The Limitations of Forgiveness

Lots of people treat forgiveness as only a form of therapy. It’s a way of moving on. It’s a form of personal healing. This is not what Jesus taught. Jesus taught us to forgive as we have been forgiven. We let sinners get away with their sin, because God has let us get away with our sin. We naturally prefer justice to mercy, unless we are on the receiving end.

I have heard people say things like, “I forgive, but so and so still needs to pay for their sin”; “I forgive, but they have to deal with the consequences”; “I forgive, but I will never let them forget”; and “I forgive, but they had better show themselves worthy of forgiveness.” This is not what Jesus taught.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to request that the Father “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). This prayer captures something significant about being a Christian. We live by faith under grace and act out of grace. We are free to forgive in the way the rest of the world is not. We can act in mercy because God has carried out justice in Jesus’ life and death for us.

To many Christians, forgiveness sounds like a nice thing to do, but there must be a limit. We can’t expect to forgive people for the same sins all the time, can we? If people are truly repentant, won't they just stop committing that specific sin? This is also not what Jesus taught:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If 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.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matt. 18:15–22)

Jesus’ point is simple. We must forgive, all the time. People will sin against us all the time. We will sin against others all the time. Just as God forgives us all the time, we are to forgive others all the time. There are no limitations to forgiveness.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:17–21)

Of course, there are natural consequences in this world. Having sex outside of marriage produces children outside of marriage. When people break the civil law, they have to deal with civil authorities. People sometimes must suffer the natural consequence of sin in this world, but we don’t add to their misery by making them pay a debt to us. Forgiveness means that we shoulder the burden of their debt to us. You should protect yourself from dangerous, unrepentant, hurtful people, but leave vengeance to God.

In spite of the natural consequences, God is working the evil in this world for good. God has promised to make use of everything—every good and evil work—for his glory and our good. Thus we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” because we understand what Jesus paid to secure our salvation and our forgiveness. We forgive others as God forgives us. If you trust in Jesus for salvation, God holds nothing against you.

Photo of Silverio Gonzalez

Silverio Gonzalez

Silverio Gonzalez is a husband, father, and staff writer at Core Christianity. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California. 

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