Requirements for Forgiveness
May 27, 2014
Yesterday’s topic on “Forgive us our sins” is a massive subject that would require an entire book to treat adequately. It was challenging to boil it down to a single weblog. In the process I left out one topic that a friend has raised in an email, which I thought was important enough to share with the wider audience.
The question is: Shall we forgive someone who does not ask for forgiveness?
The simple answer is that victims are not required by duty to forgive until full restitution has been paid. When the last dollar has been paid, then it is the victim’s duty to forgive. Whether or not the sinner asks for forgiveness is irrelevant in such situations, because the law determines the time of forgiveness. The basic legal principle behind this is that justice is not done until full restitution has been paid to the victims. All sin-debt, once settled between the sinner and his victim, must be forgiven by all, for the law forbids holding grudges (Leviticus 19:18).
Victims have the right to forgive—or to withhold forgiveness and lay claim to whatever restitution is rightfully theirs. It is their choice according to the leading of the Spirit within them. As I wrote earlier, it may be beneficial to require that the thief pays off the debt, especially if it is obvious that he has not repented and may take advantage of his victim’s generosity and victimize others. In such cases we must remember that labor is the antidote to stealing, and the thief may need to learn to work. Likewise, the victim may genuinely need to recover his losses, especially if he is poor.
So if a sinner does not ask for forgiveness, shall he be forgiven? It is the choice of the victim. I myself would be careful about setting this as a fixed standard of measure, however, because whatever standard we set is the one God will use to judge us as well.
This brings us to an interesting Catholic situation, where people are required to go to confession in order to have their sins forgiven. Presumably, any sins that are not confessed will be held against them at the Divine Court. In other words, it is believed that God does not forgive any sin that remains unconfessed. So devout Catholics ought to go to confession regularly before they forget their specific sins. Whatever sin is not forgiven will be held against them in Purgatory.
Most Protestants, too, agree that sin cannot be forgiven apart from repentance that accompanies one’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior. Both sides generally hold that when one first accepts Christ (and is baptized), all of their past sins are washed away and will no longer be held against them in the Divine Court. The question is what to do about sins committed AFTER their baptism.
I showed the Catholic position above. This belief resulted in many people putting off their baptism until their death bed, so that they would have no time to accumulate sins that would sentence them to a lengthy stay in Purgatory. Of course, they then ran the risk of dying unexpectedly without being baptized.
The Protestants tend to vary in their beliefs. Some hold the Catholic position, believing that they are forgiven only of confessed sins, but they put Jesus alone in the position as Confessor-Priest. Others believe that when they “got saved” all of their sins were put under the blood of the cross, past, present, and future.
The question is whether God will judge genuine believers for unconfessed sin at the Great White Throne Judgment, or if the blood of Jesus makes them exempt from any judgment for sin—especially unconfessed sin (as that is our current topic).
Well, here we have two important principles that appear to conflict. The first is the principle that the blood of Jesus paid for every sin ever committed—the sin of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This appears to conflict with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where those who have laid Christ as the Foundation of their faith are brought through the “fire” so that their works may be tested. Paul says that if their works are made of combustible material (i.e., not done by faith), those works will be burned up and they will suffer loss. Yet they will not lose their salvation, for verse 15 concludes, “he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.”
The solution to this apparent contradiction is to understand that all will be saved in the end, but that God will also judge unconfessed sin, which is within His rights as the Victim.
No doubt Paul discussed this fully with Luke, his companion, because Luke wrote on this issue in Luke 12:42-49. Here we see that Christ’s servants are of two kinds: faithful and oppressive. The faithful are given authority over “all his (Christ’s) possessions.” Those who used their authority on earth to oppress others will receive “lashes” (Luke 12:47) in accordance with their level of revelation and knowledge of His will.
This principle is taken from Deuteronomy 25:1-3, where a man may be given a maximum of forty lashes.
