On Sunday, April 20, the Orlando Sentinel published on the front page of the newspaper, “Two Views of Forgiveness.” Yes, it is unusual to see a spiritual topic given such a prominent position in the newspaper, but in the publisher’s mind, it was evidently all right since it was “Easter.” The article begins:
As Jesus was dying, the Bible says he forgave those who betrayed him, those who condemned him, those who killed him. For Christians, Easter Sunday is not only about the resurrection of Jesus Christ but also the central lesson of forgiveness (A1).
Most newspapers do not present much favorable to the Bible. When they refer to anything, it is usually to announce something bizarre like the church groups that offered pina coladas (non-alcoholic) or some effort at being relevant. On spiritual topics the paper is usually pro-evolution, pro-abortion, and pro3 on homosexuality (exponentially in favor of it). In other words, they usually do not care much what the Bible actually says. So why do they have an article on forgiveness?
The reader probably noticed that the opening line already has one mistake in it. Not a word is said about Jesus forgiving Judas, the one who betrayed Him. In fact, Jesus said these words at the Last Supper with Judas present:
“The Son of Man goes as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24).
Do these words sound as if Jesus was about to forgive Judas the next day? He warned him not to proceed with his plan, but Judas ignored His advice. He did later experience remorse and return the money, but instead of repenting, he hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5).
Did Jesus forgive those who condemned Him? The Jewish leaders acted irrationally and contrary to the Law in seeking Jesus’ condemnation. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent of any crime that merited the death penalty, yet he handed Jesus over because it was the politically expedient thing to do. Was Jesus praying for him? Did He forgive those who killed Him—whether the Roman soldiers or the Jews clamoring for His death? And were they forgiven unequivocally at the very moment He uttered those words on the cross?
The When of Forgiveness
One might think that the worst crime ever committed (betraying and murdering the only truly innocent Man Who ever lived—and in the most excruciatingly painful way ever devised) might stand as an unforgivable sin. Jesus, however, opened the door to forgiveness with His utterly gracious, first pronouncement on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In one sense that was probably true of everyone—except Judas. He could not possibly have not known who Jesus was since he was present for all the miracles and had observed abundant evidence of the Deity of Jesus. He himself had even worked miracles in his preaching of the gospel (Matt. 10:1-8; Luke 10:17). Nevertheless, he betrayed Him—at the cost of his soul. Of all of those who played a role in Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas is the only one who clearly does not come under the description of not knowing what he was doing. Besides, Matthew indicates that he was already dead when Jesus was nailed to the cross.
But did Jesus pray for unconditional forgiveness for all of those who acted in ignorance (even if they imagined they knew what they were doing)? Has forgive-ness ever been without conditions? Consider the Day of Pentecost.
Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36-38).
Since Peter had to convince them through the Scriptures of what they had done, these men qualify as those who did not know what they were doing. But they had to repent (and be baptized) in order to receive forgiveness. In other words, the forgiveness Jesus prayed for made them eligible for it, but only when they repented and were baptized did they actually receive it. Consider what happened on the next preaching occasion.
“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:13-15).
“Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers…. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:17, 19).
What could be plainer? Peter said that they acted out of ignorance. Why did he not tell both groups that, even though they were murderers, Jesus had already prayed for their forgiveness on the cross, and it would not be held against them? The obvious reason is that they were not already forgiven, although Jesus had made it possible for them to receive it. They still had to repent of their wicked actions and be baptized in order to have their sins washed away.
A Personal Story
The Orlando Sentinel article then presented a contrast of views from victims of two different crimes. One involved a woman whose two daughters (ages 7 and 4) were murdered, with their bodies being “tossed like trash on the side of a road” (A1). The mother, Dorothy, was also taken, sexually abused, and shot in the head. During the event, when all three were being transported in the back of a car, she kept calling, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” One of the thugs in the front seat answered her, “You can stop calling Jesus, ‘cause Jesus isn’t doing this. Satan is doing this” (A9). Despite her abuse, Dorothy survived the ordeal and recovered in the hospital. Now what is remarkable is that the article reports she forgave the attackers the day she woke up in the hospital and found out her daughters were dead (A1, A9). Furthermore she adds:
“When I think about that night and all that transpired, I can still see the hand of God at work,” she said. “I am able, by the grace of God, to move on past that night and not dwell on the negative things that happened” (A9).
While it is certainly not enjoyable to be critical of someone who endured such suffering, this woman’s actions do not describe Biblical forgiveness. It is neither normal nor spiritual for a mother to hear of her daughters being killed and immediately forgive the murderers. It would be far more realistic to say, “Their innocent blood cries out to God from the ground!”
Would it be right for Dorothy to have taken a gun and tried to kill the two lowlifes herself? No. But it would certainly be appropriate to demand that justice was done. (It may be that the male perpetrators were caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced; the article neglected to say one way or the other.) Would it be right for Dorothy to have been so effected that the event ruined her life and made her a bitter person? No. But the murderers do not deserve to be forgiven by the woman, the family, the civil government, society, or God—unless they repent of their sins. Nothing indicated that they had any sorrow or remorse whatsoever.
Another Personal Story
By way of contrast, a second crime did not involve murder but theft. A man invested his savings with Lou Pearlman, who founded the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. Unfortunately, the 68-year-old investor ended up saying, “Bye, Bye, Bye” to his life savings (A1, A9). In 2007 Pearlman was charged with defrauding those who had trusted him with their money. He was operating a Ponzi scheme. The victim has not taken well losing all of his money. He thinks that forgiveness is just something that people talk about in church. “I’m the only one who is telling the truth. I won’t forgive” (A9). Such an attitude may not only lack compassion, it is harmful.
