by Richard Burkard

In the midst of a busy season before spring Holy Days, a fellow church member needed my help. He wanted to write rather personal letters to several friends - but in an era before home computers with SpellCheck, he wanted me to type them so they would look right when he delivered them.

Between church activities, work and full-scale deleavening, this became an admittedly annoying added burden. "Is there any way this can wait until next week?" I asked the man at one point mere days before the Passover/Lord's Supper service. Eventually it struck me - no, it couldn't. The man never directly said so, but this was his way of making amends before taking the Passover.

The man apparently was following Jesus's guidance: "....if you are offering your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother; then come and offer your gift Settle matters quickly with your adversary...." (Matt. 5:23-25).

Yet I've heard Church of God ministers speak as if some matters should not be settled quickly. They preach about forgiving others as if it's a decision to be weighed carefully - an action which should wait until a list of specific requirements is met. Is this how God works? Is this how real forgiveness works? And what should others do toward you (much less you toward others) to follow the Bible standard of real reconciliation?

What Comes First?

A COG minister I know provoked an in-depth review of this topic with a pre-Passover message on "The Power of Forgiveness." His key scripture was a word of advice from Jesus to His disciples - but not in the way you might first consider it.

"So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).

The pastor's point of emphasis was more on the action than the reaction. There should be NO forgiveness without repentance, he said - because to act in any other way cheapens the forgiveness God grants us.

Let's stop here and ask what you think of that explanation. Is it the "full-Bible" approach? Is it a "New Testament" approach introduced by Jesus, to add a spiritual dimension to the law? Or was the minister misleadingly picking one particular passage, and declaring it's the filter through which all other scriptures must be viewed?

So Forgiving, It's Scary

Realize one thing before anything else: God stands ready to forgive you. "You are forgiving and good, O Lord," David prays with praise in Psalm 86:5, "abounding in love to all who call to you." Another psalm indicates a forgiving nature explains why God is feared by people (130:4).

Yet a statement attributed to the Lord in Jeremiah provides support for the view of conditional forgiveness. "Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, each of them will turn from his wicked way; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin." (Jeremiah 36:3) Church of God groups have taught for decades that "turning" and repenting are essentially the same action.

King Solomon put forgiveness in this context several times, as he prayed at the dedication of the temple. For instance, "When your people Israel have been defeated by an enemy because they have sinned against you, and when they turn back to you and confess your name.... then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants...." (I Kings 8:33-34; see also verses 35-36 and 46-50).

What are the conditions for forgiveness? In the Old Testament, people had to repent (turn) and confess - perhaps the sin itself (Leviticus 5:5) or the name of God. In the New Testament, the apostle John agrees with the importance of confession: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (I John 1:9)

The R-Word

Yet carefully reread Luke 17, and you'll find Jesus saying the mere words "I repent" are enough to invoke forgiveness. At first glance, this may seem liberating to people on both sides of an issue. How many in the world today use the word "repent" -- much less know what it means? If I have to wait for them to say the "phrase that pays," I won't have to forgive people very often. And I might not need to forgive some hard-core sinners at all - ever!

After all, doesn't the Bible show God does not forgive certain sins? "He is a holy God; he is a jealous God," Israel's leader warns in Joshua 24:19. "He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins" - especially if you serve false gods, as verse 20 shows.

And didn't Jesus say God does not want some people to repent right now? That may seem even more amazing - but the Savior did say that, by quoting Isaiah. "But to those on the outside [the disciples and close followers] everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven." (Mark 4:11-12)

Some Church of God ministers say Jesus's parables prove God isn't trying to save today's world. Which is curious -- because the explanations of many parables are in today's Bibles for people to understand! Most people walking with Jesus on the earth 2,000 years ago probably had no clue, but today's readers do if they merely keep reading.

Saying or Doing

Instead of focusing on a couple of sentences Jesus said, we should look at the entire life of our Lord. The pastor who built a sermon around Luke 17 also mentioned a couple of times where Christ seemed to go against His own advice.

Take Jesus's most famous quote about forgiveness. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" - spoken as He was crucified in Luke 23:34. The pastor indicated this was a "blanket statement" of Christ which applied to the ages to come, but does not really take effect until you take the step of repenting. (You'll notice in the Gospels the "death squad" never seems to repent.)

Yet the pastor also turned later in his message to Luke 7:47-48, where Jesus said of a woman cleaning His feet with her hair, "Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven -- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.... Your sins are forgiven."

Now hold on a minute! When did this woman who "had lived a sinful life" (verse 37) say she repented of her sins? Check the entire account from verse 36 on. Check similar accounts from the other three Gospel writers. She never does! Yet the Lord forgave her, causing a stir among a dinner crowd (verse 49).

