Years ago a pastor friend of mine who felt betrayed by someone he trusted told me that he was under no biblical obligation to forgive his betrayer unless and until he asked for forgiveness. I was shocked by his stance and wanted to talk more about what he had said, but, because he was hurt and angry, his mind and his heart were closed, so the conversation came to an end.
Recently another of my friends spoke with someone who believed that the Bible actually teaches it is harmful to the person who is in the wrong to be forgiven before they ask for forgiveness because they will be confirmed in their behavior instead of seeing the error of their ways. When my friend disagreed she was told that God, himself, requires us to ask before he forgives and my friend was challenged to come up with any scripture which showed that God expected us to forgive without being asked for forgiveness. I will get back to my friend’s response in a minute.
In both of the instances above, asking is viewed as a prerequisite for forgiveness. If that is the belief I hold, then I can easily justify hanging onto my self-righteous position as the aggrieved party. I can hide behind the demand that you must admit your wrong to me and affirm my rightness, withholding pardon until you have met my sanctimonious conditions. If I’m totally honest, there is something in me that is really drawn to that position, but that ‘something’ is the part of me which is vying for my own glory.
There is one verse in scripture which has been misinterpreted to the extent that its misunderstanding may be the root cause of the belief that there is a demand attached to confession rather than a promise. That verse is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I admit that, taken out of context as a stand-alone verse and with no understanding of who was being addressed and why, those words do sound as if the Apostle John is announcing the conditions which must be fulfilled in order for a forgiveness transaction between God and man to take place.
However, let’s put them back into context and consider just who John was writing and the point he was making. The book of 1 John was specifically written to combat an early form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a philosophy which existed apart from Christianity but some who accepted its way of thinking had brought their beliefs into churches and were teaching a false and dangerous mixture of Christian and Gnostic ideas. While there is much that could be said, very simply, Gnostics believed that all physical matter was evil, which included this planet, and everyone and everything on it. As a result, they denied that Christ came in the flesh, because a true God could have nothing to do with matter. This belief regarding matter also led one branch of Gnostics to take the position that deeds done in the flesh were of no importance. They denied the reality of sin. They were teaching that knowledge was the only thing which had significance, and therefore whatever was done with the physical body had no relevance; meaning that sin did not exist.
With that background in mind, let’s look at 1 John 1:9 and its surrounding verses: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Looking at the verse in its biblical and historical context, it is much easier to see that the readers of John’s letter were being warned of the dangerous heresy of Gnosticism. They were being exhorted not to be deluded by the lie that bad things done in the flesh didn’t matter. John was telling them that this was not only a lie, but believing it made God a liar. He assured them that by acknowledging that matter does matter and admitting that their deeds were real sins, they would open themselves up to the reality of the forgiveness which God in Christ had made possible for them. But, that, if they continued to deny the very existence of sin they were shutting themselves off from his grace.
The call of a loving father to his children to admit that their sin is real and to receive forgiveness is a far cry from the demands of a tight-fisted God which must be met before he will hand over the goods. The reason this is so important to understand is that if we believe the latter rather than the former, when we read the biblical injunction to forgive as we have been forgiven, we will believe that we are justified in our own tight-fistedness: If God withholds forgiveness until we ask, so can I.
There are so many examples in scripture which demonstrate that God’s forgiveness precedes our repentance. In the story where some friends brought a paralytic to Jesus for healing, Jesus saw their faith and responded to the man’s true need by telling him that his sins were forgiven. The story is told in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in none of the accounts is there any mention that the man asked Jesus for forgiveness before Jesus offered it to him.
There is also no record of the woman in Luke 7, who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair, asking him for forgiveness for her many sins before Jesus announced to the room, and Simon the Pharisee in particular, that she had indeed been forgiven. Neither is there anything to suggest that the extravagant offering of love which she lavished on Jesus was some over-the-top groveling which secured her forgiveness. In fact, Jesus indicated the exact opposite.
But the best scriptural example is the one my friend responded with when she was challenged to come up with something to show that God doesn’t demand that we ask for forgiveness before he gives it to us. Her answer was that when Jesus was on the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There is no getting around the fact that the men who were crucifying him were not sorry and had not asked for his forgiveness. Jesus’ prayer was the perfect representation of the very reason he was on the cross. His prayer was not only for those specific men on that specific day; it was for all of us, because we are equally responsible for the death of Christ, and just as unaware.
Colossians 2:13-14 says, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” We were dead in our sins; and were made alive as a result of the fact that our sins were forgiven! Our gargantuan record of debt that stood against us and demanded payment was set aside because it was nailed to the cross while we were still dead and utterly incapable of understanding our condition or meeting any requirement, including asking for forgiveness. After Christ accomplished everything on our behalf and said, “It is Finished,” then we were made alive together with him.
We can claim no credit in the process of our own forgiveness, and we can find no justification in scripture for withholding it from others. If we are asked, of course we are to forgive; but, if we are not asked, we forgive as we were forgiven in Christ.