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Biff’s question is multi-layered; I will try to answer it while adding a few other twists that some folks have grafted into the teaching about forgiveness, which his relative may be doing. The first place to begin with biblical forgiveness is always with our hearts before we start trying to figure out what’s happening with the other person. The go-to text when it comes to humble self-assessment is Matthew 7:3-5. The purpose of this passage is to help us carefully reconstruct biblical thinking, specifically how we think about ourselves before we engage others. If our first thought has something to do with the log in their eye rather than our own timber, we need to start over by reorienting our minds to what Jesus is teaching in that text.
I like to say it this way: “No matter what someone has done to me, it does not compare with what I have done to my Lord.” If that kind of soul-leveling, cross-exalting perspective is our point of departure, we will be free and clear to think more redemptively about the other person. This teaching is always imperative but typically intensifies when discussing forgiveness with relatives. With our hearts humbled by the gospel, our compassion for the troublesome relative is the next thing to assess. Our pity for a difficult person will be different from those who are easier to love, so it’s essential we jump-start our hearts so we’re moving toward genuine compassion for them. If we don’t do this, it would be wise to withhold our correction until our hearts experience gospel recalibrating.
As we continue to assess ourselves, we want to add Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:18, where he said, “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We are on a peace-making mission. That was the Lord’s objective with us, to remove the hostility between Him and us so we could experience reconciliation (Ephesians 2:14). A similar kind of Christlike example should be what we have in mind with our relatives and friends. We want to do everything we can to be at peace with them. As you know, the implication of Paul’s teaching not only applies to us but there is a requirement on them too, which means you might not be at peace with them if they do not do their part.
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance (Romans 2:4)?
You could state Paul’s question this way: Don’t you know that the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience lead to the change you hope for in your relatives and friends? He reminds us how God brought us to a place of change, which Biff hopes will happen to his relative as he cooperates with the Lord in that redemptive possibility. This God-centered, gospel-empowered approach is what we should be modeling and delivering to our stubborn and undeserving friends (Romans 5:8, 2:8-9).
However, if you are kind and patient, they may not change. Either way, that outcome is not our responsibility (1 Corinthians 3:6). Our job is to do as much as depends on us while resting in the truth that we cannot provide repentance to anyone (2 Timothy 2:25). What we are responsible for is how we approach people. We are not biblically permitted to engage anyone with a sinful attitude. Jesus died on the cross, and we will have to die too, which is our best shot at cooperating with God in people’s restoration.
I addressed Biff’s heart, goal, and method because I have seen too many times when Christians have confronted people without considering a careful pre-confrontation analysis of their hearts. As to Biff’s question, I am not aware of any teaching in the Bible that appeals to us to release someone from their sin when they are not asking God—or any other offended person—for release from their sin. Forgiveness—asking, granting, and receiving—is the transactional process of letting a person’s sin go after they ask for freedom from their sin. In a forgiveness context, the sinning person understands there is a debt that someone must pay (Romans 6:23).
This concept is a significant plank in the gospel platform: Christ died for our sins, and we must ask Him to forgive us to be free from our sins. A just God sets the standard. We agree with His rule, and when we cross the line of His standard (transgress), we ask Him to forgive us. We acknowledge our wrongs, which is our agreement (confession) with God while seeking forgiveness (justified) from Him (1 John 1:9). Forgiveness without God involved is not forgiveness at all. God is the only person who can release anyone from their sins, and He will not do this unless we ask Him through genuine repentance. Biff cannot release her.
That would be similar to a victim releasing the culprit of a crime, while the judge is never part of the process. The criminal must have her day in court. If she genuinely engaged God and He forgave her legally, I do not think she would be hiding, ignoring, or excusing her sin to Biff. That does not make biblical sense, and if God did forgive her, she would not only need to come to Biff so he could forgive her, but she would want to go to Biff—not for forensic cleansing, but for relational reconciliation.
