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Lesson 2 - The Practice of Forgiveness and Repentance

The Relationship between Forgiveness and Repentance

Just as we have seen that there is a strong connection between forgiving others and being forgiven by God, so too there is an essential link between repentance and forgiveness. Cheap grace is often preached today, where to receive forgiveness only requires a person to say they are sorry, almost as a formula. Jeremiah 6:13-15 speaks of priests and people glossing over their sins, saying, 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace because there has been no sorrow for sin. Many who take the cheap grace path find themselves having to do it over and over again throughout their lives. Is this because God is not forgiving them? No, but it might be that they do not 'feel' forgiven, in fact have not received the forgiveness offered.

God looks at the heart. He knows if a person really wants to change. Forgiveness without the desire and intention to turn from sin would not put the person back on God's path for their life. They would continue to sin and fall.

For God to 'absolve' them of their sin without them truly desiring not to be sinful would open God up to a charge of violating their free will, which he will not do. It smacks of the idea of 'receiving absolution' and 'doing penance' while retaining the right to sin again, knowing one can fix it again next week. They think because God's grace is so wonderful he will forgive again and again and again - even deliberate wilful sin. This is just the attitude Paul criticised in Romans 6:1-2.

The unrepentant person is not actually seeking forgiveness, just freedom from the consequences of their sin. Unfortunately (or fortunately) such 'freedom' only comes at the even greater costs that attend making any such pact with the devil, which it is because God will have no part in such a transaction.

No, there can be no forgiveness without repentance. Such 'forgiveness' would be no forgiveness at all - just a letting off the hook. The result would still be eventual self-inflicted destruction.

Of course, in human relationships, God will often call upon us to forgive someone without there being any repentance on their part. Yes, we let them off the hook, but as we will see shortly, this is not for their benefit but ours. In fact we are taking them off our hook and putting them on God's. For this reason, our forgiving someone can not be dependent on their agreeing to change. We are not forgiving as a means of making them stop offending us - that would be manipulation. But neither are we promising to prevent the consequences of their sin - they bring them on themselves and it may be beyond our control.

Offence and Resentment

Several times (Matthew 13:37; Matthew 15:12; Mark 6:3 and John 6:61) the Gospel stories speak of people taking offence at Jesus, or being offended by him. John Bevere's The bait of Satan: living free from the deadly trap of offense, explains the significance of the words of Jesus in Luke 17:1-4 (Amp).

class="quote">And [Jesus] said to His disciples, "Temptations (snares, traps set to entice to sin) are sure to come, but woe to him by or through whom they come! It would be more profitable for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were hurled into the sea than that he should cause to sin or be a snare to one of these little ones [lowly in rank or influence]. Pay attention and always be on your guard [looking out for one another]. If your brother sins (misses the mark), solemnly tell him so and reprove him, and if he repents (feels sorry for having sinned), forgive him. And even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and turns to you seven times and says, I repent [I am sorry], you must forgive him (give up resentment and consider the offense as recalled and annulled)."

In so many ways we can be offended by others. The deliberate sins against us - cheating, lying, unkindness, betrayal - are easy to recognise, and while it may not be easy to forgive deliberate actions that have brought hurt, our need to forgive is clear.

Where we often overlook the need to forgive is when little bumps, differences of opinion, unawareness and thoughtlessness hurt us. These are the 'snares, traps set to entice to sin' of which Jesus speaks. We brush them away with a, "That's OK, it doesn't matter" and the hurt festers because it is unacknowledged, and therefore unforgiven, and consequently unhealed. Deep down we are angry that we have been hurt and the person didn't even know it!

Anger is our insistence upon things being the way we desire them and our reaction at their not being so (Bingham, Angry heart or tranquil mind, p.110). But Jesus said that people would offend and sin against us, so to expect to live without such hurts is unrealistic. We are not the centre of the universe but expect to be treated that way. So we take offence very easily when things do not go our way. We are resentful without even being aware of our reactions.

