Forgive Us as We Forgive - Part 2
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Rev. Martyn McGeown, pastor of Providence PRC. Previous article in the series: Forgive Us as We Forgive - Part 1
Third, forgiveness of sins does not necessarily remove the consequences of sin. If two brothers are fighting, and one injures the other, forgiveness can occur, and should occur, but the brother’s injury still remains. “I am sorry” does not heal a black eye or a broken arm. “I forgive you” does not reduce swelling or mend broken bones. Time for healing is necessary. Physical scars might even remain as a reminder of that sin, which was actually forgiven. The same applies to emotional wounds: name-calling, bullying, and abusive speech leave emotional scars. They do not go away when the aggressor says, “I am sorry” and the victim says, “I forgive you.” Perhaps it will take years for the emotional wounds to heal; perhaps the emotional scars will be lifelong. Those are the consequences of sin.
This applies especially in abusive relationships. An abusive husband might subject his wife to years of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse: he destroys her body, he destroys her soul, he makes her feel worthless. He does the opposite of what he is called to do: to love, cherish, and nurture her. She brings his behavior to the attention of the elders: the husband, then, apologizes; he says he is “sorry.” Is that wife required to forgive him? Is she required to dismiss his sin (his sinful pattern of behavior), to remove that burden (under which she has suffered for years), and to forget that sin (to live as if it did not happen, and never to mention it again, never to bring it up again, and never to remind him of it again?)
The answer is that she is required to put away any ill will, malice, and desire for revenge; she is required to love him and seek his good; she is required to long for his love, to long that the marriage can be restored, but she is not required to place herself in danger, or to subject herself to continued abuse.
“I am sorry” on the husband’s part must be accompanied by a radical change of attitude and behavior. “I am sorry” must be the expression of genuine, heartfelt sorrow. “I am sorry” must mean, “I intend, by God’s grace, to change.” The wife, the family, and the consistory must demand that change. The wife might forgive him, but her physical and emotional scars do not vanish. The wife might forgive him, but she might never fully heal. The wife might forgive him, but she might be too frightened to live with him, and she might never again trust him. The wife might forgive him, but she might feel the trauma for a long time. Those are consequences of the husband’s sin—that is his fault. The husband must not become impatient, but he must live with those consequences. The words, “I am sorry,” do not remove the consequences of sin.
Consider David’s experience. In 2 Samuel 12:9 Nathan confronts David: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon” David’s response is, “I have sinned against the Lord.” This was not a general confession of guilt without specifics—Nathan had already laid out David’s sin in considerable detail, and David did not contradict one word. Nathan’s speech awakened David’s conscience, and pierced David’s heart, so that he sorrowed over his sin, repented, and turned from it. David’s response is not, “It was a misunderstanding,” or “I meant well,” or “Bathsheba is to blame—she asked for it.” David does not make any excuses, he does not attempt to hide or deny his sin, he does not lash out in anger against the prophet, he does not make a partial confession, or bemoan himself because he was caught: he simply says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” As proof of this, we find his full and frank confession in Psalm 51: “I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and clear when thou judgest” (vv. 3-4). That is the fruit of the Spirit’s work in David’s heart.
When David confessed his sin, and repented of it—and not before; see Psalm 32:3-5—God forgave him freely and graciously.
Nevertheless, consequences remained. David’s sin, although it was pardoned, ruined his family: “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house because thou hast despised me… Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house… The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit because by this thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die” (2 Sam. 12:10, 11, 13-14). Sexual violence, murder, rebellion, death: these were the bitter fruit of David’s sin in his own household. When we forgive others, the bitter fruit of sin does not necessarily disappear. However, we should not inflict miserable consequences upon others. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says God.
Fourth, forgiveness of sins does not exclude justice. Forgiveness of sins is just and must have a just basis, which is the perfect righteousness, the lifelong obedience, and the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ. God does not forgive sins without the satisfaction of his justice. God’s justice is satisfied at the cross. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). But there is also criminal justice: if someone commits a sin against you, which is also a crime, forgiveness does not require you to cover the crime up. Love covers a multitude of sins, but love does not cover a multitude of crimes. In some cases, a cover-up of a crime is itself a crime. It is not vindictive, unloving, or unforgiving, to report a crime to the authorities for them to investigate it, and, if necessary, punish it. Justice must be served. You can say, “I forgive you, I wish you no harm, and I have no desire for personal vengeance, but your sin against me is so serious that it must be punished, not by me, but by the proper authorities that God has ordained for that purpose.” Repentance and forgiveness do not remove the need for criminal penalties. Consistories must be aware of that: in some cases they are mandatory reporters.
Having made those qualifications, let us remember these main points. We put away our neighbor’s sins, as God has put away our sins. We remove the burden of our neighbor’s sins, not requiring him to pay, as God has removed our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. We forget our neighbor’s sins: we put them out of our mind; we do not hold them against him. We declare to him, so that he knows, “I forgive you.”