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.

Frank Forgiveness

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.

Strict Schoolteacher?

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 or repent.

- 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 that forgiveness.

- 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 of sin.

- 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 their redeemer.

- 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?

Two Standards?

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.

Spiritual Ambition

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.

Seeking God

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.

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