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Along with his confession and forgiveness request, he then asked the most profound question of all—to help restore what he had destroyed. Genuine repentance is more than confessing your sin and asking for forgiveness. While those two elements of repentance are essential, there is more to do to change completely (Ephesians 4:28-29). True repentance is turning 180 degrees from where you were while embarking in the opposite direction (Luke 15:17-20). Sin had entangled and estranged Biff (Galatians 6:1). He actively participated in a hedonistic lifestyle. Now he is walking out repentance, which means he is actively walking away from his ungodly life.
Part of this process was his request to join his wife in a mutual effort to rebuild what he had destroyed. Let me illustrate: Suppose someone burnt your house to the ground. Let’s further suppose the person genuinely repented, as Biff is doing. He comes to you and asks for your forgiveness. He wants to help you rebuild the destroyed home as part of his repentance. There you are, standing in the charred rubble of his sin. Your tears have cut paths across your soot-covered face. Biff is in the yard looking at you. You see the soot on his hands and the gasoline container at his feet. With smoke in the air and destruction all around you, there is a sincere request for forgiveness. What are you going to do with your sooty-handed offender?
Several years ago, I used this burnt house illustration with a couple during counseling. The husband was guilty of sinning against God and his wife. He repented, which began with a positive change process that several others close to him affirmed, including one of his pastors. His wife was angry over what happened. After a while, she became bitter. Prolonged anger turns to bitterness if you do not submit it to the power of the gospel, which is what happened to that wife. No amount of conversation would change her mind. She stayed angry for several years until she finally filed for divorce. The husband continued to walk out repentance, even though she was unwilling to forgive him.
I realized what I was asking her to do. It is one of the hardest things anyone can do. When you are hurt deeply by someone, even if the perpetrator of the sin is genuine in his repentance, it takes other-worldly favor to forgive the offender. That wife would not consider it, and I was not placing an artificial timeline on her to change her mind. With much patience and prayer, we appealed and waited. She would not change. She chose divorce. This problem brings you to the heart of the gospel. One of the most important diagnostic questions we could ever ask ourselves is our willingness to authentically forgive the person who has sinned against us. I’m talking about a person who is living in genuine repentance. I realize this situation can raise a lot of other questions about forgiveness. Here are three of the more common ones:
These are crucial questions that go beyond the scope of this chapter. I have written extensively on forgiveness, especially those questions, which you may find on our website. This chapter deals with only one aspect of forgiveness—our need to forgive those genuinely seeking it. To withhold forgiveness when it is genuinely requested will put us in an adversarial relationship with God (James 4:6) while never reconciling our relationship with the offender. Perhaps considering these few verses will help to keep our minds calibrated rightly on the gospel’s practicality.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15).
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses (Mark 11:25).
In the case of an ongoing relationship like marriage, true forgiveness does not stop with the transaction. In marriage, we forgive the offender for their sins against us and we allow them to partner with us in the restorative process. Our goal is to rebuild what the sinner destroyed. I am describing one of the most profound facets of the gospel. In my illustration about the burned home, the Father, Son, and Spirit represent the offended party—the victim of the crime. You and I are the sooty-handed offenders who opposed God, even to the point of putting Jesus on the cross (Acts 2:36). Sin had captured us (Romans 5:12, 2:10-12, 23). We led Jesus to the slaughter, like a sheep before its shearers (Isaiah 53:7).
Our actions caused Him to be despised, afflicted, pierced, and punished (Isaiah 53:3-5). We burned down His house. It was because of our heinous acts against God that He gave us the gospel (Isaiah 53:10). His great love provided us an opportunity to repent and experience release from our sins (Romans 5:8). We, the accused, were freed from the guilt and punishment that we so justly deserved. “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). But the story does not stop there; it is even sweeter than being forgiven and set free from our crimes.
The Lord has given us the privilege of joining the one we offended for the great work of bringing other people to Christ’s freedom. The offenders—you and me—cooperate with the offended—Father, Son, and Spirit—in this great gospel work. We are ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), as God makes His appeal to many sooty-handed offenders through us. Once enemies of the cross, now we are His freedom fighters. This opportunity is amazing grace. This privilege is the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16).
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1).
When Paul was Saul, his pastime was harassing Christians. He hated them. Acts 9:1 talks about his hatred for Christians as breathing threats and murder toward the disciples of the Lord. Then Paul became a Christian. After being born a second time (John 3:7), he started working with the people he previously persecuted. As you can imagine, they were initially nervous about working with him (Acts 9:13). But they chose not to withhold forgiveness when he requested it. They reconciled with Paul and became partners in the gospel (Philippians 1:5). But it gets better.
Today, the persecutor of the Christians—Paul—and the formerly persecuted Christians are worshiping the Savior together in heaven. The power of the gospel testifies that we can experience reconciliation today and throughout eternity. The question for us is whether or not we will seek to forgive others when we have the opportunity to do so. Forgiveness words are not empty words. They are redemptive words that find their origin in transformed hearts (Luke 6:45). I am talking about genuine forgiveness extended toward other people who want to experience release from their sin. These people were like you and me when we asked God to forgive us.
One of the ways that you can know if your forgiveness words are redemptive words is if your forgiveness and reconciliation move into a gospel partnership. This coupling of the offender and offended is essential for married partners. When Lucia and I sin against each other, we must do more than forgive each other. We must be reconciled and restored for gospel purposes. We can’t go our separate ways. Sometimes, all you will do is experience forgiveness and reconciliation. You will not continue in a gospel partnership because you don’t have a relationship with the other person. In such situations, it’s unnecessary to keep relating or try to be best buddies, but in the case of marriage, we must fight for the one-flesh union.
Those who forgave Paul for his actions went beyond forgiveness by partnering with him in the gospel mission. Whether or not you are to partner with someone, you must ensure that your forgiveness words are not in vain. It would be best to use redemptive words affirmed by transformative actions that move two people toward reconciliation and restoration. There are two ways to withhold forgiveness from someone, both of which will take our minds captive (2 Corinthians 10:3-6) while straining our relationships.
In this chapter, I am speaking specifically about transactional forgiveness between two people where there has been an offender and the offended. In such situations, the offended must not withhold forgiveness when the offender asks. Transactional forgiveness begins with the offended’s attitude. It must be a genuine, transformed heart of mercy toward the sinner. They are not releasing them from their offense until they ask, but they cannot succumb to the capturing effects of what sinners have done to them. Of course, if the offenders do not ask for forgiveness, the offended must beg God to give them favor to keep from drowning in the anger and bitterness of an unforgiving heart. There is too much at stake to hold on to unforgiveness toward those who have hurt us.
Has someone hurt you? I realize that is an unnecessary question; of course, they have. Someone has offended all of us, and we all have hurt others. Fallen people cannot live in a fallen world and not hurt others. It is a sad outcome of our fallen lives. All people hurt people. The better discussion is whether or not you will forgive transactionally or attitudinally. One way to know if you have forgiven someone is by how you think and talk about them.
Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger, his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:32-35).
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).