What Forgiveness Is

The church often has a shallow understanding of forgiveness. In my previous post in this mini-series, I explored some common myths about forgiveness, and exposed what forgiveness is NOT. Yet, it is important to clarify more fully what forgiveness actually is. Namely, we need to understand that forgiveness has two dimensions to it. Biblical forgiveness happens at a vertical and a horizontal level.

In the next two posts I intend to unpack these two dimensions and explore in some detail how the present a robust theology of forgiveness and how they impact our lives and relationships. To begin with, we ought always to start at the vertical dimension. Since we are first and foremost created to be in relation to God then the vertical level must be addressed before we can rightly play out the dynamic at the horizontal level. David understands this as he addresses his sin in Psalm 51. David has sinned grievously against Bathsheba, Uriah, and the whole of Israel. But in Psalm 51 he states:

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (v. 4)

David, in reflecting on his sin, turns his attention to God. It is against God that he has primarily sinned. It’s not that David’s behavior against these other parties was not awful, nor that he had no responsibility to them. Rather, it is because sin always has to do with God. David’s behavior against his fellow man was wrong because God said so. God established the law that stated David should not assault another man or woman, that David should not lie to and deceive the kingdom. Sin has to do with breaking God’s law, refusing to submit to His authority. Apart from this we have no basis for calling offenses against one another sinful. So, David understands rightly that his sin is against God, and he must address it with God before he can adequately turn to others.

The offending party, then, must always deal with their sin before God before they can deal appropriately with their sin towards others. But, forgiveness too must be addressed with God before it can be offered to others. As we seek to forgive those who wrong us, we must look to God and release the offense against us to Him. Mark 11:25 gives us a specific example of this principle. We read:

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.

The text does not include any horizontal dimension whatsoever. The forgiveness mentioned here is purely between the offended party and the Lord. Forgiveness at this level is about entrusting the other person, and the recompense for sin, to the Lord. It frees us to forgive at the horizontal level when, and if, the other person repents.

The value of this dimension of forgiveness is that it releases us to move forward regardless of how the other party responds. We are tempted to think that we can’t forgive if the other person doesn’t repent, and there is some truth to that. Repentance is a necessary part of healing and restoring relationship. If we cannot forgive, however, we are stuck in unresolved tension in our own hearts, not just in our relationships. The vertical dimension of forgiveness, however, allows us to release this individual to God’s control and conviction. We do not have to wait to cultivate the appropriate heart response that is prepared to forgive at the horizontal level. We can cultivate that heart, by God’s grace, even if we never get the chance to offer forgiveness to the offender. The vertical dimension allows for us to truly heal, grow, and be prepared to genuinely forgive. Jonathan Holmes writes:

This vertical commitment to forgive and entrust the other [person] to God is key in enabling you to extend forgiveness horizontally. It also prevents superficial forgiveness – forgiving in word but not in deed and heart. (Counsel for Couples, 75)

Forgiveness at this level is more about us and our freedom and growth than it is about the relationship. But forgiveness at this level also allows us to move toward the other person when the time is right.

Consider you own situation and the relational struggles you presently have. Have you released to God the offenses committed against you? Are you waiting on the other party to repent before you decide if you will forgive them? Are you prepared to forgive when (if) the other party does repent? Can you move forward in personal healing and growth even if the other party doesn’t repent? Have you offered superficial horizontal forgiveness because you refuse to truly release the offense to God? Forgiveness at the vertical level is a vital part of the whole forgiveness dynamic. Are you exercising forgiveness at this level?

1 Comment

  1. This article pertains to an area of my life that is affecting everything else. I am grateful to God who this morning through the Holy Spirit gave me a name to “google” and it was yours. I researched on the internet where I found that you just published this article about forgiveness. Even though I have never heard of you before this, thank you your clarity and insight will help me to move forward.

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