REFLECTIONS
Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #841 -- March 11, 2022
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He who pardons easily invites offense.
Pierre Corneille [1606-1684]

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Justified Refusal of Forgiveness
Do Believers Have the Right to Forgive
Evil and Unrepentant Evildoers?

As I sought to point out in my last issue of Reflections ("Seeking to Limit Forgiveness" - Issue #840), our God has called us to be ambassadors of His grace and ministers of reconciliation, the latter of which is most certainly based upon the necessity of genuine forgiveness. We are to be a forgiving, reconciling, redemptive community of believers. I think most of us will agree with this premise. If I willfully refuse to forgive, can I truly expect to receive forgiveness from God? Many of us have been taught that we must always forgive others ... always, under all circumstances ... and that not doing so may well cost us our salvation! That's a frightening thought, and it has caused many disciples of Christ to live in fear and guilt, for they struggle with their own inability to forgive certain persons for certain offences committed against themselves or against others whom they love. After all, didn't Jesus teach, "If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15). Over the years I have had a number of persons come to me for counseling because they lived in daily fear of the wrath of God, for there were some people they simply could not forgive! In some ways, I feel my last issue of Reflections may not have been helpful to those facing such personal angst. Although unintentional, it is understandable how the concept of "limitless forgiveness" could be perceived by some as being equal to or the same as unconditional forgiveness. Let me try and correct that misconception in this current study!

Far too often we teach, and are taught, that we must always forgive others, regardless of who they are or what they have done, even if they have not sought forgiveness, and even if they are not sorry for what they have done. This is an unconditional forgiveness that is NOT taught in the Scriptures (regardless of how some passages might be twisted to suggest such a doctrine). Yes, you and I should always be willing to forgive any person of any offense IF such persons are truly repentant. And, no, we should not seek to do evil to those evildoers who are not repentant. As hard as it may be to bring ourselves to do, we are to do good to, and even pray for, those who do evil. But, nowhere are we told to forgive either them or their actions! In fact (and this may shock some of you), I maintain that we do not have the right to forgive them or their actions! If anything, our duty to God and our fellow man is to both expose and oppose such persons and their actions! NOT forgive them! Jesus said, "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. ... Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:27, 31). Did Jesus command us to forgive them? No, He did not! What Jesus did teach is summed up beautifully by the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. ... If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is Mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17-21). Did Paul command us to forgive them? No, he did not! Why? Because that is not our right! God has not placed within our hands the right to forgive evil or evildoers. Only He has that authority. What He has placed within our hands, however, is the obligation to show love and to do good unto all men, and to call all men to repentance and reconciliation with God. This is the ministry and message entrusted to us. Extending forgiveness to those who refuse that divine offer of grace is beyond the bounds of our commission!

The need for genuine repentance as a condition for forgiveness (both by God and men) is often not given the attention that it needs. Even in religions such as Islam, forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Muhammad, in one of his many recorded sayings, taught, "Allah forgives, but not without repentance!" In one of the great fictional works of the nineteenth century, the character Father Zossima said, "There is no sin and there can be no sin on all the earth, which the Lord will not forgive to the truly repentant!" [Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov]. In a personal letter written in 1862, Abraham Lincoln stated, "I am a patient man - always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance, and also to give ample time for repentance." The German theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) wrote, "The more grievous a man's sins seem to him, the readier God is to forgive them. They are annihilated as if they had never happened, if only the repentance be whole." Pardon without repentance is no pardon at all - it is presumption at best! A presumption, by the way, you and I have not been permitted by our God. We proclaim forgiveness to the lost, we do not provide it. It is up to them to either accept or reject that offer from God, and to repent or refuse; it is up to God to respond to their choice with either forgiveness or condemnation.

