Do you understand the subject of forgiveness? Do you view it as God does? The world is very confused on the subject, and there has been misunderstanding even in the Church of God.
In the March-April Royal Vision, we printed an article titled “Forgiving Others.” The article contained errors that caused confusion. This is a foundational subject, so we need to make sure we have a proper understanding of it.
The article started by saying, “We are all sinners. We all need forgiveness. … That forgiveness is contingent on two things: 1) We must repent—meaning a change in our thoughts, actions and desires; and 2) we must forgive others. Jesus Christ made this abundantly clear throughout His ministry.”
The second point was the premise of the whole article. But it is incorrect. And if the premise is wrong, then the entire article will be wrong.
How do we receive forgiveness ourselves? “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). These are the biblical conditions to forgiveness: repent and believe.
Herbert W. Armstrong wrote, “If we repent and believe, then by divine miracle God’s Holy Spirit removes the death penalty from us. Our sins are forgiven by the blood of Christ, and we are saved from the second death!” (Plain Truth, June-July 1982). The Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course reinforced this by saying, “Not until we repent of sin, believe and begin to obey God can we be forgiven (Lesson 25).” Repentance and belief are the conditions the Bible describes for us to receive forgiveness ourselves—not repentance and forgiving others.
It is true that Jesus Christ said: “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 6:14-15). However, this has been broadly misunderstood and misapplied, as it was in that Royal Vision article. I want to show you what Christ meant and what He did not mean.
Here is a good summation of the incorrect view of Christ’s statement, as it appeared in our March-April issue: “This applies if we have committed a sin that has (in addition to costing the life of Christ) caused damage to someone else. But what do we do when we are the one wronged? We must forgive, irrespective of how much or how little the other party has ‘done right’ by us to fix whatever they’ve caused. Again, none of us can forgive as God does—and we must forgive, even without knowing whether or not God has truly forgiven them.”
That is simply not true, and it is a serious mistake. We do not forgive “irrespective of how much or how little the other party has done right by us to fix whatever they’ve caused.” We don’t forgive “without knowing.”
We must see this as God does.
Willing to Forgive
The article pointed to the fact that Jesus Christ and Stephen asked for God to forgive their persecutors. When Christ was being crucified, He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Stephen demonstrated the same attitude toward those ready to stone him when he said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60).
“We might justify our lack of forgiveness saying that the other party needs to show ‘fruits meet for repentance,’” the article continued. “That is not what Jesus Christ or Stephen were looking for when they made those statements of forgiveness.” But let’s examine the context of those examples.
When Christ and Stephen made those statements, they were talking about unconverted people who, as Christ said, “know not what they do.” We must understand the distinction in how God is working with those in the Church, who know the truth of God, and those in the world, who do not. There are two different approaches.
Those in the world don’t know; they are ignorant of what God teaches. Even when they persecute us, they don’t know what they are doing. When they killed Christ, they didn’t truly know what they were doing. Christ held no bitterness toward those people; He understood they were ignorant of what they were doing.
Jesus Christ gave His life a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:6). He gave His life in advance of our repentance. When Christ said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” He was showing His attitude, His state of mind, His willingness to forgive. He died to make forgiveness possible for those “who know not what they do.” Christ died for all of us before we did any repenting or believing.
This is an attitude we all need.
Now, here is an important point to note: When Christ asked God to forgive those crucifying Him, did God forgive them at that point?No, He didn’t. Did Christ forgive those people of their sins at that time? No, He didn’t, but He was willing to forgive them. And He showed by example that we need to be willing to forgive.
Have those killers been forgiven? No! But they will be forgiven once they repent! God does not actually forgive until there is evidence of repentance. Christ was simply illustrating the willingness to forgive. Those people didn’t know God!
It is a different circumstance, however, with people who know God. This is an important distinction we need to understand.
God Family and Neighbor
God’s law can be summarized in two great commands: Love God with all your heart, soul and might; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40).
If you serve someone in the world, that falls under the category of loving your neighbor. However, Jesus Christ said that if you serve someone in the Family of God, then you are showing that same love toward God (e.g. Matthew 25:34-40). When God says that we are His Family, He means that we are His Family! The world is not our family yet—though they will soon have that opportunity.
Your neighbor in the world has not even been called yet (Genesis 3:24). He is not in danger of eternal death as those of us in God’s Church are. At the fulfillment of the Last Great Day, God will call the people of the world—our neighbors. They will be resurrected and have their day of salvation (Ezekiel 37; John 7:37).
By contrast, anybody called during this age will either be in God’s Family or become ashes under the saints’ feet! (Malachi 4:3). Our salvation is at stake!
Because of this distinction, there is a big difference in how we are to administer the Spirit of forgiveness within the Family of God and how we are to administer it to the world, our neighbors.
