As Christians enter the season of Advent—the time of the church year when we undertake an examination of our lives and repent of our sins to prepare for the celebration of the first coming (“advent”) of Jesus—we do well to consider the themes of repentance and forgiveness. There is a lot of confusion around these terms, and a lot of pain around them as well, perhaps especially as Christmastime brings to mind hurtful events and relationships in one’s life. Let’s see if we can bring a little Christmas light to bear on the subject.
Repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of the Christian faith and two of the key words in the Christian vocabulary.
Indeed, they are
• at the heart of the Gospel—we are called to repent and God promises to forgive our sins;
• at the heart of Christian prayer: “and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4) ; and
• at the heart of Christian conduct toward our neighbours.
Yet sometimes Jesus says such odd things about forgiveness: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:3-4).
Notice that in this short passage we encounter multiple sins and multiple forgivenesses. Forgiveness may be necessary toward the same person over and over again.
Notice also that repentance seems to be required. But it isn’t.
A lot of mischief and misery has come from people misunderstanding this clause as if it means we do not have to forgive if there is no repentance. Instead, it means “When someone comes to you repenting, you are obliged to forgive.” It doesn’t mean “but don’t forgive anyone who doesn’t repent.”
Consider another passage from Luke’s Gospel: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (23:34). Jesus is asking God to forgive the soldiers who crucified him as they are crucifying him. It’s impossible to imagine less repentant people whom Jesus nonetheless wants forgiven.
The Apostle Paul gives a similar command to his churches: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13).
Clearly, then, forgiveness can and should be rendered whether the offender repents or not.
I will pick up this theme in Part II of this post. For now, let’s make some other basic things clearer about forgiveness.
Christian repentance and forgiveness avoids both sentimentality and cynicism. It is, instead, realistic.
Repenting and forgiving are not pretending the past didn’t happen and that what seemed evil is somehow okay. Repentance and forgiveness name what was wrong as wrong. If it weren’t wrong, it wouldn’t need repenting of and forgiving!
Repentance and forgiveness also do not pretend the future will be sunny and that there will be no repetition of wrong. You may have noticed that people generally don’t become perfect after a single round of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus tells us to forgive the same person seven times in a single day to make hyperbolically clear that a single episode of repentance and forgiveness may not be the end of it.
Yet forgiveness refuses to keep people shackled in the past and therefore despairing of a better future. Forgiveness is freedom—for the offender and for the victim.
To forgive the offender is to give a great gift. It cuts the offender free from the Jacob Marley-like shackles of past sins. It gives the offender a fresh start. It does not “re-member” the past sins by repeatedly bringing them up again and fastening them afresh to the present person. It leaves the past in the past, and lets people go ahead into the future.
But “forgive and forget” is bad advice, and on two counts.
First, one can’t do it. Second, one shouldn’t. Refusing to pretend as if the past didn’t happen instead helps us act realistically to maximize shalom for everyone involved.
Harold embezzled thousands of dollars from his church. He does his time in prison, and is released. He repents, the church forgives him, and his fellow Christians thus determine not to meet him every Sunday with condemnation in their eyes and voices. They embrace and esteem him as a brother.
The church also, however, doesn’t put him in charge of counting the collection. To do so would be to act foolishly—for the church and for Harold himself.
Likewise, the church doesn’t put a repentant child molester in the Sunday School nor a repentant egomaniac in the pulpit. We forgive and don’t re-member, but we also don’t forget.
God himself, who as the omniscient one can forget nothing says, “Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17).
So let us repent and let us forgive, and neither forget nor re-member. In that paradox is the path of a hopeful, healthful future.
In my next post, I’ll take up again the question of whether forgiveness can be unilateral. It can be. And so can repentance…