Follow the Directions to Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a mandatory practice for all Christians.  The Lord does not permit us to hold grudges against our fellow Christians after He has forgiven them.  In Ephesians 4:32, the Scripture says, "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (see also Col. 3:13).  In fact, one must be forgiving in order to be forgiven by the Lord.  Jesus said, "But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matt. 6:15).

Not only is the practice of forgiveness mandatory, but the process of forgiveness is mandatory also.  The Lord has given us instructions by which we may forgive one another, and we are bound to follow His directions in this and all things.  Consider the Lord's words in Matthew 18:15-17:

15"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  16But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.  17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

Notice that this process has several steps and two possible outcomes.  If at any point in this process your brother (or sister) "listens to you," then "you have won your brother."  This implies that a brother acknowledges the fault that you have shown him, changes his ways, and makes amends for his wrong (i.e. he repents).  If this occurs, then the result is that you have won your brother for the Lord, and you must forgive him.  However, if this never occurs at any step in the process, then the brother is to be "as a Gentile and a tax collector."  In other words, the brother is to be estranged from you, and he is not forgiven.

In the case of a brother who comes to you and confesses his sin, this process becomes unnecessary because the desired outcome is already achieved.  In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus said,

3"Be on your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him."

In verse 3, Jesus briefly describes again the process He gave in Matthew 18:15-17.  In verse 4, He explains what must happen if a sinful brother repents on his own.  To win this brother, you do not have to go to him and tell him his fault or take others with you.  Your brother is already won for the Lord, and you simply need to forgive him.

This process of forgiveness has at least two purposes.  The first purpose is very obvious, which is the salvation of your sinful brother.  Consider James 5:19-20:

19My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

The second purpose may not be as obvious, but it is just as important.  It is for the protection of the church.  The sinful brother's influence on others in the church may pull them into his sin.  Moreover, the church is to be holy, and the members of the Lord's body should not be engaged in doing evil (1Cor. 6:15-20).  Both of these purposes are demonstrated in the example of the sinful brother in 1Corinthians 5.  He was to be removed from the church while he was in his sins "so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (v. 5) and so that he would be as "leaven" to affect the whole church (vv. 6-7).

When following the Lord's directions for forgiveness, it is necessary to have the correct attitude.  In Galatians 6:1, the Scripture says, "Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted."  Notice the three qualifications for entering this process to save a sinful brother: you must be spiritual (see Gal. 5:22-26), you must be gentle, and you must be aware of your own weaknesses.  Without these attitudes, the process is likely to fail, and your brother will be lost.  Also consider that patience and longsuffering are necessary.  Jesus said that we must be willing to forgive a brother seven times a day (Luke 17:4) or up to "seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21-22).  In other words, our capacity for forgiveness must be unlimited as long as we observe the directions our Lord has given.

Therefore, let us be careful to follow the Lord's directions for forgiveness so that we may be saved and no brother or sister may be lost.  The Lord has not forgiven us unconditionally, but rather He has atoned for our sins by His own death and set the conditions by which we may receive the blessings of that atonement.  Similarly, we are not to forgive our erring brothers unconditionally, but rather we are to forgive one another according to the conditions set by the Lord.  If we carefully follow the Lord's directions in this and all things, forgiveness may abound to all.

Stacey E. Durham