A solid understanding of biblical repentance and forgiveness is essential to the Gospel. All biblical counselors, and more specifically addiction biblical counselors, should have a good grasp of these foundational concepts and be able to teach them to others.
I believe the topics of forgiveness and repentance are most difficult to teach, however, because none of us really understands the magnitude of Christ’s forgiveness of our own personal sins. I know I don’t fully comprehend it myself! So it’s always a good study to dive into concepts like forgiveness, repentance, confession, and reconciliation.
VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL RELATIONSHIPS
There are two directions in forgiveness: vertical and horizontal. By vertical, I mean the forgiveness that involves God forgiveness of a sinful human. It is also referred to as judicial forgiveness. By horizontal, I mean the forgiveness that is involved between two humans. It is also referred to as relational forgiveness.
Because all of us have sinned, all of us need the judicial forgiveness of God in order to be reconciled to Him. There is no other way. Sometimes we act like we don’t like that reality and prefer to soften our sin, but the true Gospel emphasizes our sin and need for a Savior.
That may sound strong to those who believe in the theory of addiction as a disease rather than the biblical teaching that “addiction” is better termed as sin, idolatry, and even drunkenness. Those three terms point the “addict” to a need for a Savior and a new outside source of strength to changing the desires of the heart. That new source is the Holy Spirit who comes from the outside to the inside to indwell and empower the surrendered believer who can then walk by the Spirit and not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).
The judicial forgiveness that comes at the moment of salvation is a declaration from the Judge Who is the Highest Power of the Universe, God. Through confession of sin, acceptance of the forgiveness of God through His resurrected Son, Jesus Christ, and trust in Christ alone we receive eternal life. Judicial forgiveness requires repentance from sin. That’s why calling addictive choices a disease rather than a sinful heart problem stemming from selfish desires does violence to the message of the Gospel.
Relational forgiveness occurs between God and man and also between man and man. After an individual is judicially forgiven by God, the relationship with God can still be marred by sin unfortunately. In those sinful moments, a sinner does not lose his salvation. The judicial forgiveness of God is a one time occurrence. But our sin as a child of God is now addressed by our Father, who calls us to confess our sins and to trust in that forgiveness provided by Christ alone.
In human terms, a father and a child do not sever their relationship every time there is an occurrence of sin. Forgiveness in this relationship does not change the status of a parent-child relationship. What was hindered by sin was the closeness of the relationship between parent-child. Communication and trust might be hindered but the parent-child relationship remains, humanly speaking.
To use another metaphor, forgiveness is the oil that keeps the engine running smoothly in these relationships which is why we refer to it as relational forgiveness.
WHAT’S GREEK GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Without getting into the weeds too much, there are actually 4 Greek words for forgiveness: aphiemi, aphesis, apoulo, & charizomai. Usually, we lump 3 of them together (the 3 Greek “A” words) to talk about the 2 key concepts of forgiveness. I would encourage you to do a study of all 4 words. It is always good to study the Word of God.
Two primary aspects of forgiveness that I want to emphasize in this post are:
- having a heart of forgiveness toward someone with no conditions (charizomai) and
- the relational type of forgiveness that occurs between two persons (aphiemi).
We often refer to this latter one as “transactional” since there is an exchange or transaction that occurs between two parties. This could be between God and man, or between man and man. Aphiemi is the Greek word meaning a hurling away of someone’s sin so it is assumed there are two parties involved — otherwise, there is no need to hurl it away. So aphiemi has more to do with relational forgiveness. (In some cases aphiemi references the salvation of man granted by God but most instances have to do with relational reconciliation).
As I mentioned above, the 3 Greek “A” words for forgiveness are typically lumped together. Like aphiemi, aphesis (pardon; release from bondage/prison) and apoulo (to set free; release) have to do with liberating someone from their sins. What a great concept! Liberation! Freedom! Aren’t we grateful God has liberated us from our sin? Aren’t we grateful to our God who has liberated us from our sins stemming from addictive choices?
How do we even comprehend such forgiveness from a holy, perfect God? This forgiveness applies to addictive choices when we understand them to be sinful choices stemming from the desires of our own hearts.
