Two Ways to Forgive People:
Responding Biblically to Repenters and Nonrepenters

Ephesians 4:31-32
By Greg Wright
Preached at Journey Church, Hartsville, Tennessee on April 27, 2014


I. Introduction.

A. The danger of talking about interpersonal forgiveness.

Good morning Journey Church. Last Sunday Shawn talked about divine forgiveness, how God has forgiven us. Today I will be talking about interpersonal forgiveness, how we forgive one another. As I begin, I am remembering the first time I preached on this subject. It was in a different church. The title of that sermon was Forgiveness from the Heart: Are Christians Obligated to Forgive Unrepentant People? While I was preaching I noticed that the countenance of one of elders had changed. He looked angry, and his face was red. Now, at that point I had not preached very many sermons, and I thought: oh no, what have I done; what mistake have I made? I am happy to say he was not really angry with me. No, when I talked to him later, he told me that while I was preaching about forgiveness he remembered a time when he and several friends together had been robbed, and he was still angry about that. My sermon brought back bad memories. Well, be warned, that kind of thing could happen to you as well this morning. Even though you might be feeling good right now, in the next few minutes something I say could bring back bad memories. If this happens, please be encouraged that God is the master surgeon of the heart. There is healing for those painful experiences, and God understands how to repair your wounds and restore your soul.

B. The complexity of talking about interpersonal forgiveness.

I also want to say that the topic I am addressing today is complicated. However, if you have access to the web be encouraged. This sermon on forgiveness, in its written form, as well as many other things I have written on that topic are available at this web site; just click on the forgiveness button.

Help for Those Who Grieve

C. Our approach to talking about interpersonal forgiveness.

Over the next few minutes I will be arguing that there are two kinds of interpersonal forgiveness: forgiveness from the heart, which is done privately before God, and forgiveness verbally expressed, which is conveyed to the offender when he repents. I will argue that forgivness from the heart is always required, while forgiveness verbally expressed is required only when the offender repents. We will cover this topic under the following sermon points:

  1. The conditionality of Godís forgiveness.
  2. The pattern we are supposed to copy from Godís forgiveness.
  3. The necessity of interpersonal forgiveness.
  4. The kinds of interpersonal forgiveness.
  5. Common misunderstandings regarding interpersonal forgivness.

After that there will be some application points to encourage us.

The last time I had the privilege of preaching here we were in Ephesians 4:31-32. The focus of that sermon was putting away bitterness. We learned that putting away bitterness is a passive act, that is to say, we let bitterness be put away from us. We also learned this passive act depends upon two very active things: we replace and we refocus. In order to let bitterness be put away from us, we must replace wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness, forgiving as the Lord forgave us. Also, in order to let bitterness be put away from us, we must refocus away from how we have been injured and offended and refocus towards how Jesus was injured and offended Ė indeed, suffered and died Ė on our behalf. Last Sunday being Easter Sunday, we had a great opportunity to refocus on all that Jesus did so that we could be forgiven, forgiven in a way that exercises Godís love without violating Godís justice. This forgiveness was accomplished by the substitutional atonement of Jesus Christ. In this way last Sundayís sermon served very well to inform our understanding of what we had previously discussed in Ephesians 4:31-32 regarding refocusing on Jesus Christ. Today we will read several passages, but we will start out by continuing to discuss that passage, so letís look at Ephesians 4:31-32 again:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

While last time I emphasized letting bitterness be put away from you, today I want to emphasize the last part of that passage. What is meant by this phrase, ďforgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave youĒ?

Obviously there is something about the way God forgives that we are to copy. What is it? What are we supposed to copy?

II. The conditionality of Godís forgiveness.

Some would say the thing we are to copy is the conditionality of Godís forgiveness; God does not forgive anyone unless they repent, so neither should we. Is that right?

Repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior. The repenting person might say something like ďIím sorry, please forgive me; I never should have done that.Ē Some say God does not forgive anyone unless they do this. Is this true? Can you think of any situation where God forgives where the offender has not repented?

To answer that question we should look more closely at how God forgives us. I submit that God forgives us initially, relationally, and ongoingly. There is initial forgiveness, there is relational forgiveness, and there is ongoing forgiveness.

Another way of thinking of initial forgiveness is salvation: you were lost, now you are found; you were unsaved, now you are saved. You have been born again. We must acknowledge that this did not happen apart from repentance. God changed your heart, making you willing to repent and believe the Gospel, thus you were converted, and now you stand before God, justified and adopted as his child. So with respect to getting saved perhaps we can say that this forgiveness does not take place without repentance. But is that the only way God forgives us?

There is also relational forgiveness. When we are born again we are adopted as Godís children. He is our father and we are his sons and daughters. Just as a child might grieve a parent, when we sin we grieve the Holy Spirit. 1 John 1:9 tells us what to do, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Someone might say, this says that we are forgiven if we confess our sins. That implies some kind of repentance. I would have to say, yes it does. When a Christian sins he grieves the Holy Spirit, and when a Christian confesses his sins and turns away from them that relationship is restored.

