What should a Christian do to the one who has wronged them? The instant-answer we often give is “forgive them!”
To be clear, I am more than ready to forgive every person who has wronged me (or, at least, I would like to think I am more than ready) but I have to remember the words of my Master…
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.
If someone sins against me, according to the Lord the first thing I should do is rebuke that person. My first response isn’t to say “you hurt me but I forgive you” and go about my day. That’s a worldly misunderstanding of the Christian position. The true Christian position is to try and help those who have done wrong to do what is right. That’s an extension of evangelism, in fact. When someone sins against me, that’s a clue that I need to reach out to that person and try and help them find spiritual healing. That process starts with me pointing out to them that they sinned (the fact that they sinned against me is now a secondary issue). If the sinner refuses to acknowledge the wrong and if they have no interest in making things right then there’s nothing I can do for them in terms of forgiveness. More on that in a second.
What I’m not going to do is leave the sinner with a false sense of security. I’m not going to tell them “it’s okay, I forgive you” when what they did is not okay. That person needs to be told it’s not okay and, if that person repents, then my Master tells me to forgive them.
The way I treat the sinner in question has to reflect the way God deals with the sinner in question. Does God forgive without repentance? No! Then neither can I. This is a critical point that many fail to understand. People will sometimes say “this person didn’t ask for my forgiveness but I know I have to forgive them anyway.”
Find me that verse. I’ll wait.
It’s not there. The verse you’re looking for says “if he repents, forgive him.” Forgiveness is conditional. It has always been conditional. That is what actual Christianity looks like.
Even the very murderers about whom Jesus prayed “Father forgive them” (Luke 23:34) were not forgiven until they repented and were baptized as commanded by Peter (Acts 2:36-38).
Many fail to grasp the very meaning of the word “forgiveness.” Forgiveness means “to absolve guilt” when a crime is repented of. When someone wrongs me, they have made themselves guilty, not only against me but also against the God who watches over me like a Good Shepherd. When that person repents, God forgives (in the context, Jesus is talking about Christians wronging Christians), and thus I must reflect the forgiving character of God and forgive them too. God always forgives the penitent, by the way. So when I fail to forgive someone who has repented of their sin against me then the tables turn and it is now me who is in the wrong, not only against the person who repented but also against the God who has forgiven that person that I haven’t forgiven.
Once again, forgiveness is conditional. It has always been conditional.
So then what do we do with the person who wrongs us and has not yet repented? If we can’t forgive them, what can we do?
WE CAN BE MERCIFUL!
If forgiveness is defined as “absolving guilt” then mercy is defined as “a second chance.” What’s the practical difference between the two? I think it is this: You can’t rebuke someone you have forgiven of a wrong, but you must rebuke someone who has not yet repented of their wrong, and you must rebuke them while being merciful to them. Having said that, while you must be merciful and rebuking at the same time, you can’t be merciful and vengeful at the same time. That means, when you are wronged, you must respond not only with a rebuke but also with mercy toward them, even if that means you suffer repeated injury.
Be merciful and leave vengeance to God (Romans 12:19).
Incidentally, having a merciful response makes it easier to pray for that person to repent so that they can be forgiven. On the other hand, when our heart is fixed on vengeance, mercy and prayer is the last thing we’re thinking about doing.
So while we must reserve forgiveness for the penitent, let’s not miss the meaning of mercy in the meantime, either.