Three Kinds of Forgiveness
Renunciation of vengeance, relational reconciliation, divine judicial forgiveness. Those are the three kinds of forgiveness. And Christians chronically conflate the three, which causes much harm and confusion to victims of abuse.
Let us look at the Scriptures about forgiveness. All scriptures are from the NASB unless otherwise stated. First the one from the Lord’s prayer and the subsequent explanation Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount:
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. … For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
Jesus reiterated this warning during the last week of his life, when he was instructing his followers about prayer:
Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.
Now to the passages that speak specifically about forgiving the brethren.
Matthew 18:21-22 [I’ll give two versions, because the translations differ a little.]
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (ESV)
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. (NASB)
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.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
In Matthew 18, the question Peter asks—and thus the answer Jesus gives—is about the brethren; it is speaking of brothers and sisters in Christ, people who have repented unto saving faith and who walk by faith. Likewise the passage in Luke 17 is about the brethren (“your brother“). And the same goes for the Ephesian and Colossian passages: Paul is writing to the churches and uses the term ‘one another,’ which is a way of referring to the brethren. In all these passages, the guidance is not referring to people who are outside of Christ —i.e., every human being on earth who is still dead in their sins.
Genuine Christians do sometimes sin, err, or offend other believers, due to the fact that all believers still struggle against the flesh and none of us are going to be free from the temptation and presence of sin till Christ returns. The New Testament gives us guidance how to respond when a fellow Christian offends us. That guidance must be wisely and carefully weighed in balance and held in tension. Why? Because some of it talks about warning, admonishing, and rebuking fellow believers, and some of it talks about extending 70 x 7 mercy and grace and being long-suffering.
Another thing to consider is when Jesus prayed for the soldiers who were crucifying him:
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
[regarding the textual reliability of this verse see Ps Sam Powell’s comment in the thread below]
How are we to apply that? Jesus forgave the repentant man who was being crucified on the hill with Him; but He did not forgive the unrepentant scoffing man on that other cross. If Jesus’ intent in “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” was to indicate a mass forgiveness to all who had put Him to death, then there would be no need for repentance in order to be forgiven, and both men on those crosses would have been ushered into the presence of God upon their deaths. We simply know that not to be true.
Hence, to misuse these words of Christ to suggest that all are forgiven, is to advocate Universalism. It is to say that all go to Heaven, without individual repentance and faith in Christ being required. Those who assert, “Jesus forgave the roman soldiers who crucified him, so that means EVERYONE gets divine forgiveness,” are just plain wrong. They are promoting the lie that even those who fail to repent will be receive God’s forgiveness. It is a lie. It is deception.
We need to properly understand and apply the Scriptures on forgiveness. So many churches tell us to forgive everyone and just “let it go”. But why does the Bible tell us to not even eat with a person who professes to be in Christ but lives habitually like he is not? 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 tells us to put the self-professed believers who are immoral, revilers, drunkards, idolaters, swindlers or covetous out of the Church. And 2 Timothy 3 tells us to avoid people who are lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, and who hold to a form of godliness, but have denied its power.
Would it be an act of unforgiveness to decide not to eat with that hypocrite? That reviler? That person who holds to a form of godliness but denies its power? Would it be a lack of Christian love?
The answer to these questions is an absolute resounding “NO”. The instruction to not even eat with self-professed believers who are in fact hypocritically practicing these heinous sins are commands that we ought to follow. But how many Christians are following them?
When the Scriptures get dissected into lists of “what we do when such and such situation arises,” and when certain Scripture passages are formulaically applied to this problem or that problem, we end up with piecemeal for theology and doctrine.
He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,”
and, “Here is repose,”
but they would not listen.
So the word of the LORD to them [– to the Pharisaic type of teachers] will be,
order on order, order on order,
line on line, line on line,
a little here, a little there,
that they may go and stumble backward, be broken, snared and taken captive.
The Bible requires usage as a whole. So many problems and conflicts could be avoided if the Bible were actually used as it should be.
The forgiveness we are commanded to do as believers
I will differentiate two kinds of forgiveness here, the two kinds that believers are commanded to do. We will look at the third kind, divine judicial forgiveness, below.
There is a time to turn our abuser and all they have done to victimize us, over to the Lord, between ourselves and Him. We put it into God’s hands and leave the outcome of our abuser to our Savior. In a sense, we forgive them by refusing to retaliate or take vengeance. But we do not do what the unwise church so often tells us to do: re-make relationship with the dangerous person.
One kind of forgiveness: Renouncing retaliation and vengeance. Christians can do this much more confidently than non-Christians, because we know that God will take care of the vengeance side in the end. We know that God has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” (Rom 12:19, quoting Deut 32:35). So it is easier for us as Christians to forswear taking our own vengeance than it is for non-believers, especially those who believe that life ends when our physical bodies die.
