The act of forgiveness is one of the most powerful occurrences conquering the reality of sin and its destructive fruits as manifested in broken relationships with God and man. No wonder the strong biblical emphasis on forgiveness as an act of God, but also expected from man.

Forgiveness is sometimes identified as an act of “sending away”. God “sends away” what man has done in violation and disavowal of his will, and receives man back into uninhibited fellowship. Also man’s forgiveness to one another is seen as an act of “sending away” what has become between him and his neighbor. To “send away” is indeed an important aspect of forgiveness, and relates to the Greek verb άϕιέναι (to send away; to forgive) as mainly used in the gospels. However, that which is central to forgiveness cannot in the first instance be determined by semantics, but rather what God has done in Christ to move towards us in brokenness and sin whilst inviting our repentant response.

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God’s faithfulness and righteousness to Christ

God’s faithfulness and righteousness to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Joh 1:9) could not be isolated from what Christ has done in this regard. Forgiveness is not a mere “sending away” or a cheap cover up of sin. It is all about God’s faithfulness to Christ – for what He has done for us on the cross, and His righteousness because the price of sin has been paid for. In fact, if man truly repents of sin, and God does not forgive him, He would have been unfaithful and unrighteous to that what Christ has done in this regard.

God’s unconditional willingness to offer forgiveness

Because the wages of sin is met, Christ’s suffering causes forgiveness to be a creative act of reconciliation. This suffering was done by God through Christ without any merit or action from mankind. God’s willingness to offer forgiveness is therefore unconditional. It was done regardless whether man believes it or not. It became an objective and historical fact initiated by God when Christ died on the cross. However, the initiative of God in offering forgiveness is always accompanied with the anticipation that repentance will be provoked.

God’s conditional applying of forgiveness

Two conditions are mentioned in the Bible regarding the application of God’s forgiveness in Christ. First of all – confession and repentance, and secondly – forgiving one another (1 Jn 1:9; Mt 6:14; Mk 11:26). These two conditions are however, not an indication that in the application of forgiveness the initiative has shifted from God to man. Both these conditions are fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:8) rooted in God’s unconditional willingness to offer forgiveness.

It is only sin that was done in ignorance that is forgiven without confession and remorse. Therefore the words of Christ on the cross: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34, N.I.V.). Something similar is found in Paul’s remark to Timothy: “Even thou I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (1 Tm 1:13, N.I.V.)

Forgiveness in the Name of Christ

Both the willingness to offer forgiveness and the actual giving thereof is accomplished in the Name of Christ. This means that the believer may offer forgiveness only because Christ has died for the transgressions of the offender, and the offender receives forgiveness only after confession and repentance. The actual forgiveness of sin is however performed by God alone. No human being has the power to absolve sins. Offering forgiveness to another person is actually a prayer to God to realize forgiveness in the offender’s life on grounds of Christ’s death for his sins, but this prayer will remain unanswered unless true repentance is evoked.

The realization of forgiveness in Christ

Exactly because God is the Subject (person giving rise to) of forgiveness, it means that He alone determines whether our offering of forgiveness will also lead to the actual absolution of the offender. God who is able to look into the heart of a person knows whether confession and remorse are sincere or not. Therefore, the very fact that we have forgiven the offender does not automatically mean that he is absolved from that sin. It remains God’s prerogative to answer our “prayer” as suits Him.

When repentance and confession is not evoked

The willingness to offer forgiveness often leads to disappointment, especially God’s willingness to offer forgiveness to mankind. The result is no reconciliation with God and eventually His rejection and condemnation over the sinner.

In God’s expectation of man to be willing to offer forgiveness to one another, man also experiences disappointment in this regard. If repentance and confession do not follow, forgiveness of sin can not granted to the offender in the Name of Christ. The unconditional willingness to offer forgiveness should not be confused with the conditional forgiveness or absolution of sin.

The principle is: Without confession and remorse, no absolution can be given in the Name of Christ, otherwise one is not in line with God. It is important to understand something of God’s righteousness in this regard. God hates sin, and will never overlook it. Sin has cost the life of his Son, Jesus Christ! We need to experience through the work of the Holy Spirit something of the misery of what happened on the cross, and not become so easily at ease with sin. We do not help a person who has sinned with: “Don’t worry, it is not that bad.” In the light of Golgotha sin is always bad!

The offender is also not helped by words like: “I forgive and absolve you even if you have not shown any remorse.” In fact, by doing that, a very negative message is communicated. The message is: “Sin is not that bad, repentance is not needed – you are merely forgiven!” This is an attitude that blasphemes against God’s righteousness, and an injustice that cries out against the misery of the cross. By forgiving sins unconditionally, is to transgress against the enormous price paid by Christ in this regard. A cheap cover up of sin does not help a person on the road of deliverance. In fact, by doing that, sin is ascertained even deeper in one’s life.

An important question to be asked is: How should a person being dealt with who has sinned against you without confession or any signs of remorse? The Bible gives us the following guidelines in this regard:

Firstly, one should be willing to offer forgiveness with the hope that it will provoke repentance and remorse. This hope is also seen in the waiting father as told in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). The willingness to offer forgiveness is always unconditional as revealed in Christ’s death for sinners.

Secondly, one should be aware not to accommodate bitterness or hatred against that person. In Romans 12:17 and 19 it is written: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord”. (N.I.V.) Bitterness and hatred harbored in one’s heart lead to various forms of physical and emotional sicknesses. Bitterness and hatred boil down to, as someone said, drinking poison to kill your enemy! That is stupidity; you only harm yourself.

Thirdly, one should distance himself from the offender’s sin committed against him. That is done by giving the person over to God. This act is a form of a willingness to offer forgiveness because the offender is given to Him who has already offered forgiveness in Christ. Trust God who knows the offender to take revenge or to deal with the case in His way. To do that is an act of trust in God’s righteousness whereby one is freed (not necessarily the offender) from the effect of that person’s sin against him. The liability of the offender’s sin is now transferred from oneself to God with the knowledge that no one will merely escape from sin committed against man or God.

Paul has been in a similar situation. Alexander has sinned against him and never shown any remorse. Paul did not absolve his sins but wrote in 2 Timothy 4:14 “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done.” (N.I.V.) It is not a case of Paul absolving or setting Alexander free of what he has done. He has rather distanced himself from Alexander by giving him to the Lord. It is God’s responsibility to deal with Alexander, He will revenge. By doing that, Paul has freed himself from any negative hold Alexander might have on his emotions or his relationship with the Lord.

The principle is: If one is assaulted, high jacked, robbed, humiliated, or being sinned against in whatever manner conceivable and no remorse is shown – one should distance himself from it by giving it to God. No one should be deprived from joy and peace in the Lord. God is righteous and He will revenge. Having this attitude will lead to peace. A Christian should never become the yielded victim of other people’s sins as revealed in their acts or words, but someone that lives day by day depending on God who is always righteousness in who He is.

Questions for cell group discussions

  1. What did you find surprising, insightful and/or new in this essay? In other words, what statement or sentence stood out for you while listening to this essay? Allow some time for a few members of the group to give their answer and discuss it. If needed, revisit the sections in the essay. Give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to talk to you and illuminate God’s truth.
  2. Name and discuss 2 conditions mentioned in the Bible regarding the application of God’s forgiveness in Christ. (Note: the principle here is to be Christocentric, that is to “think” from the point of view of what Christ did on the cross.)
  3. Discuss the Biblical position regarding the question: “How should a person who has sinned against you without confession or any signs of remorse, be dealt with?”