In your human relationships, it never hurts to forgive and to release an offender from their sins (charizomai). This heart of forgiveness is an attitude that any Christian who is trusting in Christ for the forgiveness of sins must possess. How dare we who have been forgiven be unforgiving toward others? Hurling their sins away can always be accomplished by a Christ-follower, especially when we are all reminded of how great a gift of forgiveness God has granted to us. Forgive, forgive, and forgive again… for the purpose of glorifying God. A heart of forgiveness (charizomai) is always possible and does not depend upon the responses of others.
MARK 11:25 – A VERSE ABOUT PRAYER
Mark 11:25 is a verse often brought up in discussions about forgiveness. The context, however, is more about prayer and the condition of one’s own heart in prayer. Context is king in understanding Scripture. Here in Mark 11:25, rather than teaching us everything we need to know about forgiveness, I believe this verse is Jesus teaching us how to pray. It’s important to remember: we are talking about prayer — and not necessarily doing a complete treatise on forgiveness or on the “how to’s” of forgiveness.
And remember the audience is followers of Christ who have received salvation through judicial forgiveness from God. Our verse has to do with relational forgiveness with other people (not judicial forgiveness with the Lord). That’s important to note also.
Here’s what the Mark 11:25 verse on prayer emphasizes first — a command to us when we pray:
And whenever you stand praying, forgive…
There’s the command: forgive. The posture of praying back then was to literally stand so when one was standing and praying, the very first thing that God would have us do as we approach Him, is to forgive other people who have sinned against us (aphiemi – meaning to hurl away the sin of others). There are no conditions on this command to forgive others in Mark 11:25. I love this emphasis because it stresses the importance of humility in that we view others with grace and compassion, not holding onto their sins against us. Similar to the concept in the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6, we (Christ-followers) are to be forgiving toward others who sin against us.
Think of the arrogance in our hearts knowing God has forgiven us of enormous iniquity yet we hold our grudges against other people. Wow! What pride! So this verse is commanding us to become humble first in our attitude toward others as we approach the throne of grace in prayer.
Matthew 5:21-26 is another passage that emphasizes the importance of being reconciled with our brothers in Christ. God is serious about reconciling relationships through repentance and forgiveness. God commands Christ-followers to first be reconciled to others prior to worshipping Him (Matt. 5:23-24). The same principle is true in Mark 11:25 in prayer: in your heart, forgive those who have harmed you.
The command in Mark 11:25 also stresses the importance of being like God who — from our perspective — is “ready to forgive” before a person does anything. I am reminded of Romans 5:8 that says: but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That’s the concept here for us – be like God toward other people. Don’t hold onto grudges, don’t be bitter, and don’t hate those who have wronged you. Aren’t we glad God did not hate us while we were yet sinners against Him? So that’s how we must begin in prayer – releasing those who have wronged us as we ask for God’s grace in our own lives.
Jesus modeled this in prayer in Luke 23:34a: “Father, (You) forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the word aphiemi again and it is the starting point of Jesus’ prayer. He initiates by hurling away the sins of those who were casting lots for his clothing and wishing Him dead. This attitude of forgiveness is the opposite of being immersed in the sin of bitterness, anger, and hatred. Jesus is asking the Father to forgive them because they do not understand the gravity of their choices (for they know not what they do).
Notice that Jesus is not speaking directly to those who are sinning against Him but doing something better. Jesus is speaking to the Heavenly Father in prayer because God has the power to do something about the salvation problem! I am amazed by the grace in this moment of excruciating pain! Jesus personifies the command of the Mark 11:25 verse.
Our posture in prayer is to start with grace and mercy — not giving those who sin against us what they deserve but praying compassionately for mercy for them. Jesus modeled it on the Cross for us and that’s the very least we can do, too, as we begin to pray to the God of the Universe who has forgiven us of our sins. What audacity and pride in our hearts when we do not start our conversation with God in prayer from a place of humility!
Then, Mark 11:25b continues with:
…if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
There’s a condition signaled by the word “if,” (and remember the context is prayer): if you have anything against anyone is a phrase that reminds us that we all will be genuinely hurt by others and be pained by their sin against us. Yet this verse tells us to start in prayer by hurling that sin away. The weight of failing to aphiemi the sins of others is that it fuels hatred. Sow unforgiveness into your heart and reap hatred.
