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Forgiveness: Feeling? Or Forgetting? It’s Neither.

Kevin DeYoung on Forgiveness
By: Zach Dietrich

Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Right after this, Jesus showed how radically important true forgiveness is and what it reveals about our souls. Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).

As important as it is, forgiveness is often misunderstood. What is forgiveness? Two words are often associated with forgiveness: feeling and forgetting. So, is forgiveness a feeling or forgetting? Actually, it’s neither.

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Kevin DeYoung gives helpful explanations on what forgiveness is and is not:

At this point, it may be helpful to be more specific as to what we mean by forgiveness because there is a lot of confusion generated by misunderstanding what exactly forgiveness is and what it isn’t. 

How would you define forgiveness by simply looking at verse 12? The basic idea of forgiveness is something like canceling a debt or remitting a payment. When God forgives us, he says, “I will not make you pay me what you owe me.”

When we forgive others, we say something similar: “I will not demand of you the moral payment that is rightfully mine.” We understand that it is not our place to pass final judgment on another person’s sins, because every sin that has ever been committed has either been punished on the cross or will be punished in hell. 

We need to be clear, however, what forgiveness is not. 

Forgiveness is not the absence of consequences. A dad may forgive his son for staying out late, but he may be grounded for his disobedience. The son may experience discipline just like we may experience discipline from God, even when there is forgiveness. 

Forgiveness does not eliminate all authority structures. There are consequences for violating parental authority. Likewise, there are consequences for violating governmental authority. You may be personally forgiven for a wrong done but may face prison or even a death sentence. The thief on the cross was not removed from the cross just because he confessed his sins. Similarly, there are consequences for violating ecclesiastical authority (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5). When a sinner goes on sinning without repentance, the church is obligated to act and discipline. The church must never be judgmental, but it is explicitly the church’s duty to judge (1 Cor. 5:12).

Forgiveness is not the complete absence of any judgment. There is a right way and a wrong way to judge. We see this in Matthew 7. Do not judge, Jesus says, but then he goes on to teach that his disciples aren’t to cast their pearls before swine (7:6), which requires making a judgment as to who the swine are. The kind of judging we are to avoid sees only the negative, believes only what is critical, and always assumes the worst about others’ motives. That’s judgmentalism. That’s not the same as making a wise evaluation. A charitable judgment of others does not require us to be unthinking, unquestioning, and undiscerning. We are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). When Jesus tells us to forgive, he does not mean we are to play with rattlesnakes as if they’re puppies. Forgiveness means that if the rattlesnake becomes a puppy, we won’t always remind him that he used to be a snake.

A Definition, Please

Zacharias Ursinus, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, explains forgiveness in a helpful way. Forgiveness, he says, can take three different forms, and only one must always be present. Forgiveness is threefold. 

  1. Of revenge. This pertains to all. When we forgive, we won’t seek revenge. 
  2. Of punishment. This will not always be removed. For God desires that his law be executed.
  3. Of judgment in reference to others. “This should not always be remitted; for God who prohibits falsehood, will not have us to judge of knaves as honest men, but he designs that we should distinguish the good from the bad.”

In other words, forgiving is not always the same as forgetting. Often when we talk about forgiving those who sin against us, we have in mind our own internal state. But the older, and I would say more biblical, view of forgiveness is that forgiveness is a relational transaction more than a therapeutic one. Forgiveness is an act of the will. 

According to the Puritan Thomas Watson, forgiveness means “we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.” 

I hate to say it, but Inigo Montoya was not really modeling Christian virtue when he devoted his whole life to avenging his father’s death. Many Christians, influenced by well-meaning but misguided counseling and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. But, if we start with a biblical notion of God’s forgiveness, we see that such a view falls short.

Overcoming anger and resentment is important, but forgiveness is something more, something different, and something that involves two parties instead of one. Forgiveness is what we grant to people when they repent. While we should always have an attitude of forgiveness and put forward a sincere offer of forgiveness, the fullest expression of biblical forgiveness happens when one side repents and the other side removes the moral debt he is owed.

I think of the scene in the movie Braveheart where William Wallace kneels before his father-in-law after his daughter was killed because she was Wallace’s wife. The father struggles for a moment but then puts his hand on the head of William Wallace, indicating that he will forgive him though his daughter would not have died if she had not secretly married Wallace. That’s forgiveness. “You are no longer in my debt. You do not owe me anything. I will not hold anything over your head. You do not have to work something off for me to accept you. What you should give me to make up for my loss I no longer ask of you.”

Adapted from Kevin DeYoung, The Lord’s Prayer, pp. 66-68. You can also read DeYoung’s article, Why Do We Need to Keep Praying “Forgive Us Our Debts”?

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