Who and How to Forgive
Reading time: 12 minutes
If we must forgive someone who has hurt us or done us harm, should we simply allow them to do it and never talk to them about it? No, and especially not if they are a Christian. We have an obligation to help other believers mature spiritually and become more Christlike, so it’s important to give them opportunity to improve. In fact, the Bible gives very clear instruction on how to do it.
Several Bible passages refer to forgiving other Christians, using such terms as “one another” or “brother or sister.” For example, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32, NIV). “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). Will other Christians offend or harm us? Yes, because we’re all human. And because all Christians are members of the same spiritual family, forgiving other believers is even more important.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).
This is relevant whether the person sinned against us or someone else. On the surface, it appears to contradict the very clear teaching about universally forgiving sins committed against us, but there’s another important principle involved – helping other believers mature. According to this passage, our first response to believers who sin should be to “point out their fault,” which means to caution them about sinning, or even criticize or rebuke them. This demonstrates the mutual accountability among believers, who are to strengthen each other, build each other up, and help each other overcome their carnal tendencies. Just as all Scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), believers are to provide the same service to each other; preferably basing it on scripture.
As an example, consider Paul’s treatment of the Corinthian believers for the way they treated an immoral believer in the church (1 Cor. 5:2, 3, 5, 11, 13). The man in question was committing a particular sin and the other believers were tolerating his behavior, maybe out of a desire to love him or forgive his sin. Whatever their motivation, Paul severely rebukes them and directs them to expel the man from their assembly. He says nothing about exercising forgiveness at this stage. In Second Corinthians, Paul addresses the issue again and we can conclude from his statements the man had repented because Paul instructs the believers to forgive and comfort him (2 Cor. 2:7). Initially, they were to pass judgment on the man and ostracize him, not to forgive him. Only after he had experienced the sorrow of his punishment and repented were they to forgive him.
In this situation, the man was not sinning against members of the congregation, so the believers did not have to forgive a personal offense. The requirement to forgive someone who sinned against them didn’t apply. Instead, the believers needed to hold the man accountable for his actions, and this meant withholding their forgiveness until he responded correctly. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, combined with Paul’s in First and Second Corinthians, shows us how to address another Christian’s sin with the dual goals of helping them become more Christlike and restoring relationships.
One purpose for going to a believer who has hurt or harmed us is to give them opportunity to acknowledge their fault and respond properly. Another purpose for going to them is to give ourselves opportunity to express our love for them, rejecting our own self-centeredness. We should never try to make them feel bad or manipulate them into admitting they were wrong. Those would be selfish motives and therefore sinful.
If we become aware of an offense that doesn’t directly affect us, our forgiveness can be conditional. We’re not withholding forgiveness for personal reasons, so we can be objective; unless we take on the offense, of course.
If the offending person is not a believer, the circumstances would determine whether we should go to them, as we would with another Christian. Any attempt to manipulate them would be wrong. Our goal would be to express godly character as God’s representative and promote his agenda.
What is God’s agenda? He wants to bring non-believers to the point of salvation and have them released from guilt by accepting Jesus as Savior. They must repent before God will forgive them. For believers, he wants to develop godly character in us, but we must first repent, then we’ll receive forgiveness. In both cases, forgiveness follows repentance.
Whenever we’re directly involved, we must forgive non-Christians who offend us. It’s a matter of rejecting any carnal motivation we might have and is for our own benefit. Whenever we’re not directly involved, our forgiveness is dependent on an acceptable response from the offender.
Life is not simple and we can’t always divide our experiences into neat little categories. What if we have authority over someone who offends us, for example? We must forgive the personal offense; this is not optional and is for our own benefit. We may still discipline them properly; this is optional and is for their benefit. If we cannot be objective – devoid of revenge and anger – have someone else decide and address the problem, if that is appropriate.
Some people say parents should forgive their offensive children and not discipline them. But withholding discipline can cause the child to think what they did was acceptable. The goal of discipline is to train them to live by acceptable standards, and may include instruction, rebuke, or some form of punishment, such as loss of privilege.
Love cares enough for the offender to discipline them, to teach them the principle of accountability and motivate them to change the way they think. The goal is to promote discipline and change behavior, not to seek revenge or relieve frustration. Discipline and punishment are not synonymous, and neither are punishment and abuse.
Jesus taught his disciples about forgiveness on several occasions, including the following incident. “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:21-22).
Jesus was not specifying a numerical limit of 77, so there’s no excuse for thinking, “Okay, that’s 76 times. They only have one more to go!” He was using numbers to make a contrast that is easy to remember. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5), so a tally of someone’s offenses is unacceptable. In a sense, when we forgive what someone has done to us, their next offense is the first, so we never have more than one to forgive; even if they’ve done it 78 times.
