Answering Tough Questions About Forgiveness

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This series was first published in April 2016. -ed.

Forgiveness can be very hard to grant—even Christians commonly wrestle with it. I am convinced that many, if not most, Christian counseling sessions are related to struggles with forgiveness. It is a subject that does pose difficult questions. Today, we’ll consider some of the major ones.

What is the difference between true repentance and a mere apology?

Genuine repentance always involves a confession of wrongdoing and a willingness to make things right. An apology often takes the form of an excuse.

The word apology comes from the Greek apologia, which literally means “a speech in defense of.” Apologies are often nothing more than self-defense: “I’m sorry if you took offense, but . . . .” Genuine repentance is properly expressed in an admission of wrongdoing and a plea for forgiveness: “It was unloving of me to say that. Will you forgive me?”

Be wary of using merely apologetic language in place of genuine repentance.

Is repentance necessary for forgiveness?

There are some sins for which forgiveness is completely unconditional. In Galatians 6:1 Paul wrote, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” The idea conveyed by the word “caught” is that the person was caught unawares or trapped by the sin; that it was not premeditated.

Jesus had the same kind of sin in mind when He said, “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” (Mark 11:25). There is no mention of seeking out the offending person; the forgiveness is immediate and then prayer can continue. For such unplanned, unintentional lapses into sin the principle that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8) applies, because love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5).

But there are some sins that are to be forgiven only if the sinner repents. These are willful, premeditated, habitual sins, sins that have become the pattern and direction of the sinner’s life. These are the sins that call for the church discipline set forth in Matthew 18. Yet even these sins, when there is genuine repentance, are to be fully and freely forgiven.

In cases where there is no repentance on the part of the perpetrator, what is most important is that bitterness does not gain a foothold in the heart of the victim. There are times when you may not get the chance to profess or demonstrate forgiveness because of a remorseless wrongdoer. But you can maintain a forgiving disposition in your spirit and move on in life free from longings for vengeance and vindication. Too many people go through life crippled by resentment and their determination to cling to it.

How should we handle repeat offenses?

Jesus answered this question expressly in Luke 17:3–4: “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.” Again, our forgiveness is supposed to be lavish, enthusiastic, eager, freely offered, and unconstrained—even for repeat offenders. After all, we are all repeat offenders against God.

What if you think the offender’s “repentance” is a sham?

Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3–4 are problematic for some. One author paints a hypothetical scenario based on that passage where an offender intentionally punches an innocent person in the nose. After the first offense, the offender asks for, and receives, forgiveness. Moments later, in another unprovoked attack, he punches the same person in the nose a second time. The cycle is repeated a third time, and a fourth, and so on, with the bully professing repentance each time and the victim granting forgiveness each time.

But that is far too wooden an interpretation of Jesus’ words. Our Lord was not suggesting that the disciples should throw discernment out the window when it comes to evaluating a person’s repentance. Nothing in the context of Luke 17:3–4 suggests that the offense Jesus had in mind was deliberate or that the repentance was feigned.

In fact, it is important to be wary of feigned repentance in cases like the hypothetical one just described. Such deliberately repeated offenses, especially when accompanied by phony repentance, are evidence of a profoundly evil character and a cynical hatred of the truth. John the Baptist was justified in refusing baptism to the Pharisees until they showed the reality of their profession of repentance (Matthew 3:8).

Nonetheless, even after multiple offenses, the offended person must be prepared to forgive—eager to forgive—unless there remains some very compelling reason to doubt the offender’s profession of repentance. Even the hardest and most deliberate offender should never be permanently written off; rather, complete forgiveness and reconciliation should remain the offended person’s goal.

To whom should we confess our sins?

Confession of guilt must always be made to God. Confession is also owed to whomever our sin has injured. The arena of confession should be as large as the audience of the original offense. Public transgressions call for public confession; private sins should be confessed to God alone.

Only actual injuries require confession of a wrong. It would be inappropriate for a man who had a lustful thought to confess that thought to the woman who was the object of his lust. Confession in such cases should be made only to God.

That does not, however, rule out confession in every case where the victim is unaware of the offense. If you have quietly slandered someone, that person may be unaware of the offense. Nonetheless, the offense is real. It needs to be made right not only with those who received the original slander, but also with the person who was slandered, even if that person is not yet aware of the offense.

Should I confess my unfaithfulness to my wife, even if telling her about it may hurt her more than keeping it a secret would?

There is no doubt that in some cases confessing a sin may cause as much hurt as the offense itself. Nonetheless, I believe that in all cases the unfaithful party in a marriage relationship broken by adultery should confess the sin to his or her spouse.

Why? For one thing, it takes two people to commit adultery. The other party in the sin already knows about the offense. It compounds your unfaithfulness to share a secret with your cohort in sin but keep your spouse in the dark. The lack of total openness—the need to hide things and keep secrets—will continue to be a barrier to the proper unity of the marriage. Something as serious as a breach in the marital union cannot be repaired if the truth must be kept from your marriage partner. Failure to confess simply compounds lying and cover-ups. That sort of thing will eventually destroy the relationship, whether or not the adultery is repeated.

As difficult as it may be for both you and your spouse, you must deal honestly with a sin like this. If the offended spouse discovers the sin through other means, the hurt that is then caused will be drastically increased. You owe it to him or her to confess.

When is restitution appropriate?

Whenever an actual loss has been caused by a wrong, restitution is certainly appropriate. The granting of forgiveness for the guilt of the offense does not automatically nullify the need to make reparations, especially when the injured party’s loss is quantifiable. Whether the loss was caused deliberately (as in a theft) or accidentally (through some form of negligence), restitution should be made.

In some cases tangible restitution is impossible, and yet reparations need to be made. Lies should be confessed and the truth communicated at least as widely as the lie was. Slander needs to be corrected by a sincere effort to restore the offended person’s reputation and honor.

Restitution in all such instances begins with a humble confession of the wrongdoing and a willingness to do whatever is reasonable to right the wrong.

Is the forgiver obligated to forget the offense?

“Forgive and forget.” The expression has attained the status of a cliché, but is it true and biblically sound? Yes and no. There is obviously no way to purge the memory of an offense. And the more severe the offense, the more difficult it may be to keep the memory from coming to mind.

I’ve heard people suggest that God forgets our sins when He forgives. They usually cite Hebrews 8:12 (cf. Hebrews 10:17): “I will remember their sins no more.” Or Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

But those verses don’t say God forgets our sins. They say He will not remember them. What’s the difference? To forget something is to have no memory of it. Obviously God, who is omniscient, has not lost His memory of our transgressions. Rather, He refuses to call them to mind. He promises not to bring them up.

And that is exactly what is involved in forgiveness. It is a promise not to remind the person of the offense.

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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