Perhaps the question may initially appear obvious. “Always!” Unfortunately, however, the answer may not seem so obvious, especially when ministers and congregations experience deep hurt and extensive personal and organizational damage as the result of the sometimes vicious, destructive actions of those following Satan’s wiles.
Jesus, in the Office of the Keys, tells us that all Christians hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, i.e. of forgiving and withholding forgiveness. John, in his Epistle, also speaks of a sin which should not be forgiven because it “leads to death” (I John 5:16). This is specifically given, in a public manner, to the church of Christ. It is these keys which give the authority to the church to forgive or not to forgive, as if the action was carried out by Jesus Christ Himself.
One of the greatest dilemmas for some pastors is whether they should personally forgive these brothers and sisters, especially those who are unrepentant. Whatever action or inaction is taken by the church, these pastors struggle with the issue of personal forgiveness. They are dealing with the deep, personal hurt of intentional, personal attacks.
There are a number of unhealthy responses possible ranging from fight to flight; from emotional engagement to emotional cut-off; from being anxiously overzealous and overpowering to passively putting off the reality that something must be done. These and other feelings may dominate their dealings with those individuals by withholding forgiveness from those who have given offense.
To the extent that these and others are not healthy, they become problematic for several reasons.
1) Though the Law ought certainly not be withheld from them, neither should the Gospel. The way Jesus ministered to the repentant malefactor is exemplary. He didn’t turn away in anger, reject, belittle, or oust him. Instead, he continually held out a ministry of Law and Gospel to the malefactor in such a way that Jesus’ personal hurts would not get in the way of the clear working of God to bring about forgiveness.
2) To withhold the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation may indicate, among other things, that the pastor may not understand church discipline in the context of Matthew 18. Note that church discipline relative to those who sin against the brother is always to be “sandwiched” by the forgiveness. That is why the steps for church discipline in Matthew 18 are preceded and followed by two of Jesus’ strongest parables on forgiveness.
The Context Of Church Discipline
The first, the “Parable of the Lost Sheep”, describes the prerequisite attitude necessary for attempting (even what may seem to be impossible) reconciliation. The second, the “Parable of the Unjust Servant,” describes what happens when individuals self-righteously take on an attitude of unforgiveness because they have done “what they are supposed to do.”
Together, these parables describe an attitude required by all Christians–including pastors. Pastors, regardless of the offense, must always–ALWAYS–be intent on seeking, rescuing and saving lost sheep. Second, this incessant effort must be specifically directed toward those who have sinned against you.
Isn’t that why Jesus told the second parable…because Peter, like so many individuals who find it hard to forgive, wanted Jesus to set a “standard” for when he wouldn’t have to forgive someone any more than…”up to seven times”?
Like Peter, pastors often want to approach the who issue of forgiving the offending brother with a sense of self-righteous pride. Like Peter, they are willing to parade their spirituality by showing a willingness to forgive. But, like Peter, their pride shows when they want to limit their spirituality to forgiving no more than seven times.
Those who share in Peter’s response must be commended for going beyond “three times” as required by the Jewish law. But they must also be confronted with the reality that the bottom line is that Jesus commands us to forgive others even when “they know not what they do.” If we cannot forgive in this manner, the issue of forgiveness becomes more than just an ecclesiastical issue for ministers to debate. It specifically becomes a personal manner.
Can One Not Forgive?
To the extent that the sinful actions of another control, dominate, haunt, change or influence us in any way other than a more zealous desire to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness…specifically to the brother who sins against us, the problem is not our brother’s. It is ours. That is specifically the point of the “Parable of the Unjust Servant.” He forgave…but not nearly enough. For that reason he was condemned.
Jesus taught that when the brother does not repent, he must be treated as a “public sinner” or “tax collector.” Having determined this the next question is, “Just what did Jesus do with such individuals?” It is His response to public sinners and tax-collectors that is most instructive for Christians and, especially, Christian leaders.
What He did is clear. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a friend of public sinners. As for tax collectors, Jesus called them to discipleship (e.g. Matthew). Jesus’ model of ministering even to the unrepentant outcasts is the ultimate paradigm for a Gospel-centered ministry of forgiveness.
