“If he repents…” Those three words make a huge difference to our understanding of the horizontal dimension of forgiveness. The first word makes it a conditional clause. The second word puts the onus on the offending party. The third word spells out the terms of the condition: repentance, a turning away from sin. These three factors can help us understand the nature of forgiveness at the horizontal level.
Last week I explained that the Bible speaks of forgiveness from two different vantage points. On the one hand we are called to release the offense to God, to forgive at the vertical dimension (Mark 11:25). In this regard we are to have a spirit ready to forgive at the horizontal level. Yet, the Bible also speaks about forgiveness being displayed and worked out between two earthly parties, between offended person and offender. Forgiveness, however, is not naive, nor a blind sweeping away of problems. Jesus calls us to “forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). This is not, then, a formality or a behavior. It is has a right spirit and sincerity to it. Heart forgiveness is the refusal to hold this offense against the other party any longer, to receive their confession and repentance as genuine. This requires, however, that they genuinely acknowledge their sin and repent of it. Jesus makes repentance a clear condition of forgiveness when He says:
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him (Luke 17:3)
There is a condition under which forgiveness from the heart may be genuinely offered. Let’s unpack this condition and then take a look at the outworking of forgiveness in human relationships.
The horizontal dimensions forgiveness requires that the offending spouse acknowledge their sin, ask for forgiveness, and seek to turn from it. Without these dimensions there is no way forward at the horizontal level. While not every offense requires us to go this route (see 1 Peter 4:8), patterns of hurt or deep offenses must be acknowledged and properly dealt with. Without an acknowledgment of my sin and a desire to turn from it how can someone else offer me forgiveness? If you attempt to forgive me for something I don’t think I did wrong we will simply be playing a game, not living in the same reality. Forgiveness at the horizontal level requires two active parties: one who offers genuine forgiveness, and one who genuinely receives that forgiveness. If only one party is engaged at this level then no true forgiveness can be exchanged.
We can see this dynamic at play even in our relationship with God. God is ready to offer grace and forgiveness to all sinners. He died for our sins while we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:8). The gospel call is extended to all, and yet all are called to “repent” and turn to God in Christ (Acts 3:18-19). God offers forgiveness, but we must repent. We may debate and discuss the origination of such repentance, but the focus of this point is that God does not save those who refuse to repent of their sin. Repentance is a necessary part of the equation. God saves all who repent, but repentance is essential. As Peter states:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
Repentance is “for the forgiveness of your sins.” An acknowledgment of our sin and a turning from it to God is part of the salvific work that results in forgiveness of sins. If this is true at the divine level we ought to recognize its relevance at the human level too. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness at the horizontal dimension.
This means that while we may have a spirit of forgiveness, a readiness to forgive those who have offended and wronged us, there may still be no forgiveness offered. If the offending party does not believe they have done wrong, or does not care that they have done wrong then they cannot genuinely receive an offer of forgiveness. Luke 17:3 tells us that we must “rebuke” this person, but they may still resist conviction. We are left, in such situations, with only the vertical dimension of forgiveness.
In the final post in this series I will discuss the specific outworking of the horizontal dimension of forgiveness.