What Biff is describing is not biblical forgiveness but relational manipulation. Without God’s forgiveness, it is the equivalent of Biff standing on a street corner waving a wand over folks as they pass by, releasing them from their sins. In such a scene, they could be forgiven for anything, regardless of whether they asked God for such mercy, and anyone could do it. They would not even have to know what Biff was doing for them. Freedom from sin without asking for it or knowing about it is sloppy theology. It renders the death of Christ meaningless.
If we could release people willy-nilly from their sins without going through the proper channels of atonement, there would be no need for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Each of us is without excuse for our sins (Romans 1:20). We will be held accountable for our sins, and the only way we can experience release from them is by genuinely asking God to forgive us. How many times have you sinned against someone and asked them to forgive you but did not ask God to forgive you? I have done this many times. While I can somewhat clear up the relational breakdown between another person and me, there is still an offense against God. All sin is against God, and there are no exceptions.
Biff’s relative is in a more profound entanglement than she realizes, and this kind of biblical reasoning is the approach I recommend that Biff prays about until it’s clear to him. Maybe the Lord will give her favor by releasing her captivated soul. Her problem has to do more with God than with him. She needs to have a clearer understanding of biblical forgiveness. Sometimes Christian people play the forgiveness card like a wild card in a game. They throw it down whenever they like to fix a problem. It becomes their get-out-of-jail-free card without doing the biblical heavy lifting with God. For some, it’s a weak, non-sustainable attempt at relational damage control rather than redemptive freedom. Asking for forgiveness may sound better than an apology, but if it begins and ends with the offended human while never seeing the Divine Judge, it’s forensic impotence.
Granting forgiveness to a non-asking person is a grace mistake. Some call this extending grace, a way of being nice while not serving the person in sin’s clutches (Galatians 6:1). Grace extenders do the gospel a disservice by muting its efficacy. Biff’s relative is minimizing her sin while asking him to ignore it—to extend grace. That is dangerous. The question Biff will have to ask himself is whether he is the person who needs to bring her conniving ways to the light, which leads to his boundary question. I’m not fond of the standard connotation that some folks upload to the boundary idea.
In almost all cases, when a person talks about boundaries, they are not thinking redemptively about the other person. Rather than discussing borders, it would be better to frame the question this way: “What is the most effective way I can love her rather than the most effective way I can construct a wall between us?” She may rebuff a redemptive approach, leaving Biff with no other option but a need for rebuke, confrontation, and separating, which do fit nicely within a redemptive worldview. If there are boundaries, Biff should let her set them after he pursues her redemptively.
Here are a few questions for Biff to take to the Lord. If you’re in a similar spot, will you consider them too? Ask the Spirit to illuminate your mind by bringing you the answers you need for clarity and detail.
Biff’s relative reminds me of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27). He came to Jesus, asking Him to justify and ignore his sin. Jesus was in the best position to respond to him. I would recommend that Biff pray about doing this for her. Like the rich young man, there is a good chance she will end the relationship, but he’ll be redemptive, not boundary-setting. Let her set the boundary. If his heart is right with God and He has given Biff compassion for her, it would be unloving not to confront her.
What he describes is no different from any relational situation where one person asks another person to ignore their sin. Does he love her enough to tell her the truth (Ephesians 4:15)? As you think about that question, consider two possible hindrances that could tempt us not to go forward in a loving confrontation.
Forgiveness between two parties must be transactional, whether with God or another person. Both sides must be biblically engaged with each other, humbly seeking and granting forgiveness.
There is a chance Biff’s relative will never humbly and genuinely seek his forgiveness. If so, it will not be transactional, and she will not experience forgiveness. Still, yet, his forgiveness can be attitudinal, which deals with his heart as he thinks about her. It also deals with how he relates to the Lord regarding his relative: She should not be a temptation for him to sin when thinking about her. Regardless of what she does, he can be free from her shenanigans in a similar way in which Jesus was free from sin when He thought about those who hurt Him (Luke 23:34). The real question is, “What depends on Biff regarding this relationship, and whatever that is, will he do it?” (See Romans 12:18.)
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).