Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Freedom and Power of Forgiveness - Part II

Picking up from where I left off last night, let's continue with a biblical look at horizontal forgiveness ("forgiving one another, just as in Christ God has forgiven you", Eph. 4:32). As "coincidence" would have it, Ephesians 4:29-32 was my memory passage the week before last, so I've been considering both the vertical (God to us) and horizontal (us to others) ramifications of forgiveness.

Reader Dani'El has left me the perfect starting point in the the combox of yesterday's entry: "Beyond being obedient, or being painfully aware of the huge debt that was forgiven me by God, I've learned that forgiveness can be done for purely selfish reasons. To be free of anger, simply to be free of it, for yourself."

Thank you for raising that point, as it's one that both Macarthur and Jay Adams in "From Forgiven to Forgiving" touch upon. Prevailing "wisdom" in the Church today maintains that forgiveness is "a gift you give yourself" (Joyce Meyer et. al.) and is for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver. While it's true that emotionally one will have an easier time if he/she is not nursing a grudge or cultivating bitterness, that is NOT the primary reason we are called to forgive. So what IS the impetus to be lavishly forgiving? Because God said so. He lays it on as a command.

When wrestling with my doubts, rebellion and justification of withholding forgiveness, I had to come to grips with a question: Is Jesus the boss of me? Do I want to obey Him, simply because He is Lord and He alone is worthy, or don't I? The answer is a resounding "yes". My life is not my own. He is my Lord, He is Lord of all, and I willingly and joyfully submit to His authority. Whatever He says to do, I have to do it. You see, to make forgiveness into something we do to bless ourselves is to undermine the authority of God in our lives. It is to downplay the sovereignty of Christ. Turning a God-ordained command into a suggestion for feeling good about ourselves (self-esteem gospel, anyone?) is to cultivate a humanistic, man-centered outlook rather than a Christ-centered one. Adams, in particular, attacks the notion that we extend forgivness to benefit ourselves. Again, let's start from this premise: God commanded us to forgive. God's in charge; not us. Therefore we do what He says and forgive.

When you resolve in your heart to obey God and forgive, don't feel badly if you lack warm fuzzy feelings for your nemesis; just resolve in your heart to let the offense go and allow God to deal with both him and you. It is important not to let bitterness grow. Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense.

Wow, six paragraphs in and I haven't even gotten into specifics of the book yet. Let's start with this quote: “For a Christian to be willfully unforgiving is unthinkable. We who have been forgiven by God Himself have no right to withhold forgiveness from our fellow sinners.” (p. 97) Macarthur then devotes 10 pages to exegeting the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-27). The point of that parable is the infinite enormity of our sin debt to God, how the "debt" our fellow sinners "owe" us pales in comparison, and how we are to reflect the King's gracious character out of sheer gratitude. Since God's judicial forgiveness iis not conditional upon a sinner's subsequent behavior (He does not "withdraw" salvation), the severity of the king's punishment here actually illustrates how God will discipline unforgiving believers. "Though the guilt of sin is forgiven so that it will never be an issue in eternal judgment, God may permit the consequences of sin to be even more severe, in order to motivate a sinning believer to obey. Because unforgivingness is so completely foreign to what Christians should be, Christ applies this threat particularly to that sin (v. 35)." Scripture upholds that God does, indeed, discipline as sons those He loves.

Here are my notes on that chapter:

Parable of unforgiving servant – “10,000” (talents) – derived from same word in Greek as “myriad” – expresses idea of incalculable debt. Underscores infinite amount of debt, as in our sin-debt to God. We can’t repay it. King’s reaction = the very picture of what God does on behalf of every sinner who repents. When we realize the enormity of our debt, the hopelessness of our true spiritual condition before the King, the only appropriate response is to do as the servant did – fell prostrate before the king, in desperate plea for mercy (which neither he, nor we, deserve). King elevates him to position of unmerited favor (this is definition of grace).

So…unforgiveness of others represents lack of appreciation, an awareness of what we’ve truly been forgiven. We underestimate our own enormous debt to God, freely and compassionately forgiven, by “choking and demanding” our fellow sinners repay us. By world’s standards, we do have a legitimate and rightful claim on what is “owed” us. Forgiveness makes no sense. But when we really see ourselves as the first servant, guilty of an infinitely more grave debt to the King, debts against us pale in comparison. It’s when we move away from the feet of the King – or the foot of the Cross – that the unforgiving, fleshly spirit which demands it’s “rights” to restitution sneaks in. Scripture makes clear that God takes this seriously.