Jesus then tells us that this is part of the “fiery law,” as it is called in Deuteronomy 33:2 (KJV), for He concludes in Luke 12:49,
49 I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
Jesus was not longing to burn up the earth with fire, nor to cast people into a fiery pit. He was longing to see the “fiery law” established in the earth, for this will cause the nations to rejoice and sing for joy (Psalm 67:4). Jesus understood that the law was corrective in nature, and that judging His servants was required to bring them to spiritual maturity with the revelation of the mind of Christ. Again, this is Abba correcting His children.
Catholics conceive of this correction in terms of Purgatory. Protestants are not so sure, because they find Purgatory abhorrent. The early Greek Church fathers spoke of “hell” as a temporary place of purging fire. Most of the Latin Church fathers spoke of “hell” as a never-ending torture pit. The Catholic Church eventually established both views, but put Catholics into the temporary Purgatory and non-Catholic into the never-ending “hell.” The later Protestants largely eliminated Purgatory and retained “hell.”
But the truth of the matter is that there will be a purging fire to judge all non-overcoming believers. It will not be a literal fire, but rather the “fiery law” that will judge them. Every judgment of the law is part of the “fire,” including the “lashes” and all restitution payments.
This is, in fact, the same “fire” that will judge all of mankind. Unfortunately, this “lake of fire” has been taken too literally as a torture chamber, when in fact it is a metaphor for the divine law itself that proceeds from the throne of God (Daniel 7:9, 10).
Getting back to our original question, will God judge believers for unconfessed sins only? Well, it is not really the confession of sin itself that cleanses us, but the heart attitude behind that confession. Many have continued in sin, believing that they can be absolved at the next confession. Others have been allowed to pay penance even before their sin, in essence, buying sin-credits in case they might be killed in the course of committing their crimes. (This a mafia tactic.) If men in authority in the Church oppress others, yet expect forgiveness by confessing such sin daily, God is not bound to forgive but will surely hold them accountable. It really is a heart matter.
Recall that God is the ultimate Victim of all sin. This is what gives Him the right either to forgive or to hold accountable. He has revealed His intentions in His word and has laid out all of the legal principles by which He will judge the world. When Jesus died for the sin of the world, He paid the full penalty for every sin, past, present, and future. In fact, He OVERPAID, because His blood was worth far more than the total debt for all sin.
Christ’s death on the cross made Him legally the Victim of all sin, giving Him the right to forgive or not. His Holiness is not a valid obstacle to His right to forgive. The law itself gives Him every right to forgive the world. His Power gives Him the ability to do whatever He desires. His Love is His prime motivator, providing the energy and passion to do whatever it takes to save all mankind. His Wisdom is the real issue, for this defines how He will achieve His goal as the Savior of all men.
The word shows that He immediately cancels the debt of those who place their faith in Him and repent (ask for forgiveness). But some believers fail to put on the mind of Christ, and these will be held accountable at the Great White Throne. It does not mean they will lose their salvation, but yet the fiery law will judge them along with the rest of humanity, as Jesus says in Luke 12:46,
46 The master of that servant will come in a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour of which he is not aware, and will cut him off [separate him from those who will inherit the First Resurrection] and will appoint his portion with the unbelievers. [The Emphatic Diaglott]
This does not mean the servant receives the same reward or punishment as the unbelievers, but that he will be judged at the same time as the unbelievers at the Great White Throne. This is affirmed in John 5:28, 29, where Jesus again spoke of the great Day of Judgment:
28 Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
This refers to the general resurrection of the dead (Revelation 20:11-15), where all of humanity (other than the overcomers who are raised in the First Resurrection in the earlier verses) are raised for judgment. Jesus says that two kinds of people will be raised in that day: “those who did the good deeds” and “those who committed the evil deeds.” They will be rewarded differently, some being given “life” (immortality), but others (unbelievers) receiving judgment according to their works. Obviously, there will be believers among those raised at the Great White Throne judgment.
