After reading George Morrison’s sermon, Acceptance in the Beloved, and being uncomfortably convicted in my stance that you can forgive someone and then avoid them for the rest of your life, I did some soul searching and some Google searching. I’m particularly a fan of John Piper, his books have had a profound impact on my life. Don’t Waste Your Life, Desiring God, and When I Don’t Desire God all really hit me where I live, stripped away the church facade and showed me what I ought to be doing. In my pursuit of holiness, those books were new pairs of running shoes just at the time my old ones were wearing out.
John Piper has a three sermon series on forgiveness. Part one, As We Forgive Our Debtors, helps identify what forgiveness is, and is not. The Lord’s Prayer says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. ” (Matthew 6:14-15 MKJV) Forgiveness, or lack of it, reveals how much we trust Christ. If we trust Him, we can emulate His way of life.
Thomas Watson asked, “When do we forgive others?” and answered the question, “When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.” (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581) John Piper breaks it down:
Here is forgiveness: when you feel that someone is your enemy or when you simply feel that you or someone you care about has been wronged forgiveness means,
1. resisting revenge,
2. not returning evil for evil,
3. wishing them well,
4. grieving at their calamities,
5. praying for their welfare,
6. seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
7. and coming to their aid in distress.
All these point to a forgiving heart. And the heart is all important Jesus said in Matthew 18:35—”unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
That number 6 worries me… and then Piper goes on to describe what forgiveness is not. (Oh, joyful hope!) He says that forgiveness is not the absence of anger at sin, and it’s not the absence of serious consequences of sin. He refers back to Thomas Watson again:
Question: Is God angry with his pardoned ones?
Answer: Though a child of God, after pardon, may incur his fatherly displeasure, yet his judicial wrath is removed. Though he may lay on the rod, yet he has taken away the curse. Correction may befall the saints, but not destruction. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 556)
Piper cites several examples, including David, who bore serious consequences for his sins re: Bathsheba, in Numbers, where the Lord forgives the people for their disbelief but refuses to let them enter the promised land, and references Psalm 99:8 – “O Lord our God, Thou didst answer them; Thou wast a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds.”
He also clarifies that forgiveness of a repentant person does not look the same as forgiveness of an unrepentant person.
In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3-4 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.
But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matt. 18:17) we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).
The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.
David forgave Absalom, and was later nagged into permitting him back into the palace. Absalom returned the favor by immediately beginning to plot against David. (2 Samuel 15) He was never truly repentant. David did well to forgive him, but it was a huge mistake to let him back in.
Thomas Watson said something very jolting:
“We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him.” (Body of Divinity, p. 581)
You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don’t trust you. That is what the woman whose husband abused her children had to say.
But O how crucial is the heart here. What would make that an unforgiving thing to say is if you were thinking this: What’s more, I don’t care about ever trusting you again; and I won’t accept any of your efforts to try to establish trust again; in fact, I hope nobody ever trusts you again, and I don’t care if your life is totally ruined. That is not a forgiving spirit. And our souls would be in danger.
Sometimes it seems like all of Christianity comes down to motive. Salvation – did you mean it when you prayed for salvation or were you succumbing to pressure at the final campfire at youth camp? Service – are you doing it for your glory or for God’s? Worship – are you totally focused on adoring the Lord or are you irritated that the usher asked you to slide in so the latecomer can sit in your precious end seat of the pew? And now forgiveness – have you given up on the desire to punish the transgressor yourself, by denying them reconciliation? IF they were truly repentant and wanted to reconcile – which again does not necessarily imply an ongoing relationship but certainly could - would you be able to do it?