In our last article we discussed how the ecclesia is Divinely designed to be a powerful tool in the fight against sin. We are all engaged in a personal and communal battle against wickedness. Our goal is to give honor and glory to God by exhibiting His holiness in our lives.
In order for us to meet this challenge, we must understand how to forgive. If our ecclesias are to be beacons of openness and support, there will be times when we are called to forgive when there initially is repentance — and when there is not. But, as we’ll see, there is a difference!
I would like to refer you back to a wonderful series of articles on Forgiveness that was written by Bro. David Lloyd and Bro. Joe Hill in the Tidings.1 These articles provide a valuable insight into how to forgive, and also some of the myths associated with forgiveness.
Our survey of forgiveness is similar, but with a slightly different focus. We would like to examine how forgiveness is an important element in the Scriptural discipline process. Specifically, what are the types of sins that MUST be addressed with my brother? When is reconciliation optional and when is it required? What can I do when there is no initial repentance expressed? What is the Divine expectation for me toward my brother when he is entangled in sin?
So, in this article, we will briefly comment on:
The Divine standard for forgiveness.
The purpose of human forgiveness.
Forgiveness and reconciliation.
While there can be no doubt that we are to strive to forgive as our Heavenly Father forgives, it is a standard that is not common to man. Micah wrote,
“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:18-19).
God delights in mercy. Think about that. It gives Him pleasure to forgive — it is not done grudgingly. He chooses not to retain His anger. Further, He not only has compassion on us but He subdues our iniquities. The Septuagint has a nice way of putting this — “he will sink our iniquities, and they shall be cast into the depths of the sea, even all our sins.”
Listen to what God says about David’s life when he counsels Solomon,
“And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel” (1Kgs 9:4).
Would you have described David’s life this way? Scripture openly exposes us to David’s terrible failures. Many times he failed to be the upright man that was required. Yet, God includes none of that in the Divine eulogy. In God’s view, the sins were put away. Because He delights in mercy, He chose not to look at David’s shortcomings and sins, but rather provide Solomon with a portrait of a man who walked with God in integrity of heart.
This is the Divine standard for forgiveness. Can we put away the failings of one another when sin is repented of and see our brother the way God chooses to? Ask yourself if you feel less love, less compassion for the great characters of the Bible as their weaknesses are exposed? Do you feel less love for Peter when the cock crows twice? Is your view of Jacob, the Prince with God, diminished when we see in his early life deceptiveness and lying? Many would say that it is our exposure to these faults that makes them more intimate to us. We are encouraged when we see that even these great men and women of faith had trials and weakness of faith, just as we do.
So, why would we ever feel that knowing about our brother’s sins and faults would taint our perception of him? There must never be such a falseness in our ecclesias that would presume that to be “solid” believers we must all be in perfect control of our sins. We aren’t. The ecclesia is designed to allow for frankness and openness in the battle against sin. When it goes silent, we are in great peril.
The instruction this provides to us is important because it addresses our attitude toward forgiveness. Forgiveness is what we must long for. It must give us great pleasure to choose mercy and to see our repentant brother the way the Lord does.
A few introductory points are to be made here:
The topic of Forgiveness is about a process of restoration — for BOTH the offended and offender.
Forgiveness, to be effective, must fundamentally acknowledge that the Lord is the Master of our lives.
There is no offence that he does not understand — he alone knows how to deliver.
Forgiveness is a process that frees the offended by acknowledging that the Lord is in control.
This then permits us to exhibit righteous behavior toward the offender so that we might be reconciled.
In our Scriptural review of discipline, it is essential that we are able to distinguish between sins. God does. True, “all unrighteousness is sin…” (1John 5:17). There are no “good sins.” However, it is clear in Scripture that God sees a difference in sins.
When Moses was on the Mount he received a revelation of the character of God and the Name of the Lord:
“And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Exod 34:5-7).
Often I have read right over those words, “iniquity and transgression and sin” as if they were three ways of describing the same thing. However a review of the Hebrew for these words paints a very different picture. The word for iniquity is also translated as perversity and evil. We recall Isaiah’s words about how the nation of Israel were continuously sinful, such that they were “laden in iniquity.” So, the first word is for people who are no longer struggling with sin, but are overcome by it. Their lives are filled with perversity. The second word is transgression. This word might be thought of as a single sin, but that would be incorrect. The Hebrew word, pescha, is used for revolt and rebellion. This is not about disciples who are struggling through sin either — they are rebellious. They will not submit to God and His righteousness. God pleads through His prophets for Israel to stop being stiff-necked and rebellious to Him. The last word is the word for an offence. As opposed to the first two definitions, it could very well be applied to a person who has fallen in a sin due to weakness. This is not a person whose life is filled with sin or one who is rebellious. This is the brother or sister that is aware of their sin and is attempting to overcome it.
These three definitions are critical for our review of Scriptural discipline. God views each separately and in our application of discipline, so must we. In our current review of forgiveness, this must be embraced.
Jesus and later the Apostle Paul both helped us with these differentiations about sin. In Mark 7, Jesus listed a number of sins that, when they “proceed from the heart” defile the man. Paul speaks of a similar list of sins associated with the Gentiles in Romans 1. His conclusion is that they that commit such things (and take pleasure with those who do) are worthy of death. To the Corinthians and Galatians, Paul provides a listing of sins that would keep a non-repentant brother or sister from inheriting the Kingdom of God (1Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-20). The importance of Paul’s listing is that he says that these works of the flesh are “manifest” or made apparent. In other words, these are observable and not restricted to the final judgment of the hearts. They are all tangible behaviors — fornication, adultery, idolatry.
