In the first part of this article (Jan/Feb 2002 Grace in Focus), we considered what forgiveness is. We saw that forgiveness is graciously letting go of an offense. It is a vital fellowship issue. In the concluding portion of this article, we will consider what forgiveness is not.
Not the Removal of Consequences
The Corinthian church was comprised in large part of immature Christians. In fact, Paul called them “babes in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1-3). Believers in that church were guilty of, among other things, immorality, divisions, envy and strife, taking each other to court, and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Concerning the latter issue, Paul mentioned, “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor 11:30). The word for sleep (koimaō) used here refers to literal sleep only three times in the New Testament (Matt 28:13; Luke 22:45; Acts 12:6). The other fifteen uses, including this one, refer figuratively to the death of believers. It is never used of the death of unbelievers.
Clearly God was aware of the sins of these believers. After all, He had Paul permanently record it in Scripture for all to read! Surely it is impossible to say that positional forgiveness eliminates accountability and consequences.
And what of fellowship forgiveness? Does it eliminate consequences? David confessed his sins of murder and immorality (2 Samuel 11). Though God forgave him, spared his life, and restored him to fellowship, there were consequences. God sent David a series of painful judgments (Second Samuel 12–24).
If an elder is caught in a trespass, there are consequences. Even if he confesses his sin, he is still to be rebuked before the entire church (1 Tim 5:19-20). In some cases this may result in a man being removed as an elder (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-7).
Peter urged believers not to suffer as murderers, thieves, or evildoers (1 Pet 4:15). Confession would not eliminate the suffering of which Peter speaks. Only avoiding the crime would prevent the suffering. If you do the crime, you’ll do the time. A convicted murderer who confesses his sin will receive forgiveness from God and may well receive forgiveness from the family of his victim, yet he will still have to fulfill his sentence. Furthermore, an adulterer who confesses his sin may discover he has acquired a sexually transmitted disease, even though God and his spouse have forgiven him.
A teen-aged son, John, ran with the wrong crowd against his parent’s wishes. He got caught up in illegal drug use. Finally John’s parents used tough love and required him to move out. Later, after a near fatal overdose, he repented and asked his parents to forgive him. They did, and they took him into their home again. But all the painful memories, and the physical consequences from the abuse, did not vanish.
Not the Forgetting of the Offense
A friend, which I’ll call Steve, owns a travel agency. Years ago he found out his best employee embezzled tens of thousands of dollars. Steve forgave her. But he didn’t forget the offense. He fired her. And he certainly didn’t give her a good reference.
But doesn’t God say that He remembers our sins no more (Heb 10:17)? Yes, He does. But we must realize that God is omniscient. He knows everything. When He speaks of not remembering our sins, He is saying that as far as our eternal salvation is concerned, it’s as though He doesn’t even remember any of our sins, past, present, or future. (This figure of speech is called anthropomorphism, God speaking as though He had human limitations.)
Not the Guarantee of Intimacy
Gilbert, married for fifteen years, cheated on his wife. Graciously, she forgave him. However, their relationship had been seriously damaged. It ultimately took years of effort on both their parts before the intimacy they had once shared was restored. And this is one of the glowing success stories. Often infidelity results in permanent damage to the marital relationship even for those who manage to stay together.
One of my friends was deeply wounded by one of her dearest friends. Until the affront, they had been very close and rarely a week went by when they didn’t spend time doing things together. After the offense, my friend forgave her. Over time she rarely even thought of the offense. But instead of doing things together each week as before, they have only spent time together once in over 6 months. A very close friendship became a casual relationship as a result of a serious offense.
Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to be best friends with those we forgive. Even if the person was our best friend before an offense, we are not required to continue that level of relationship afterwards.
As we think about what forgiveness is (Part 1) and is not (Part 2), several applications stand out.
Rejoice that positional forgiveness is total. God’s positional forgiveness covers all sins, past, present, and future. In the positional sense there is nothing a believer can ever do to cause him to be unforgiven.
Remember that fellowship forgiveness needs constant renewing. While all believers start the Christian life with fellowship forgiveness, they require it anew every time they are aware of new sin in their lives. Confession results in ongoing fellowship forgiveness.
Don’t sin thinking confession will fix everything. Realize that confession of sins does not eliminate all the consequences of your sin. If you commit adultery, for example, your spouse may divorce you even if you confess your sin to God and to your spouse.
Offenses have consequences. Realize that when a person forgives you, that is not a commitment to act as though the offense never happened. Trust may have been damaged and future opportunities for activities together may be restricted or even eliminated.
If you mistake forgiveness with a commitment to restore things to the way they were before, then you make it harder to forgive than God intends. In many cases it is unwise to restore things to their former condition. A babysitter that lied to you and failed to supervise your children is an unworthy risk. Though you forgive, you need not entrust your children to her care again.
I have found it liberating to realize that God merely asks me to forgive others. He does not require me to forget. He does not require me to pick up as though the offense never happened. As long as I relinquish any grudge and restore my relationship with that person, I have forgiven him. What my future interaction with him will look like depends on many factors. Forgiveness does not require me to be best friends with someone, or even to go out of my way to spend time with them.
It is sobering to realize that God’s ongoing forgiveness does not mean that everything is as it was before. We may have lost opportunities for future ministry. Some eternal rewards may have been forfeited that could have potentially been won. This should motivate us to think before we act. As believers we should be challenged to ongoing holiness in light of the love the Lord Jesus Christ has for us. His love motivates us to walk in fellowship with Him.