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This tension does raise a question: how often should I forgive someone? Jesus answered that question in a hyperbolic way, as He pointed to an infinite amount of opportunities we have to forgive offenders. Often forgiveness serves only as a means for relational reconciliation, which is good, but if the offending person continues to behave poorly, forgiveness can wear thin after a while.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22-23).
I suspect you can relate to Peter’s question. Has there been a person in your life who asked for forgiveness over and over again but never changed the behavior that created their need for forgiveness? Maybe there is someone like that in your life now. Perhaps that person is you (Matthew 7:3-5). That’s where my mind tends to go when I hear a question like that. Did yours go there too? All of us struggle with recurring sin patterns.
I’m sure you don’t want to be that person that always asks for forgiveness but never changes. To still be stuck (Galatians 6:1) without ever changing can exasperate your relationships while testing the boundaries of Jesus’ expectation for forgiveness. To live well with others requires more than a never-ending cycle of granting and receiving forgiveness.
Biffy is twelve years old. His parents love the Lord, and they have tried to live that out in their home authentically. Being Jesus to Biffy has been their regular teaching on how to change, or what the Bible calls repentance. Paul’s language in Ephesians 4:22-24 gives us a quick at-a-glance overview of total repentance.
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Every believer brings an old way of living into their new walk with Jesus. Paul knew that. Thus, he gave the body of Christ a template for a total makeover. Christians have the privilege of working out their salvation (Philippians 2:12-13) progressively and incrementally removing their former manner of thinking and doing from their lives (James 1:22). This process requires much more than asking for forgiveness.
Biffy knew this. His dad and mom have modeled and taught him well. Also, Biffy is not a flippant kid: He wants to do what is right. He has a heart for God (Acts 13:22), which is why he asks God to forgive him after he makes a mistake. He also asks his dad or mom for forgiveness if the offense is against either one of them. But there is a problem: Biffy never changes.
The never-changing person, who asks for forgiveness, is a test of the offended person’s Christian maturity because a person’s lack of change does not remove the responsibility of the offended person to forgive. God is our best example when it comes to forgiving repeat offenders. He will do it every time you ask Him (1 John 1:9). With an imitate-able God as your example (Ephesians 5:1), all Christians should be ready and willing to forgive someone when someone asks them to do so.
But let’s press the point further. Even if they do not ask, you should be willing to appropriate God’s free grace to forgive the person in your heart. Their lack of asking should not be a reason for you to be under the control of their sinful actions. This opportunity is the power of the gospel activated in your soul (Romans 1:16). Forgiveness—transactional or attitudinal—is your best option when you are offended. Attitudinal forgiveness can always happen, even when the offender never pursues transactional forgiveness.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Living in a relationship where nobody ever asks for forgiveness or where someone does ask but change never occurs can be hard enough, but if you use their stubbornness or ignorance as an excuse to hold on to your unforgiveness, both of you will be captivated by the sin that happened. The quicker you can appropriate God’s grace with an attitude of forgiveness, the quicker you will experience freedom from what happened to you.
Granted, some sins against you will be more challenging than others, but there is grace for that. Besides being free from what happened, the upside is that if the offender ever comes to you for forgiveness, you will be ready to grant it. You will have already primed your heart—by grace—to do so. Biffy’s forgiveness responses have always been worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).
Because of his willingness to seek forgiveness, he may be in the top 10 percent of the Christian class. And true to form, his parents tell him each time he asks their forgiveness how glad they are to release him from what he did (Romans 2:4). On several occasions, one of his parents has taken the time to walk him through the necessity of not just being released from the guilt of his actions but for him to push beyond forgiveness toward repentance.
They want him to fully repent so he can be uncaught from the repeated patterns of sin in his life (Galatians 6:1-2). An example of this is if you choose to be angry at someone, it would be wise and humble to seek forgiveness. It would be better for you to try to break the habituated patterns of anger that have captivated your soul (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; James 4:1-3). As I have reflected on my years of counseling with families, I have observed three recurring themes of forgiveness and repentance practices in Christian homes.