We must acknowledge that there are many sins in Scripture that are NOT listed as sins unto death in such a way. Brethren not working and being busybodies in Thessalonica. Those that cause divisions by poor use of Scripture. Those that are involved in genealogies, foolish questions, contentions about the Law. The unruly, the proud. Those lacking love. It’s not that these are not sins, however, the way that we must deal with them is different.
Bro. Roberts wrote about this distinction in 1895,
“For the present it will suffice to note that the sin or trespass that Christ alludes to is a palpable, obvious, fatal sin. When doubt exists on this point, let us not apply Matthew 18:15–17. ‘Some men’s sins are open beforehand.’ Some are not, and therefore, we have to wait for later circumstances, or Christ’s infallible judgment, to disclose them.”
The application of Matthew 18, which we will further deal with in our next article, is for these sins unto death. Other sins may require correction and rebuke, but what is in the hearts of those so involved is reserved for the Final Judgment of our Lord.
Review of forgiveness
So how does this impact our review of Forgiveness?
There are times when offences occur to us or within the ecclesia that require us to seek restoration and repentance. We must do all we can to bring this about because eternal life is at stake. However, there are other offences where we may need to guide, correct, and show compassion, but restoration is not required. As we move through life, all of us are scarred by offences against us. None are spared. Perhaps you have been emotionally abused, unfairly maligned by a brother, double-crossed by business associates, betrayed by a loved one, deceived by one in whom you trusted? When these things happen to us, it is never pleasant and if we permit it, they can disable us for years.
How is it, then, that I can be more like my Lord when such sins occur? When he was wrongly accused, physically abused, betrayed by a disciple, guile was not found in his mouth. When reviled, he reviled not. When threatened, he threatened not. How was the Lord able to live to such a standard when my natural inclination is to fight back and look for “justice?” Peter brings us to the answer. For during this ordeal, indeed throughout his life, he “committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (1Pet 2:23).
This is a key to unlocking our understanding of forgiveness. Jesus could have prevented these wrongdoings, having the capability to summon twelve legions of angels. But, instead, he committed his cause to Him that judgeth righteously. He accepted that his Father was in control. He could hand this situation over to his Father and He would make things right.
What a challenge this is to our faith, especially when we are feeling hurt and victimized! Do we fundamentally trust that the Lord controls our lives? Can we entrust our worst problems to “him that judgeth righteously?”
Here again is a clue from the New Testament Greek. In the New Testament, there are two separate words associated with the translated word, “forgive” or “forgiveness.” The second is charizomai, which is used of unconditional forgiveness. This is associated with a brother who has resolved his conflict with his brother and they are restored. The sin is to be forgotten, put away. It calls for us to forgive as we call upon our Lord to forgive — to remove the sin forever, as if it never occurred. This is the word used about the incestuous man in Corinth, who had repented. They were to unconditionally forgive him and to confirm their love to him.
But the first word is different. It is the word aphiemi, which is to send forth or cast away. This word is used by our Lord at his crucifixion, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, asked the Lord not to lay this sin to their charge. How, then, can one forgive when reconciliation has not yet been realized? In fact, for some being prayed for, reconciliation would never be achieved.
This is the power of aphiemi. It means to cast it up, to send it forth. I would like to suggest that this is exactly what the apostle Peter meant when he said that Jesus “committed his cause to him that judgeth righteously.” Forgiveness, then, can be extended to those who have sinned a sin unto death, whether against us or our Lord. Until there is repentance, it cannot be charizomai forgiveness (unconditional), but aphiemi forgiveness provides the outlet of a fundamental acknowledgement that we are handing this situation over to him that judgeth righteously.
Here’s the power of this concept. When someone sins against us, we can easily become victims. We hold on to the feeling of pain, the sorrow of separation. If we must wait for full restoration and reconciliation before we can forgive, we are stuck — we are unable to move forward. Our interactions with our brother are greatly strained. It will be very difficult for us to be Christ-like to one who is hurting us so badly.
But the Lord instead tells us to give the problem to him. Cast it up, send it forth. I need not be victimized by this offence because I have asked the Lord to solve the problem for me!
In the fine articles on Forgiveness by Bre. Lloyd and Hill, a number of myths were identified about forgiveness. I once again refer you to those articles. However, let me just remind you that when we “aphiemi” forgive someone by giving the problem to the Lord, you are not blind to the consequences of the sin. Here’s a brief list they provided of some of the myths about forgiveness.
If they do not repent, I should not forgive.
They need to show change before I should forgive.
Forgiveness means rebuilding the relationship.
Forgiving someone means allowing them to hurt you over and over.
Forgiveness requires release from consequences.
Forgiveness is ignoring sin.
The result of forgiveness is that we can now trust the offender.
This initial step for forgiveness is essential for freeing us from being stuck in our interactions with the offending brother. It jettisons the feelings of revenge or anger. We know that there are issues to be resolved if we are to get to charizomai forgiveness, but aphiemi enables us to move forward without mouths filled with guile, threats or reviling.
So, what have we seen about Forgiveness that will instruct us about Scriptural discipline? First, offences against us and our Lord are NOT to be swept under the rug or harbored inside us. In cases that are sins unto death, the focus must move from being about OUR need for justice to OUR BROTHER’S need for restoration. It is a matter of life and death. In matters that are sins, but not sins unto death, we are called on to aphiemi our brother. If reconciliation is not realized, we put this in the Lord’s care and move forward. If reconciliation is realized (in both cases), we forgive unconditionally (charizomai).
Our next article will take a fresh look at Matthew 18 and it’s essential guidelines for Scriptural discipline. However, it is important that we take these foundations for forgiveness with us to that discussion.
David Jennings (Pomona, CA)
1. The Tidings, February, 2012, p. 81 on.