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Our point of departure with any forgiveness discussion should begin by delineating between cultural forgiveness and biblical forgiveness. Cultural forgiveness is like an empty add-on at the end of a conversation with a peripheral friend:
Hey, let’s get together again!
It’s one of those things we say but don’t mean. It’s a cultural courtesy conversational tack-on that probably should be tossed into the “miscellaneous file” and labeled, “Little White Lies.” It lacks force, authenticity, clarity, and authority.
Biblical forgiveness is a different animal. It is full of divine power, authentic realism, and a kind of clarity that will not be satisfied until the guilty person finds release from his crime. It also comes from the Judge of the universe.
Biblical forgiveness does not begin on the horizontal level between two human beings, which is a distinction between cultural and biblical forgiveness. Sin-releasing forgiveness starts on the vertical plane, that divine space where Sovereign God waits for the contrite of heart.
The first step in biblical forgiveness is always between the offender who has sinned and the offended. When it comes to our transgressions, the Lord is the first and most crucial offended person.
If you want to end well when it comes to forgiveness, you must begin well. If you’re going to experience release from any sin and all of the accompanying guilt that comes with that crime, you must make your requests known to God before you do anything else (2 Samuel 12:13).
With the primary offended person in view, the passage in 1 John is a great place to think about the act and process of forgiveness. The operative word in that verse is conditional. “If” you confess your sin to the Lord, you may receive forgiveness for your crime.
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
The implication of the opposite would also be true:
If you do not confess your sin to the Lord, He would be faithful and just to not forgive you of your sins and to not cleanse you from any and all unrighteousness.
The condition for forgiveness hinges on whether the guilty person asks for forgiveness. A request to be released must happen to experience release. We are not allowed to be sloppy in our forgiveness as though we can dismiss our sins by some other means.
To be forgiven outside of the parameters and power of the gospel would be a mockery of the gospel: Christ died for our sins (Romans 4:25). We must have the Lord’s judicial approval for the obliteration of our sins. Therefore, we can conclude that…
You also see this condition of forgiveness statement made in Romans as it pertains to our salvation. Just as you can’t experience forgiveness for sanctification sins without asking, you cannot receive salvation without asking.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. — Romans 10:9
Whether you’re asking the Lord to forgive you for your sins at salvation or to forgive you for your sins post-salvation, the process of forgiveness requires a humble confession to the Lord. He will not arbitrarily grant forgiveness to anyone who tries to ascertain release from their sins some other way.
To confess means to agree with God about what you have done. You enter into the Lord’s presence through the means of prayer and agree with Him about what you did wrong. A confession is the way to get on the same page with the Lord.
After you both agree, you may ask Him to release you from the penalty that you justly deserve (Romans 6:23). If you do not ask an offended person to free you from your sin, you leave the potential forgiver in a threefold quandary:
The fixing of our mistakes is not a passive activity. It takes engagement from both the offender and the offended. Without this kind of biblical commitment, the Lord does not remove our mistakes.
But if you humbly ask for forgiveness, you can be joyfully released from what you did wrong, which affirms the purpose of the cross. Jesus Christ willingly paid for your sins, which was ample enough to remove any penalties you may have accrued.
There is so much money in the bank, and you can have full access to as much of it that you want as long as you (1) humble yourself, (2) acknowledge your need, and (3) make the request for some cash.
The offended person is not allowed to throw money at anyone that he wants to arbitrarily. Similarly, you cannot stand at the foot of the cross and arbitrarily release a person from their crimes when that person has not owned what they did or requested release from the offense.
Understanding this process of forgiveness is imperative because if God does not release you from your sins, He will not grant the horizontal forgiveness that you may seek from others.
It would be the height of arrogance to think any of us could forgive a person of their sins when Almighty Lord has not forgiven them of their sins.
My forgiveness is biblically meaningless if the sinner has not been forensically, legally, and divinely released by the ultimate Offended Power. It would be like me telling a person that he is a Christian when God has not regenerated him.
