In the past few months I have encountered several conflicting ideas about forgiveness in unexpected counseling situations. Nor is the confusion confined to the uninformed or immature. The biblical idea of forgiveness is an elusive one that is often missed entirely or sometimes mixed with other ideas—ideas that are not necessarily bad, but that are not exactly what the Bible is trying to convey by its use of the word forgiveness, either. Note the following:
- Forgiveness is clinically defined as releasing thoughts/feelings of animosity, bitterness, or revenge toward someone who has wronged you. Biblically speaking, this is the immediate response required of all those who have been wronged. Period. We should not harbor and nurture bitter thoughts of vengeance—vengeance is not the proper purview of the individual, but rather that of God and the state; further, such bitter intentions can be personally/psychologically debilitating (Rom 12:19, etc.). The idea of “letting go of bitter feelings,” however, while necessary to biblical forgiveness (the root meaning of ἀφίημι, in fact, is “to release” or “let go”), is more of a prequel to forgiveness than the act of forgiveness itself. IOW, while forgiveness requires “letting go,” it is more than this.
- Forgiveness is legally defined as releasing the wrongdoer from all punitive or legal debt/obligation. This legal definition is sometimes reflected in Scripture, especially when the forgiveness of a material debt in in view (Matt 18:27), but this definition likewise does not exhaust the semantic range of the term. We also observe in Scripture that while the cancellation of the consequences of sin may be a gracious accoutrement of forgiveness, it need not be in every case. Even God’s own forgiveness of his children does not mean that he will automatically free us from every consequence of sin. This is particularly important in a counseling setting, in that it makes room for a Christian victim to seek legal protection from, file legal complaint against, and even seek reparations from a wrongdoer without violating God’s command to be ready to forgive.
- Forgiveness is popularly imagined at times to involve ignoring an offense or pretending that a sin has never happened. For this understanding, appeal is sometimes made to 1 Peter 4:8, where “love covers a multitude of sins.” Now this verse surely teaches that, having been biblically addressed and forgiven, sins should not be made a matter of public broadcast to be rehearsed over and again (so also 1 Cor 13:5). Peter is most definitely not teaching, however, that believers must adopt a general policy of ignoring or concealing sins (so Matt 18:15, among dozens of other texts). Not only is such a policy detrimental to the spiritual life of the offender, but it can also put the safety of other potential victims at risk (e.g., when we “cover up” chronic abuse, sexual assault, or tendencies to physical violence)….so again, counselor, be warned. Forgiving and forgetting are not coextensive concepts; more than this, forgiving and ignoring are mutually exclusive concepts.
- An amalgamated construct of forgiveness extracted from pieces of all three concepts above is the idea that forgiveness necessarily includes the reinstatement of a wrongdoer to the status/office/rank that he held before being caught in a sin. This simply does not follow. Just as there may be lingering legal consequences for the forgiven, so also there may be practical consequences for the forgiven. An elder, for instance, who violates the qualifications requisite to his office (1 Tim 3) forfeits his office even when he is forgiven. And it goes without saying that we should not restore a person caught abusing a child or embezzling funds, upon being forgiven, to the functions that he may have had in prior to his sin in, say, children’s ministry or the treasurer’s office, respectively. That simply is not what forgiveness is. That’s stupid!
- What, then, does biblical forgiveness require? Well, some of the ideas above contribute to our understanding, but none, I think, captures the totality of the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness begins by abandoning feelings of bitterness and vengeance and may graciously expand to include the cancellation of debts (financial and/or punitive), but these are not properly forgiveness, the former being a prequel to forgiveness and the latter a hopeful accessory of forgiveness. The heart of biblical forgiveness is instead reconciliation, or the restoration of a mutual relationship and even mutual respect (1 Cor 5:17–21). The term mutual is critical here, and suggests that forgiveness rests necessarily on an overture by the wrongdoer: forgiveness in its proper sense is not a unilateral action; the offender must instead humble himself to seek it by expressing repentance. Only then may the “record of the offense” be erased and the sin “covered.” The biblical requirement is not that believers forgive willy-nilly, but that they stand ready at all times to extend forgiveness to those who confess and repent of their sins, following the example of God in Christ (Eph 4:32; 1 John 1:9).
To summarize, God’s requirement that we forgive others as God has forgiven us does not mean that we must (1) ignore sin, (2) conceal sin, (3) endure sin silently, (4) let sins go unresolved, or (5) abandon all hope of relief from abusive sin.
But his call to forgive others as he has forgiven us does demand that the obedient Christian (1) eschew bitterness/vengefulness, (2) seek reconciliation and stand ready to extend it instantly upon a genuine expression of repentance, and, thereupon, (3) respect the repentant wrongdoer enough to “cover” the sin without resentment or personal censure.
For more information on this topic, see Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 1:444–49 and esp. Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness (Crossway, 2008).