I gain several lessons from this passage. First and foremost: a loving worshipful action toward God can grant you forgiveness from Him, every bit as much as a two-word phrase. In this woman's case, the "foot-washing" of Jesus was followed by an anointing with expensive perfume (verse 38). Second, levels of forgiveness can vary based on how much we love others (verse 47).

Third, the pastor never explained this exception to the alleged "say you repent" rule -- so it is not a hard and fast rule after all. There's more evidence of this in Jesus's healing of a paralytic man. The Lord declared his sins forgiven in Matthew 9:2, even though he never seemed to utter a sound. Jesus then indicated a declaration of forgiven sins is easy, by healing the man of his paralysis simply by speaking to him (verses 5-7).

What worshipful action occurred in this case? There's no real sign the paralytic did anything - because four men had to carry the mat for him (Mark 2:3). Yet their faith apparently was enough to bring forgiveness from Jesus. The principle carries over to church elders praying in faith for the healing of sick members - which can even bring the forgiveness of their sins (James 5:15-16).

Given these examples, the advice of Paul in Ephesians 4:32 takes on a different meaning. "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." Do you think kindness and compassion wait on other people to say a specific two-word phrase?

Go Ahead, Do It

This Church of God pastor never mentioned another statement of Christ: "Forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Lk. 6:37) As I searched the Scriptures on this issue, I heard a radio message by a Baptist preacher on this very subject. He stated you "cannot give what you have not received" -- yet the New Testament indicates we must forgive others first, before God will forgive you.

That's the example Jesus set at Calvary -- and it starts in our prayers to God. "When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins" (Mark 11:25). This explains the wording of the famous Lord's prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors... For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (Matthew 6:12, 14; see also Colossians 3:13).

Contrast that approach with a couple of Old Testament prophets. Jeremiah pleaded with God when he faced a murder plot, "Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight" (Jeremiah 18:23). And Isaiah was so repulsed by Judah's turn to idolatry and paganism that he bluntly requested of God: "So man will be brought low and mankind humbled - do not forgive them" (Isaiah 2:6-9).

But what if you don't forgive? You could someday face what a servant faced in one of Jesus's parables. After receiving pity from a king for a massive debt, he refused to show patience over someone who owed him a much smaller sum. "Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" the king asked in response in Matthew 18:33. A man who had forgiveness had it revoked, replaced by torture - and Jesus concludes: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (vs. 34-35).

Based on the sermon I heard, the Church of God pastor probably would say the king cheapened forgiveness in the first place with his actions in verses 26-27. But I'd answer it was the servant's response which actually devalued the actions, because he didn't follow Jesus's instruction: "Freely you have received; freely give" (Matthew 10:8). The servant didn't seem to give a gift of mercy a second thought.

Watch Your Language

Yet the New Testament also reveals forgiveness can be taken too far -- because there are some things God refuses to forgive. Consider Christ's words again. "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32). The NIV calls blasphemy against the Holy Spirit "an eternal sin" in Mark 3:29.

This leads to a potentially provocative question, especially for people in traditional COG groups. Jesus is our Savior, the Son of God, the Word who became flesh - yet words spoken against Him can be forgiven. Why would words spoken against an essence and a "power of God" which is not part of a Godhead (as COG's traditionally claim about the Holy Spirit) constitute a worse offense?!

One commentary explains this unpardonable sin as "the deliberate labelling of good as evil.... the deliberate quenching of conscience" (New Bible Commentary: Revised, 1970 edition, pg. 832). Eugene Peterson's paraphrase The Message expands Matthew 12:31-32 to explain, "....you are repudiating the very One who forgives.... sawing off the branch on which you're sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives."

(Please note we have an article challenging the traditional COG definition of the Holy Spirit.)

Christian, Thou Art Loosed

The Baptist preacher I mentioned earlier said forgiving others can remove you from a dungeon of self-imprisoned emotions. Consider some of the other benefits a forgiving attitude can bring:

* You extend a blessing to others. "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered," says Romans 4:7 (quoting Psalm 32).

* You remove a burden of sorrow from other people (II Corinthians 2:5-7).

* You remove any burden of grudges from your own shoulders (Leviticus 19:18).

* You open a path for Christ's redemption. "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness.... in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13-14).


When Joshua succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites, God urged him several times to be courageous. He spoke boldly near the end of his life, with those words to Israel we mentioned earlier: "He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins."

We've hopefully shown that thinking changed when Jesus came to Earth. "God exalted him to his own right hand," says Acts 5:31, "that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel." Lest you focus on the word "might" as a sign of doubt, remember what Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:7. "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins...."

The final forgiveness will come when God's glorious Kingdom covers the earth. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). The current question is whether you'll accept the offer of forgiveness now -- and pass the offer along to everyone you meet.

To borrow from an old Christian song: "If you take a step toward the Savior, my friend/ You'll find His arms open wide." May all our prayers to God and Jesus Christ follow the example of King Solomon, in I Kings 8:30. "Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive."

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