Christ and Stephen demonstrated the attitude we must have as we take God’s warning message to the largest audience possible—the world, our neighbor, those cut off from access to God—against fierce opposition. As the pressure from those in the world builds against us, our attitude must be, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Those of the world, our neighbors, do not have a relationship with God; they do not know Him. They are not being judged now.
But those in God’s Church do know God. We are His spiritual children; we are being judged now (1 Peter 4:17).
As His spiritual children, God holds us accountable for our words and actions in our relationship with Him and in our relationships with each other. Where we sin against God or grieve a spiritual brother, God requires reconciliation in both relationships throughrepentance.
Paul’s Example to Corinth
In 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul had to deal with a problem within the congregation in Corinth. The members had allowed a man committing incestuous fornication to stay within the Church. They thought they just had to forgive this man, so they allowed him to continue in the Church even when he was continuing this horrible deed. When Paul learned of this, he sent a letter telling them that this man should have been “taken away from among you”—put out of the Church (verse 2).
When we are dealing with Church members who have sinned, there are times we must mark people and put them out of the Church. When we do so, God says to avoid them (Romans 16:17). We must avoid them—not forgive them—until they show “fruits meet for repentance” (Matthew 3:8). We don’t forgive them,and we don’t allow them back to services, until they have repented. That is the whole objective when people are put out of the Church: It’s about repentance. It’s about waiting until they have repented and believed—but especially repented. (A big part of their problem may just be a lack of faith and they have to build that more and more, but we do accept repentance.)
The congregation in Corinth had the wrong perspective on forgiveness. They had made a horrible mistake by keeping this man in. As Paul wrote, “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). If you leave sin in the Church and just forgive without dealing with it, then you will destroy the whole Church!
That hasn’t been happening in God’s Church today, but there is still some misunderstanding of this subject that makes us vulnerable. This is a fundamental lesson we must learn, and we have to make sure something like this is corrected. If we do not differentiate between how we administer the Spirit of forgiveness to our neighbor and our brother, it could endanger our spiritual lives!
A little leaven leavens the whole lump, whether you are talking about the collective body or your own individual life (Galatians 5:9). Do you want to try to live with a little leaven in your life? If you do not repent of it, you will leaven your whole life. You cannot live with these sins; you must get them out as God reveals them to you. In the process, you see yourself more deeply. Sometimes they are very deep-seated sins and it takes time to overcome.
Did the Apostle Paul forgive that man in 1 Corinthians 5? Not at the time he wrote 1 Corinthians. However, this man repented! And upon true repentance, he was invited back to Church services. Then, Paul told the congregation in Corinth to forgive him! (2 Corinthians 2:6-9). Those people had to forgive that sinner and bring him back in—because he had repented.
Paul told the Corinthians that they were being judged by whether they were both willing to hold a man responsible, and also later to forgive. It is important that we look at both sides of this matter to learn how to apply the principle of forgiveness.
‘If He Repent, Forgive’
Jesus Christ gave this clear command: “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother [that is, someone in the Church] trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). This is probably the plainest scripture in the Bible on this point: Rebuke him—talk to him directly—and if he repent,forgive him.
The “Forgiving Others” article was mistaken on this point. “When someone ‘wrongs’ us, he is in debt to God, even if he has injured us, but we have to forgive him of the hurt that he has cost us,” it said. “If it is a converted ‘brother,’ then we have a responsibility to make him aware of his trespass—not to hold back our forgiveness until he repents ….”
It is true that “we have a responsibility to make him aware of his trespass.” But we also must hold back our forgiveness until our brother repents!
I am not talking here about the petty grievances that can crop up between people. Offense can easily arise over small issues because of our vanity. We must strive to keep God’s law of love and let such things go. As Psalm 119:165 says, “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them.” Leviticus 19:18 commands, “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people ….” “Bear a grudge” means holding on to feelings of ill will toward someone.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity [God’s love], which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:12-14). This is the appropriate way of resolving “quarrels” among Church members.
With sin, however, we do not want to be more tolerant than God. God is extremely merciful to the individual who repents—but not before he repents! And God commands us to take the same approach.
In a late 1970s sermon delivered in Pasadena, titled “Administration of the Spirit of Forgiveness,” Herman Hoeh stated, “The assumption of whether you are willing to forgive another and whether you do forgive are two different things. God is willing to forgive those who hate Him. But when He gave the law, He points out that He holds them responsible until they repent [referring to those statements in Exodus 20]. But His attitude was reflected in the fact that He died to pay their penalties even before they came to repentance. The fact that you are told to forgive your brother if he repents shows what your attitude should be. But the implication from [Luke 17:3] is very clear that, as with debt or any kind of transgression, you do not express yourself in the manner of forgiveness until that person has truly repented who knows what his sin is” (emphasis mine throughout). When they’re in the body of Christ, we don’t forgive until they repent.