Renunciation of vengeance generally also entails letting God take your hurt, and letting Him heal you to mitigate the adverse effects of the abuse. Many of us have found that this is an ongoing process, because the adverse effects are not all apparent at the beginning, and some memories of the abuse had been buried but later get triggered. …the pain rises up in waves to the surface … there are lulls and there are surges… but it generally settles down over time, if there is no further abuse. You could call this process ‘psychological forgiveness’. I’m not classing psychological forgiveness as a fourth kind of forgiveness, because I believe it is entailed in the renunciation of vengeance. It may be thought of as a corollary to—or a subset—or the flipside of the coin — of the renunciation of vengeance.
Another kind of forgiveness: Reconciling in relationship with the person who abused us. In domestic abuse this is DANGEROUS because the abuser so seldom truly reforms in a way that lasts the distance. I call this ‘relational forgiveness’.
Why isn’t relational reconciliation the same as renouncing personal vengeance? Because relational reconciliation requires true repentance on the part of anyone, including the abuser. (And for the abuser, true repentance involves a lot of things — see Checklist for Repentance.)
If the person who was abusive became TRULY repentant, if their reformation went to the core and was demonstrated steadfastly over time to be the real thing, then the abused person might safely chose, if they wished, to re-make the relationship. If that scenario were to eventuate, the first kind of forgiveness (renunciation of vengeance) would be necessary for both parties. But that would not prohibit the one who had suffered abuse from continuing to go through the process of psychological forgiveness described above. And if the repentance of the abuser was genuine, he would accept and have compassion for the waves of triggered remembrance and the processing of emotions which the abused person might still continue to experience as the relationship was being re-formed on healthy lines. In fact, if the person who had been abusive was intolerant of those emotions in the person who had been abused, that would indicate that the abuser’s repentance wasn’t genuine.
Too many Christians are being forced to reconcile with the unrepentant and wicked, which the Bible never commands us to do. We are commanded to do quite the opposite in fact. (2 Tim 3:1-5. 1 Cor 5:11-13)
Because the abuser typically fails to truly repent, we do not reconcile relationally. All we can do is forswear taking vengeance—leave vengeance to God—and give God our pain asking Him to heal it. If we do this, we will be certainly able to welcome joyfully the true repentance of our abuser IF THE ABUSER WERE TO TRULY REPENT.
When Jesus was saying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” He must have, in his human nature, been expressing the kind of forgiveness that is renunciation of personal vengeance. Implicitly, He also must have been asking His Father to bring those roman soldiers to repentance and faith in Him as Son of God, so they would be forgiven.
Likewise, when Stephen’s last words were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60) he was implicitly asking God to bring those people to repentance and faith in Christ, so that they would not suffer eternal punishment for having unjustly stoned him.
And notice something about those two cases: both Jesus and Stephen were unable to escape the persecution. They were about to die. They had no way out. So there was no chance they would be needing to decide whether to reconcile in this temporal world with their abusers! The question of relational reconciliation (relational forgiveness) was not even on the table.
So why do people so glibly apply the example of Jesus and Stephen to victims of abuse who DO have a way of escaping from their abusers — and who, if they do escape, may well have many years ahead in which they can enjoy God and serve His kingdom without being under the thumb of the abuser?
Jesus, like us, would be able to joyfully greet any of those soldiers in Heaven: He would not hold their sin against them because, in order to be in Heaven, those soldiers would have come to repentance and saving faith. Stephen, like us, would be able to joyfully greet any of his stoners in Heaven: he wouldn’t hold their sin against them, because he would know those stoners must have come to repentance and saving faith.
The forgiveness that only God can do
In order to get to heaven you must receive the third kind of forgiveness : the forgiveness which only God can give and which can only be received by repentance unto saving faith in Christ. I call this ‘divine judicial forgiveness’. The scribes and Pharisees were talking about this kind of forgiveness when they said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21) This is the forgiveness which is offered in the gospel:
Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Take home message
We are not being unforgiving by not reconciling with our abusers, because, almost to a man*, people who abuse their spouses do NOT truly repent. Forgiveness in its truest and purest form is only between true, faith-possessing Christians and God. It is not for the false professor or the lost.
* generic use of ‘man’
I want to thank our reader IAmMyBeloved’s, who wrote the initial draft of this post which gave me inspiration to pick it up and develop it. And I want to acknowledge Stephen Tracy, from whose book Mending the Soul** I first learned about the three kinds of forgiveness.
Note: John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” has been variously interpreted by theologians (link), so I didn’t address that verse in this post.
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