My last Reflections article, in which I emphasized the "limitless" nature of God's forgiveness toward those who truly sought reconciliation with Him based on genuine repentance, and our call to show that same "limitless" love and forgiveness and reconciliation to others who have wronged us, but who are truly and deeply sorry for those wrongs, led to some confusion among some readers. This was probably more my fault than theirs, in that I most likely did not emphasize the place of repentance as much as I should have. I should have made it more clear that the Lord was speaking of a specific set of circumstances: difficulties among believers, and our obligation to forgive those fellow believers who have wronged us, even wronged us repeatedly, if they genuinely repent of those wrongs. We are to forgive limitlessly (70 x 7), regardless of the wrong, if the one who wronged us is repentant. This teaching had/has nothing whatsoever to do with forgiving EVIL that abounds in the world, or EVILDOERS who willfully and maliciously engage in acts of evil without any desire whatsoever to repent of such evil attitudes and actions. Let me say again what some might find shocking: We have absolutely no right to forgive such people and/or such deeds. When persons, organizations, institutions, governments, societies, and nations array themselves arrogantly against God, you and I have NO RIGHT to forgive them!! On the contrary! "Who will rise up for Me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for Me against evildoers?" (Psalm 94:16, an appeal equally relevant whether uttered by men or by God). Paul wrote, "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret" (Ephesians 5:11-12). Paul says nothing about forgiving these disobedient people for their shameful "deeds of darkness;" in fact, we are commanded to expose them ... and that means not only the deeds, but those doing them! We are to oppose all that and all who are opposed to God and His will for mankind! We are to take a stand "against evildoers" and their shameful acts of evil. Forgive?! That is not our right! But aren't we to "hate the sin, but love the sinner"? We've all heard this, but it nowhere appears in the Bible. In fact, we find God Himself not only evidencing hatred for sin, but also for certain sinners - a righteous disdain we ourselves are urged to embrace! "There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers" (Prov. 6:16-19). I dealt with this in some depth in my article titled "Hated by God" (Reflections #178).

At this point, some will bring up these words of Jesus on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Several things should be noted here: (1) Jesus, as He had instructed His disciples in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44), was praying for those persecuting Him. (2) Jesus, being the Son of God, had the right to forgive sins, and had done so on a number of occasions. (3) Even though He had the right, He deferred to God here, leaving forgiveness in the Father's hands. (4) Jesus also knew the hearts and motivations of those for whom He prayed: they were acting in ignorance. (5) There is also debate among biblical scholars as to the antecedent of "them" - to whom specifically was Jesus referring? If it was the Jews, for example, that prayer for the Father to forgive may well have been answered several weeks later at Pentecost. When Peter in his sermon convicted them of the fact that "this Jesus, whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36) is both Lord and the Anointed One, "they were cut to the heart" (vs. 37), and they repented. As a result, three thousand of them were forgiven.

Well, okay, some might say, but what about Stephen repeating Christ's words as he was being stoned to death. I have often heard people say that Stephen uttered the exact same words as Jesus. But, did he? In Acts 7:60 we are told that he cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Technically, we could point out that Stephen did not ask that those murdering him be "forgiven." He did not say that he forgave them, nor did he ask God to. He did seek the Lord's mercy, however, and desired that his own death not be the cause of the damnation of others, which reflects a noble spirit. I would hate to think that what someone did to me in a moment of passion would result in their eternal destruction, especially if there was some hope (which only the Lord, who knows hearts, could discern) that they might in time come to repentance. God desires none to perish, but for all to come to that point of repentance (2 Peter 3:9). So should we, and I'm thinking: so did Stephen! Paul knew very well what it was to "act in ignorance and unbelief" (1 Timothy 1:13); he knew not what he was doing, even though he genuinely believed he was honoring God by what he did. "I admit that, for a time, I thought it was my duty to oppose this Jesus of Nazareth with all my might. Backed with the full authority of the high priests, I threw these believers - I had no idea they were Godís people! - into the Jerusalem jail right and left, and whenever it came to a vote, I voted for their execution. I stormed through their meeting places, bullying them into cursing Jesus, a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating these people. And then I started on the towns outside Jerusalem" (Acts 26:9-11, The Message). Yet, the Lord, who knew Paul's heart, showed mercy, giving him 72 hours to reflect on his attitudes and actions, and then extending forgiveness when he turned his life around and submitted to that greater Light! This same man would later testify with respect to the Jews, "they have a zeal for God, but not one based on knowledge" (Romans 10:2). Paul would know, for he had been one of them: a zealous believer who acted ignorantly and without an awareness of the true Faith.

The Lord never commanded anyone to forgive Saul of Tarsus while he was engaged in acts of terror against the cause and community of Christ. Indeed, none within that community had that right. Once this man had repented, however, and was bearing the fruit in keeping with and reflective of genuine repentance, these believers were required to forgive! Thanks be to God for men like Barnabas, who tirelessly took on the task of seeking to bring reconciliation between Saul/Paul and those whom he formerly sought to destroy. As a man now in the Family of the Father, a man who had truly repented, Paul himself fell within the parameters of the principle of "70 x 7." He was to be extended forgiveness, just as the Lord God, through Christ Jesus, had extended forgiveness to each of them who had also repented of their past transgressions against Him. It was this, this forgiveness and reconciliation and acceptance and fellowship among believers, within the community of the Father, that I sought to emphasize in my last Reflections, rather than seeking to encourage an unconditional forgiveness of all evil and all evildoers (which is something I do not believe we have a right to do, and thus which I utterly oppose most vigorously). I hope and pray this helps clear up any confusion that may have been generated by my last article.