And in the bigger picture, when dealing with the world, it will ultimately require the same approach. Nobody will receive God’s forgiveness until he or she repents. For their sins to be forgiven, everyone has to repent and believe.
Fruits of Repentance
Mr. Armstrong had to disfellowship his son Garner Ted twice, once in 1972 and again in 1978. Before allowing his son back into the Church, Mr. Armstrong took five other ministers with him because he wanted to make sure he wasn’t trusting his own judgment as to whether or not his son truly repented. They didn’t want to forgive him unless he was truly repentant. That is how Mr. Armstrong handled that situation.
In that same sermon, Dr. Hoeh said, “In some cases, we must clearly recognize the need of disfellowship[ment], which means their sins are bound on them until they come to repentance, and then ask for forgiveness. And, of course, the state of mind of the Church is to forgive.” Upon such repentance, they always receive forgiveness from God’s people!
“For years, this Work operated at Mr. Armstrong’s level, by his own admission, on accepting words as evidence of repentance rather than deeds. And that was the great mistake that was made through the ’60s into the ’70s. Then Mr. Armstrong realized that sometimes people say but they cannot do without the power of the Holy Spirit (ibid).” When a person simply says he repents, are we to accept that statement without deeds? That is how Mr. Armstrong thought in the early days, but he had more to learn. You accept their repentance only if they actually repent.
This also shows that we are dealing with the Holy Spirit of God. A person cannot have real spiritual works without the Holy Spirit! There is a difference between people who have that Spirit and those who don’t. We must have the right perspective about repentance to recognize the difference.
“And the power of the Spirit of God enables one to both repent and to illustrate the works of repentance,” Dr. Hoeh continued. “And when those works were brought forth in deed, repentance was accomplished. Repentance should have, in some way, evidenced that he or she has ceased to do what has been done.”
Think of an example of a wife who was mistreated for years by her husband who abuses alcohol. The situation may develop to where, though she still loves him deeply, she can no longer tolerate the situation and separates from him. Still, her desire is that he repent so they can reconcile. Her attitude is one of willingness to forgive—in advance of his repentance—but she cannot forgive him until he repents. Because of the long-term and deep-rooted nature of his abuse, should his wife just take his words as evidence of repentance? Should she forgive him and reconcile as soon as he says, “Sorry!” or, “I repent!”? Of course not. Though extremely willing to forgive him, she would require fruits meet for repentance, visible evidence that he has ceased abusing alcohol and his conduct has changed—that he has really repented. Her state of mind should be merciful. But while praying for and exercising faith that God may grant repentance, she holds him responsible, in judgment, for his actions.
God judges us not on whether we have expressed forgiveness to a brother who has aggrieved us, but on our willingness to forgive him, and our forgiving him when he has repented. “[God] will judge your good judgment and whether you’re soft-headed or whether you know how to deal with the other party,” Dr. Hoeh continued.
An attitude that is willing to forgive will not harbor resentment, bitterness, hostility or malice. Having this attitude also requires the Holy Spirit!
Christ admonished His disciples, “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).
It is critical that we be willing to forgive men all their trespasses. We must be especially forgiving toward those in the world who don’t know any better. We must be forbearing and forgiving within the Family of God over minor offenses (Colossians 3:13). And over serious sins, we must be very willing to forgive a brother—not harboring resentment, bitterness, hostility or malice.
But Christ was not saying that the forgiveness we receive from God will be limited unless we indiscriminately forgive an unrepentant brother of a serious sin! As Dr. Hoeh said, “This is a matter in which we are asked to use judgment.” We are expected to exercise judgment, mercy and faith in administering the spirit of forgiveness.
Satan would love for us to be soft-headed about this as he intensifies his last-hour persecution. We have to be careful. It can bring difficulties for God’s people and make people more vulnerable to Satan if we don’t get it right.
A Spirit of Meekness
Christ said, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him …” (Luke 17:3). Do you know how to do this in a godly way?
You can see an expanded account of this in Matthew 18:15-17. “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” (verse 15). The process begins by entreating your brother directly.
The Apostle Paul gave some instruction on how to approach such a situation: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
God says you must address the matter, but before you go to correct somebody, make sure you are spiritual—because if you go and do it carnally, you will probably cause more problems than you would ever solve. Someone correcting carnally can be a bigger problem than even the problem he is trying to correct.
We need to know how to correct. You must let God guide you every step of the way. If you don’t, then you should not be correcting people. If you are not spiritual, you should not correct! Let somebody who is spiritual do it.