Writing of difficulties encountered in a mission situation, Jo Anne Ader says,

When we fail to seek reconciliation with someone who has offended us, we become ungracious towards him or her. The other person may not know we feel resentful. If we do not clear up the matter, a 'root of bitterness' springs up in our heart. Then, our attitude, or gossip, may prejudice others against the one who we feel is the offender. Thus, we 'defile many'. (Unusual marriage, p. 100)

In Choosing forgiveness (p.28) the Sandfords say such surface-level wounding that can be healed easily if treated promptly and properly is called a bruise. The pain is caused by thoughtlessness and insensitivity with no malicious intent. We need to catch ourselves before we over react and think, "This act wasn't intentional. Taking an angry and unforgiving stance is unjustified. I will clearly make my feelings known and choose to be forgiving." These sort of bruises happen all the time in family and other close relationships.

Repentance or Remorse?

David Augsburger, in Caring enough to forgive, explains that repentance is not penance or a process of grieving for a period of time because one doesn't deserve to be happy. Neither is repentance remorse. Regret and remorse are profound emotions and they may be appropriate to the experience of repentance, but they are not one and the same. One may mourn out of sadness for what was and was not, not out of strategies for paying one's way with pain to get back into right relationships. Remorse is a process of shaming, of self-destruction by means of lowered self-esteem (p. 70). Remorse, worldly sorrow, is a hurt borne in a self-destructive way that leads to death. Judas illustrates the effect of remorse. In 2 Corinthians 7:8-11 Paul explains the positive effect of godly sorrow.

On p. 72 we find the following definition of repentance:

Repentance is owning what was in full acknowledgement of the past, and it is choosing what will be in open responsibility for one's behaviour in the future. It is both a turning from and a turning to. In repenting, one turns from what was without denying or ignoring what has been; and one turns to what can be by choosing new ways of being and behaving.

The Effects of Unforgiveness and Unrepentance

The major effect of our unforgiveness of others, as we saw above, is that neither are we forgiven by God.

A second, and no less important effect is that by holding on to unforgiveness we set ourselves in the place of God, who alone is the righteous Judge. Not being equipped to be such a judge, the load will weigh us down, removing our peace, bringing sickness into our minds and bodies, souring our relationships with others, and separating us from God. So, just when we take on a task that only God could carry out, at the same time we cut ourselves off from his resources that would help us to do it. This does not seem to be a sensible bargain to us.

A third effect of our unforgiveness is our limiting God to work in the life of the person we refuse to forgive. Assuming we are a believer and the other person has sinned against us, if they will not repent then their relationship with God (if they have one) is weakened or severed. In this case, it is possible that we are the only link God has through which he can influence them. If our unforgiveness separates us from them then this link is also broken. And if our unforgiveness also separates us from God, then we are all in a mess!

The Unforgiveness Triangle

If we consider the case where we are the one at fault. If we are unrepentant, this may hinder the other person from forgiving us. We remain in our sin through unrepentance, and they remain unforgiven by God for their unforgiveness.

So, if someone sins against us and is unrepentant, we dare not use this as an excuse for not forgiving them. Similarly, if someone refuses to forgive us when we sin against them, we must not use this as a reason to continue to sin against them as if it gives us the right to do so and they deserve it. Both of these attitudes only bring destruction into our lives and theirs and limit the work of God in each.

In Explaining Repentance Ed Roebert says that sin affected every part of Adam and Eve.

  1. Their spirits, that part of them created for fellowship with God, shrivelled up and their relationship with God died.

  2. Their souls created for fellowship with like beings started to degenerate. Their minds decayed and they began to think evil. Their emotions were affected so no longer did they feel as God feels, but evil emotions began to dominate. Their wills became twisted so that what they wanted to do became more important than what God wanted.

  3. Their bodies came under the curse of death, commenced to decay and died.

We have all received this sentence of death as Romans 5:12 states: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.

Sin blinds the mind, separates from God, corrupts the conscience, corrupts the will and spreads into habits. For this reason, God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

If we do not repent we cannot be forgiven. We need the work of the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin that we might confess our sins and receive the promised forgiveness and cleansing from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). The Holy Spirit convicts us that we are guilty before God, bringing about godly sorrow which leads us to repentance and leads us to the Saviour whose blood alone can bring forgiveness of that sin, declaring us righteous in God's sight and people who can serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14).

