Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so (Acts 17:10-11).
All the teachings I had received on forgiveness can be boiled down to something like this: “You need to forgive everyone who offends you unconditionally like Jesus did.” Then it would be supported by some Scriptures such as the following:
Then Peter came to Him and said, “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. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matt. 18:21-35).
In this parable as well as in the Bible generally, an unforgiven brother is likened to someone who owes a debt. The last verse gives a warning that anyone who does not forgive his brother from his heart will be turned over to the torturers until he forgives his brother. So if we just took this one passage (or others like it), we would get the impression we are always to forgive people no matter what. That I will be quick to say is a good idea and most of the time I have no argument against it. In fact, I have had a deliverance ministry in the past, and I have seen up close and personal how people who refused to forgive offenses have been turned over to the torturers (demons) to ruin their lives in many ways. So I certainly understand what unforgiveness can do to someone more than most Christians and even most pastors who have never had a deliverance ministry.
Nevertheless, I am one who seeks the whole truth on any biblical subject. I have long ago shook off the herd mentality of just accepting what I am taught without checking it out myself. So let’s take a closer look at what Jesus actually taught on forgiveness and not just rely on the pulpit parrots like the rest of the flock. First, I want to examine another very common Scritpure on forgiveness.
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do (Col. 3:12-13).
On the surface it just looks like He is teaching unconditional forgiveness to all people again. That is the problem with just looking at the surface. If we are to forgive people like our heavenly Father forgives people, we need to know how He forgives people. Does Jesus or the Father forgive anyone without them first confessing their sins and repenting? No, everyone first needs to repent of the offense and then specifically ask for the forgiveness to get their sins forgiven. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). What Jesus is actually demanding of his disciples is that if a Christian offends them and then asks for forgiveness, then they are to forgive them. Is this what Jesus actually taught? Lets see.
“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
Did you catch that? He says if the brother repents of the offense, then forgive him. In all the teachings I have ever heard on forgiveness, I have never heard this condition taught even once. If Jesus taught this, there must be a reason for it as we will see.
We should also notice that it is up to the person who has been offended to rebuke the person who offended him, or else the other person most likely will never even know he has offended someone. Most people don’t go around intentionally trying to offend people, but we all accidentally offend people. James says, For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body (James 3:2 KJV).
We should also observe that Jesus was speaking of a fellow Christian when He admonished us to forgive a “brother” if he repents. When we are offended by non-Christians, we should not even expect them to repent; therefore, we should forgive them because they don’t know any better. Jesus demonstrated this on the cross.
And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:33-34).
This should always be our response to those who are not in the church or are not professing Christians. It should also be our response to most petty offenses by other Christians. We are admonished to overlook such things.
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense (Prov. 19:11ESV).
On the other hand, contrary to some teachings I have heard that Jesus always forgave everyone, He clearly did not forgive some of the Pharisees and scribes who should have known the Word and should have known better than to reject and persecute Him. In fact, far from forgiving them, He condemned them to hell fire.
Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? (Matt. 23:31-33).
There is also the Matthew 18 passage that tells us to confront someone who has sinned against us:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).
Here we are told if a brother refuses to repent after going through the above procedure, we should treat him like a heathen or nonbeliever. That is not exactly unconditional forgiveness. The reason for this is for church discipline. If someone accidentally offends us, we should just forgive it and overlook it. But if someone is continually doing other Christians wrong in the church with repeated offenses, he has a problem and needs to be confronted so he can be corrected. Otherwise, he will just keep offending people and not be held accountable so that he can grow. That person is just storing up God’s judgment for himself, so it would be a merciful thing for someone to confront him. But as we know, this is rarely ever done in churches just like most other New Testament instruction is ignored. If a person who has been confronted keeps offending, the Lord will not even hear his prayers or receive his gifts.
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny (Matt. 5:23-26).
So you see Jesus never taught unconditional forgiveness to all people at all times. Serial offenders are supposed to get dealt with in the church. For their own good they need to understand they are under God’s judgment. Sometimes it is actually an act of mercy to not forgive an offending brother or sister so that God can deal with him. Then they will not be continually storing up greater and greater judgment on their lives. Even so, if we choose not to forgive a brother or sister who refuses to repent, we still need to turn the situation over to the Lord. Since we can know He will extract vengeance, we will not hold the offense in us to our own harm. In certain cases, Jesus even taught us to pray vengeance on our enemies as in the passage below. That is about the exact opposite of forgiveness.
And he spake a parable unto them to the end that they ought always to pray, and not to faint; saying, “There was in a city a judge, who feared not God, and regarded not man: and there was a widow in that city; and she came oft unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming.” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge saith. And shall not God avenge his elect, that cry to him day and night, and yet he is longsuffering over them? I say unto you, that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8).
While it is usually the right thing to do to quickly forgive someone who offends you, there are exceptions to this general rule that Jesus Himself taught but that the church has ignored.