Forgive One Another


“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Forgiveness. It’s a beautiful word that flows with joy off our tongues. May we who are in Christ also see it flowing ever-so gracefully from our hearts. When Christians forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven them, it is truly like a river flowing from our inmost being, refreshing the souls of the forgiven. 

Forgiveness in the Bible has two senses: vertical and horizontal. We dealt with the vertical aspect of releasing the offender to God’s perfect justice and mercy in the previous post. This kind of forgiveness is never optional, because it really goes to our own relationship with the Lord. And, as with everything in the Christian life, the horizontal (practice) flows out of the vertical (position). So, assuming we are fighting the daily battle to keep entrusting the offender to God (vertical forgiveness), we are now in a posture, a ready-position, to forgive horizontally should the opportunity arise. 

But what do I mean, “Should the opportunity arise?” Don’t we just have to forgive, tell the person we have forgiven her, and move on? 

Well, no. That’s not how inter-personal forgiveness works among God’s people committed to God’s ways. You see, the second kind of forgiveness, the more horizontally-flavored forgiveness, requires confession of sin and repentance (or at least a stated desire to repent).  

That is, the offender must own his sin, and ask those he hurt by his sin for forgiveness. The Greek word translated “forgive” in Ephesians 4:32 is chorizomai. It refers to a pardoning transaction that reconciles. In other words, a broken relationship is restored in God’s kingdom by way of repentance of sin (which by definition includes seeking forgiveness). This is relational stuff. It requires a back-and-forth between offender and the offended. 

At times, the offended must personally approach the person to confront him or her concerning the sin (Matthew 18:15). At other times, you might remember that you offended or potentially offended someone and take the initiative upon yourself to go seek forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24). We see in Luke 17:1-3 the expectation of Jesus that this is not an either/or issue, but a both/and. In other words, in the church, as the Holy Spirit convicts and keeps changing us (sanctification), it is inevitable that we sometimes will go ask a person for forgiveness without being confronted, and sometimes will do so in response to being confronted.

“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins seven times in the day and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). 

Jesus demands that His people be marked by, defined by, the habitual practice of confession of sin, repentance of sin, seeking and giving forgiveness. Why? Because this is precisely how our good Father God deals with us: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). 

Those are present tense verbs in 1 John 1:9. They indicate a habitual, ongoing exercise of our confessing and His forgiving and cleansing. And so we are called to reflect God in our Christian relationships. The same root word for “be kind” in Eph. 4:32 is used in Rom 2:4 to refer to God’s attitude toward believers prior to salvation. It’s God’s “kindness” that is meant to lead us to repentance.1  O, that we would approach each other with just such kindness. A kindness that encourages repentance, and assures of forgiveness.   

But make no mistake about it, if an offender refuses to confess a sin and ask forgiveness, then we can in no way move forward in a reconciled, restored condition. The relationships and health of a local church body are hinged upon repentance and forgiveness. And our enemy knows it, and so targets us very frequently at the level of our basic relationships. So, let’s not be ignorant of the enemy’s schemes! 

When we forgive a repentant brother or sister, we are saying to him or her, I forgive you. I consider myself reconciled in Christ to you and can walk in full fellowship and Christian friendship with you again. I will not bring this offense up to you again, or to others, or to myself (so long as crimes or actual abuse are not at stake). Let’s enjoy the benefits we have together in Jesus Christ our Lord as we link arms to proclaim Him to a lost world. Let’s get on with our full covenant life in Christ’s Church together!  

Here are some practical tips to help us all seek and give a more biblical forgiveness as we do gospel life together in our local churches:

  • When we approach a person to potentially point out a sin or offense that he committed, begin by asking questions, not making judgments. This allows the person to more fully explain why he did or said something, and may actually cause you to change your mind about whether it’s really a sin or whether it requires any further confrontation. 
  • When a sin must be confronted, be specific. Beating around the bush isn’t helpful. Just say what you think the sin is or was, or name the offense.
  • When asking for forgiveness, go beyond the culturally accepted language of, “I’m sorry.” Say what you are sorry for and specifically say, “I sinned. Please forgive me.”  
  • Avoid fake confessions. “I am sorry that you were offended by what I did” is not the same thing as saying, “I am sorry that what I did offended you,” and then calling what you did a sin, or at bare minimum an indiscretion or error. The first really blames the offended person, while the latter takes responsibility for one’s own actions. It’s the difference in pride and humility.   
  • Pray for and with one another before and after the confrontation and confession and forgiveness. Nothing so cements a relationship like getting on our knees together to call out to Jesus for forgiving mercies and for reconciling graces.  
  • Even if it becomes clear that an actual sin wasn’t committed, but an action or word still hurt someone’s feelings, be kind enough to apologize for the wound caused, and ask the hurt person to help you learn how not to do that again. Honoring each other’s feelings is a kindness, whether or not a sin was actually involved. Disregard for the feelings of others is not a virtue.
  • Don’t say you forgive a person, but then walk away from him or her in such a way that makes it clear you have no intention of really ever living as reconciled with him or her. To say you forgive someone but then want nothing to do with her is simply not forgiveness. What if Jesus forgave you that way? [This would shut down so much church-hopping if put into practice.] 
  • Be thick-skinned. Don’t be easily offended. Give your brothers and sisters the benefit-of-the-doubt. Assume the best. This is “bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2; Col 3:13). 
  • If a brother or sister refuses to confess a sin and repent, obey Jesus and take the next step in the corrective disciplinary process (Matt 18:16). If even this step fails, seriously consider discussing the situation with a pastor, as the brokenness of the relationship will surely soon begin to impact others in the church body. Pastoral mediation is often used of God to bring about the repentance and restoration that we should all seek in our relationships in a church body.    
  • Prayerfully consider whether this offense requires confrontation, or can it just be overlooked or covered by love (Prov 19:11; 1 Peter 4:8).

1 For this insight, I am indebted to Dr. Stuart Scott in his book 31 Ways to be a ‘One Another’ Christian, p. 48.