ADDENDUM

As I noted in my above article, a number of individuals contacted me after they had read and reflected upon my previous article ("Seeking to Limit Forgiveness") in which I sought to emphasize the "limitless" nature of God's forgiveness of those who genuinely turn from their wicked ways to embrace His grace and His expectation for us to show that same "limitless" love, grace, forgiveness, and desire for reconciliation with our brethren who have wronged us and repented of those attitudes and actions. One of the persons who contacted me, a longtime reader of my Reflections, shared with me an article he had written several years ago in which he bared his heart and soul with regard to his own personal struggle with showing grace and forgiveness to his father. It was deeply moving, for each of us has likely faced that same inner struggle with extending forgiveness (although our own circumstances and challenges may have been different than his). I asked him if he would be willing to let me share that article with my readers. He indicated that he would, but that he wanted to remain anonymous so that people would not think unkindly of his now deceased father, who was well-known to many. I thought that was a noble and loving attitude, one that reflects just how far he has come in his struggle to extend grace to the one who wronged him. Thus, I will identify this article's author only as, in his words, "a minister who has been in and out of various types of ministry for 45 years." If you would like a copy of this article titled "The Problem with Grace," send me an email requesting it (maxey@zianet.com) and I'll email it to you. Again, my thanks to this brother who was willing to share his personal struggle. I believe many will be challenged and uplifted by it.

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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Minister in Washington:

Brother Maxey, thank you for all you have done for me and our brotherhood. Your book "Down, But Not Out" was one that my wife and I read and reread before we got married many years ago. We had both been through so-called "Scriptural" divorces. Your book helped us understand the actual biblical teaching regarding this subject far more than all the many debates on the topic over the years combined! I would like to have all four of your books emailed to me in .pdf format (as advertised on your Web Page). Thank you once again for all that you have done to serve Christ Jesus and His people. Many blessings to you, brother!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

On your web site I notice that you are offering all four of your books on a single CD in both .doc and .pdf formats for only $25. I hope I understood that offer correctly! I would like to have that CD, and I have sent that amount to your PayPal account along with my mailing address. Thanks!

From a Minister in Rhode Island:

Al, thank you once again for your Reflections. One of the things (and there are several) that I appreciate about your work, is your focus on the hermeneutic of love, based on the love the Holy One has for His people. Studying the Scriptures through the lenses of this guiding perspective is truly missing amongst some of our brethren!!

From a Reader in Unknown:

Pastor Maxey, is it still possible to get a hard copy of your book "Down, But Not Out"? I gave my copy to someone who needed it, and I would really love to have it in hard copy again. Thank you.

From a Minister in North Carolina:

Al, I've been following your writings for many years. I appreciate your work and your approach to church life and shared theology. For all my life, I have been part of the "middle of the road" branch of the Restoration Movement: the "instrumental" Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, as was my father. We lived in New Mexico for a while (I was in grade school) and my dad was good friends with Cecil Hook, who preached in that little town. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your faithful service to the church in so many ways for so many years! After reading your Reflections for so many years, I have often wanted to say to you, "Well done!" So, "Well done!"

From a Reader in Washington:

Al, I have been reading your Reflections articles for a few years now and am so grateful to have found them! I have a question, and hopefully it isn't a silly one. Have you done any articles on the "soul" and the "spirit" of man? I have never really thought about any of this until just recently, but they have always seemed to me to be intertwined in some way. Can you tell me your thoughts on this? What is each, and what are their differences, and what role do they play in us? Thanks.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I've been listening to a podcast on the use of "Chiasm" in the Scriptures, and I wondered if you had ever done any studies about this style of understanding the Scriptures. Thanks, Al.

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, I would appreciate your thoughts on these two verses: Genesis 10:31 - "These are the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, according to their nations" and Genesis 11:1 - "Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words." One verse says there were different languages, but the other verse says there was just one. How do you reconcile this?

