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Anyone You Forgive



Forgiveness is fraught with dangers.


The culture around us does not understand forgiveness. Having abandoned the concept of absolute moral standards, it no longer recognises guilt as an objective concept. Yet we can’t shake off the feeling that we aren’t what we should be, and we find ourselves under the constant judgemental gaze of others. When we squeeze guilt out, shame rushes in to take its place. Far from being liberated, we find ourselves trapped by the expectations of others and the relentless pressure to be authentic. Tragically, there is no way out of this shame because you can please some of the people some of the time, but you'll never please all of the people all of the time.


We cannot escape shame without dealing with guilt.


Fortunately, however, there is a way out of guilt.


That way is forgiveness. To find oneself forgiven is a most joyous experience. The release from guilt is truly liberating. To stand uncondemned, pardoned, and assured that no punishment awaits is the very definition of freedom. And forgiveness leads us out of shame too. When guilt is gone, we need not feel shame for failing to meet someone else’s expectations. Nor must we feel shame for failing to live up to our own.


Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel.


There is an absolute standard of right, and it’s found in the character, will, and law of God. The gospel exposes us as sinners before a holy God. But there is a way for that standard—which can never be met in us—to be met for us, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. When we realise that the truth and grace of God meet in perfect union in the cross, we can step into the light to confess our sins and hear the pardon of the only just Judge. Of course, pardon for sin is not the sum total of salvation. There is cleansing from unrighteousness and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. But until we receive his forgiveness, we cannot know these blessings.


Forgiveness is also the basis for Christian community.


FORGIVENESS IN CORINTH


The church is a fellowship of people bound together by a shared experience of God’s forgiveness, and held together by our habit of forgiving one another. The church in Corinth discovered this reality. This church, famously, had its share of sins, so forgiveness was vital for its members. In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul writes about someone who needed forgiveness.


Commentators differ in their opinions about what sin the individual had committed. Some think it is sexual sin—the man described in 1 Corinthians 5. Others suggest it is a person, possibly a leader, who had resisted Paul’s apostolic authority. Either way, the person had sinned, and that sin had to be dealt with. Paul himself had said as much in an earlier letter.[1]


How should sin be dealt with in a church?


In the first instance, it must be acknowledged. Ideally, the sinner should confess it. If not, then others should point it out to the guilty person, in the way expected in Matthew 18 or Luke 17. In most cases, if the person repents, restoration may be possible without making the matter public. There are important exceptions to that principle, though. Firstly, sins which are also crimes, or which pose a threat to vulnerable people, must not be kept secret. They should be reported to the proper authorities and safeguarding measures must be followed. Secondly, there is a lower threshold for addressing the sins of leaders publicly because of their impact on the church (see 1 Tim 5.19-20). A blog post is not an adequate place to work through what that means in practice, but it is vital that leaders in the church are held accountable.


In the case of Corinth, the church was clearly aware of the sinful behaviour of the person, but it did not act to deal with it until the apostle Paul insisted they do so. This caused him a great deal of grief (2 Cor 2.4) and put his relationship with them at risk. Yet Paul knew it was necessary. We would do well to learn from his example. Habitual sin should not be tolerated among God’s people.


It seems that a majority of the believers in Corinth took heed of Paul’s warnings. They took action, presumably excluding the person who had sinned from the fellowship of the church. And it seems that this action led to his repentance. The apostle does not say this explicitly but I think it’s implicit in his concern that the man not be ‘overwhelmed by excessive sorrow’ (v.7). However, in spite of this, his repentance was not met with forgiveness. Paul writes,


The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

2 Cor 2.6-8


I don’t know why the believers in Corinth didn’t forgive this man. Did they have some incomplete appreciation of grace? Did they take a purgatorial view of suffering, thinking he needed to stew a bit longer to make sure he was truly sorry? Were they seeking to deter others from wrongdoing by making an example of him? We cannot be sure.