But what about sins for which a Christian never repents? Now I want to be careful here. A person who does not care whether his life pleases God or not probably is not really born again, no matter how tearful and sincere his so-called conversion seemed to be. However, even a true Christian can fail to repent of some sins for a variety of reasons. Consider:

  1. There are sins we commit in ignorance Ė actions we do not yet even realize are sinful.
  2. There are sins we forget Ė sins for which we do not repent because we canít even remember them.
  3. There are sins we continue to commit Ė areas where we struggle and where we are still a work in progress.
  4. There are sins that taint our most righteous acts Ė even John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrimís Progress, admitted that in his very prayers, one of the holiest acts a person can do, there was enough sin to damn the whole world.
  5. There are sins we might be doing at the point of death. Suppose you are driving down the road and run a stop sign, ending up getting killed by an oncoming truck. Now that is surely a sin for which there was no opportunity to repent.

Nevertheless, surely God ongoingly forgives these sins as well, sins we commit as believers, even though we have never repented them.

Otherwise what would we make of Romans 8:1? ďThere is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.Ē Are we in Christ Jesus and out of Christ Jesus after we are saved? Surely not! Once we are in Christ Jesus we stay in Christ Jesus, and there is no condemnation for us.

Also consider Romans 8:33-34, ďWho shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.Ē

Thanks be to God, those who are elect and justified remain elect and justified. An elect and justified person will be repenting of his sins; that is how real Christians live. However, he is going to miss some sins when he repents. Let him rest assured that even those sins are and will be forgiven. What then is the relationship between our repentance and Godís forgiveness? Let me summarize with these three statements:

  1. God forgives us savingly in response to our repentance.
  2. God forgives us relationally as believers in response to our repentance.
  3. God forgives us ongoingly as believers for all sins, even for those for which we do not repent.

III. The pattern we are supposed to copy from Godís forgiveness.

What then is the pattern we are supposed to copy from Godís forgiveness? If we are going to forgive the way God forgives, would we be right to be unwilling to forgive anyone unless our offenders repent? Is that the way we fulfill the command to forgive one another as God in Christ forgave us? Clearly the answer is no.

What then are we to copy from the way God forgives us?

The thing we are to copy is the graciousness of Godís forgiveness. Even the word used for forgiveness in Ephesians 4:32 comes from the word for grace. We are to be kind and tenderhearted. Colossians 3:12-14 uses the same word for forgiveness and uses even more words to describe it:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Godís forgiveness is a gracious forgiveness. We canít earn it. We canít improve it. All we can do is receive it. It is kind; it is humble; it is meek; and it is patient. More than that, God continues to bear with us, even though we need this forgiveness over and over again.

That is how God forgives us, and that is our pattern for forgiving other people.

IV. The necessity of interpersonal forgiveness.

Now, lest this seem like an abstract theological discussion, let me lay out from scripture why it is imperative that we understand how to forgive people. It is imperative that we understand the necessity of interpersonal forgiveness. Please turn to Matthew 6:12-15. You will remember this passage from what is commonly called the Lordís Prayer:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 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.

There are two things we especially need to note about this passage. We need to note both the context and the threat.

First note the context. You are praying to God by yourself; the offender is not there; so your forgiveness of that person is not necessarily in response to that personís repentance. What is more likely is that while you were praying God brought to your mind bitterness you were holding against other people.

Also note the threat. People who do not forgive are not forgiven. Since this passage is addressed to believers, I think we have to understand this unforgiveness in the relational sense. What does this unforgiveness mean for a person who is born again? In the best case it can mean that by holding unforgiveness in your heart you are subjecting yourself to divine discipline. You are unforgiven, not in a judicial way but in a paternal way. You have grieved the Holy Spirit. However, in the worst case your unforgiving heart can indicate that you were never truly born again. Either way, who wants to risk being unforgiven by God?

So this is not abstract theology. This is as essential to your relationship with God as gas and oil are to the operation of your automobile.

Thatís the necessity of interpersonal forgiveness.

V. The kinds of interpersonal forgiveness.

Now if interpersonal forgiveness is necessary, surely we need to understand what it is. Scripture describes two kinds of interpersonal forgiveness: heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness. Consider Mark 11:25, "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses."

Please note the phrase if you have anything against anyone. There are four kinds of if statements in the Greek language. In one kind, the if-condition is assumed to be true. That is the case with this verse, as if it were to say, and whenever you stand praying, forgive, for you will often come to prayer while holding bitterness in your heart.

That is the first context of interpersonal forgiveness. Privately before God you let bitterness be put away from you, and you leave vengeance with God. How can we do that? One way I do this is by praying for the person. I pray for their soul, I pray for their well-being, I pray for their repentance, and I pray that God will give me the grace to love them and be kind to them. I call this forgiveness from the heart, heart forgiveness.

The other context of forgiveness we find in Luke 17:3-4. There we read, "Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ĎI repent,í you must forgive him."

In contrast to heart forgiveness I call this verbal forgiveness. Sometimes people will know they have wronged you, and without you even having to seek them out, they will demonstrate repentance by asking you to forgive them. When they do you must tell them you forgive them.