Here is where our original question becomes most relevant: Shall we forgive someone who does not ask for forgiveness? Moreover, shall GOD forgive someone who does not ask for forgiveness?
The simple answer to this is: NO. Of course, we must keep in mind that God looks at the heart, not necessarily waiting for words. He forgave people before they asked verbally. In fact, it seems that He forgave before they even thought of it (Luke 5:20). Jesus discerned not only the problem but also the hearts of men, and He dealt with each problem accordingly.
We also see the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:20, whose father forgave him before he asked. The very fact that the Prodigal Son was returning home showed that he was humbled, broken, and knew of his need for forgiveness. The father recognized this, not by the words of his son, but by knowing his heart.
The father always forgave his son as a personal heart-attitude. But officially, he forgave when his son returned. So also it is with us. The heart of the Father is always full of forgiveness, but as a matter of law, it is not extended officially (that is, legally) until there is some change in the heart of the sinner.
So also is it with a father who disciplines out of a heart of love and forgiveness. The forgiveness is in his heart even while he disciplines, but in order to train his child, he must also hold him accountable at times for his sin. The judgment of the law makes the sinner experience the same level of victimization that he perpetrates upon others. If a parent does not discipline in this biblical manner, his son will not appreciate or even understand that there are consequences for every sin. He will tend to victimize people for the rest of his life without fully understanding the effects of his actions upon others.
At the Great White Throne, not only does He hold believers accountable, but also all unbelievers. The lake of fire is not an indiscriminate torture pit, but is described in Daniel 7:9, 10 as the fire proceeding from under the throne. A throne is a universal symbol of law by which the monarch rules and judges the people. The fire proceeding from a throne is a recognizable picture of the judgment of the law flowing from the Judge to the people. Whereas Daniel sees it as a flowing “river,” John sees it in Revelation 20 as a “lake.” It is a lake because the judgment has already been issued from the throne, and each person’s unforgiven sins have been tallied into a total amount as a DEBT.
The river is the sentence of the law; the lake is the outworking of that sentence.
Since no man has the means to pay off the debt for his sin, he is to be “sold” as a slave (Exodus 22:3) to one who takes the position as a redeemer. A legal redeemer takes responsibility for another man’s debt and in turn receives authority over the sinner until his labor repays the redeemer. In essence, the redeemer buys his debt note. This is what Jesus did on the cross. In paying the debt for the sin of the world, He was given authority over all of humanity with the right to forgive or to hold accountable.
He has chosen to forgive outright those who come to Him in faith. The rest of humanity, He has chosen to hold accountable for the maximum time, ending with the Creation Jubilee. In the law, if the sin-debt were small, the sinner might have opportunity to redeem himself after working for a certain amount of time. In addition, the redeemer always retains the right to forgive any remaining debt at any time. But in the context of the Age of Judgment, it appears that it will not be possible for sinners to pay their debt, and there is no indication in Scripture that they will be forgiven before the Jubilee.
For this reason, it appears that all unbelievers will remain under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer—and also under the authority of the overcomers of the Body of Christ—until the great Jubilee brings all of creation into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).
In conclusion, the law applies equally to all. However, because men are sinners while God is perfect, we must be cautious about our standard of measure when it comes to forgiving others for sins against us. God can certainly hold all men accountable if they have not asked for forgiveness, and this will not come back to haunt Him. But who among us has confessed every sin to God? I certainly do not want God to hold my forgotten sins against me. So I prefer to set a different standard of measure.
If I must discern whether to hold a sinner accountable, the criteria will not be set by whether or not he asks me for forgiveness. Instead, it will be set by the standard of love, where I ask myself, “What is in the sinner’s best interest? Will forgiveness have a positive effect on him? Will holding him accountable make him a better person, perhaps by acting as a deterrent to any future sin?”
These standards of measure, in my view, are better (and less likely to bite me in the rear later) than the standard of asking forgiveness as a prerequisite for me to forgive others.
This is part 6 of a series titled "The Lord's Prayer." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part 56 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones