Deeper Study Box 3: Repentance and Forgiveness
The Failure Fellowship
Mt. 5:48 defines the standard: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as
your Father which is in Heaven is perfect". Unless God will tolerate
our achievement of a lower standard than His own righteousness as
revealed in His word, none will be saved. We each expect God to
tolerate our failure to reach up to this ultimate standard. In the
context of marriage, for example, every committed Christian couple
fails to love each other as Christ loved the church. As we
judge, we really will be judged. Doesn't that just frighten us?
We should be so careful to show tolerance to those who fail
to attain the standard.
Ability to Pay
Our fellowship of failure should be bound close together by our
common experience of God's forgiveness. What we owe to God can never
be repaid. Just one sin brings eternal death; after sinning, we
cannot go back and re-live those minutes, hours, days or years when
it was committed. All we can do is trust in God's grace and believe
that God will negate the just results of that sin. Because we are
forgiven debts which we can never repay, we are asked to liberally
forgive our brethren for their far smaller debts. It appeared that
the man who owed a small amount was better able to repay it than
he who owed much. But the ability of our brethren to repay
the debt of their sin is not something we should consider. Surely
this is what the parable teaches. The ability of people to
repent is something we should not consider. God does not
consider our ability to repay Him- for we are utterly unable
to do so.
We must forgive our brethren as God forgives us (Eph. 4:32). God
expunges the spiritual record of the sin, and will not feed it into
some equation which determines whether we can be forgiven. Christ
"frankly" forgave the debtors in the parable. The frankness of that
forgiveness does not suggest a process of careful calculation before
it could be granted. God's frank forgiveness is seen too in Ps.
130:3: "If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord who shall
stand?". God does not "mark" sin, as our love for our brethren should
keep no record of their past sins (1 Cor. 13:5-7 N.I.V.). If we
refuse to fellowship people because of the effect of past
sins for which they have repented, then we are 'marking'
iniquity. God does not deal with us in a manner which is proportional
to the type or amount of sin we commit (Ps. 103:7-12).
You will probably encounter brethren who will seek to persuade
you that we must make a difference between certain categories of
sin, concluding that some sin must be repented of openly, and other
sin (e.g. a fit of anger) can be repented of privately. But you
must really consider what Biblical proof there is for this?
Degrees of Sin?
Peter found it hard to grapple with the idea that the degree or
amount of sin was irrelevant. But "seventy times seven" indicated
how far out he was. Even when a brother's repentance seems humanly
unlikely (the 490th time in the day takes some believing!), we must
still have that covenant mercy for him. Note that only a verbal
repentance was required- and the Lord said that the forgiver was
to just accept this, rather than demand evidence of 'forsaking'
in physical terms. The Greek word for repentance is a compound
meaning ‘to think differently after’. Repentance is essentially
a changed attitude of mind. This is why it’s difficult to
judge whether it exists within the heart of another person. Because
our very natures are sinful, we live constantly in need and receipt
of mercy, every second of our existence. The New Covenant is often
spoken of in the Old Testament as "mercy" and/or "truth". If we
are in that Covenant, we are permanently living in
grace/mercy. Mercy is not something which we just receive in the
few moments while we pray for forgiveness. It is something constantly
ongoing. We live in it. If we appreciated this, we would
not see our forgiveness of others as something we occasionally 'grant';
we will extend mercy to them constantly, as God does to us.
Some seem to think that we only occasionally sin, and then we repent
and receive mercy. This disregards the level of our sinfulness,
and the nature of covenant relationship with God. We are still in
covenant with God even in the midst of our sins, as Israel were
until the covenant was broken. Likewise, Mrs. (Sis.!) Bloggs is
still Mrs. Bloggs at the height of her screaming argument with Mr.
Bloggs. It is not for us to eject others from God's covenant. All
we can do is to insist on adherence to certain basic doctrines which
comprise that covenant. Any who reject the doctrines which form
that covenant must be ejected from fellowship, because they refuse
to accept the nuts and bolts of the framework which makes up the
covenant. But for someone who is in covenant with God, we must show
them the covenant of constant mercy which God does to us.
God is not the strict schoolteacher with a soft heart who says:
'Well I'll let you off this time but don't let me catch you doing
it again'. He knows He will catch us again, and we know it too.
His mercy is constant, but if we are to experience it in future,
there must be a confession of sin, and a recognition
that we are living in His mercy. When we are baptized, we enter
into Christ. God counts us as if we are as perfect as Christ.
God imputes His very own righteousness to us through Christ, even
though we are not perfect on account of our own obedience to commands.
This is the basis of justification by faith, rather than by obedience
and forsaking of sins alone. In prospect we have already
been saved, all our future sins were in prospect forgiven at baptism.
We are here and now in the heavenly places with Christ. How God
treats us is how we should treat each other; we too must look at
each other as if we are perfect: "Forgiving one another,
even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32).
Paul does not say we should forgive as Christ is forgiving
us. Our forgiveness was granted at baptism; the power of sin in
our lives was overcome by baptism into Christ's death, which destroyed
the devil. Therefore anyone baptized into Christ is not a servant
of sin, unless they leave Christ. Of course, we know that in practice
we all keep on sinning. But our spiritual man is in Christ, God
looks upon that side of us, not upon the devil within us.
We cannot destroy the devil within us- his destruction is in death
(Rom. 6:23). That natural man cannot be made subject to God's word
(Rom. 8:7; Gal. 5:17,18; James 3:8). What God requires is a growth
in the spiritual man, living in a way of life which on balance shows
that the new man is more fundamentally 'us' than the old man. As
God eagerly looks upon that new man within us, so we too should
perceive the new man in our brethren. Note that the unworthy in
Mt. 25:42-45 are condemned for what they omitted rather than
for what they committed.
Repentance: When and Whether
If we are intended to grant forgiveness for specific things rather
than showing a covenant of mercy, it follows that we must be able
to know when someone has repented. We need to carefully consider
the question: 'Can we know when someone has repented?'. If
the answer is 'Yes', then we are judging by the outward appearance.
We are saying that our assessment of another's spiritual strivings
is ultimately correct. The more reasonable Christian would say 'Sometimes'.
But if that is true, we presuppose that we do have some criteria
to decide whether someone has repented. But what Biblical evidence
is there to define these criteria in crystal clarity? It is therefore
difficult to avoid concluding: 'No, we don't know when someone
has repented'. Repentance must precede baptism, indeed baptism
may not be valid without it; but how can we know when and
whether repentance has actually occurred in the candidate? Most
interviewing brethren accept that they cannot know when or whether
the candidate has repented- and therefore it is rare to ask 'Have
you repented?' in the discussion before baptism. The Lord's
command to forgive 490 times per day (Mt. 18:22) is surely teaching
that we have no ability to judge the sincerity of repentance; all
we can do is forgive.
Repent + Forsake = Forgive?
It is often argued: 'We can only forgive you if you repent and
forsake your sin'. This sounds very convenient when dealing with
some more public sins. But if we are going to make this equation
a general principle governing fellowship, then we must consistently
apply it. We would then only be ‘permitted’ to forgive a brother
if we see him forsaking his sin. If this principle were applied
to every sin, then we would have a community which could not "forbear
one another in love" to the slightest extent; a community where
everyone holds a gun at his brother's head unless there is forsaking
of the weakness.
To 'sins' like occasional drunkenness, loss of temper, married
couples deciding to permanently separate etc., Christians (generally)
have never said: 'We can't forgive you unless you forsake that behaviour'.
Instead, there has always been a spirit of forbearance and overlooking,
as God overlooks our own more hidden failings. So, why apply this
principle of 'No forgiveness without forsaking' to some areas of
life and not others? We all sin, repent- and go on doing the same
thing! We all strive against the same recurring failures- and fail.
Is there really such a difference between private sins and public
ones? We must ever reflect the overwhelming zeal of God to
patiently bring about repentance. Luke 15 contains two parables
concerning repentance, where the restored sinner is in fact not
repentant: the lost sheep and the lost coin. The Lord searches for
them until He finds them; neither of them actually repent
and seek to come back. Indeed, the coin is inanimate, it can't repent.