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, your article "Seeking to Limit Forgiveness: Missing the Messiah's Meaning in the Moral Imperative of Matthew 18:22" (Reflections #840) came at the perfect time for me! God always amazes me with that. I have had a brother-in-Christ who has literally hated me for months. He has not only treated me horribly but my husband as well. I have approached him on numerous occasions to try and rectify his anger, but he refuses every time. The last time he told me he would never forgive me and that he was done with me, and he used a four-letter-word for emphasis. We were in the church fellowship hall, ironically, when this occurred. I decided to write him an email about his anger, which initially had no effect on him; in fact, he responded negatively at first. I used Scriptures, and I wrote it in a spirit of love for a fellow Christian (who is supposed to be a leader in our church). Well, yesterday he came up to both my husband and me with a much different demeanor, and he apologized to us both. Al, the Scriptures you used in your article are indeed sharper and more effective than any "two-edged sword," and you used them eloquently, as always! I love that you and your family are seeing such beautiful fellowship among the other church leaders and members in your city. We are called to that very thing, as the hearts of people are more important to God than the different traditions seen in our worship. Al, I pray that your words of wisdom may continue to bring love and unity to your community and to Christians everywhere!

From an Author in California:

Dear Brother Maxey, I'm currently reading a book by Frank Viola. In his chapter on "Forgiving Others" he includes the following quote by a writer named Robert Brault, "Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got." This really stirred me, and it is definitely, in my view, an aspect of the forgiveness God expects of us.

From a Reader in Montana:

Al, "Seeking to Limit Forgiveness" was yet another very impactful article. Thank you for delving into this topic at this time! I was really moved by the point you made that God's ability/desire/intent to forgive us is limitless, and that we should be striving for that too! It was a good reminder to me. I was sorry not to be able to get together with you when my wife and I were down in your city recently, but just had too many projects going at once! We will be back in April, though, and will reach out then! I hope you and Shelly are doing well.

From a Reader in Georgia:

My brother, this idea of unlimited forgiveness of one who has done evil to another is a hard one for me! I think about the women who are abused in their marriages and the harm the church has done to them over the years, shaming them into staying in an abusive marriage. Women have literally died. I may be old-school, but I can't help but think of the old adage: "Do it to me once, shame on you. Do it to me twice, shame on me." Don't you think boundaries play a role in the forgiveness equation as well? I can actually love a person in concept -- let it go, as far as seeking some kind of "payback" for being wronged -- but I can also protect and distance myself from pathological liars and abusive people. About the best I've been able to do is allow for "screwups" in others that may hurt my feelings, knowing full-well that I myself have a history of imperfection. But loyalty? ... I don't associate with anyone who violates that. It's a pet peeve. And anyone who willfully takes advantage of me? ... I'm just not going to reconcile, unless there is unquestionable repentance, and even then it would be the Holy Spirit doing "signs and wonders" in me! That's not bragging; really more of a confession that I'm a long way from the biblical ideal, I suppose. The one thing I for sure have been able to let go of, though, is revenge. I decided a long time ago that was God's job. He is the only One big enough to do whatever and get away with it -- even forgiveness. I love ya, brother, and appreciate your willingness to take on unpopular topics (I know what that feels like - LOL). Al, you always encourage and sometimes challenge me, and I'm a better person for it.

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, Great article about forgiveness and reconciliation; thanks again for your musings. I view much of the Bible as addressing God's people dealing with His people. Of course there are broader examples, but much of the letters of the NT deal with household codes for Christian communities. The idea that we forgive those who are going in the wrong direction is part of love for our neighbor, but I think Paul calling us ambassadors of God calling for reconciliation is our call to those lost or evil in the world. Certainly we recognize and ask God to defeat evil, but should we not still call for repentance and reconciliation? I go back to Peter telling us God does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance. That resonates with me in that God has hope for us all. I agree we as believers rely on His love and grace for our salvation, and certainly not in our own personal perfection (though He counts us as perfect in Christ). I continually go back to the "sheep and goat" final judgment story Jesus tells in Matthew 25. Here there is no doctrinal test or list of sins or any other man-made idea of right or wrong. People, as I'm sure you know, were divided into "sheep" and "goats" based on their love (or lack of love) for others. I see this as Jesus telling His people they are called to be like Him, and that how they live and evidence this godly love trumps everything else. Perhaps that is short-sighted, but I can't see even the "holiest" persons in the world making the cut on that day without love in their hearts for others. This is what I believe Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when He called us to be "perfect" as God is perfect. To be whole or complete or mature, we must be filled with the love of God and others. To me, that is a lifelong journey, and all other "issues" fade away as we approach the ideal of caring for each other in godly love.

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