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by Michael Hildreth

     “I am ready to forgive you and take you back”. Could there be any words more beautifully spoken in the English language? Every mediator and marriage therapist longs to hear these words because they signal a willingness, even an eagerness, to pardon an offense (or many offenses).

     Surely this pleases and glorifies God the Father when his children seek to resolve their differences and reunite, especially in the marriage relationship. Yet, there are so many times this does not happen! Too often, differences are left unresolved, and the relationship is permanently broken.

     For example, in the case of marital infidelity, the cheating spouse refuses to acknowledge fault, and apologize for being unfaithful. Even after repeated attempts to restore the marriage, there is no reconciliation because the guilty party insists on, “my way or the highway”.

     No matter how much the offended spouse continues to love and pray for the offending spouse, no change of heart takes place. The sin continues and the two drift further and further apart. Should the guilty party still be forgiven, in spite of blatantly rejecting the offer of forgiveness? Is this even possible?

     Must we forgive everyone, regardless of their stubbornness and continuous willful sin against us? Let’s take some time to examine what the Bible teaches about this vital matter.


     What is forgiveness? The Greek word, ἀφίημι (“aphiemi”, Strong’s G863) can be defined, “to forsake, lay aside, let go, put away, remit, suffer, yield up”. It is translated, “forgive”, forty-seven times in the New Testament.

So then, the act of forgiving is the laying aside of an offense. It is remitting from record whatever misdeed has been committed, putting it away for good in order to restore the relationship. The greatest example of this “letting go” is found in Christ. He made peace for us by going to the cross and tearing down the wall of separation between us and God, which was our sin (Eph. 2:13-14).

     Through Christ, our sinfulness is not counted against us any longer, and we were reconciled to our loving Father in heaven (2 Cor. 5:19). If we confess our sins, he is always faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from them all (Col. 2:13; 1 John 1:9).

     Although modern psychologists, and some religious leaders, claim that forgiveness is a one-sided attempt to free ourselves from feelings of bitterness and retribution, this idea is not found anywhere in the Bible.

True forgiveness is about freeing the offender from the guilt of his or her sin. Freeing the offended person from agonizing emotions post-offense is not the purpose of forgiveness. The same is true concerning God’s forgiveness. He does not forgive our sins for his own sake but for ours. We are the beneficiaries of his loving-kindness and mercy.Intrinsic to forgiveness is reconciliation. One cannot forgive without the necessary result being reconciliation, and one cannot be reconciled without forgiveness having taken place. The two are inseparable.

     This is the case because the issuing of forgiveness is always predicated upon the prior repentance of the offender. In reconciliation, both parties have resolved the dispute by (1) repenting of the sin which caused the dispute, and (2) forgiving the penitent for the sin which led to the dispute. In this way, barriers to the relationship are eliminated.

     From the Greek word, μετανοέω (“metanoeo”, Strong’s G3340), repentance is defined, “to change one’s mind”, and “to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins”. Per the apostles’ teaching, repentance is absolutely essential to being forgiven by God (e.g., Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 11:18; et al). The impenitent have no hope of receiving any forgiveness whatsoever. Paul wrote, “But because of your hard and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”   Romans 2:5

     Simply put, there can be no relationship with God when one maintains an unrepentant heart, but there is good news for the sinful person in need of God’s forgiveness: Even though God is angry with sinners, he is patient toward all. He wants everyone to come to repentance and be restored to relationship with him before it is too late. Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”  2 Peter 2:9

     We learn from God’s perfect example that righteous anger against sinful behavior is justified, but anger does not give us the right to be impatient toward those who sin against us. God’s justice does not outweigh his mercy and the same should be true for us. These points are crucial as we move forward to considering human forgiveness.


     Like God, it is imperative that Christians always love sinners and earnestly long for reconciliation with them, no matter how grievous the offense. Jesus used the hyperbole, “seventy times seven”, to teach us the importance of being repeatedly merciful unto others (Matt. 18:22).  Even after multiple infractions, “you must forgive them”, Jesus said (Luke 17:4). However, immediately before saying this, Jesus made it clear that forgiveness of the offender is always conditional.  “If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him.” Luke 17:3

     The word, “if”, found in this command, contains enormous implications. It necessarily implies that the brother who sinned against us is not to be forgiven when there is no repentance, just as it necessarily implies that the brother who repents is not to suffer rebuke any longer. “If” changes everything!

     The Gospel of Matthew deals with forgiveness of sin in the community setting:  “If your brother sins against you, go, and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”  Matthew 18:15 – 17

     Once again, Jesus speaks using statements of condition. “If” the sinner “refuses to listen”, and is finally excluded from fellowship, how can we say there is forgiveness? There isn’t any.  The sin has not been let go, remitted, or put aside in any sense. On the contrary, the entire congregation continues to hold this sin against the offender, and they do so by the authority of Jesus Christ. We will have more to say about this passage as we continue this series on forgiveness.

                 Michael A. Hildreth is a Marriage Counselor at Ranger Counseling (marriageranger.com). He resides in Abilene, Texas

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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8