T. PIERCE BROWN
Paul said in Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” He also said in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” It would seem that these two verses are too plain to be misunderstood, yet we are convinced that many misunderstand, misapply or disregard them in two ways.
For example, there are those who seem to think that God approves of “partial forgiveness.” There is nothing in the Bible that God either “partly forgives” or approves of such in His children. When he says, “As God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you,” it surely involves freely, without merit, and completely, without reservation.
We had some correspondence with a brother who indicated that he thought a man could not forgive himself, for only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). It is true that man cannot forgive himself or another person in the same way that God can forgive. That is, God forgives the guilt and punishment as one accepts the payment Christ made on the cross for our sins. We can forgive each other as God forgave us with regard to the full and free aspect of our forgiveness, as it relates to the person’s relationship to us, but it should be evident that we cannot forgive the other person’s sin as it relates to God. That is, our forgiveness does not and cannot remove his guilt before God, or any punishment that justice demands as a result of that sin.
So a person can forgive himself in the sense that he can have a peace of mind and not feel a continuous burden of guilt and recrimination as he realizes that God has completely forgiven him if, as and when he repents and accepts the forgiveness on the terms by which God has offered it.
On the other hand, there are those who assume that total or complete forgiveness of necessity involves restoration to the former position, both in regard to relationship and with regard to function. That is not so, either in terms of God’s forgiveness or in terms of our forgiveness. One may be completely and freely forgiven, but may have to suffer the consequences of his sin in many ways. It may relate to his inability to function, or other things, but there are examples in an out of the Bible of that.
Let us first give an example out of the Bible. Suppose a quarterback makes a stupid mistake that not only loses the game, but also causes him to receive a concussion and a broken back. Is it possible for a benevolent coach to forgive him for his mistake, and keep him on the payroll or on the team, yet because he has lost his ability to function as a quarterback, remove him from that position? Surely you know it is. But you may respond, “That is only an example from man’s viewpoint. We are supposed to forgive as God forgives, and that, you admit, is different.” Yes, we admit it is different with respect to the fact that God’s forgiveness involves the removal of the guilt and the necessity of paying a penalty for the sin, for Jesus paid it. However, it does not differ in the sense that God’s forgiveness does not remove the consequences, nor necessitate restoration of all privileges that may have been lost.
Did God forgive Adam and Eve? We think it highly probable as we read the rest of the story. But in any case, there is nothing in the story or the rest of the Bible that suggests that if He did, he was required to restore him to his former position in the garden, where he could partake of the tree of life and live forever (Genesis 3:24). Did God forgive Samson? It seems reasonably certain that he did from Judges 17:28ff and Hebrews11:32. But in any case, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that if he was forgiven, he must have his former position as judge ofIsrael.
Moses sinned against God when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God directed, and was not allowed to go into the promised land (Deuteronomy 32:51-52). There is no doubt that God forgave him and that he did not lose his eternal reward nor his relationship with God, but he suffered the consequences of his disobedience.
When David sinned in the case of adultery and murder, Nathan told him that his sins were forgiven and he would not die as a result of it. His relationship with God was re-established. He was completely and freely forgiven (2 Samuel12:13). However, verses 10, 12 and 14 show that consequences that resulted from his sin followed. Not only did God say that the sword would not depart from his house and the child would die, but showed that David had lost his position of respect and influence that he once had. Note carefully: He had not lost his position as king or his relationship with God as a completely forgiven person. But he had lost something with regard to his ability to function as a righteous ruler and had to suffer other consequences as a result of his sins.
So, it seems evident that we should distinguish between the fact that the Prodigal Son was received back into a relationship with the father as a full-fledged, fully forgiven son and the fact that it did not necessarily involve his being given back what he had lost as a result of his riotous living. The father said to the elder brother, “All that I have is thine” (Luke 15:31), and there is nothing in the story, or anywhere else in the Bible that would indicate that the father had to give the once wayward son the exact responsibilities he once had over a certain portion of his goods just because he had fully and freely forgiven him.
We thank God that Moses, David and thousands of us, who as prodigal sons have wasted our substance, can be fully and freely forgiven, and not miss the relationship with God as sons instead of merely being hired servants. We are also very thankful that we will not lose our eternal reward in heaven as a result of our sins, if we have accepted the gracious offer of forgiveness on the terms God has offered it. But we must also face the fact that if we have suffered damage in some way as a result of our sins, whether it be physical or spiritual damage, God has not promised to remove all that damage so that we can function as well as we did before. One may drive a nail into a board or post and repent and remove the nail, but he may not be able to remove the hole. May God help us to see the difference between a position of sons in God’s family and a particular function in that family. If you are a song leader and you lose your voice as a result of an overdose of drugs or alcoholism, you can still be a brother in Christ, freely and fully forgiven, with full privileges of sonship, but you are no longer a song leader.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.