It was actually the woman's fault that it got lost in the first
place. Now all these are surely examples of hyperbole- a gross exaggeration
to make a point. It isn't the Lord's fault that we stray. But He
speaks as if it is in this parable, in order to make the
point that He so strenuously seeks our return to Him. Likewise
Yahweh likens Himself to a worthless husband who forsook His sweet
wife of Israel in her youth (Is. 54:6). Of course we must use our
freewill and repent, but the Lord likens us to things which cannot
repent and are not repentant, and yet all the same are brought back
by the Lord's endless searching and pastoral care. By all means
compare this with Peter's comment that the Lord's exaltation was
in order to give repentance, not just forgiveness, to God's
people (Acts 5:31; 11:18 cp. 2 Tim. 2:25). This is the extent of
His atonement for men; not only to enable forgiveness, but to show
His matchless grace yet further in even granting repentance
to men. In the light of this it remains open to question how much
credit we can personally take for our repentance. Not all lost sinners
will come back, but the Lord speaks as if He will search always,
in every case, until they do. These hyperboles are all to
teach the vast extent of His desire to win back the lost. In the
light of this, who are we to start questioning whether or not a
brother has actually repented, if he says he has and shows this
to some extent?
Against God and Men
There is surely a difference between a weak brother sinning against
the ecclesia, and sinning against God. Lk. 15:18,21 implies that
there is a difference here. We are expected to forgive each other
as God has forgiven us- but this does not mean that when we forgive
each other, this is on God's behalf. If so, then our decisions are
dictating to God what His response should be. Instead, the reverse
must operate- God's response to us should determine our response
to our erring brother. It may or may not be ultimately true that
God will only forgive us if we repent and forsake our sins.
But there seems no Biblical evidence to show that our forgiveness
of others must be on this basis. We forgive others on the basis
of how He has forgiven us, and is merciful to our continual failures.
But the basis of God's forgiveness of our brethren is different-
it is centred around a person's faith in the blood of Christ. We
do not ask our weak brother whether he believes in the victory of
Calvary's cross before we forgive him.
Forgiveness Without Repentance?
The sensitive brother or sister will recognize that we are often
forgiven without specific forsaking of sin- and therefore
this must feature in our reaction to the sins of others.
The following are proofs of this:
- David prayed for cleansing from "secret faults" (Ps. 19:12)-
things which we do not specifically repent of, and yet which are
still sinful in God's sight. All sin is sin- sin is not definable
according to our awareness of it (as witness the Mosaic trespass
offerings). If we disagree that we are forgiven for sins which
we do not specifically repent of and forsake, then we must conclude
that we actually know every one of our sins; and that just
one sin, unrepented of, will keep us from salvation. None of us
has the self knowledge, nor the appreciation of God's righteousness,
to be confident that we do know each of our sins. It is only the
self-righteous who claim that they have confessed every one of
their sins. So we are driven to rely on salvation by grace- believing
that we will be forgiven for sins we commit, which we do not recognize.
If we hope for any amount of forgiveness without specific repentance,
then we ought not to make it a principle that we will never
forgive our brother unless he outwardly shows his repentance.
- The Father offered forgiveness to the prodigal son before there
was any direct evidence of repentance- just a sign of general
regret. Indeed, it would seem that the very fact the son wanted
to return to the Father’s house was quite enough to warrant
his acceptance there- and the killing of the fatted calf.
- We must bless / forgive those who persecute us (Rom. 12:14;
blessing and forgiveness are closely linked in Scripture). This
is clearly to be done without waiting for the persecutor to stop
- The Lord saw a connection between the way the sinful woman
kissed Him much, and the way she “loved much” (Lk. 7:45,47 RVmg.).
He then told a parable about her and Simon the Pharisee. His point
was that they both owed Him money and He had forgiven the debt,
but He was looking for an appropriate response from them. Yet
there is no evidence that Simon had repented before receiving
- We are to forgive the person who ‘repents’ 490 times / day
for the same sin. Clearly enough, their repentance wasn’t sincere.
Yet we are still to forgive.
