How Can I Forgive that Man?
"I know what the Bible says, but how can I forgive that man, after everything he has done? And he isn't even sorry."
It is a familiar question or comment, and perhaps the second most common and difficult that pastors hear (trailing only "How could God let this happen?") Both ask for help explaining suffering; the second addresses great sins and offenses: "How can I forgive that man?" This question is more complex than it seems and the answer has several aspects. Indeed Jesus spoke to it several times. Two passages might appear to stand in tension at first, and seeing how they fit together is essential.
In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus says, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."
In Matthew 6:14-15, he says, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
These texts describe different aspects of forgiveness. Matthew 6 sounds absolute. If we are forgiven, we forgive, because the forgiven are ready to forgive. This free forgiveness echoes Jesus' free gift of salvation (Rom. 6:23). And yet forgiveness comes with a cost and a condition. The cost is the blood of Christ. The condition is that the sinner must repent (Luke 24:47). Humans forgive similarly, but not identically. We forgive freely, "from your heart," Jesus says (Matt. 18:35). The cost is letting go of our desire for justice or vengeance. We then "pray for those who abuse" us (Luke 6:28). We don't call down God's wrath, we pray the Lord will lead sinners to repent, believe, and receive his mercy (Rom. 12:19-21).
And yet there are conditions. The Lord forgives sinners if they repent (1 Kgs. 8:47-48, 2 Chron 6:37-38, Ps. 7:12, Luke 17:4, Rev. 2:16). Similarly, among men and women, the condition for complete forgiveness is that the sinner must repent. That is, even if one person forgives another "from the heart," matters are not quite closed if the offending party refuses to repent – and they often do refuse!
In short, Jesus sometimes tells us to forgive unconditionally, and sometimes he tells us to forgive conditionally - if the sinner repents (Matt. 6:14-15, Luke 17:4). We harmonize these teachings by distinguishing two aspects or elements of forgiveness. We unconditionally forgive an offender subjectively or inwardly by loving, praying for them, and seeking peace with them. But the objective element of forgiveness is conditional - the sinner must repent. Some call this the attitude of forgiveness and the transaction of forgiveness. The attitudinal aspect is clear, but we need to consider the transaction or external aspect of forgiveness.
Suppose someone steals my car. Even after I forgive the thief subjectively and unconditionally, business remains. If he is a disciple, I must call him to repent: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you... If he listens to you, you have gained your brother" (Matt. 18:15). Moses regards reproof as an act of love (Lev. 19:17-18).
Suppose that I see the thief driving my car, stop him, and confront him. He says, "I repent. Please forgive me." I will reply "I forgive you." But I also say, "Now please step out of my car and give me the keys." If he refuses to return the car, the matter is not closed.
The demand for the car applies biblical law where it commands thieves to make restitution (e.g. Ex. 22:1-9). There are exceptions, but the norm is double restitution (22:4, 7). In principle, the car thief would return the car and add another car. This is perfect justice, since the thief then loses precisely what he would have taken and the victim gains exactly what he would have lost. This word shows that repentance has a public dimension. The offending party must set things right, if possible. Thus, if one man slanders another, and the slanderer repents, the truly repentant slanderer needs to tell the truth and restore the reputation of the person he slandered, as much as possible.
But there is more. First, the worse the person, typically, the less interest they have in repenting or setting things right. Godly people typically know their sin and repent of it (1 Tim. 1:15), while great sinners are least likely to repent. Bullies, abusers, thieves, and slanderers commonly have a weak or "seared" conscience, which makes repentance harder (1 Tim. 4:2). Indeed, it is impossible, unless the Spirit renews them. Evildoers tend to be oblivious to their actions. They smash a guitar and say "We were just horsing around and you put it in our way." They remember events so differently that progress is impossible. Normal people assume that a father would remember throwing a son down a flight of stairs, but the father tells himself the boy started the altercation and he was just defending himself. Indeed, evildoers often believe they have been mistreated when someone merely resists them or corrects them. This is why Paul said "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." The qualification is necessary because reconciliation takes two or more parties (Rom. 12:18).
The wicked also project their sins onto others. Sexual abusers sometimes say, "She asked for it," "She liked it," or "He never complained." Tragically people even "facilitate" this by excusing evil behavior: "Yes, your father hits us sometimes, but he is under a lot of pressure."
The final element, in dealing with great sin, is caution. I take this point from the proverbs that warn against teaching, trusting, or hiring a fool (e.g. Prov. 26:4-6, 10-11). In Scripture, the fool is godless and wicked rather than stupid. Thus, Scripture warns us again trusting dangerous people. To say it differently, the phrase "forgive and forget" may be true or false, depending on the meaning of "forget." Forgiveness does not require that we literally forget the sins we suffer. When God says he will remember our sins "no more" (Jer. 31:34), he means he will not hold them against us. God is omniscient and cannot literally forget anything, and we rarely forget traumas. Besides, the phrase "forgive and forget" never appears in Scripture. Thus, when we forgive, we "forget" the desire for justice. But we need not pretend that nothing happened.
It's no virtue to let offenders hurt us repeatedly. Jesus told his disciples to protect themselves: "When they persecute you… flee" (Matt. 10:16-23). So "forgive and take steps" is a better summary than forgive and forget. If someone fails to repay a loan, and asks forgiveness, we should forgive them and ask them to repay. We may also decline to make loans to them in the future. Similarly, adult children may separate from dangerous parents, even if the child forgives them. Or the child may insist on ground rules for the relationship: "You may come for two days, but you will not have time alone with my children, and if you say this or do that, I will insist that you leave." It is not easy to love and forgive someone and take this posture, but it can be necessary. In conclusion, believers always forgive subjectively, but the public and transactional elements of forgiveness are complex and conditional. The transactional dimension applies the teaching "If he repents, forgive him." It also heeds the exhortation to steer clear of fools (Prov. 26) and danger (Matt. 10:23, Titus 3:10). In this way we both live out the gospel and heed Jesus' teaching to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16).
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.
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