Part XV of the Forgiving and Reconciling Series
We concluded our last post noting that when Jesus says, “ “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” it sure sounds like repentance follows forgiveness.
But it’s important to remember a few things:
Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you.” He is talking here about fellow believers—those who have received the forgiveness of God and been set free from their bondage to sin. The sin of Christians is a major concern in the Scripture and in church history. To modern Christians, that makes little sense. We just think, Christians sin, right?
But look how seriously the writer of Hebrews takes the sin of fellow believers, in Hebrews 6:4-8:
4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen[c] away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
The writer of Hebrews is here referring to the sin of apostasy; spurning the truth of God in favor of one’s own ideas or desires. While not every sin makes one apostate, every sin that is left to freely reign in the life of the believer sets her on a trajectory towards apostasy. Such is the end goal of our enemy: to leave us so satisfied, or imprisoned, with our own sin that we turn our backs on God altogether.
So when a fellow believer falls back into sin, we ought to regard it as a four-alarm fire! It’s a big deal! It requires serious action! Having been set free from slavery to sin, they have returned to their former master and are willingly offering their service; even though they have been purchased by Christ with his blood and they rightfully belong to him.
That’s why, when this happens, Jesus says to rebuke the brother! Not for your sake, but for his! Rebuke doesn’t mean feel sorry for yourself and complain to your brother about how hurt you are. Rebuke means to convince, persuade, admonish—in short, wake the brother up! Say, “You’re going the wrong way! You’re crucifying the son of God all over again!”
This is going to happen more than once. In fact, Jesus says, it may even happen seven times a day. And it’s so serious that if it happens seven times a day, you need to rebuke your brother every time to keep him on track. You don’t want your brother to lose the ability to be brought back to repentance and be turned into a land that produces only thorns and thistles.
And, says Jesus, if your brother repents, forgive him—share God’s judgment (his setting things right) and mercy over and over with him every time.
But if you wait to forgive a non-Christian until they repent, you will be waiting a long time. Like forever. Because only a man freed from bondage can truly, meaningfully repent. And only Christ can break the bondage of sin.
But if Christ sets you free, as he promises in John 8:36, then you will be free indeed. Free to repent. Free to renounce your sin and receive his grace. Freed for new obedience, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is that lifelong salvation which we talked about last month: salvation that begins when we accept the judgment and mercy of God, salvation that continues through our whole lives as the Holy Spirit shapes us more and more in the image of Christ, and salvation that delivers us into his presence on the day of Jesus Christ.
Those three aspects of salvation—justification, sanctification, and glorification—remind us of how powerful and comprehensive God’s forgiveness truly is:
- It sets us free from the punishment of sin: that’s justification.
- It sets us free progressively from the power of sin: that’s sanctification.
- It will ultimately set us free from even the presence of sin: that’s glorification.
Repentance is our response at every step of the way. It’s more than us just saying we’re sorry. It’s us drawing ever more deeply on Christ’s forgiveness so that we are ever more fully shaped in his image.
Human forgiveness can’t do any of that. It’s a cheap substitute that God calls us to repent from.
Have you been trying to forgive someone in your life using human forgiveness? Trying to change your feelings (or even asking God to change your feelings)? Trying to forget what happened? Trying to build up the willpower to move forward.
If so, it’s time to repent. It’s time to remember that forgiveness isn’t something you do; it’s something Christ does through you, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When you cry out, “Lord, forgive them!”, you are not making a statement about your emotions or your memory or your willpower. You are invoking the presence of Christ. You are pledging yourself to him as a willing, humble vessel through whom he can pour out his judgment—his setting things right—and his mercy, and through whom he can claim the sin of the other as his own.
And if you are faithful to cry out to him to forgive those who have sinned against you, he’ll be faithful to forgive you, too.
And then, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, you will be a land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to Christ Jesus, for whom you are farmed.
Tune into our next and final post on Forgiving and Reconciling to find out what it looks like to practice this Work of Mercy in real life.