Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.
Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.
To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.
When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.
But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.
Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.
Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.
Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.