Forgiveness – October 21, 2022by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher
Forgiveness depends on two things: first, the ability of the one forgiving to let go of any offense, or moral debt, of sin; and second, the ability of the one being forgiven to correct any offense incurred by their sin. Therefore, forgiveness is the exercise of mercy on the part of the forgiver, and the exercise of genuine repentance in the forgiven. Apart from mercy and repentance there is no forgiveness because at its root forgiveness expresses a peaceful exchange, or relationship, of give and take.
The giving of forgiveness proceeds from the nature of God Himself who is merciful and loving. “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use it, it will be measured back to you” (Lk. 6:36-38).
The loving-kindness of God does not seek exact retribution for sins; therefore, God does not hold grudges against sinners, or delight in punishing sinners according to their degree of guiltiness. “The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not become angry to the end, nor will He be wrathful forever; He will not deal with us according to our sins, nor reward us according to our transgressions” (Ps. 102:8-10).
This ability of God to forgive defines the Christian mindset; it is the condition of true Christianity. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15; see Matt. 18:21-35). “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mk. 11:25-26).
Forgiveness is the ability to let go of offenses, that is, not to hold onto the injury caused by another. Thus forgiveness is of primary benefit to the person offended, the opposite of which is enduring anger, wrath, remembrance of wrongs, bitterness, vengeance, and hatred. One who forgives lives detached from these destructive desires in the divine desires of peace, compassion, remembrance of God’s mercy, pity, deference, and love. This is the condition of one who genuinely forgives.
Yet forgiveness is an exchange, a double-sided coin. Forgiveness must also be received properly to complete the transaction according to God’s design. Forgiveness does not excuse, let alone condone, offenses committed by the offender. Not only must transformation take place in a person so that they can be merciful and forgive as God forgives, but a transformation must take place in a person thus forgiven to correct what is offensive. Otherwise, no need for forgiveness is ever acknowledged, and the offender ever remains in their sin.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-9). The reception of forgiveness, that is, being truly forgiven, depends on the demonstration that a person has truly turned from their sin, as the Apostle states it here: confession and cleansing from unrighteousness.
In another place, our Lord instructs His apostles: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23; cf. Matt. 16:19; 18:18 – the binding and loosing of sins). The “retaining of sins” acknowledges that the sinner is still bound, or holds on, to their offense when they refuse to repent and practice the opposite. While forgiveness is available and possible, such unrepentant sinners refuse to be forgiven and separate themselves from the saving mercy of God manifested in the Church. Persistent unrepentance is the basis of suspension from Holy Communion – excommunication – in the hope that the person will come to their senses and turn from their sin (1 Cor. 5:9-11; 6:9-11; 10:14-22).
“In that day the Lord of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and for girding with sackcloth (i.e., signs of genuine repentance; Joel 2:12). But instead, they celebrated in joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, so as to eat and drink wine, saying, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ These things are revealed in the ears of the Lord of hosts, for this sin shall not be forgiven you until you die” (Isa. 22:12-14). How dreadful not to be forgiven by God! Not that God is unwilling to forgive, but people remain in their sin without wanting to be forgiven (see Matt. 12:31-32; Mk. 3:29).
This truth is ultimately fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ the Savior. “[God the Father] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). Yet the Apostle Paul goes on to write: “For if we sin willfully after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (i.e., Christ was sacrificed on the Cross), but a certain fearful expectation of judgment…” (Heb. 10:26-27).
The fact of the forgiveness of sins is the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. We make that forgiveness our own by living in accordance with our salvation from sin in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus the reality of forgiveness is demonstrated in the faithful by showing themselves genuine in repentance, faith, and love by struggling against and no longer persisting in offenses previously committed.
People who are truly forgiven are willing to accept the consequences of their offense and to offer proof that they hate their sin in the love of God. King David was forgiven his terrible sins of adultery and murder by humbly accepting what happened to him and his first son born with Bathsheba (2 Kgm. 12; see also Ps. 31 and 50). The offender in the Corinthian church accepted a penance in order to be restored to communion with the faithful there (2 Cor. 2:6-11). The concept of “penance” in the Church, usually assigned as a part of the process of Confession and Absolution, is not a punishment, but literally a test to honor the genuineness of repentance and forgiveness (Gk., epitimia). Without such a test, forgiveness is merely a word, not deed and truth.
We can always trust in God’s limitless mercy and forbearance manifested in Jesus Christ as an endless source of forgiving, even to our enemies. In Christ we are called to an ever increasing measure of being forgiven by walking in newness of life in humility and a clean conscience. Beginning with our own person, may these two aspects of forgiveness be multiplied to the healing of soul and body.