- The Lord prayed that the soldiers would be forgiven because
"they know not what they do". The fact He asked for their forgiveness
shows that they were guilty of sin, although they were ignorant
of it- and had therefore not repented. How could they repent of
crucifying Christ while they were actually doing it? They may
well have regretted doing what they were forced to do by reason
of the circumstances in which they found themselves. Thus Christ
knew that forgiveness was possible without specific repentance
and forsaking. The reply 'But that only applies to sins of ignorance!'
is irrelevant- Christ's attitude still disproves the hypothesis
that forgiveness can only be granted if there is a forsaking
- God forgives men on the basis of their faith in the
blood of Christ, and association with it by baptism; "not
by works of righteousness, which we have done" (Tit. 3:4-8). God's
basis of salvation is not works. We must be careful not
to insist on 'forsaking' sins in physical terms to the extent
that we too preach justification by works. Just one sin- any sin-
deserves death. No amount of forsaking that sin can change that
sentence. God's way of escape is for us to be in Christ, so that
He looks upon us as if we are Christ, imputing Christ's
perfect character to us. Therefore forsaking sin is not in itself
the basis of salvation; rather is it faith in Christ. Of course,
true faith shows itself in works. But none of us has the degree
of faith which we ought to have, and therefore none of us does
the amount or type of works which we should. To insist that someone
shows their faith by specific works, e.g. certain changes in their
marital status, is to insist that there is a direct, definable
relationship between faith and the precise type of works which
that faith leads to. Yet we are not so strict with ourselves.
The faith and works of each of us are far from complete. Surely
one of the greatest expressions of faith in the work of Christ
is to desire to break bread. Yet this is what has been refused
to those who profess themselves to have a struggling faith in
- The man of Mt. 18:26 was forgiven his debt due to his desire
to repay it, even though in fact he couldn't repay it. Sin can,
in a sense, never be put right, it can only be covered over. And
the man was expected to reflect his experience of forgiveness
in how he dealt with his brother.
- "Sin is the transgression of the law". Each of us, therefore,
lives in sin to a certain extent. We require cleansing from our
very nature- which is something we cannot forsake. A brother may
smoke; he may feel that each smoke is a sin, because his conscience
condemns him. But this does not affect whether we overlook his
weakness, and tolerate him in fellowship. Again, it is inconsistent
to tolerate a brother who admits he is living a way of life which
is in one aspect 'sinful', and yet not to tolerate a brother with
an ongoing spiritual problem in another area. Can we prove that
we are supposed to recognize degrees of sin in each other?
And how can we prove that e.g. loss of temper is better or worse
than any other area of failure?
From the above points it should be evident that
the equation 'Forgiveness= repentance + forsaking' is just incorrect
as it stands. It is not true across the board. Even if this is true
of God's forgiveness of us, does it hold true for our forgiveness
of others? And where is the proof that we must withhold fellowship
from someone whom we cannot forgive?
We need to recognize that God sets an ultimately high standard,
but is prepared to accept our achievement of a lower standard. We
all disobey the same commandments of Christ day by day and hour
by hour. Yet we have a firm hope in salvation. Therefore obedience
to commandments is not the only necessity for salvation. "Be ye
therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect"
(Mt. 5:48) goes unfulfilled by each of us- as far as our own obedience
is concerned. It is possible to disobey Christ's commandments every
day and be saved. If this statement is false, then salvation is
only possible is we attain God's moral perfection, which is impossible.
If disobedience to Christ's commands is tolerable by God (on account
of our faith in the atonement), how can we decide which
of those commandments we will tolerate being broken by our brethren,
and which of them we will disfellowship for? If we cannot recognize
degrees of sin, it is difficult to pronounce some commands to be
more important than others.
Throughout the Spirit's teaching concerning marriage in 1 Cor.
7, there is constantly this feature of setting an ideal standard,
but accepting a lower one. This is demonstrated by the several occurrences
of the word "But..." in the passage:
- It is better not to marry: "But and if thou marry, thou
hast not sinned" (v.28).
- The same "but and if" occurs in vv. 10,11: "Let not the wife
depart from her husband: but and if she depart...". Separation
is, therefore, tolerated by God as a concession to human weakness,
even though it is a way of life which inevitably involves an ongoing
breach of commandments.
