks the wonderful words, “I forgive.”

The church and forgiveness

All this explains why Christians pray daily, “Forgive our debts,” rather than, “Assure me that my debts are forgiven.” But all this also explains why the church can forgive sins. Jesus said, speaking to His church, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them” (John 20:23), where remit is forgive. Of course, no church pays for sins. But the church forgives sins when, on behalf of God, the church declares God’s forgiveness to repentant and believing sinners. Calvin said that Christ “enjoins them [His ministers] to proclaim the forgiveness of sins….” And, “…the forgiveness of sins…is committed to their trust.” In an underappreciated Lord’s Day (31), our Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the church declares this only to those who repent and receive the gospel by faith. To those who are unbelieving and impenitent, the church declares the opposite: they are outside the kingdom. That is, their sins are “retained” (John 20:23) or held against them. To put the matter in terms of Christian discipline, which really is the subject here, the Church Order of Dordt instructs consistories to receive a sinner and reconcile—that is, declare forgiveness—only when there is “sufficient evidence of repentance” (Art. 75). Repentance—and sufficient evidence of it—precedes the church’s declaration of forgiveness.

In sum: Forgiveness from God is His declaration to repentant sinners based on the satisfaction of His justice in the cross: “I release you from responsibility to pay for your sin. Your sin will never be brought up in my dealings with you. I will not think of you in light of it.” Thus, lack of repentance in a man does not mean that Christ did not die for him or that God did not decree to save him, but it does mean that God will not declare to him, “I forgive you.”

Man’s forgiveness

As much as possible, now, our forgiveness of other sinners must parallel God’s forgiveness of us. “Forgive us…as we forgive….” Thus, our forgiveness of another’s sin is our declaration to the sinner, “I forgive you.” The sinner hears us speak this directly to him.

Also here—with man’s forgiveness—confusion enters. In a recent and otherwise good speech by a nationally known Christian speaker, the speaker’s definition of forgiveness came not from Scripture but from Miriam Webster, which definition had some merit but was missing the essential element of making a declaration to the sinner. In a podcast sermon sent to me recently, the preacher defined forgiveness as “identifying with the wrongdoer and inwardly paying their debt.” Forgiveness for these speakers is something that takes place inside us—an act and decision within me. For them, forgiveness is to give up resentment or bitterness, to give up a claim to requital or retaliation, to give up the desire that the other pay for the sin. This is a common conception in society today and may even include some of what God demands of us who have been sinned against; but it is not biblical forgiveness itself. We must construct our ideas of biblical concepts from the Bible.

If God’s forgiveness of us is a declaration that He will not deal with us based on our sin, our forgiveness must declare such to the sinner. If in forgiveness God says to us, “I will never bring up the sin to judge you according to it,” we must say to the sinner, “I will never bring it up to judge you according to it.” If God says, “I will not think of you in light of it, will not remember it,” that is what we must say. If God says, “Regarding that sin, I am finished with it,” we must say to the sinner, “The matter is finished between us!”

And if God’s declaration to us comes when we repent and not before that, our declaration must come when the sinner repents, and not before. Since the rule for God’s dealings with us is: “When I confessed transgression, then thou forgavest me” (Ps. 32), so the rule in our dealings with one another is, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).

The sin of forgiveness

Thus, forgiving a brother who sinned grossly before he repents or who refuses to repent is “the sin of forgiveness.”

When we imagine that automatically and quickly we must say to everyone who sins, “I forgive you,” we sin.

Of course, what some mean when they say, “I forgive,” may not be a sin, but then it is not forgiveness either. They mean their decision not to be bitter or vengeful, not to retaliate, not to let anger consume them, a decision to go on with their life without thinking about the sin so that the sinner continues to control them. God requires those commitments of us; they are necessary for spiritual health. But they are not called “forgiveness.”

Some have called these decisions not to be bitter, and the rest, “attitudinal forgiveness” which they say is required automatically, as opposed to “transactional forgiveness” in which a declaration to the sinner is made. This is helpful to remind Christians that a proper attitude must precede any action, and even that the proper attitude may be present for a long time before any action is taken. But it confuses an attitude with a very important activity.

No Christian may say to an impenitent sinner: “I will never bring this up to you again. I will never think of you in light of it. The subject of your sin is forever finished between you and me.” To say so would be the sin of forgiveness.

It would be a sin to do so because if my neighbor does not repent of his gross sin, I must not be finished speaking to him about it. If he does not confess his sin, my calling before God is to love him by confronting him graciously about the sin. Even if he quickly says, “I am sorry,” but gives evidence that he is not sorry by doing nothing to turn from the sin, I may not declare to him that the matter will never be raised with him. In fact, I must promise him that I will be back soon with witnesses to bring him to the knowledge of sin and the grace of forgiveness for repentant sinners at the cross of Christ. I will continue to bring up the sin by bringing a report of it to the elders, so that they can labor with him toward repentance. Because I love him, I will not, I may not, forgive him.

Premature forgiveness may even be an act of selfishness. I need it for my own well-being. I do not want to be bitter, to hold a grudge, to be controlled by the past. The act of forgiveness, then, is not for him but for me.

And a call to forgive immediately and automatically may be what a sinner asks for who does not want to repent— truly repent—of their sin but continue in it without being bothered by the hard calling to reckon with the depths and consequences of the sin.

At bottom, “the sin of forgiveness” stands in the way of the true act of forgiveness, in which a man humbly says to his neighbor (both of whom are right with God under the cross of Christ!), “I forgive you.”

Of course, saying these things may raise as many questions as they try to answer. “Doesn’t Jesus call us to forgive seven times seven? Isn’t forgiving an act of grace and withholding forgiveness show that I do not know grace? Doesn’t love cover sin, and not confront it all the time? If you don’t forgive, won’t a root of bitterness spring up in you?” These, December 1, God willing. November 15 will be our special Reformation issue.