On Forgiveness

If one pays careful attention to the news, it will become obvious that subjects touching upon Biblical themes present themselves with regularity. One such theme which seems to continually surface is the subject of forgiveness. Can God forgive Timothy McVeigh? Do we have the prerogative to forgive the various “school shooters”, much less the Christian responsibility? Does forgiveness dispense with accountability?
Let’s approach these and other questions from a Biblical perspective.

1. God can forgive any sin.
Certainly, there are some sins that are of such a heinous nature that we wonder whether there can be any forgiveness from God for those sins. I remember this question being asked by a network news anchor shortly before the execution of Ted Bundy. Bundy had claimed to trust Christ as his Lord and Savior, and to have the assurance that God had forgiven him. There were many who were skeptical of this claim. This question reasserted itself (albeit to maybe a lesser degree) in the recent case of Karla Faye Tucker.
The answer to this question is an unqualified ‘yes’! God is able to forgive any sin; He does so on the basis of the fact that Jesus Christ, His only Son, paid the price for the sins of all mankind in His sacrificial death on Calvary. The forgiveness of sin is to be found in trusting Christ as Savior through simple faith in Him and sincere repentance. We in no way earn God’s favor; we simply accept His forgiveness by turning to Christ. The Bible is replete with many instances of God forgiving the worst of sinners!

2. We, as Christians, must forgive others.
The Scripture is equally clear that we do not have the prerogative to withhold forgiveness from people. To Peter’s question on the limits of forgiveness, Jesus replied that our forgiveness is to be unlimited (“seventy times seven” effectively means “without end”). Forgiveness is a choice which we are both commanded to make and by the power of God, are able to make. To say “I just can’t forgive…” is to limit the power of God. Granted, it may not always be easy to forgive, but our forgiveness of others must be set in the greater context of God’s forgiveness of us. No one will ever sin against us to the degree that we have sinned against God, and yet He is able to forgive. So must we!

3. Only those offended are truly in a position to forgive.
To issue forgiveness is commanded by Scripture, but today there are those who would offer what I would call “pseudo-forgiveness”. Don’t get me wrong; these people are usually very magnanimous in their intent. A good example is the high school students in the Kentucky shooting who rushed to extend their forgiveness of the student who gunned down their fellow classmates. These well-meaning students were sinned against only in a limited sense of the term. Those for whom forgiveness is a real proposition include the parents and relatives of the slain students, as well as perhaps the school officials whose rules had been breached.
It is, to explain my point, effectively irrelevant for me to “forgive” someone who, say, had committed adultery against his wife. The person wronged in a case of adultery is the spouse and, secondarily, the immediate family of the individual. These are the ones for whom forgiveness is truly an issue. It seems that in our therapeutic society we are sometimes too quick to assume this prerogative and issue “feel-good forgivenesses” that are effectively meaningless!

4. Forgiving does not require forgetting.
Some have made the suggestion that true forgiveness requires that one forget that the offense ever took place. Might I suggest that true forgiveness ought to entail a desire not to rehash the offense in one’s mind over and over again, but while we can will ourselves to forgive, we cannot by an act of the will forget. Indeed, to willfully attempt to forget something only serves to bring that event to mind! One’s desire in offering forgiveness ought usually to be to forget the offense, but the lack of forgetting ought not necessarily be construed as a lack of forgiveness.

5. Forgiveness does not necessarily alleviate the consequences of one’s actions.
David sincerely confessed his sin before God (Psalm 51) but there were still consequences for his sinning (II Samuel 12). That there are consequences for sin is a theme which runs through the Bible. To be sure, there are times when repentance and subsequent forgiveness do lessen the severity of the consequences, but to suggest that one must necessarily follow the other cannot be defended. Were we to apply this facetious reasoning to society, we would invite anarchy; criminals merely by the effecting of a contrite spirit could have their sentences commuted and evade accountability for their actions! Common sense (and Scripture—see Romans 13!) dictates against this idea. As a nation of laws, we are duty-bound to call the guilty to account for their deeds, while at the same time those offended who are Christ-followers are bound to issue forgiveness, imitating the One Who, with His dying words, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Leave a Comment