- It is better for widows not to remarry; but if they do, this
is acceptable (1 Cor. 7:39,40; 1 Tim. 5:11)
- This same 'two standards' principle is seen elsewhere within
1 Cor. Meat offered to idols was just ordinary meat, but Paul
makes concessions for those with a weak conscience concerning
this (1 Cor. 8).
- Likewise in 1 Cor. 9:12 Paul says he could have asked the Corinth
ecclesia to support him financially, but he chose not to. Thus
he chose the higher of two options.
- Those who had the gift of tongues should only have used it
to edify others, speaking intelligible words publicly; but Paul
was prepared to allow the Corinthians to speak in tongues to themselves
(1 Cor. 14:28), although this seems to go against the tenor of
his previous explanation of the ideal use of that gift.
- 1 Cor. 12:31-13:12 implies that Paul was faced with the higher
choice of the ministry of love and the written word, compared
to the lower choice of exercising the Spirit gifts. By all means
compare this with the choice which he had in Phil. 1:21-26: to
exit this life was made possible to him, but he chose the higher,
more difficult and more spiritually risky option of living for
a few more years, in order to strengthen his brethren.
That there are concessions to weakness, and that we should reflect
these in our dealings with each other, does not mean of course that
ultimately we never ‘draw the line’ as far as fellowship is concerned
in our ecclesial decisions.
All this is not to say that God does not value principles. The
fact that God will tolerate a lower standard should inspire us not
to constantly depend upon it; rather should it make us ambitious
to attain that higher standard which is more pleasing to Him. 1
Cor. 7 shows that God will tolerate a less than ideal standard in
marital relations, which is the area of ecclesial life which usually
provokes the most bitter division. This also has Old Testament precedent.
Abraham was living under the standards of Eden, rather than those
of the Mosaic law. The Edenic standard was that of Christ concerning
marriage. Yet Abraham had relationships
with Hagar, Jacob had two wives- and God
tolerated this departure from the one man: one woman ideal.
It is irrelevant to reason that such 'inconsistencies' were tolerated
before the new covenant came into operation. God's moral principles
did not change the moment Christ died on the cross, and the new
covenant came into full operation. It is possible for us to see
the changeover between the two covenants as more dramatic than it
was. They express the same principles in different ways. God's greatest
principle is His mercy, and willingness to make concessions to human
weakness, whilst still upholding His righteousness. That remains
constant in both covenants.
We are frequently reminded in the prophets that the spiritual way
of life is one which seeks God. We are to seek His face (Ps.
24:6; 27:8)- which it is impossible to behold (Ex. 33:20). Actually
finding God in the ultimate sense is therefore unattainable in this
life; but our whole mortal life must be lived in this spirit of
seeking ultimate perfection. Seeking God is often defined
in the prophets as forsaking our sins and desiring to be righteous
(Amos 5:5,8,14,15). None of us are completely successful in our
seeking of God, and therefore it follows that none of us completely
forsakes all our sinfulness.
What unites us in fellowship is that we are all seeking
the same God, the realization of the same righteousness in our lives
(Zeph. 2:3). We are united by this rather than by all being righteous.
It is those who seek evil with whom we find we have no fellowship;
those whose direction in life is towards evil, who fail to
appreciate God's righteousness. There are many with marriage problems
whose turmoils have led them to value and seek true righteousness
more than many of us. Again, there seems no reason to single out
one particular aspect of seeking righteousness, and make this an
indicator of the general direction of a believer's life. Because
a couple are, e.g. separated, or because a brother occasionally
drinks to excess, does not entitle us to proclaim them to be seeking
evil rather than righteousness.
There seems no reason to think that we should break fellowship
with someone for not seeking the Lord enough, if we admit
that they are not seeking evil. Repentance and seeking God
are related; thus Israel's restoration came when they sought God
and (i.e.) repented (Jer. 29:12-14). However, there is good reason
to think that Israel at this time were still spiritually weak; some
of them had a desire to seek righteousness, and God accepted
this. The connection between repentance and seeking God means that
to withdraw fellowship from someone for not repenting enough, is
to disfellowship them for not seeking God enough. The implication
is that the rest of us have sought God enough- and therefore found
Him. This is pure self-righteousness. In conclusion, God wants us
to seek Him, but this seeking does not imply complete
repentance and forsaking of sin.