This grace from God should make us “profoundly grateful, and also profoundly merciful” (p. 106) “In effect, the unforgiving servant had placed himself above the king”.

“God Himself will employ harsh measures when necessary to correct a disobedient Christian. The harshness of His discipline is a measure of His love for His people and His concern for their purity.” The “torturers” = rod of God’s discipline. Lesson of parable: Christians who refuse to forgive others will be subject to the severest form of discipline until they learn to forgive as they have been forgiven. (pp. 110-111)

“Christians who fail to show mercy will be subject to divine chastisement without much mercy. That is the whole message of this parable. I am convinced that multitudes of Christians who suffer from stress, depression, discouragement, relationship problems, and all sorts of other hardships experience these things because of a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness from the heart would liberate the person immediately from such “torturers” – and glorify God in the process.” (P. 112)

Now we need to tackle perhaps the toughest issue, and the one that was the biggest obstacle to me: biblically, do we need to forgive when the offender does not repent? In a sense, yes; although there are certain situations where unconditional/unilateral forgiveness is not possible. Macarthur and Adams somewhat differ on this point, as Adams views forgiveness as a bi-lateral transaction of sorts. He contends that "forgive as you have been forgiven" indicates that without repentance, no forgiveness can take place (no one would argue that repentance is a condition to our receiving God's mercy and divine forgiveness). However, Macarthur points out that the point of that command, as well as similar exhortations throughout the entirety of Scripture, is to be lavish and abundant in our forgiving (as our Father is), and thus glorify God. Furthermore, he points out, “covering another’s transgression is the very essence of forgiveness.” (p. 121). Mark 11:25-26 speaks of immediate, unilateral forgiveness – no formal meeting/transaction required. As Bill Fields writes, "God does NOT forgive where there is no repentance but God does show common grace and mercy as HE invites sinners to HIM through Godly repentance."

This is probably the most difficult aspect of forgiveness to accept and allow to manifest in our lives - at least to me it is. However, Scripture makes it clear that it is better to suffer a wrong patiently for the sake of righteousness than to exact re-payment. Before reading these two books, I was convicted on this point from a NANC worksheet that listed all the verses dealing with anger, forgiveness, and how we are to relate to other people (believers as well as non). Although the word "forgiveness" does not appear in many of them, it is abundantly clear from the wording how God expects us to treat our enemies - with love and forbearance. (I will list the references separately, as some of you may want to do your own study/devotional on this subject).

The main difference between John Macarthur and Jay Adams' view of forgiveness is that Macarthur believes, in the majority of cases, the Christ-like standard compels us to forgive unconditionally whether the offender repents or not. He is careful to explain that the offender is still under God's judgment, as all sin is ultimately against God; but we are expected to relinquish him or her in our own hearts.

Macarthur points out that usually offenses are injurious to our pride and are personal disputes that an outsider might consider petty. Sometimes, particularly in the Body, it is necessary to confront in love, but in Macarthur's view the vast majority of times confrontation is neither necessary nor desirable. The Bible urges us to "cover in love" such occasions. Jay Adams, the founder of the nouthetic counseling movement, takes a slightly different stance. He points to the Matthew 18 process as a standard for interpersonal confrontation (Macarthur says it relates primarily to the church discipline process) and believes loving confrontation followed by sincere repentance is a prerequisite to forgiving.

To be sure, while Adams contends that true forgiveness cannot take place until there is repentance (and it is technically not possible for a non-Christian to repent), the "to forgive or not to forgive?" question almost becomes a matter of semantics, because nowhere does he advocate shunning or mistreating an offender. Nor does he rationalize holding onto a grudge, nursing bitterness, or repaying in kind. To do so would, of course, be patently unbiblical. So, while he dismisses apologies as meaningless and precludes true (horizontal) forgiveness from the unrepentant, he would agree that we are to love our enemies and do good to those that hurt us. On the surface, his "formula" seemed like a good loop-hole - I 'don't hafta' forgive, as the offenders are unrepentant - riddle me this: how, exactly, do we love on the offender, do good to him or her, while refusing to allow resentment to take root in our heart, while NOT forgiving? Sounds pretty much like forgiveness to me, even if Adams chooses not to call it such. No matter how you slice it (and we are using the Sword - the Word of God to do the slicing), we cannot get around our call to love, pray for, and refuse to hharbor ill will towards those who hurt us.

