By Gerald Cowan
The Sunday School teacher asked, “What do you have to do before you
can be forgiven?” Good question! You would probably expect the answer
to be, repent, right? Before you can be forgiven you must repent.
There’s good scripture evidence for such an answer. But a little boy
answered, “Before you can be forgiven you have to sin.” Now that is
profound! If there is no sin, no mistake, no wrong-doing, there is
nothing to forgive.
Two of the most misunderstood aspects of our relationship with each
other are closely related: judgment and forgiveness. We often emphasize
the need for proper discipline in the church – the instruction,
correction, edification, and exhortation by which we become, and help
others to become, valid and faithful disciples of Christ. Judgment is
implicit in the words used to describe the disciple and the process of
discipleship. Judgment requires measurement, evaluation and validation,
all of which serve both a negative and positive purpose and can render a
verdict of either good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable.
Some insist that we are to avoid all judgment, but we cannot
actually do so. We must determine whether a thing, person, or activity
is good or bad so that we will know how to respond or relate to it (1
Thess. 5:21-22, Rom. 12:9, and Mt. 7:1-20). All things must be judged as
good or bad, right or wrong. It is wrong – it is a sin – to refuse to
make judgments, evaluations, and determinations about any thing, person,
or action. We are commanded to judge, but it must be righteous judgment
(John 7:24), based on the standard of God’s word and not just upon
human law, opinion, or personal preference.
When we ask for forgiveness, whether from God or man, it is a
judgment against ourselves – we are admitting that something is wrong,
that we have somehow violated a rule of propriety, committed some
offense against the one from who we seek forgiveness. When we agree to
forgive another person it is a judgment against the person – we are
stating that something is wrong, there has been a violation, something
improper has been done to us by the person (Luke 17:1-3). Yes,
repentance is necessary for true forgiveness – you can’t really forgive
something one refuses to confess or repent. You may be willing to
forgive, and you must actually forgive, when confession and repentance
are forthcoming. You may actually say, and mean it sincerely, that you
do forgive the person even without repentance. But it necessarily
implies a judgment against the person, implicit belief that the person
Scripture is clear enough about the way to give and receive
forgiveness. Knowledge of sin in your own life (self-judgment leads to
knowledge of guilt) requires confession to the one sinned against, an
implied correction, and a request for forgiveness from the person (Mt.
5:23). Forgiveness granted by that person is an acknowledgment of your
sin and a resolution of your guilt. When you judge another person to
have sinned against you, go and accuse him in person. If necessary take
witnesses who can verify and reinforce the accusation (Mt. 18:15-20).
Hopefully, the one you accuse will confess and repent, and you can
forgive him. Whenever one is accused of sin by another, if it is true
the sinner’s obligation is to repent and receive forgiveness, be thus
reconciled and restored to fellowship.
When another person falls into error or sin sin – is overtaken in a
fault – any spiritual person who knows of it should seek to restore the
sinner, looking carefully to himself and his own spiritual condition
(Gal. 6:1-2). Salvation means converting the sinner from the error of
his ways (James 5:19-20). Please note that judgment is involved, that
judgment leads to accusation, and hopefully accusation leads to
repentance, correction, forgiveness, and restoration. Those whose sins
are public may be rebuked and corrected publicly. False teachers and
gossips must be marked and silenced (Rom. 16:17, Titus 1:9-11).
The church and all faithful Christians must share the attitude of
God toward sin. There is no doubt that what God wants to do is forgive
and save the sinner. That is why Christ was given to die, as a sacrifice
for sin (Rom. 5:6-8). God’s forgiveness is not automatic, nor can ours
be. Forgiveness is a highly conditional matter. The attitude and
response of the guilty person can determine whether or not he will be or
even can be forgiven. But there is another very important matter: the
attitude and response of the one sinned against can determine whether or
not his own sins will be forgiven.
What have we learned? That forgiveness implies the reality of sin.
Recognizing sin is judgment. Judgment validates and necessitates
accusation. If there is no sin (that too is a judgment) there is nothing
to forgive. If there is sin, certain steps must be taken to get
- Gerald Cowan preaches for the Dongola Church of Christ in Dongola, IL. He may be contacted at Geraldcowan1931@aol.com