The Lifestyle of Forgiveness and Repentance

The lifestyle of the believer is one of becoming more like Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 reminds us, Although he was a Son, He learned obedience from what he suffered. At the moment of his suffering on the cross we hear him asking his Father to forgive (Luke 23:24). The enemy wants to prevent us becoming like Jesus, so we are constantly tested, not just to see if we can resist sin, but so we learn what to do when we do fall. Entering the Christian life is like the Israelites crossing the Jordan into the promised land. Then they had to take possession of the entire land, which involved tackling and defeating the giants.

Whenever we sin we must repent. Repentance is not just for unbelievers, but for believers also. Remember that five of the seven churches of Revelation were called on by the Lord to repent. Ephesus was even under the threat of having its lampstand removed if they refused.

We must never allow pride or hardness of heart to hinder our repentance. The moment the Holy Spirit convicts us of stepping outside of God's will we must immediately repent. Just as a husband and wife must keep open and short accounts with each other if their marriage is to thrive, so too must we with our God. We have a God whose nature is to forgive. We must allow him to do so by repenting when we sin, rather than just presuming on his grace.

This means that although repentance is the means by which we come into salvation, it does not end there. It is also the way we maintain and grow our intimacy with Jesus and knowledge of Father God.

Likewise, to keep this intimacy growing we must quickly and constantly forgive those who hurt us in any way, just as Jesus forgave us when we first came to him. Then a root of bitterness will not take root and grow up to strangle our relationships with others and with our Heavenly Father.

Read Resource Sheet 2 - Freedom through Forgiveness by Joy Dawson for further inspiration.

Corporate Repentance and Forgiveness

The example of Ephesus above reminds us that repentance and forgiveness are not simply applicable to individuals. Indeed, the principles apply to families, churches, organisations, cities, and even nations.

No one could doubt that groups and nations sin, nor that they need to repent and know forgiveness. But how are corporate repentance and forgiveness achieved? Who can repent on behalf of a family or church, let alone a whole nation? And who has the authority to offer them forgiveness?/p>

Consider this encounter between God and Jeremiah:

The Lord stretched out his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:9-10)

John Sandford urges us to realise that this call was not for Jeremiah alone (Healing the Nations, p13). Paul says we have been raised to sit with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6), to rule. Jesus has given us the keys to the Kingdom (Matthew 16:19), and authority over the nations:

Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to me in heaven and earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)

Does this mean that Christians can simply take their 'authority' and go out into the world commanding repentance and pronouncing forgiveness? Some seem to think so, but there is rarely, if ever, lasting fruit from their attempts.

There is a question here about the proper division of authority. The person repenting must be the one who sinned or be truly representative of the sinner. The one offering forgiveness needs to be the one sinned against or be truly representative of the one sinned against.

The primary roles of the believer in the passages above are to cry out in repentance on behalf of those groups that we belong to, and to repent to represent God on earth in his offering of forgiveness as the one sinned against. These are intercessory roles. We teach much more about intercession in other seminars, but it will suffice here to say that these actions can change the conditions around the group, removing legal rights for the kingdom of darkness to oppose the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction of sin. However, they are not able to deal with the sin of the individuals in the organisation which collectively adds to the sin of the organisation as a whole, and do not replace the need for the organisation itself to repent and be forgiven.

For the corporate sin to be resolved, either all of the individual sin of members which relates to the organisational sin must be remitted (not an easy task), or someone who has been placed by the members into the position of responsibility for the organisation, including responsibility for corporate behaviour, must repent on behalf of the organisation. This will usually be someone like the Chairman of the Board, the CEO, the Senior Minister or Chairman of Elders if it is a church, the Club Secretary, The Head of the Family, or the President, Prime Minister or Monarch of a nation.

Once this has been done, the leader is then responsible to ensure that the individual members agree with and abide by the standards of the organisation, or be removed from any position where they may be seen to represent the body. If this is not done then if that person sins the organisation is party to that sin.