Other times it will be necessary for you to make the person aware of their sin. You may have misunderstood something they did, or they may have failed to understand how their actions were affecting you. If they repent you must tell them you forgive them.

However, even if they do not repent, this does not preclude heart forgiveness. By letting bitterness be put away from you, you must forgive from the heart, whether they repent or not.

So there is heart forgiveness, which is forgiveness from the heart in advance of the offenderís repentance, and there is verbal forgiveness, which is forgiveness verbally conveyed in response to the offenderís repentance. Or, where there was just a mere misunderstanding, you might mutually wind up forgiving each other.

Now I must tell you that people who only believe in one kind of forgiveness, forgiveness in response to repentance, would say that Mark 11:25 is merely having a forgiving attitude or a willingness to forgive, while Luke 17:3-4 is the real thing.

But how can that be true. The same word for forgiveness is used in Mark 11:25 and Luke 17:3-4. The word means to cancel the debt.

However, there are some ways in which heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness do differ. I have identified seven categories in which they differ. I will read those categories, and then I will go over them in detail. They differ in direction, in what is accomplished, in what is required, in location, in possibility, in finality, and in dependency.

So there you have it, two kinds of interpersonal forgiveness: heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness.

VI. The common misunderstandings regarding interpersonal forgiveness.

Now having discussed what interpersonal forgiveness is, let us consider some of the common misunderstandings. I am hoping that by telling you what some of the misunderstandings are, some of the barriers to forgiving can be removed. Here are some things we fail to remember:

  1. Forgiveness is not making sin less sinful. It is not making sin to be less than it is. We do not forgive because sin is small. No we forgive because sin is huge, so big that it cost the very life of Godís only begotten son in order to forgive us.
  2. Forgiveness is not enabling sin. Suppose you have a family member with a drinking problem or a credit card problem. Forgiving their behavior does not mean you contribute to them being able to continue that behavior. You are free to take aggressive actions to stop their behavior while, at the same time, forgiving them with respect to bitterness.
  3. Forgiveness is not denying sin. It is not telling your offender he did nothing wrong. Obviously if there is no wrong there is nothing to forgive. You are called to forgive precisely because real sin has taken place.
  4. Forgiveness is not forgetting. When God forgives he erases sin from our record. But because God is omniscient, he does still remember them. Likewise, some offenses are so bad you will never forget them, but you can choose to be gracious and avoid bitterness when they come back into your mind. You will remember them, but as you remember you must, again and again, let bitterness be put away from you.
  5. Forgiveness is not ceasing to feel the pain. It does not mean that what people did to you ceases to bother you physically or emotionally. You may have perpetual back pain from being rear-ended by a negligent driver. You might have an ongoing sexual disease due to the unfaithfulness of your spouse. Yet, every time you feel the hurt and pain you must forgive from your heart.
  6. Forgiveness is not always a one-time event. You are driving down the road, having a good day, when all of a sudden you remember what was done to you, and suddenly you are angry again. Letting bitterness be put away from you is something we have to do over and over again.
  7. Forgiveness is not the same as trust. Forgiveness from the heart is unconditional. However, for example, if a carpenter messed up you basement there is no need to trust him to renovate your attic.
  8. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness from the heart should be unconditional, and verbal forgiveness should be given if the person repents, but reconciliation is more than cancelling a debt. Restoring a friendship to where it was before the offense might take time.

What then is real interpersonal forgiveness. Robert Jeffress is presently pastor of a megachurch in Dallas. Several years ago he wrote a very helpful book Ii>When Forgiveness Doesnít Make Sense in which he said: ďWhen we forgive, we acknowledge a wrong has occurred; we recognize that the wrong has created an obligation for repayment; and we choose to release our offender from that obligation and to cover the loss ourselves.Ē

This is consistent with what John Neider wrote in his book Forgive and Love Again. He said, ďIn the Hebrew and Greek languages used in Bible times, the term release is the best one-word definition of the word forgiveness.Ē

How can the Christian know that he has forgiven his offenders? The Puritan Thomas Watson gives this advice: ďWhen do we forgive others? 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. This is gospel-forgiving.Ē

My hope is that by knowing what interpersonal forgiveness is and what it isnít you will be more motivated to do it.

God has given us two ways to forgive people. We always forgive from the heart, and we do this by letting bitterness be put away from us. In contrast to heart forgiveness, we sometimes convey verbal forgiveness by telling the offender he is forgiven. We are required to do this whenever the offender repents and says he is sorry.

VII. The motivation for interpersonal forgiveness.

Hopefully this sermon has served to clarify what interpersonal forgiveness is and how it is done. However, knowing what to do and being motivated to do it are two different things that donít always go together. So by way of application, I want to cover a few reasons why we often find ourselves unwilling to forgive. I think they can be summed up under the word forget:

May God grant us the grace to remember how we have been forgiven; and in this way, may we remember to forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven us.

VIII. Closing prayer.

Let us pray. Father God, thank you for all you did for us so we could be forgiven. Please change our hearts to make us more willing to forgive other people. In Jesusí name, Amen.