Whether or not the man forgives Pearlman (who may have never asked for it), it is obvious that he is quite bitter. His wife, the article mentions, is a member of “the Church of Christ”; she said: “I was brought up that I was supposed to forgive, but I really and truly can’t” (A9). How ironic! A woman whose children are killed forgives instantly, and a couple who lost only money cannot forgive at all. Of course, it may be easier to be unsympathetic with the latter situation, but then it was their money not ours. But all that is material will someday perish anyway. Still, the contrast is striking. Technically, forgiveness is not required unless the swindler repents and attempts to pay back what he stole. But what about such an abrasive attitude? It does not appear to make allowances for repentance to occur. In this, it is unlike Christ in that the door for forgiveness is not even opened up.
Scriptures on Forgiveness
A related article, appearing on A9 discussed several Biblical principles that deal with this topic. It was declared (correctly) that in order to be forgiven, one must be willing to forgive. Jesus actually taught this precept:
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6: 12, 14-15).
Many assume that forgiveness should be granted whether or not it is asked for, and in some instances, that would be a wise philosophy (since sometimes we only imagine a transgression against us). However, if we know that someone intended us harm, the situation needs to be resolved. For that reason, in Matthew 18:15-17, our Lord said, if no solution to a problem is obtained by a personal meeting, then one or two others should accompany the offended brother the next time that every word might be established. If no reconciliation occurs at that point, the church is told. If a brother then repents, we must all stand ready to forgive him. Refusal to do so puts our souls in jeopardy.
When Jesus spoke on the subject of forgiveness, He was usually coming at it from the direction of some refusing to forgive—even when repentance was in evidence. Two teachings on that subject are relevant. The first follows the admonition that a brother who believes he has been sinned against confronting the one who mistreated him (Matt. 18:15-17). Afterward, Peter came and asked Jesus how many times he should forgive an offending brother. He was magnanimous enough to suggest as many as seven times. Jesus told him he should be prepared to forgive 70 times that.
Then He gives the illustration of forgiveness in Matthew 18:23-35. In the illustration, however, two men begged for patience to repay their debt. When the one who received forgiveness of a huge debt was beseeched by a man to forgive his much smaller debt, he refused to grant it. Jesus’ thesis was that each of us owes a debt to God that we can never repay—a debt for all the sins we have ever committed. Since God is willing to forgive us, we must in turn forgive those who owe a much smaller debt against us personally. The unforgiving soul will not be forgiven by God.
The brethren in Corinth were in danger of committing this very sin. At first, they were so loose, they did not even rebuke the man living with his father’s wife. They let him persist in his sin, which would have proven fatal to him and have reflected poorly on the congregation as well. They followed Paul’s instructions and withdrew fellowship from him, which caused him to repent. Now they went too far in the other direction. The punishment had accomplished its purpose—they needed to forgive the man and reaffirm their love for him (2 Cor. 2:6-8).
The Disciples’ Reaction
When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, he spoke to some of the very ones who had clamored for Jesus’ death. How did he and the other apostles feel about accepting the repentance of such men and baptizing them for the forgiveness of what they had done to Jesus (along with all their other sins)? And then another opportunity arose shortly, and Peter told the multitude that they sought Jesus’ death when Pilate had determined to let Him go. Instead, however, they asked for a murderer (Barabbas) to be set free and insisted on Jesus’ death, Who was the very Prince of life. Just to relive those events while preaching to those men might have aroused hostility toward them, but Peter is very conciliatory: “Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17).
How could Peter be so gracious, considering the way they had treated Jesus? First, he acted as an enemy of Jesus Himself. He not only deserted Him at the most crucial hour, he even denied Him three times, cursing and swearing in the process. When Peter had looked at Jesus after the denials, he went out and wept bitterly. Could anyone who had done what he did possibly try to imagine that he had a higher position of morality than the others? They may have done so in ignorance, but Peter denied Jesus after confessing Him to be the Son of God. Shall we debate which is worse?
Peter first had to come to terms with his own sinfulness. Once he could forgive himself, he would not find it difficult to forgive others. All of the apostles had forsaken Jesus and fled. They all had to deal with their own cowardice. The second consideration to keep in mind is that they heard Jesus teach directly on the subject of forgiveness, and they knew that they could not be forgiven of their own sins unless they were willing to forgive others. If the soldiers who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands had repented, they would have rejoiced, which brings to mind one of the great values of repentance.
When people repent of their sins, they are acknowledging that they desire to leave the kingdom of darkness and want to belong to the kingdom of light. What an occasion for tears of joy and happiness! No one stands taller than when he humbles himself and admits his error. For that reason there is rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. 3,000 is wonderful, but heaven and earth are excited with just one.
The prodigal son made a fool out of himself. He left the safety of his father’s house and unwisely spent his fortune on corruptions of the flesh. It is no wonder that his brother despised him! He had brought shame on the family. But what the older brother missed was that his prodigal brother was now confessing that he had been totally wrong. He went so far as to admit that he was not even worthy to be called his father’s son. How much more can a man repent than he did? No one questions that he had done wrong. But at least he finally realized and admitted his own foolishness. How can any human be unprepared to grant such a person forgiveness?