Forgiveness can be instant, but restoring fellowship requires some strict conditions outlined by Jesus himself.
- The protocol
- A contradiction on forgiveness
- So what did Jesus mean when he said to forgive with the condition of repentance first?
I’ve come across a misunderstanding among some saints as it pertains to forgiveness. There are Christians telling other wounded Christians that, “you ought to forgive, forget and move on in fellowship with the people who hurt you”, but that’s not what Jesus taught. There are strict conditions that need to be met first. Today, I’m going to share what Jesus said about offenses, forgiveness, and fellowship.
Let’s read his words:
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matthew 18:15-17).
So there’s the protocol to follow when one of our brothers or sisters offends us. You’ll notice that this pertains to “brothers” not necessarily folks outside of the faith, but rather “born again” brothers and sisters in Christ. You need to determine whether or not the person is a child of God because confronting and correcting the wicked isn’t always wise (Prov 9:7-8; Matthew 7:6).
OK, so if your brother offends you, here’s what you do:
1. Go tell him his fault, between you and him alone.
Some Christians go and tell everyone else about the situation leading to gossip when they should’ve confronted the other person in love. While many find confrontation difficult, this is what Jesus commands.
2. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
In other words, the relationship was disconnected because of the offense, but because he apologized, seen his error and repented, he is now back in fellowship with you, in other words, “you have gained your brother”. These scriptures also assume that you’re not the one at fault—accusing people of offenses they didn’t commit.
3. If he doesn’t hear you, take with you one or two.
So if he doesn’t see his error, go get one or two more brothers in Christ to referee the matter. This assumes that these are bible-believing, Spirit-led folks with discernment. Usually the issue is resolved when the guilty brother can hear his error from one or more people other than the one bringing the case.
4. If he doesn’t hear the others or even the church, you should treat him as someone who isn’t in the Faith.
“And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (v. 17). In other words: an unsaved man and a tax collector. And we know the Jews didn’t fellowship with such people—these people were “outside” the fellowship.
So, why was the brother cut off from the fellowship? Because he refused to see his error and repent.
Now, this is what Jesus says about forgiveness. This is, of course, is what was commanded when his disciples asked him how to pray (you can read the whole chapter in context if you’d like):
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors… For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).
So, we are suppose to forgive anyone who offends us, especially our brothers, no matter what. So, like the example with the offending brother earlier, we are to forgive him even though he didn’t apologize and repent. Why? “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (v. 14-15).
A contradiction on forgiveness
But here’s what Jesus also says, and it may seem to contradict what he said earlier, but it doesn’t:
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. 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 (Luke 17:3-4).
So, we are to forgive our brothers when they offend us, but only IF they repent. So if a person doesn’t repent, as in the example earlier, are we allowed to hold on to bitterness, resentment and un-forgiveness? NO, Jesus is not saying that. We are to forgive anyway because it’s not for us to hold someone in debt to us when in fact they sinned against God. Let me explain:
David said, “Against you, God, alone, have I sinned”, referring to his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband (Psalm 51:4). Obviously, he sinned against, at least, two people, but David understood God and that anytime we commit unrighteousness against another human being, it’s really against God too, because God is righteousness.
So, therefore, for us to be unforgiving is to say we are God, because that person trespassed against us and our law of righteousness! This is why un-forgiveness is such a sin—we’re now acting as if we are God; and because we’ve been forgiven so much by Almighty God, who are we to hold another person in debt to us (see Matthew 18:23-35).
So what did Jesus mean when he said to forgive with the condition of repentance first?
Let’s look up the word. One meaning of forgive is: to let go. In other words, you were withholding fellowship from your brother because of his offense, but now that he repented, you have forgiving him—“letting go” of your restraint on the relationship. Forgiveness is extending fellowship and restoring the relationship that was once severed by the offense.
So, to reestablish fellowship with an unrepentant brother is against the commandments of Jesus Christ. And many people are letting unrepentant believers back into their lives. This action says to the offender, “your sin is OK with me, it’s not that big of a deal, even though you don’t want to change, I accept you anyway.” Well, sin is a big deal to God, and if we’re called to be like him, we must have the same attitude about sin.
Think about it: after God reveals to us a particular sin in our lives and we don’t repent, will the relationship continue? NO. It’ll be put “on pause” until we repent. Why? Because we can’t be in a relationship with God while knowingly offending him! This is the whole reason why Jesus had to die for us—so that we could be reconciled to God (John 3:16; 1 John 1:9; Matt 3:1-2).
Therefore, we ought to expect the same from our brothers. If a brother really loves you and he offended you, he would repent and ask your forgiveness because he values the relationship. If he doesn’t repent, it’s because he’s full of pride and doesn’t really love you; and why would you be in a relationship with a person who doesn’t love you? Real relationships are based on love. You are to forgive him and let go of the debt he owes you, but you are not to allow him back into fellowship until he repents.