THE UNFORGIVING CHURCH


Few things are more crushing than an unforgiving church. To refuse to restore a repentant brother or sister is a denial of the gospel. It may overwhelm the person with excessive sorrow, and it consigns us to bitterness. We must be ready not only to forgive, but to extend comfort to the forgiven person. This means reaffirming our love, both verbally and through action.


A caveat is important here. Paul is talking about restoration into loving relationships in which the person can grow and be kept in healthy accountability. He is not talking about restoration of position. If the man who had sinned had been a leader in the church, as some commentators say, then it is telling that Paul does not suggest he should lead again. Some sins reveal a character flaw that disqualifies a person from leadership. Certainly, such flaws may be corrected by God’s grace over time, but it would be wrong to restore the person to leadership until progress is evident. Furthermore, some sins are of such a nature that the person should not be entrusted with ministry involving children or vulnerable adults. This is to protect those people from possible harm, to protect the person from future temptation, and to protect the reputation of the church. It is not unforgiving to block a repentant person from roles in which trust is vital.


To sum up, then, if we have forgiven a person, we should seek to comfort them by showing them love. The Corinthians hadn’t done that and Paul knew it was because they were unforgiving. To drive this point home, Paul does what he so often does with the Corinthians. He relates their response to his own integrity. He writes,


Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

2 Cor 2.10-11


This is a remarkable statement. Paul is telling them that he trusts their judgement in forgiving the repentant person. He hasn’t verified the person’s repentance himself, but he takes their word for it. They have forgiven and so he will too.


But Paul goes beyond simply saying that he forgives. He reminds them of why his forgiveness was necessary. He gives three reasons:


  • CHRIST. He has forgiven ‘in the sight of Christ’. The gospel compels him to forgive. The Lord, who taught us to pray for divine forgiveness ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’, will one day ask Paul to give an account for his behaviour. And Paul, knowing that he himself has received forgiveness, sees forgiveness of the repentant person as the righteous response. How could he behave any other way?

  • THEM. He has forgiven ‘for your sake’. Forgiveness is relational. It has a vertical dimension – ‘in the sight of Christ’—and a horizontal dimension—'for your sake’. When we fail to forgive, we harm our brothers and sisters. Paul recognises that unforgiveness on their part won’t only harm the person they won’t forgive. It will harm them too. How can we serve joyfully with others and proclaim Christ if we don’t forgive one another? Unforgiveness is a noose around all our necks.

  • SATAN. Paul knows that the evil one has an agenda in every relational breakdown among God’s people. His schemes aim to destroy the fellowship, to drive people apart. If he can’t do that by tempting the sinner to deny his sin and refuse to repent, he will do it by tempting those he sinned against to hold on to grudges, and exclude him from their love.


The gospel calls us to a radical forgiveness.


Another caveat is vital here. Paul is not writing to the victims of abuse at this point. He isn’t demanding that a person who has been crushed by the sin of another should welcome the abuser back with open arms. That may never be possible and those who have been abused need patient and tender care. And, let me say it again, he is not saying that everyone can be restored back to the position they held before.


However, the apostle Paul is saying that a church should restore truly repentant people into the circle of their love. This is necessary for four clear reasons.


  • For the sake of the sinner.

  • Because of Satan’s schemes.

  • Because of the harm unforgiveness does to a fellowship.

  • Because of our accountability to Christ.


Forgiveness is fraught with dangers.


If that is true for churches, it is even more so for leaders. So, with leaders especially in mind, let me remind you of those words from Paul that form the title of this post.


Anyone you forgive, I also forgive.


When those we lead sin, we can struggle to forgive. Especially if their sin includes resistance to our humble and selfless service, or unfair accusations against us. Bitterness can creep into our hearts. But that way lies disaster. Sometimes we need to learn from the church we lead, as Paul was willing to do from Corinth. If they have forgiven the person, so must we. Sometimes we need an older, wiser leader to show us the way, as Paul did for the Corinthians.


But above all, we must be able to say to the Lord Jesus himself,


Anyone you forgive, I also forgive.


 

1. See 2 Corinthians 2:4. The earlier letter was either 1 Corinthians or an unknown letter that came after 1 Corinthians and before 2 Corinthians.


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