Glenn left a great comment in the "To Give You Pause" combox this week, which I've been itching to respond to. I'll pick it up there tomorrow, and lay out the circumstances where unconditional forgiveness does not apply. However, since most offenses we have to deal with are of the personal variety, I felt it important to discuss why God gives us no justification for being unforgiving over such affronts. (Even the "eye for an eye" command was given to prevent civic justice from becoming excessive; it was later perverted to apply to cases of personal vengeance. It was this misapplication that Jesus was addressing in Matthew 5:38 when He laid down the Law of love).


4simpsons said...

Marie, great piece on forgiveness! I'll link to this later this week. I've always wrestled with the "What if they don't repent?" part and I think you addressed it well.

Marie said...

Thanks Neil! I just posted Part III - I was going to get into understanding the Atonement correctly (as it was a significant part of Macarthur's book and it is important), but I might leave it for another time. I think that was the longest review I've ever written in my life...so much personal application and conviction in there. Jerry Bridges' "Respectable Sins" had the same effect.

Dani' El said...

Again, very well written Marie.

Very well organized thoughts.

I've often meditated on the difference between-

Luk 17:3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.

Luk 17:4 And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.

Which clearly show repentance is a condition for forgiveness-


Mat 18:21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Mat 18:22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Which concludes with-

Mat 18:32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
Mat 18:33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
Mat 18:34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
Mat 18:35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

Which still seems to be conditional on repentance on some level.

I think the parables are both speaking of "Brothers" and "Fellow servants" so that if we were to forgive them without repentance and not go further by applying sound church discipline, we would not be doing them any good by denying them that discipline.

What verses would apply to forgiving those who are not brothers?

Mat 5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

To show love, or forgiveness to our enemies also has a contagious effect. Sometimes it is used by God to draw a sinner to Him.
So forgiving our enemies, not our brothers, is often an evangelism tool in a way.

But to forgive even those who are not repentant in our hearts, is to remember that there was a time before we were saved when we all were unrepentant, and enemies of the Lord, and yet he still loved us and forgave us.

There is the personal freedom from hatred that is like the cherry on top, but the main meal is the praise of the Father for obedience to the commands of the Lord, and our own forgiven debt that moves us to fight off the fleshly instinct to bear a grudge.

I'm not sure we have His praise if we simply begrudgingly forgive out of obedience without the deeper obedience of truly forgiving our enemies in our hearts.

Marie said...

Bingo, Dani'El! It sounds like you've come to the exact same conclusion I did, after much wresting, soul-searching, and much prayer. The whole precedent of Scripture does, indeed, indicate that we're to persist in doing good to those who revile us (let's assume our "persecuters" are unsaved; " " because most of us will never experience anything like the true persecution of the martyrs). The Bible also clearly warns against bitterness growing, or holding onto anger.

So, while on a technicality you could argue that repentance is a pre-requisite to true forgiveness, how do you follow the God's command to love, "cover over a multitude of wrongs" ('let it go'), not retain bitterness, AND pray for someone....while NOT forgiving? That's the mercy and readiness Christ modeled and expects of His followers.

I'm always amazed at His interaction w/ the Pharisees in the Gospel of John. They're constantly accusing, taunting and otherwise verbally harassing Jesus, yet He continues to proclaim life through Him and holds the offer out to them to "Come to Him that [you] may have life" until the very end. We humans would prefer to write someone off at the first opportunity.

Dani' El said...

Amen Marie,
Even on the cross, "Forgive them Father...."

You know He was not simply mouthing the words, and later, many pharisees are listed as being saved.

You are also right to note, holding our thoughts captive and forsaking wrath etc.
All speak to the deeper meaning of forgiveness.

You wrote: "because most of us will never experience anything like the true persecution of the martyrs).

Unfortunately, I get the feeling this may be untrue. I think you would agree, persecution seems to be in the future for the church in America, as it is in the rest of the world.

Living in Sodom, I've had a taste of it, even being arrested, so the matter of forgiveness has been a large one for me since I was saved in o5.
It's not easy, esp when it comes from the wicked, people who are mocking God and boasting in their sin. I know they attack me because they hate Him. I can bear their hatred, but their hatred of God is hard to forgive. In fact, it is not in our power to do so.

But the Bible declares that Lot was vexed by the behaviour of the wicked in Sodom, so....I cut myself some slack. ;)

God keeps my spirits up.

I have no fellowship here in Sodom but it has made me cling to God all the more, which is good.

I also value the fellowship I gain online including yours, Lyn's, Jean's etc.
I thank God for introducing us and I really enjoy reading your blog.

Baruch HaShem,
Dani' El