Jesus’ initial words are deceptively simple: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them” (v. 3). But they communicate foundational aspects to the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
Define the Offense Carefully
“If your brother or sister sins . . . .” The use of the term brother or sister puts this in the context of relationship and reminds us that the primary place forgiveness needs to be expressed is in the community of faith. Jesus’ words carry wisdom for everyone, but they were first meant for the church. Christians, more than any others, are to forgive one another.
Equally important is the recognition that Jesus was talking about sin—specifically about someone who “sins against you” (v. 4). Many things irritate, annoy, or upset us about someone else. Those may require endurance, but they do not involve forgiveness.
Sometimes we feel that someone has wronged us, but the truth is that jealousy, insecurity, or ambition may distort our perspective. Someone who disagrees with us or who hurts our feelings does not necessarily need our forgiveness. Forgiveness operates in the realm of sin, when God’s standards of behavior are violated.
Forgiveness cannot be our first response, nor can it ignore the reality of evil. If an act can be excused, it needs to be understood, not forgiven. Forgiveness is about the inexcusable; it does not ignore or deny sin, turning a blind eye. Such a response indulges sin, rather than dealing with it through the hard work of forgiveness. By keeping evil shrouded in darkness, we permit it to endanger others.
Forgiveness does not trivialize sin by trying to put it in the best possible light. C. S. Lewis said, “Real forgiveness means steadily looking at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice.”3
Jesus was not talking about burying sin, under the naïve assumption that “time heals all wounds.” As Mark McMinn says, “Time heals clean wounds. Soiled wounds fester and infect.”4 The same thing happens both in our inner being and in our relationships when we attempt to suppress the sins done to us. Denied offenses continue to pump poison into our lives.
Nor was Jesus talking about simply forgetting sin, as is suggested by the cliché “forgive and forget.” Often such an idea gains credence by quoting the biblical idea that God “forgets” our sins. “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (hebrews 10:17).
Does this mean that our sins are erased from God’s memory? If so, He could hardly be the all-knowing God! He didn’t forget their sins; they were recorded so that future generations could learn from them.
When God forgets our sins, He no longer holds them against us. The central issue is not that we forget, but what we do when we remember that someone has wronged us. Gregory Jones puts it well:
It is largely a mistake to say, “Forgive and forget.” Rather, the judgment of grace enables us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to remember well. When God promises to “blot out [Israel’s] transgressions” and “not remember [Israel’s] sins” (isaiah 43:25; see also jeremiah 31:34), God is not simply letting bygones be bygones. Rather, God is testifying to God’s own gracious faithfulness.5
The only way to truly forgive is by remembering. We cannot make a simplistic connection between forgiving and forgetting. True forgiveness requires a careful look at what has actually happened.
We should briefly note two misconceptions about forgiveness: first, that we may need to forgive God; second, that we need to forgive ourselves.
Many people blame God for what has happened to them, but the blame is misplaced. Behind it is the thought that we are somehow entitled to something.
We may need to come to terms with what God has permitted in our lives. We may need to vent our anger to God or our disappointment with how He is working. The Psalms, the book of Job, and the writings of Jeremiah carry many examples of such outbursts. But in nearly every case the writer follows with an acknowledgment that his anger is misplaced—forgiveness does not apply. Faith does not mean that we understand God’s ways or purposes, but that we trust His goodness and submit to His purposes. Forgiveness, by our definition, cannot be given to God because He does not sin.
The concept of “forgiving myself” is somewhat different. Logically, if I have sinned, I am the offender, not the victim of my actions. On the other hand, my actions inevitably harm me; sin always boomerangs. I may feel a combination of guilt, shame, disappointment, and anger at myself. When people speak about forgiving themselves, they nearly always are talking about alleviating such feelings. Such talk carries the underlying assumption that we should be above such behavior.
Second, there is danger of turning forgiveness inward, so that our focus is on our feelings rather than on what we have done. But deep repentance and character transformation should come before emotional release.
Thank God that genuine repentance and God’s forgiveness can restore our joy! When David, in Psalm 32:1, writes, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven,” his joy (being blessed) comes not from forgiving himself, but from the fact that God has forgiven him.
Confront the Sin Courageously
The second implication of Jesus’ words is that we must confront the sin courageously: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them” (luke 17:3). Jesus is telling us to hold people accountable for their behavior. This requires that we carefully and prayerfully determine the nature of the other person’s behavior. If it is truly sinful, we must not ignore it.
Don’t miss the importance of this step! We are to speak directly to the person, not about him to others. Nor do we criticize others or nurse grudges. Instead we honestly confront the offender with the sin in his behavior. Sin in general does not require our forgiveness. This introduces an important distinctive of biblical forgiveness. It’s not simply an internal process that we engage in for our own sake; it is also an interpersonal process for the benefit of the other person and the community as a whole. Forgiveness without confrontation short-circuits the process. The goal of this encounter is not to express our anger but to encourage repentance, restoration, and reconciliation. It also is for the protection of others who may be victimized if this behavior is not stopped.
With His words in Luke 17:3-4, Jesus reinforced the instructions of Leviticus 19:17-18.
Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
When we have been mistreated, the last thing most of us want to do is face the offender. It’s more comfortable to complain or bear the wrong in silence as we avoid and withdraw. But we are not given those options. Jesus calls us to the difficult business of challenging the person about sin. True forgiveness requires an honest confrontation of sin. Anything less sabotages the process and the goal.
Confront the Sin Properly
In light of what Jesus teaches elsewhere in Scripture, we need to understand a third foundational aspect: We must confront the sin properly. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus said,
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.&rdquo
It has become common to emphasize the therapeutic benefits of forgiveness. Lewis Smedes writes of “our need to forgive for our own sakes. Every human soul has a right to be free from hate, and we claim our rightful inheritance when we forgive people who hurt us deeply.”6 Another writer says, “Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.”7
I do not deny the therapeutic benefits of forgiving another or miss the point that, if the other person rejects my gift of forgiveness, I am the only one to benefit by the process. But forgiveness must not be reduced to a mere internal and personal process. It’s not just about me. Jesus did not forgive us for His sake, but for ours! Although forgiveness benefits me in a host of ways, it is not just, or even primarily, about me. It is about “gaining” my brother, the one who wronged me, to bring him back to spiritual health, and about the larger good: the protection of others and the promotion of the community’s well-being.
The word Jesus used in Luke 17, rebuke,8 is a strong one—there are times when it is appropriate to inflict pain. It’s clearly wrong to “confront” someone with a goal of hurting him or her. That’s revenge, not constructive confrontation. But the Lord insists that I confront. Several passages give us a handle on how we should approach a sinning brother and how best to go about “speaking the truth in love” (ephesians 4:15).
We should do it privately, not publicly. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (matthew 18:15).
We should do it humbly and repentantly, not arrogantly and self-righteously. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (matthew 7:3-5).
We should do it spiritually, not carnally. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (galatians 6:1).