Consequences To Ministry
When a pastor cannot minister the Gospel in this manner the Gospel–and the pastor’s ministry–is discredited. The pastor’s person also stands in grave danger. Those who cannot “let go” and “send away” (“aphiemi”) the offenses of others are destined to be controlled by those who offended them. It would be a shame if God’s servants were ministering in a way not reflecting–and driven by–the “freedom for which Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
When pastors are unforgiving, an even more serious possibility arises. What if others within the influence of their ministry would adopt the same attitude toward others? Ultimately, the unforgiving attitude which “goes around” will “come around” back to the pastor. The “sliver” in ones own eye quickly becomes, as Jesus noted, the proverbial “log” which, unrecognized and unrepented of, can become the cause of one’s undoing.
Logs And Slivers
Those living in the belief that they have not sinned or had any part at all in the offense experienced often need a simple reminder. “It takes two to tango.” In a sinful world it is virtually impossible to totally exonerate oneself from any part–conscious or unconscious–in any scenario.
Such offenses given by ministers may include being too judgmental, too quick tempered, too easily self-justified or too prone to run away from conflict…instead of looking to what things might work in a long-term approach to win this person over. Indeed, one may also find that they have a tendency to avoid the chaos and unpredictability of conflict…and the pain of reconciliation. Other sinful attitudes can also creep in all too easily (cf. Romans 12:14-17).
Keep The Door Open
Assuming he has dealt with the above (or other) possibilities, is intent on doing what is necessary to minister the Gospel to this person in the most appropriate manner and is diligently seeking alternative ways to at least keep the “door open” to reconciliation and forgiveness, one must direct their life and ministry by the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:18-21.
Reconciliation may not, admittedly, be possible. But, in any case, pastors (as all Christians) must forgive, i.e. they must always seek to “overcome evil with good”…lest they be “overcome by evil.” As Jesus said (paraphrase), “Anyone can forgive a friend. But it takes a real Christian to forgive their enemy.” And, again, “If you don’t forgive your neighbor for their sins, how can you expect God to forgive you?”
The message of the Gospel is that the ministry of the Gospel is incarnational. Christ is incarnate in the preaching and ministry of the Word in everyone who ministers His grace. Jesus came to a sinful, unforgiving, largely unrepentant and resistant world which would “receive Him not.” Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross shows us there is not a price too great–even His life–to continually hold out the prospect of forgiveness even to the most unrepentant.
We must do the same even–and especially–when others would, by their offenses against us, also send us to the cross. In such circumstances, the answer is not to be unforgiving. The answer is to trust in God’s presence. After all, He is “Immanuel,” God with us. Where God is, we can trust in–and hold out to others–His constant offer of forgiveness, reconciliation, and undeserved grace in the context of a Scriptural ministry of Law and Gospel.
Our Forgiveness Is Always Imperfect
One must openly admit that the theoretical/scriptural mandate to forgive is so difficult–and, ultimately, impossible–to practice perfectly. So while one must agree that forgiveness is our goal and that we should always strive for the same, to base the forgiveness one receives from Christ on how perfectly and completely one actually forgives others may border on a pessimistic legalism which would put the salvation of any soul in question.
God bids us pray “…forgive as we have been forgiven.” But, in a very real sense, that objective cannot be accomplished in toto by we sinful human beings. Yet the insistence that we must forgive and our inability to forgive as God would have us forgive puts every Christian into a very uncomfortable tension. This tension, so characteristic of the “wretched man” who struggles each moment to live the sanctified life, will always be there (cf. Romans 7).
In this struggle to become more perfectly forgiving one must…
a) never give up trying to forgive others (and ourselves) more completely;
b) offer the perfect forgiveness of Christ, regardless of how imperfect our forgiveness might be; and
d) recognize that ultimately God doesn’t forgive us because we forgive others. Though God definitely calls to be forgiving, if God only forgave us because we forgive others forgiving others would become a sort of meritorious good work necessary for salvation.
In the final analysis, everyone struggles to forgive. It is the excruciatingly difficult nature of this struggle to forgive others and oneself that ultimately reminds that we must cling to God’s undeserved grace and forgiveness in Christ every single moment of our lives.
As Luther taught, one is saved sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, sola Christus…not sola practica. What are you doing in your ministry of forgiveness to the unrepentant? Jesus’ advice is the best counsel we can have: “forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37 NIV). Again, although such counsel is idyllic, it dare not be something we give up on achieving. After all, God never gives up on us!
Thomas F. Fischer
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