But God is love. To hate and be unforgiving as a Christian who has been immensely saved from his/her sins is to entirely miss the heart of our God of love. Jesus is reminding us in this verse that we are to be like God (Be Christ-like is how we say it today!). You and I can always have an attitude and a heart of forgiveness towards others regardless of the other party’s repentance. And when we demonstrate this heart of forgiveness, we are demonstrating the loving character of God.
THE PLACE OF CALLING OTHERS TO REPENTANCE
Now, this doesn’t mean that we are to overlook every sin done against us. Sometimes it is loving to call someone to repentance. To not say something to a sinner might be unloving and might be sin! God by His Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16:8) and there are times when we act as ambassadors of Christ by calling others to repent.
Lovingly calling others to repent is best done in a humble way that points the offender to their relationship with Christ rather than emphasizing the importance of reconciling their relationship with us. We are certainly part of the equation but their relationship with Christ is of first and foremost concern. The best way to call someone to repentance is by pointing them to their relationship with God primarily. The call is not primarily about getting right with the offended party but with God.
Some people fail to speak the truth in love when they make the reconciliation all about them (the offended). “You better get right with me or else” is not the attitude to have when calling someone to repent. Calling an offender to repent is about God and the offender — not about us (the offended). Too often, forgiveness and repentance have been taught in reverse as a way to heal the offended and while that can and often does happen, the primary purpose is to glorify God.
God is the Holy One — offended by our sins — and His calling us to repent by conviction of the Holy Spirit is for our benefit (the offender). This is probably a lesson for another time since our key verse is really centered upon our attitude in prayer and not in how to go about reconciling with others in a practical way!
Again, calling people to repentance is NOT the primary concern in Mark 11:25 because this verse is about our posture in prayer: humility and emulating Christ.
In prayer, our posture must be one of hurling the sins of others away and having the heart of God toward sinners. That’s a first priority in our prayers: focusing upon our own heart’s tendency toward unforgiveness, bitterness, anger, and even hatred of other people. God says to start prayer with a heart of forgiveness toward others.
In daily life for the purpose of reconciliation, we want to possess a heart of forgiveness (charizomai) meaning that we have no strings attached to forgiveness. In other words, our heart cannot be: “I’ll forgive you if you…” No, instead, our heart must be that we will forgive anyone for anything no matter what.
But that does not mean an abused girl must live with her abuser or that the husband whose wife committed adultery must not be concerned about her whereabouts when she is dishonest about where she has been. Those are just two random examples and in ANY CASE, I would defer to the elders of the church to make a definitive ruling. In situations like these, I often say: “I am just one person. I do not have the authority to make a ruling in your case — that’s the church’s decision not mine.” (Note: some situations require law enforcement involvement and decisions.)
I always encourage genuine repentance and genuine forgiveness. I also want to encourage our counselees to have a heart of forgiveness toward all those who have sinned against them whether they end up repenting or not. Let’s face it: an unbeliever is not going to truly repent until they surrender to Christ, but that does not mean that a counselee cannot truly forgive them at the heart level. That’s an unearned gift to give an unrepentant person and can serve as an example of the Gospel expressed in a person-to-person relationship. I have heard stories of victims of drunk driving accidents forgiving the driver who killed their loved one, regardless of the driver’s repentance. What a gift! I believe God is glorified in those situations.
On the flip side, working with the addicted over many years, I have witnessed numerous examples of false repentance in various relationships. Being truly repentant and having a contrite heart means to have everything prideful within the heart squeezed out so that nothing remains. I like that picture. Time will tell if someone is truly repentant or not. God is never mocked so He will reveal false repentance if He so chooses. My job as a biblical counselor is to encourage forgiveness at the heart level.
Some people in our lives will avoid repenting. Some will avoid forgiving. Biblical counselors want to encourage both, but ultimately the Holy Spirit will be the source of the power to bring about both repentance and forgiveness. We are simply ambassadors and privileged to be a part of the reconciliation process. Keep encouraging both repentance and forgiveness by speaking the truth in love to all.