The only way to God is through His Son and the Son seeks sinners who are willing to shed their heavy weight of sin and guilt through repentance. Forgiveness is freely available but not thrust upon mankind. God is love and full of mercy and grace but He only responds to repentance. During the journey on earth on the path of sinful living, the Holy Spirit gently touches to cause a turnaround – turning around is repentance for only then does one recognize the need for forgiveness. The tears of realization and repentance wash off the need for punishment and the process of change gets initiated.
Onset of repentance and forgiveness by man – Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers out of jealousy but God fulfilled the dream that he had seen. The actions of each of the twelve brothers leave a strong footprint on history – the ten who sold and Joseph’s actions on meeting them. The simple and unique manner in which Joseph absolved his brothers of their sin is incomparable – “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you….. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:4-8). Adam and Eve sinned, yet neither did they seek forgiveness nor was it given and Cain also never repented and probably never received forgiveness. God might have mitigated their punishment but forgiveness came only through His Son, our Savior and Lord Jesus. Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers is the first recorded event in Scripture of a man forgiving another man. Abraham prayed to the LORD God for sparing the lives of the righteous and with them the sinners also if there were fifty and finally ten innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah but he did not seek forgiveness for them.
John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins and Lord Jesus taught the disciples the condition of seeking forgiveness from God the Father “as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. Repentance highlights the point of our independence and moral responsibility to adapt to change that underlies our acceptance of some wrongs committed by us with a resolve to not repeat the same. The Bible teaches us of guilt-repentance and forgiveness as a way of life. Repentance is not only about a realization of what I have done to others but also about how I have reacted to what others have done to me – both good and evil deeds.
Is repentance necessary before forgiveness? – Repentance is a realization that one has done something which deserves punishment and without this forgiveness is never sought. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fear of God entered their lives forcing them to hide among the trees from the loving Creator. Sin or an act against mankind or nature is a violation of God’s commands and is an act committed against God Himself, in addition to the direct sufferer. A sin is a stone thrown into a pond creating ripples that touch all areas of the pond, areas probably not even known to the sinner. A sin directly affects the sufferer, the sinner, their families and many others for a sin is disregard of God and anyone who comes to know of others’ sin, in his/her eyes, God’s glory is tarnished. God’s glory having been diminished before them, His statutes lose value thus inciting them to sin becomes easy for the forces of darkness. King David’s sin with Bathsheba resulted in the death of Uria, her husband, their child and provided a handle to Joab, David’s Army Commander to become insubordinate. Well aware of this David cries out to God “Against You, You alone have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4).
The act of repentance has four stages: 1) admission of guilt, 2) confession, 3) behavioral change and 4) bearing consequences/punishment. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and seeing them in Egypt for rations, he accuses them of a crime not committed by them. The brothers said to one another, “we deserve to be punished because of our brother” (Genesis 42:21-31), admitting their wrong. “What can we say to my lord? Judah replied. How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves” (Genesis 44:16) – the second stage, of confession and admittance of collective responsibility. Finally, Judah, who had suggested that Joseph be sold as a slave, agrees to remain in place of Benjamin (Genesis 42:33) as an act of complete repentance when Joseph could forgive them completely.
In a believer repentance is led by the Holy Spirit who “convicts the world of sin”, sin of unbelief in the Son as well as every other act requiring forgiveness. Repentance is thus God initiated and God targeted for every sin is a violation of His statutes. It is the first step towards reparation and leads to seeking forgiveness. The Greek word ‘charizomai’ translated as forgive means ‘to show favor that cancels, freely give favor to pardon’ showing grace and understanding towards the perpetrator of the sinful act. When someone commits a sinful act, the victim is hurt, angry and seeks revenge forcing the sinner to plead, make excuses and even try and justify the act as being unavoidable under the circumstances. Adam and Eve blamed everyone else except themselves for their individual acts. Acts of repentance are a display of extreme regret for the sin and efforts to appease the victim’s anger.
Bearing consequences of a sinful act is not a choice for though the act is forgiven but the resultant damage to body, soul or nature remains. Israelites were commanded by God to “confess their own and their fathers sins”, “if then their hearts be humbled, and then they accept of the punishment of their sins”, then they will be forgiven (Leviticus 26:40-43). The Hebrew word ‘ratsah’ translated as accept in verses 41 and 43 has also been mentioned as ‘enjoy’ in verses 34 and 43 of Leviticus 26. Ratsah implies that the acceptance of punishment for sin must be accepted favorably in a pleasing and non complaining manner as payment of a debt. King David, under Satan’s urging, orders census of all Israelite males, despite misgivings of Joab and God, through David’s seer, Gad, offered him three options to choose from as punishment for the sin. David repented and offered sacrificial offerings after purchasing the threshing floor of Araunah, the Jebusite (1 Chronicles 21). David refuses to offer God anything that has cost him nothing as an offering for his sin.
Why seek forgiveness? – Any sin, intentional or unintentional creates a separation from God and that is the reason that all sins are acts against God. In the Old Testament once the unintentional sin was known, the sinner would offer sacrifices for restoration of the broken relationship with God. But an intentional sin is a deliberate act of defiance and “For that kind of deliberate, conscious, intentional sin, the only adequate moral response is teshuva, repentance. This involves (a) remorse, harata, (b) confession, vidui, and (c) kabbalat he’atid, a resolution never to commit the sin again. The result is pardon and forgiveness from God. A mere sacrifice is not enough” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks). An intentional sin is an issue of morality, character, integrity, values and norms where trust and truthfulness are the victim.Repentance is not the demand of a righteous and holy God but a necessary step for restoration and healing of damaged relationship with God and others adversely affected. It is necessarily that rare decision to confess and resolve to never repeat. Repentance is that step from darkness into light where we not only see ourselves but let others also scrutinize us.