This kind of family does not repent at all; there is no repentance language operating in their homes. Things like sin, guilt, conviction, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not part of their daily vocabulary. Occasionally, there will be an “I’m sorry” tossed about for mitigating relational tension, but not for genuinely owning an offense or transforming a relationship.
Perhaps they have not been discipled well. Maybe these Christians are part of a local church that does not practice complete repentance. It could be there is no humility. Thus the Lord’s empowering favor is negated because of His resistance toward proud hearts (James 4:6; Romans 1:18). That would be a spiritual problem. For many of them, it’s a bad habit that is never illuminated by the Spirit or addressed within their closest relationships. I can testify to this. The first five years of our marriage, I never asked my wife to forgive me for anything.
I never changed in any meaningful long-term ways as far as our one-flesh union was concerned. We were shuffling and stumbling toward a business partner relationship or roommate status. Mercifully, the Lord imposed Himself on our marriage, and we began the long, tedious, and arduous process of practicing repentance in our relationship, which has become a daily habit (Galatians 2:20). There is no doubt in our minds that this was the means of grace that transformed us and our marriage.
The second group of Christians employs the forgiveness language, but they do not have a transparent, practical, working model of complete repentance. Though they are a notch higher than the “I’m sorry” crowd, the kudos stop there because of their similarity to the “I’m sorry” crowd. There is no adequate, sustained transformation made in their lives. They have roller-coaster seasons of getting along and seasons of struggle.
They can be mainly civil to each other, especially when with others, because they have learned how to get along in public. But the transformative power of the gospel is not dramatically and dynamically empowered in their homes. The small changes they experience happen because they are growing old together, and there is some residual effect from being in a Bible-teaching church. We can do better. When the power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God come alive in humble hearts, lives and families experience transformation.
Change is the power of the gospel, awakening dark and dull hearts (Hebrews 5:12-14). Maybe the most common reason for a partially repentant home is because one spouse is unwilling to change for whatever reason. A wife who resists her husband’s biblical attempts to lead her will cause any marriage to flounder. This kind of grieving (Ephesians 4:30) or quenching (1 Thessalonians 5:19) what God can do for them will always keep their marriage from what it should be (Ephesians 5:31-32).
The third kind of family is a confessing and forgiving one that is intentional about helping each other change. When sin happens, they own it. That’s called confession. Then forgiveness is asked for and granted, which is only the beginning of the change process. There are so many grace-empowered opportunities waiting for this kind of family that lives out repentance. After they neutralize the sin by gospel forgiveness, they move to the glorious step of genuinely reconciling with each other. That’s when you can have an unencumbered gospel group hug.
The power of Jesus removes the wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). The offender and the offended are now partners in the transformative gospel (Philippians 1:5). They are for each other, which is one of the core tenets of the gospel practicalized (Romans 8:31). This attitude is proven repeatedly as they engage each other after they forgive each other to become educated about what went wrong. They want to help each other mortify (Romans 8:13) and amputate (Matthew 5:30) all bad attitudes, words, and actions, which is the power of the gospel activated in them.
You will know if the power of the gospel has successfully neutralized the sin that comes between you and another person by how you both talk about what went wrong after you have reconciled. If the forgiveness exchange was authentic, there is no reason for two people—in an ongoing relationship—to keep from talking about what went wrong. To miss out on this essential discussion is to miss out on an opportunity to help someone change (Galatians 6:1-2).
Discussing the sin between two people without judgment is a real sign that the offense has been rendered dead by the gospel. It also helps to keep the offender from becoming a repeat offender, which is what was going on with Biffy. A few characteristics of this kind of gospelized family are openness, transparency, honesty, and humility, plus an intentional willingness to serve in the sanctification of the entire family (Hebrews 10:24). You’ll also observe relational warmth, kindness, and genuineness in their communication (Ephesians 4:29-32).
Are you in a relationship where someone is a repeat offender? It’s a trick question; you are a repeat offender, and so am I. Nobody is perfect, and everybody has a problem or two that have become patterns. Therefore, the better question should first center around you and your recurring bad habits. With you in view, do you regularly push past forgiveness by seeking to change?
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