Must we forgive everything everyone does? I have heard people say that we should, because God always forgives and we should be like him. But God doesn’t forgive everything people do. In particular, if someone rejects God’s plan of redemption, he doesn’t forgive their sins. Acts 10:43 states that, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” which clearly means that everyone who does not believe in him – Jesus as Lord and Savior – will not receive forgiveness of sins. Also, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). Jesus also clearly stated there is a specific sin God will never forgive: speaking against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32).
God’s unforgiveness is based on his objective application of his clearly defined laws; not because he’s personally offended. And there might be only two unforgivable offenses for sinners: refusing to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and speaking against the Holy Spirit. Similarly, if we choose not to forgive someone for what they did to us, God won’t forgive our sins either (Matt. 6:14-15), which interferes with our relationship with him, but doesn’t condemn us eternally (John 3:18; Rom. 8:1).
Does that suggest there might be offenses we don’t need to forgive? No, if someone sins against us, we must forgive; always. Our carnal habits make us want revenge or some form of penance from the offender: “They should pay for what they did to me.” Forgiving them releases them from guilt and responsibility to us, but even more important, it refuses to indulge our sinful desires. When we forgive someone for what they did to us, we arrest our own self-centeredness.
How to Forgive
Forgiveness recognizes that an offense has occurred and a penalty is due, but releases the offender from any obligation to us. Some would argue that if the offender violated a civil law, we should forgive and not press charges, but personal and legal obligations can be different. Christians cannot condone unlawful actions. It’s possible to forgive the person for the harm they caused us, but still press legal charges based on civil laws. However, if our anger or hurt motivate us to ensure the offender gets what we think they deserve, we haven’t forgiven them. Forgiveness is even relevant in abusive relationships, but doesn’t require the victim to remain in that relationship or stay vulnerable; again, civil law protects the victim.
“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good … [and] rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). So let the legal system do its God-ordained job. Meanwhile, we need to do our God-ordained task of forgiving.
Again, forgiveness releases the offender from their obligation to us. Our act of forgiveness may not affect the offender’s attitude or behavior, but allows us to address our own self-centered, ungodly attitudes and ways of thinking. That is, forgiving is an excellent way to “crucify” the flesh and its actions, such as hatred and selfish ambition (Gal. 5:19).
Forgiveness doesn’t justify a person’s behavior with such statements as, “That’s okay. I know you’re under a lot of pressure.” Such a statement implies they had a good reason to sin, but we can never justify sin.
When someone repents or apologizes, don’t downgrade the offense. Someone might say, “Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t that bad.” But that response bends the standards for good conduct and is not the same as forgiving them. The only effective way for offenders to deal with their guilt is to recognize their sin and repent, not have someone discount their offense.
When someone apologizes for what they did to us, we should thank them for their apology and tell them we forgive them. Then forgive them, or else we’re guilty of lying as well as refusing to forgive. Remember that forgiving someone involves releasing them from all responsibility for harming us. In that sense, to us it’s as though they had never committed the act; our record of them is clean.
Because we have heard the phrase so often, we can hardly say the word “forgive” without adding “and forget.” 1 Corinthians 13:5 states love “keeps no record of wrongs,” which involves keeping track of how many wrongs the person committed. This doesn’t mean we must erase them from memory. Obviously, if we ponder any of those offenses, we’re guilty of nurturing our own sinful attitude; but that’s different than simply remembering details. Amnesia is not required, but forgiveness is.
Similarly, 1 Peter 4:8 says “love covers over a multitude of sin.” The image in this verse is hiding something, or preventing it from being discovered. When we forgive someone, we release them from all responsibility for what they did to us, which includes keeping their offense a private matter. Love honors the person and doesn’t dishonor them by revealing to others what they did, but also doesn’t allow what they did to damage our relationship with them.
Forgiveness requires repentance – rejecting our self-centered, carnal attitudes and replacing them with godly ones. The issue is not the offender’s repentance or their punishment, rather it is how we respond.
- “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).
- If another Christian sinned against you, how does the first step – one-on-one interaction – allow love to cover, hide or conceal the sin? (1 Peter 4:8).
- How would approaching them in love make it easier for you to forgive them, if they had sinned against you?
- What safety does the second step – taking others with you to talk with the offender – provide both you and the offender?
- Explain how love covering, hiding or concealing sin applies to the second step.
- Why would it be important to tell the church or congregation if the problem still isn’t resolved?
- How would this step be an expression of love, even though the sin became public?
God shows us how to forgive those who hurt us, whether they did it intentionally or unintentionally.