Hey, you don’t have to ask the Lord to forgive you of your sins. I’ll do that for you. Do you want to be saved? Great…you are saved! Go in peace.
Imagine if you were at your local courthouse and a convicted felon hobbled by you in an orange jumpsuit and chains. Before the criminal entered the courtroom, you go over to the person and release him from his crimes. He is full of joy and appreciation that you paid his debt to society.
He continues into the courtroom only to find out that the judge is not as accommodating as you were: He sentences the felon to life in prison. Because God has not forgiven the person, any pronouncement that you make about him is irrelevant–unless all you are looking for is some form of partial cultural forgiveness to put the relational tension behind you.
If you sin against someone and ask them to forgive you, but do not ask God to forgive you, then you are not forgiven in the way you need forgiveness because you are still guilty before God. You could think of it like categories:
God is always the primary offended person when sin happens, and until that relationship is reconciled all terrestrial confessions will be inadequate. No one can grant forgiveness to you, as though you can be free from the sin committed if you have not asked God to release you from it.
This juncture brings us to the sphere of confession. With the good Lord’s full pardon of your crimes in hand, you are now poised to approach all the other people who were within your sphere of offense. Think about it like circles that entirely overlap each other.
The first circle is the sphere of offense. You have to determine all the people that you have offended. Because God is always the offended party, He is always within your circle of offense. All sin offends God. No exceptions. But there may be other people within the sphere of offense.
Think about it like a group of people in white clothing standing on a sidewalk. As you pass by them in your vehicle, you hit a mud puddle and splash some of them with dirty road water. You go back to find out who all you dirtied by your actions. That is your sphere of offense.
The people that you have offended should be the same number that you want to confess your sin too. God is always offended by your sin, and there may be other people within the sphere of offense.
There will be other people not within your sphere of offense. There is no pressing need to let them know what you have done–at least you should not seek forgiveness from them.
There will be times when you cannot ask a person to forgive you for what you have done to them (Romans 12:18). Suppose you had a dysfunctional relationship with your father, and he has passed away. His death makes relationship reconciliation impossible.
In such cases where transactional forgiveness is impossible, God provides grace. Ask Him to forgive you for the wrongs that were in that relationship, while sharing with Him your attitude of forgiveness–a heart that wants to forgive and be free from what happened, but cannot transact the forgiveness. In time you should be able to rest in His grace. You have done all that you can do (Romans 12:18).
When you are asking someone to forgive you, it is incumbent that you try to remove any doubt or speculation about the genuineness of your confession and your request for forgiveness.
You do not want to make it any harder for the offended person to forgive you. They are already struggling with what you did. Don’t add to that struggle by being casual or flippant about forgiveness.
If your sin has broken you, then you should be willing to do anything to make it right. (See Psalm 51:1-19 and Luke 15:17-24) One of the ways you can do this is by bringing a clear and unassailable case against yourself regarding what you did. Here is a sample of what that could look like:
I know I have offended you. I have sinned against God and you. The Spirit of God has convicted me for what I did, and I cannot rest until I’m completely free from my transgressions.
I’m so sorry that my sin has hurt you. I wish I could take it back, but I realize that I can’t undo it. I hope you can forgive me for my actions. I sinned when I (filled in the blank by being specific about what you did).
It did not honor the Lord’s name or bless you in any way. I throw myself at your mercy and will not be able to move forward until you grant me forgiveness.
Will you forgive me?
While it’s not necessary to parrot this sample confession, it is essential to have the attitude that this confession and request for forgiveness communicates. Your confession must be pneumatic, as you and the Spirit of God collaborate on how you want to present your case against yourself to another person.
What you don’t want to be is nonchalant, haphazard, flippant, vague, or rote. Make it more comfortable on the person you hurt. You can do this if your sin has genuinely broken you, which will be conveyed by the way you ask them to release you from it.