How are we, as Christians, to forgive others when they have sinned against us? Do we ask for their forgiveness differently if they are not a brother in Christ, someone who is not a member of the church? What does the Bible say on how to forgive others?
A: Thanks for your question. It is a very good one. The subject of forgiveness is a great and wonderful study in the Bible. All mankind stands in need of God’s forgiveness and the only way through which mankind can have forgiveness is through the blood of Christ (Matthew 26:28). We come into contact with that blood when we are baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-11) and we are continually cleansed by that blood as we walk in the light (1 John 1:7). The forgiveness that God extends to man is conditional upon being washed in the blood of the lamb. This means that we must come to God for forgiveness and we must after baptism when we sin confess our sin and ask God for forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
Confession of sin, repentance, and asking for forgiveness has always been God’s condition for granting forgiveness (see Leviticus 16:21; 1 Kings 8:33; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 32:5). It should always be our aim to ensure that those who have sinned repent toward God (Acts 20:21) and seek the forgiveness that he provides. In turn, we then can forgive those sins as well because God has forgiven them. This is the ONLY way in which TRUE forgiveness can be obtained on the part of the sinner.
In addition when it comes to man’s relationship with man, the only way that one can TRULY forgive another is based upon the repentance of the other. What right have we to forgive something which God has not forgiven? When Jesus spoke to Peter about forgiving he did not place a limit on the number of times we are to forgive our fellow man (Matthew 18:21-22). However Jesus also stipulated that this was based upon the repentance and confession of the one asking forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). One cannot TRULY forgive another unless there is repentance involved. Once that has occurred, then we must forgive our fellow man (Matthew 6:15). This is one sense in which the Bible speaks concerning forgiveness of our fellow man.
There is another sense in which the Bible speaks concerning forgiveness and that is in the sense of not holding a grudge against another person. It is in the character of God to be ready and willing to forgive all who will repent, but they must repent (1 Peter 3:9). It should also be within our character to stand ready to forgive and not to hold sin against another. In this sense, Jesus could pray on the cross, “Father forgive them” (Luke 23:34). It is in this sense that Stephen uttered, “Lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). Just as it is God’s wish that all men be forgiven, it is every Christian’s wish that God forgive all men. The Christian must not bear within his or her heart malice and hatred toward his fellow man but rather the tender spirit of compassion and desire for them to come to God in humble obedience to His will. So while unforgiven sin stands within the life of the sinner, the Christian will place this out of his mind and not focus on thoughts of vengeance but on good thoughts of mercy and compassion. Paul writes,
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).
Finally, it is very conceivable that one person may offend another person without having committed an objective sin against God. Perhaps you and I are traveling down the road in separate cars and I swerve to avoid a large object in the road and hit your car–the car for which you have recently purchased a very expensive paint job. This might cause you to be somewhat upset. I would have indeed have offended you, though, God’s word really would not condemn this incident as a sin on my part. However in the spirit of brotherhood, I offer my apologies and ask for your forgiveness. Before I even asked, you should be willing to stand ready to forgive for such a thing. Matters of opinion should never be allowed to escalate into issues that cause division. This is the basic problem that Paul was trying to address in 1 Corinthians 6:1ff. The brethren here were going to law against one another regarding petty matters of opinion–they were holding grudges against each other in this way. Paul had to rebuke them and tell them that they needed to settle these matters among themselves and not in a public court of law. In fact, Paul said that it would be better to suffer wrong from one brother than to act in such a way that is inconsistent with the forgiving attitude of God and Christ (1 Corinthians 6:7).
Recognizing that Christ extends forgiveness to all helps us to understand that we need to extend forgiveness as well. Having this attitude of forgiveness is what Paul discussed with the Colossians in Col. 3:13,
“Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
Notice, if ANY man have a quarrel, we must forgive. This includes Christians and non-Christians alike. How would you like to stand on the day of judgment holding within your heart non-forgiveness for something that someone did to you at one point in your life. What if we find out on the day of judgment that this person has become a Christian and is now covered by the blood of the lamb? Would you want to go to judgment holding a sin against someone that God has forgiven? I certainly would not, so I must in my life forgive (not hold any grudges) and hope that the sinner accepts God’s forgiveness.