Consider yourself, this verse says. Before you correct, make sure you’re taking a good look at yourself first! Examine yourself. Why? Because it says here that you yourself may have a similar problem, and you may have to be corrected, too.
You have to know whether or not you are spiritual enough to correct a brother and help him see a problem. And you have to make sure you go to him in a spirit of meekness, because after all, we are God’s Family. I am not saying we shouldn’t be authoritative. But He also says we must correct in the spirit of meekness. You can still be authoritative in a spirit of meekness.
Even ministers need to remember this. Hebrews 5:1-2 give us an important perspective: “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.”
We ministers are just as human as the people we serve. But we do have an office, and we do have the authority to help keep the Church on track.
God says here that if somebody is ignorant or out of the way, a minster must go and correct that person—but he had better realize that he himself is encompassed with infirmities. He has problems, too, and shouldn’t correct God’s people like they are the only ones who have problems. If we are not careful when we do correct, we can begin to get into more than criticism, to where it is almost like condemning somebody.
I am encompassed with infirmities just like you are. And I hope and pray I always have judgment, mercy and faith, and that I love you the way God does. I will do that, although I certainly won’t do it perfectly.
This is God’s Church, and Jesus Christ is the Head of it. We really need to be a loving family, concerned about every individual in this Church. We must make sure if we have to say anything corrective that we know how to do it. Let’s not make it hard to get along and to be family. Let’s make it clear to each other that we really do love each other. If you are correcting somebody, make sure he really knows you love him—and you’re not just hammering him because he’s wrong. There is a big difference.
It’s not easy to accept correction, and if you come at somebody like a truck, then it will make it awfully hard to take. When you correct, you had better try hard to be merciful, or it is going to come back on you.
If we are God’s people, we are people with mercy. If we don’t have mercy on each other, our own Family, then we are not getting it.
Government is a great gift of God—we can do so much with it if we use it God’s way. I know a lot of people who came out of the Worldwide Church of God and who were really good at detecting evil within that church, but they still turned away from the truth and are not here today. They saw the evil within that church, but they didn’t see the evil within themselves. We all need to be looking at ourselves first! (1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 13:5).
We all make mistakes, and I think the Family of God understands that. We are not perfect, but we certainly want to be as perfect as we possibly can (Matthew 5:48). We must get this right in order to truly serve God as we should.
Seventy Times Seven
Think about how much the Father hates sin. Consider what Christ thinks about when He thinks about sin. It takes the blood of God in the flesh to pay for our sins! That is the penalty for sin (Romans 6:23).
Consider the magnitude of our sins—then think about how God forgives them all.How God forgives! He purged our sins (Hebrews 1:3). (Think on that, and you can understand why we must strive to be sinless!)
Can we forgive like that? Does Christ live in us to the extent that we can forgive the way God forgives? When someone trespasses against us, which can be a serious sin, we must forgive him when he repents. If we cannot forgive somebody, then we are not thinking like God. It takes a lot of forgiveness to keep human beings in the right attitude—loving, serving and sacrificing for each other.
Christ’s command in Luke 17:3 continues: “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” He went on to say: “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” (verse 4). If we have the Spirit of God, we really do have to learn to forgive—even 70 times seven times!
The same point is recorded in Matthew’s account (Matthew 18:21-22). Then Jesus gave the parable of the unmerciful servant, who was forgiven a massive debt, but then turned around and had a fellow servant cast into prison over a very small debt. That parable concludes, “Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (verses 32-35).
We are working to think like God! We want to be just as forgiving as He is—no more and no less. You need a clear picture of just how forgiving God is toward you to have the right attitude toward others. If you are self-righteous, you won’t have much compassion because you just can’t understand why people have so many faults. If you don’t look deep down and see your own problems and your own need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, you are going to be a very unforgiving person.
We must always be willing to forgive. And when someone who has trespassed against us comes back and truly repents, we mustforgive!
God is always willing to forgive. The only time God will reject repentance is for the unpardonable sin—sin or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32; 2 Peter 2:20-22; Hebrews 10:26). That one God will not forgive.
God is not judging the world at this time—but He is judging us (1 Peter 4:17). That is why we have to be praying to God and going to our Bible to make sure everything that we say is not from other men or from our own mind, but from God. That takes a lot of effort.
We must learn these lessons now—because God has called us to become the teachers of the world! We have to know the Bible so we can help Christ, as His Bride, to straighten out this evil world. This world needs to be brought to repentance—and it needs a whole lot of forgiveness! We are going to help judge all mankind, and they will need a lot of judgment, mercy and faith, in perfect balance. That is a huge responsibility! Let’s learn how to properly exercise those weightier matters of God’s love in our lives today.