One of the family members said, “But if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Was she wrong to speak this way?
The united testimony of the Charleston families offering forgiveness in the name of God was confounding and incomprehensible to some, and perplexing even to some Christians. Were families of the victims in Charleston wrong to offer Christian forgiveness to an apparently unrepentant killer? One of the family members said, “But if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Was she misrepresenting God’ forgiveness?
I think these are essential questions for the church to grapple with. Christians have a witness before the world that is being watched carefully. As I argued in my previous article, I believe the Charleston family members gave a powerful and theologically appropriate testimony before the world. The issue of forgiveness is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. Through Christ, God forgave and reconciled sinners to Himself. So Christians are to be like God in being a forgiving, gracious people. But to do so in a way fitting and pleasing to God, we should biblically consider the issue of forgiveness as we try to correctly answer questions such as: what is forgiveness, to whom it is offered and on what basis, what does human vs. divine forgiveness accomplish, etc.
Defining Christian forgiveness
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary to forgive is to: a) to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong); b) to stop blaming (someone); c) to stop feeling anger about (something) ; d) to forgive someone for (something wrong); e) to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed).
When we forgive someone, we let go of resentment, anger, or blame; we let go of the claim for requital we have towards someone who’s wronged us. Another aspect of forgiveness is granting relief from payment. This touches on the legal concern– does forgiveness remove the guilt incurred when someone wrongs another? We will explore this question further in order to highlight the difference between human and divine forgiveness.
Christian forgiveness goes beyond merely letting go of anger, resentment, or bitterness, since it even returns good for evil. We see this expressed in such verses as, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17). “Beloved, never revenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (12:19). “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (12:20). “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).
So we turn now to the question of to whom is this extraordinary Christian forgiveness offered, and what does it accomplish.
To whom is Christian forgiveness offered?
There are various types of Christian forgiveness:
- God offers forgiveness to the sinner who repents of their sins through Christ, accomplishing the salvation of sinners (Acts 2:38);
- Christians offer forgiveness to other Christian brothers and sisters, as commanded, with a view towards reconciliation of relationship (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13);
- Christians follow the example of a merciful Savior and offer love (including forgiveness) towards enemies , with a view towards softening the heart of the enemy by pricking his conscience (Luke 6:35; Rom 12:20);
- The Church forgives the repentant sinner to restore them back into fellowship; or withholds fellowship until the sinner repents (Matthew 18:15-17).
Human forgiveness of personal harm vs. divine forgiveness of the guilt of sin
The forgiveness believers offer does NOT remove sinful guilt from the person we forgive. Only God can remove the permanent guilt of sin, and this is contingent upon the person repenting through Christ.
Some confusion in the debate on forgiveness perhaps arises from not taking into account the biblical distinction between the personal forgiveness Christians are commanded to express to others for sins and harms committed against them (or even sins committed against loved ones which in turn impact them) vs. the divine forgiveness God offers to the repentant person, which not only forgives but also removes the guilt of the sinner. Christians are called to the former, but only God offers and accomplishes the latter. Believers offer mercy and forgiveness to others, even to enemies, because we have been mercifully forgiven by God for a vast multitude of sins (Matt 18: 21-35). Christian forgiveness therefore becomes a reflection of the mercy and grace of God towards all. But the forgiveness believers offer does NOT remove sinful guilt from the person we forgive. Only God can remove the guilt of sin, and this is contingent upon the person repenting through Christ, who at the cross paid the penalty for sin for all who respond to Him (Luke 13:5; Rom 4:7-8; Rom 8:1).
Loving and forgiving enemies in the name and power of Christ
Therefore, when believers in obedience to God forgive those who trespass against them (Matt 5:12); forgive as we have been forgiven (Col 3:13); and love enemies (Matt 6:44-45), the love and forgiveness offered is not communicating that those forgiven are now excused of the guilt of their sins. For the Bible says unless a person repents through Christ, they will have to bear the guilt of their sin themselves, by suffering the eternal wrath of God (John 3:18).
Jesus commanded believers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).” Are not enemies to be defined as those who unrepentantly do evil against us? Yet Jesus tells us we are to love these persons. Can we love these enemies without forgiving them? It seems to me the answer is no, for Christian love undoubtedly encompasses and includes forgiveness.
So when we offer forgiveness to others (believers/unbelievers; repentant/unrepentant) for harms done against us directly or indirectly– we are forgiving the hurts and harm, but not saying or doing anything in regard to their guilt before God. God Himself will judge the sinner’s guilt and execute justice on sinners in several ways.
Again, there are some distinctions among the scenarios of forgiveness. When it comes to salvation, God forgives only the one who repents and turns to God through Christ, while the Church may only restore the repentant back to fellowship. But when it comes to forgiving personal harms, the Christian attitude is to be magnanimous and unconditional, for we have received an incomprehensible, overflowing, never-ending mercy.