There have been some notable examples in recent history of corporate repentance. The one most obvious to us in Australia is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology for our past treatment of Australia's indigenous peoples. The previous Liberal Government opposed taking such an action, claiming that they were not responsible and neither were the present people of Australia. However, it is generally recognised that present day Australian's have benefitted greatly from the dispossession of previous nations, and that the indigenous people are still suffering the effects of loss of land and the stealing of their children. It was the government of the day, elected by the people and acting within the general consent (or apathy) of the people that carried out these sins. Therefore, it must be the government of today, with the consent of today's people, who redress the sin.

Kevin Rudd saw the need to do this and determined to carry it out whether it was popular with the Party or not. He knew it was the right thing to do, and did it. His address to the nation spoke clearly to me that after a long drought Australia was seeing the return of the principle of true statesmanship. There is still much to do, because the issue of restitution and compensation has not been resolved, but it is a great start, and has already brought much healing.

More recently, the United States House of Representatives has issued an apology to African Americans for slavery and Jim Crow. It has yet, at the time of writing, to pass the Senate and be signed into law by the President, but again it is a good beginning.

There are many other examples, including Britain's final abolition of slavery following Wilberforce's life long campaign; the collapse of communist rule in Romania and eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, stemming from the prayer of Romanian believers and their refusal to let the state take away their pastor; and the demise of the evil doctrine of Apartheid, originated by the South African church and only destroyed when that church repented.

In 1998 intercessors from England came to Australia and toured around the nation to repent and seek forgiveness for sins of the past. They came with the knowledge of the British government although they did not represent them. They asked Christian Aboriginal leaders for forgiveness, repented of many things, including unjust trade, the sending of convicts, the abandonment of British orphans in Australia, the disproportionate number of Australians killed in Europe in World War One, and atom bomb testing in Australia. The first National Sorry Day flowed from that on 26th May 1998 and resulted in the apology in 2008.

When they came to Williamstown local intercessors joined them, some to stand with them in repentance for their part in the sin and some to extend forgiveness so that reconciliation could be accomplished.

This was followed by Aboriginal Christians visiting Melbourne to repent of their sinful response to the 'invasion', the killing of European settlers. They offered forgiveness and reconciliation in a Cleansing the Land tour. People present were significantly impacted and healing took place in individual lives. At the gathering at Beth Tephillah in Williamstown we (Di and Mal), as representative pastors of the city, one English and one Williamstown born, were given by the Aborigines a gift of money, a piece of cloth to cover our shame, and a book of Aboriginal history. They ceremonially washed our hands, and after sharing communion we poured the water and wine on the land for cleansing. The presence of peace that people had often remarked about when entering Beth Tephillah increased from that day.

Similar effects have been observed following repentance in places like Fiji and South America where previously unfertile land has begun to produce not just crops, but a supernaturally abundant harvest. The Transformations series of videos gives details of these events and others. The Fiji story has been included in Resource Sheet 3 - Corporate repentance - Fiji.

In our following lesson we will see concrete examples of these principles at work which will help to bring understanding as we learn how to give and receive forgiveness.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • Augsburger, David, Caring enough to forgive: true forgiveness. Ventura, Ca: Regal Books, 1981.
  • Bevere, John, The bait of Satan: living free from the deadly trap of offense. Lake Mary, Fla: Charisma House, 2004.
  • Bingham, Geoffrey C, Angry heart or tranquil mind? Blackwood, SA: New Creation Publications, 1991.
  • Dennett, Bill and Jo Anne, Unusual marriage: the story of Bill Dennett and Dr Jo Anne Ader. Adel, SPCK, 2006.
  • Otis, George Jr., Transformations Video Series. The videos of this series: Transformations 1, Transformations 2, The Quickening, Let the Sea Resound, An Unconventional War are obtainable from the publishers The Sentinel group - www.sentinelgroup.org.
  • Roebert, Ed, Explaining repentance. Chichester, W Sussex: Sovereign World, 1991.
  • Sandford, John and Paula, Norm Bowman, Choosing forgiveness. Lake Mary, Florida: Charisma House, 2007.
  • Sandford, John, Healing the nations: a call to global intercession. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2000.