“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
The character of the Christian includes “bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Col. 3:13). What has God said about this beautiful gift that we can (and must) extend to each other? Specifically, what roles do repentance and restitution play in the interchange between the offender and the offended? Must repentance happen before forgiveness can be granted? These will be the questions we will explore more deeply at the worship hour. But by way of summary, let me offer you the following thoughts.
If we harbor an unforgiving attitude toward others, God will not forgive us (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:35). Each of us should emulate our Father by consistently maintaining an intense desire to extend pardon to those who have sinned against us (1 Tim. 2:4). We should keep our hearts free from bitterness, wrath, hatred, malice, and revenge (Rom. 12:17ff). We should love our enemies and treat them with kindness (Matt. 5:44; 7:12). Our pure hearts should lead us to seek, meekly and humbly (Gal. 6:1), to restore fellowship with those who have sinned against us (Matt. 18:15). This – the attitude, or disposition, of forgiveness – should be shown to offenders unconditionally.
But there is more to forgiveness than just one’s attitude. There is also the action of forgiveness, which is the releasing or canceling of a debt. The Bible is clear that a sin-debt cannot be released or canceled until penitence is expressed (Luke 17:3; Acts 8:22). This consequence of sin was not imposed by man, but God. Therefore, one man does not have the authority to release another from that obligation. It is in this sense that only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). It is God’s will that consequences go hand-in-hand with wrongdoing. One of those consequences is the responsibility of the offender to repent of his sin and seek restitution with the one he sinned against. To do less would minimize the seriousness of sin.
The attitude of forgiveness is unconditional. The action of forgiveness is not. When someone sins against you, release all bitterness and anger even if your offender remains obstinate. Pray for and seek reconciliation. But until your offender experiences godly sorrow that produces repentance (2 Cor. 7:10), his debt to you and to God remains.