Forgiveness has four aspects – It is to grant fee pardon for an offense or debt; to give up all claims on account of it, to cease to feel resentment and finally pray to God for blessing the offender. Forgiving is an express command from God and non forgiveness provides Satan an opportunity to gate crash amidst us (Ephesians 4:26-27). It is also linked to the second great commandment from our Savior – ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mark 12:31) and it is directly connected to our forgiveness from God (Matthew 6:14-15). Our forgiving must be without any limit or bindings, for the Lord commanded us to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).
The Greek word for forgiveness is “aphietai” and originated from “aphiemi” where ‘apo’ means away from and ‘hiemi’ is send away, release/discharge (Luke 7:47). “Aphiemi” would thus imply let go, release, discharge, permit to depart, forgive thus rendering the quoted verse to be, “Wherefore, I say unto you, her sins which are many are forgiven, discharged, separated, abandoned, and permitted to depart from her”. Forgiveness is thus that step of undoing the past through transformation of our life situations from endless condemnation to freedom.
Steps to forgiveness – These steps are not chronological and need to be followed in that sequence, rather one may skip some or be required to revert back to some to achieve forgiveness:
- Bring it before God – The Psalms are great examples of David and other writers pouring out their raw feelings before God. This helps in acknowledging our anger; provides a safe release in a nondestructive manner; invites God into our situation seeking His help in carrying the burden. God begins the process of calming the anger, assuage hurt, disappointment, grief or such related feelings.
- Recognize your lack of forgiveness –For a believer it becomes difficult to admit that he/she has a problem in forgiving someone. Our heart is inherently deceitful and tends to cover up our lack of forgiveness (Jeremiah 17:9). The Scripture further warns us, “He who conceals his hatred has lying lips” (Proverbs 10:18). Being honest with self in accepting the weakness is the first step in tackling it.
- Confess it to God –It may not be sin to initially being angry with someone (Mark 3:5) but continuing with that will turn it into sin after a while (Ephesians 4:26). By confessing to God our lack of forgiveness we seek His help as per His promise to cleanse before anger turns to bitterness, rage, self-pity/helplessness, depression and slander.
- Make a decision to forgive – Before we can forgive someone, we must take a deliberate decision of the will to do so for then God gives us “His incomparably great power” to act (Ephesians 1:19). This decision enables us to surrender our right to feel further resentment and the right to gossip or slander the person involved. When we carry the grudge we feel right in telling others about old hurts whereas “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9). This decision is in conformity with Lord Jesus’ forgiveness of us and by telling God about this we can access His power to release the other person from our mind.
- Act against your feelings – This is easier said than done, especially if the person continues to cause hurt. Once a decision to forgive is made, begin to act in loving ways towards the person and these acts though contrary to our feeling are in line with what God desires of us. We must not wait for the feelings to change before taking the first step for it is easier to work your way into new feelings than acting in old feelings. LORD God cautioned Cain in the same way, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well will not your countenance be lifted up?” (Genesis 4:6-7). The more the delay in this the more is the difficulty to handle the sense of being victimized. The question to ask is, “What would I want him to do if the situation was reversed” and then do it.
- Identify the cause – Instead of looking without the real cause of our anger or hurt may be within – some unresolved issues in our lives. Sometimes even a minor action of another brings out the feeling to the fore whereas we need to look for the cause than the person. This could be some unhealed pain in either party, the one who commits the act and the one who is hurt. This could be easily resolved with counseling.
- Do all to seek reconciliation – We must make all out efforts to reconcile with the other party (Matthew 5:23-24) but remember that it takes both parties to agree. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Thus if the other person is reluctant to reconcile, we are “to live at peace” and not try to force ourselves on him.
Forgiveness of sin does not absolve us of the consequences of sin and any attempt to deny that would be running away from responsibility. Infidelity causes unwanted pregnancies or disease including broken marriages and though God is always involved in our lives, we need to take responsibility. The sect of Sadducees, in the Bible, denied fate and believed that God does not intervene in our lives because of the gift of free will given to mankind. The Essenes, on the other hand, believed that everything in our lives is predestined by God and we live out our lives exactly as per God’s choice. A Christian believes in both God’s control and free will since God does not force His will on us but leaves us a choice to make good or bad decisions and suffer consequences either way.
No change in an individual’s life can occur without his/her active participation. Joseph landed up as a slave in Potiphar’s house was, accused and put in prison but in no situation did he lose faith. His honest and diligent work won him praise everywhere and Pharaoh’s cup-bearer remembered him at the right time. Even after being elevated to the number two position by the Pharaoh, Joseph neither remembered the evil done to him by his brothers nor by Potiphar’s wife. To his brothers his reply was “you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).
Repentance is the first step towards being freed from the slavery of past where forgiveness without changing the past brightens up the future. God is love and so should we be, being made in “His image and likeness”. How can we love someone without learning to forgive? Lord Jesus clearly taught that the prayers are likely to remain unanswered without forgiveness. On the one end we are asked to leave our offering and reconcile with your adversary (Matthew 5:23-25), while on the other side the condition of forgiveness is “Forgive our sins as we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). If we are not willing to forgive, how can we expect forgiveness from God, for in any case all sin is against God?
Laban went after Jacob, after he had decided to return to his own home, but both buried all differences and parted with the prayer “May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent from one another” (Genesis 31:49). That is forgiveness when we pray for the well being of someone who we considered to be our enemy. And that is what Lord Jesus desires from all believers.