The Necessity of Human Forgivness

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Amy Mantravadi asks if we should forgive others even if they are not repentant

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things required of us. You might almost say it goes against human nature. “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” That was Alexander Pope’s conclusion in “An Essay on Criticism.” [1]

Christians generally know they are supposed to forgive one another, but what does that look like in daily life? How do you forgive someone who is still sinning against you and others? Are you even supposed to do so?

This question became highly relevant for me when I was a young woman. The church in which I was raised went through a long-running dispute. There was no single instance of epic sin: no pastor embezzling funds or having an affair, no sexual abuser preying upon children. Rather, it was a “death by a thousand paper cuts” situation. A tiff here, a disagreement there; one person leaving, then five people. Eventually, it became a mass exodus as the problems grew larger and rival factions formed.

I had left home to pursue my university education, but I received updates that saddened me. I had never thought my church was perfect, but it seemed to get many things right. Splits and major controversies were things that happened at other churches. Yet, as the evidence mounted, I was forced to acknowledge that people whom I had respected were, in critical moments, choosing bitterness over love. I was forced to ask a dangerous question: “Is something wrong with the church’s theology?”

Perhaps you can sympathize with my situation, for if you have been around Christians long enough, you know they are simul iustus et peccator: simultaneously just and sinful. The church is a place full of sinners who live up to that name, even though they are justified in Christ, so some problems are bound to occur.

I was forced to ask a dangerous question: “Is something wrong with the church’s theology?”

However, errors in theology can have more devastating effects, and I finally learned something that helped me understand how things had gone so wrong. Some people at the church were evidently teaching that you should not forgive a person who sins against you unless they first repent of that sin. When I heard this, I was taken aback. It seemed contrary to Scripture, but as it turned out, Scripture could be interpreted in multiple ways.

“Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors,” (Matthew 6:12) is standard Christian theology contained in the Lord’s Prayer. “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13) There are even dire warnings in Scripture, such as, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

How could anyone suggest that forgiveness ought to be withheld until certain conditions are met? Well, the Lord did say to his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23) In a church that did not practice confession and absolution, these verses could be misunderstood. John also wrote in his first epistle, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That sentence is conditional, and it the condition which must be met seems to be confession or repentance.

Then there was the time Christ told his disciples, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him...” (Luke 17:3) Again, we see the use of the conditional ‘if.’ One could interpret this command as indicating that repentance is necessary before forgiveness can be granted.

In fact, that is how salvation was usually presented to me growing up: A person realizes they are a sinner, repents of their sins, and chooses to follow Christ. Then they are forgiven. My biggest spiritual concern as a young person was ensuring my faith was genuine enough to merit that forgiveness. I knew humans had been given free will by God to choose whether they would follow Christ, and this was proof of God’s love, for he did not want humans to be robots. A loving God would never force himself on people. He would wait to be chosen.

My biggest spiritual concern as a young person was ensuring my faith was genuine enough to merit that forgiveness

This is what I had been taught. It seemed entirely positive, until the moment I realized that according to this theology, it was difficult to prove that a person should move toward an unrepentant sinner in love and forgive them. After all, God waits for us to move toward him. 

But events had caused me to doubt. Although my knowledge of historic Christian doctrine was limited, I could read the Bible, and what I found there produced a change in my thinking. It finally dawned on me why we should forgive others even if they do not repent: because God had moved toward us. A verse I had memorized as a child took on new meaning. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

It finally dawned on me why we should forgive others even if they do not repent: because God had moved toward us

Soon, I began noticing this trend all over Scripture, particularly in the Gospel of John. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day,” Jesus taught. (John 6:44) On another occasion he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16) In John’s first epistle, I read, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

From a young age, I had known the words of Ephesians 2:8-9, that chief prooftext against salvation by works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” However, I had paid less attention to something that came just before it. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4-5) 

No, human beings do not move toward God. They are sought out by heaven and raised from the dead. Like fish in the sea, they are drawn in by the power of God’s love.

I was nearly there, but part of me hesitated. I could not ignore what I felt were the terrible implications of the awesome sovereignty of God. Then came something which pushed me the rest of the way: I began listening to a course on the history of the Reformation. 

No, human beings do not move toward God. They are sought out by heaven and raised from the dead

I had always known a little about the Reformation. I distinctly remember an illustration of Martin Luther in one of my school textbooks, bent over a book in contemplation, discovering that we are not saved by works, for “the just shall live by faith.” But as I listened to those lectures, I was introduced to more of Luther’s theology.

In one lecture on the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, I found myself nodding along, tracking with each point that Luther was making. Then came the final thesis: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” [2] 

Those two sentences struck me like a thunderbolt, for I knew deep in my bones that what Luther said was true, but I also realized the logical implications of his point. For if Luther was correct, we played absolutely no part in our salvation. It was completely a gift of God from beginning to end. Even faith was a gift! This meant that God’s election was a real and critical.

I was profoundly troubled, so I prayed that God would show me what was true. Over the course of several months, I read through Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, and slowly but surely, he wore me down by force of argument. I was simultaneously captured and set free by this awesome doctrine of God’s election and its implications for the salvation of mankind. 

I had come to see that we must forgive those who have wronged us, regardless of their behavior, for God’s love compels us to do as he did: to move toward the sinner in love. Unlike God, we do not have the power to raise another from the dead. They may never come to repentance, and there may never be a full restoration of the relationship. But there is a divine power of resurrection by the work of the Spirit, and like the wind, we never know where it is going. 

All that is incumbent on us is to lay down our pride and acknowledge that were it not for grace, we too would still be in our sins. We have been given grace upon grace, and now we must pass on that grace to others. By the power of Jesus Christ and our union with him, we can do something truly divine: we can forgive.

[1]Pope, Alexander.“An Essay on Criticism,” Part Two.

[2] Luther, Martin. Theses for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, theological thesis thirty-one.