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All Scripture citations are to the King James (Authorised) Version
Answer: It depends on the circumstances. In the routine of life we may sin against others many times during a single day and, conversely, we may be sinned against as frequently. Courtesy and humanity require that one apologise for one’s transgressions as and when one becomes aware of them. However, to expect an apology for every infraction would bring normal social interaction to a grinding halt, not to mention the toxic effects such an approach would have on family relations. Whether or not we receive an apology for trivial sins or thoughtless offences against us, as Christians we should stand ready to ‛forgive and forget’. This approach is what we might term the rule of implicit forgiveness, which underpins the goodwill demonstrated towards one another by most reasonable people, Christian or otherwise.
From the Biblical point of view, however, it is clear that a measure of penitence – and in some cases, atonement – is required before forgiveness ought to be granted. Such instances may involve egregious sin (witting or unwitting) against one’s person or property. Under the Mosaic Law there were provisions made for the redress of such transgressions, from simple offerings to the more serious forms of retribution. In varying degrees, modern laws reflect similar principles, including fines, restitution, prison sentences, and so on. Nonetheless, as a general rule we should, as Christians, be slow to assert our personal rights. But though we ought to readily forgive the sins of others against us, with or without evidence of repentance, it is not our place to forgive anyone on behalf of others.
From another standpoint, all sin is a violation of God’s Justice, for He is the universal law-giver and has established the order under which all should live. The prime example is that of the sinner approaching God. Because of the condemnation of the Adamic curse – the death sentence – which is on every member of the human race by heredity, it is not possible to bypass God’s Justice. By His Ransom-sacrifice, Jesus died to cancel out the Adamic sentence against the race. However, in order to avail oneself of this forgiveness, the sinner must believe that Christ is the Saviour and must repent for sin, and endeavour to reform. (This does not mean that salvation is restricted to this life; in the Millennial Age, at the resurrection of the dead, all will be invited to believe on Jesus and will by faithfulness be granted eternal life; this is not universalism – eternal salvation for all. We cover this subject elsewhere on our Website.)
The fact that God sent His Son to die for the world of mankind while they were (and are) sinners, demonstrates a gracious spirit of forgiveness in anticipation of repentance. This is the attitude which the Christian ought to manifest on a daily basis. Such an attitude nullifies the tendency towards suspicion of others, and curtails the habit of fault-finding, or nit-picking at the defects of others.
Our being forgiven is contingent on our forgiving others (Matthew 6: 12, 14, 15):
[F]orgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors . . . 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.
This is not to say that God will otherwise hold our sins against us should we slip up in our sums. Rather, it should be our constant acknowledgement that we stand or fall on God’s treatment of us – thatwe are unworthy recipients of His saving grace and, additionally, that our debts to Him are are far greater than those of our fellow-men to us. His forgiveness of us is the model for our forgiveness toward others. Such a recognition of mercy received will cultivate within us a spirit of thankfulness and humility and, in turn, foster a mild and generous spirit towards others. A persistently stingy spirit on our part would cast doubt on our claim to be a follower of Christ, and the Lord might withhold blessings from us.
The words of Jesus on the cross, recorded in Luke 23: 34, are often cited as proof that He issued a blanket forgiveness: ‛Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ But this text is of dubious provenance, omitted in several manuscripts. However, the words of Stephen in Acts 7: 60 are instructive on this score: ‛Lay not this sin to their charge.’ This martyr’s appeal to God’s compassion expresses Stephen’s attitude towards his persecutors, though it is limited in scope; it cannot be viewed as a blanket command that God overlook their general sins, outside the claims of Justice or the basic principle of repentance.
St. Stephen is a splendid example of forgiving one’s enemies. It is easy to think and to say: “I will forgive my enemies,” when one has none. It is quite a different thing to refrain from resentment in the heart toward those who wrong us. It is harder still to cherish no resentment toward people, while, to their and our knowledge, they are doing us wrong. But the hardest of all things is to wish and do them good, while they are in the act of wronging us. Such was the sublime height of character to which St. Stephen climbed. While the rocks and stones were striking him with most painful force, he prayed God to forgive his tormentors. If we would attain to a like character, we must be very self-oblivious, meek, zealous, loving and faithful. These qualities practiced in the small things of life gradually impart to our characters strength that is equal to the demands of our hardest experiences. While failure to meet our daily small trials aright will result in defeat in great crises.
– Paul S. L. Johnson, The Present Truth, 1934, p. 175.
There are occasions when our own sins will require punishment or chastisement from God. When He deals with us this way He is expressing His love and Fatherly care over us, in which He seeks our correction and reformation. Such treatment is a sign of acceptance by Him, not rejection, and His forgiveness is always in action. Therefore we need not fret in such circumstances, for He deals with us as His children, disobedient though we may often be.
In matters which concern the church, Jesus sets forth a course of action by which member-transgressors should be treated and, if possible, recovered from the error of their ways (Matthew 18: 15-17). In rare instances the sinner must be excommunicated or disfellowshipped, but chiefly for the purpose of applying pressure toward rehabilitation. (See 1 Corinthians 5: 1-5; Galatians 6: 1.) The habit of some religious groups to excommunicate mere dissenters too readily, suggests a misunderstanding of the principle.
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