Knowing God’s sovereign justice and amazing mercy helps us forgive, even our enemies
When believers forgive, it is with this knowledge– that God will fully punish all sinners and all sin, executing perfect justice.
“Vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30). First, He sovereignly appoints earthly authorities to protect the public peace and to execute earthly justice (Rom 13:4). So for example if the accused Charleston killer Dylann Roof is found guilty of murder, the system should render an earthly sentence for his crime. As we see from Romans 13:4, this is part of the execution of God’s justice by means of earthly authorities He established. Nevertheless, this earthly punishment does not remove spiritual guilt before God. A person may pay the earthly price in the form of a legal punishment for a crime committed, yet this won’t justify them in the court of God’s justice. Since all sin is ultimately against God, each must pay sin’s reckoning to God– and we pay either through the mercy of Christ Jesus who takes away our sins through His reconciling death on the cross, or pay by suffering in hell the eternal consequences for our sins. Either way, God’s justice will be executed.
So when believers forgive, it is with this knowledge– that God will fully punish all sinners and all sin, executing His perfect justice. This is one of the reasons we must forgive– because not forgiving is a form of personal vengeance. And we also forgive while understanding that we too would have justly and deservedly been condemned for our sins and received God’s eternal wrath, but through Christ were mercifully spared and reconciled to God. Being the recipients of this gracious, unmerited love and mercy, we must in turn graciously offer unconditional forgiveness to others for the sins/harms they have committed against us, with prayerful hope that those whom we forgive may be moved to also repent and turn to God for mercy (Rom 12: 14-21; Matt 5:43-48; Matt 6:12-15; Eph 2:1-5; Eph 4:31-32; Col 2:13-14; Col 3:13).
The Christian’s standard for love and forgiveness is Christ
The world might say, “Don’t forgive your enemies unless they repent.” Or, don’t forgive them at all, depending on the nature of the crime. But friends, we are not of the world!
Friends, Jesus teaches that the believer has been given a much higher standard than the world for its behavior. The world system is based on the “tit for tat”, “eye for an eye”, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” principles. The world says “love your friends, hate your enemies”. The world never rises above that which is natural (1 Cor 2:14). Nor does it rise above the sinful and weak flesh, as it has no power to do so (Rom 8:7-8). So the world might say, “Don’t forgive your enemies until they repent.” Or, don’t forgive them at all, depending on the nature of the crime. But friends, we are not of the world! We are called to a supernatural life in Christ! We have the indwelling Spirit of God. Therefore we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (John 15:19; John 14:16-17; Matt 5:48). What then is more like God-like and perfect, than forgiving our enemies? Recall what Jesus did and said as He suffered upon the cross, an innocent man, being punished unjustly by His enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
I believe this was Jesus speaking from His perfect humanity, to the very end of His earthly life showing forth the grace and mercy of God towards His enemies, exemplifying His own teaching that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. His heart towards His enemies was one of forgiveness. Even in the midst of extreme physical and spiritual anguish, Jesus prayed for the mercy of God to fall upon His enemies, that some of them might still be saved. What an amazing, beautiful, merciful Savior we have, so awesome in grace and forgiveness.
We do not and cannot by our forgiveness remove the guilt of any sinner…. But being confident of God’s full justice, and empowered by His amazing love, we too can offer forgiveness to others in the name of Christ.
So brothers and sisters, this is why I was deeply moved by the forgiveness the Charleston families offered a cold-blooded killer. I was reminded of the Savior. Surely a killer does not deserve mercy! Neither do I. But our God is a God of mercy. The families showed how God acts towards His enemies. He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45)” and “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).” If we are to represent Him as sons and daughters of our heavenly father, let us be like Him in having merciful hearts that express forgiveness in words and actions. Again, we do not and cannot by our forgiveness remove the guilt of any sinner. God will execute His justice on all sinners. But being confident of God’s full justice, and empowered by His amazing love, we too can offer forgiveness to others in the name of Christ.
The challenge of forgiving
Forgiving is not natural to sinful human beings, and even for Christians given a new power and new desires through the indwelling Spirit, forgiveness is still a challenge because of human weakness (see Rom 7). Certainly if someone repents for their sins the believer is obligated to forgive them ((Matt 6:14–15; 18:23–35; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3–4; Ephesians 4:31–32; Col 3:13). But the question in this debate has been whether the unrepentant person must be forgiven by the Christian. I think so, and my argument is summarized in the following points. Christians should offer forgiveness to all, even the unrepentant:
- For the sake of one’s own spiritual health and relationship with God and others, which will be poisoned by resentment and bitterness if we do not forgive others (Matt 5:23; Mark 11:25; 2 Cor 2:11);
- As a testimony consistent with the love and grace of God we as sinners have received (Matt 18: 21-35; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13);
- As a means to possibly win the offender to Christ through offering grace in His name (Rom 12:20-21)
- To follow the example of Christ, showing ourselves God’s children by the mercy we give the undeserving (Matt 5:44-45)
I close with a quote from the reformer John Calvin:
Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.