When Jesus hung on the cross, did he forgive those who crucified him? Technically, no. Jesus prayed that the Father would forgive his persecutors. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He asked God the Father to forgive his murderers, and thereby transferred the decision of whether to forgive from himself to the Father.

The way Jesus prayed helps clarify something important about forgiveness.

“If I forgive, they won’t be held responsible!” I have sometimes heard this retort from people who have suffered at the hands of others.

This, however, is incorrect. It is a mistake to think that a perpetrator of evil will not be held responsible if we forgive. The reason such thinking is incorrect is because human forgiveness is different from divine forgiveness in one important way. When God forgives, the person he forgives gets entirely forgiven. When God forgives, the sinners’ sins are no longer held against them. No condemnation remains. Whatever crime a person has committed, or whatever evil someone has perpetrated, God casts into the sea of his unending mercy.

But when Christians forgive, technically what they are doing is kicking the decision about whether to forgive up another level—following the example of Jesus on the cross. A Christian who “forgives” expresses to God that he or she personally will not hold back forgiveness from the one who sinned against them. Furthermore, that person asks God not to hold onto the offender’s sin, all the while knowing that God will do what is just and right.

We see this modeled in Stephen. While being pummeled by the stones that would soon end his life, he followed the example of Jesus by praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Stephen asked God to grant forgiveness to his persecutors. If Stephen had survived the stoning, he presumably would have lived in a state of forgiveness toward his attempted murderers. That’s because Stephen knew that he did not possess the right to ultimately forgive—or to condemn, for that matter. That prerogative belonged to God alone.

This is significant not just in theory, but in practice. We can be confident that those who sin against us in fact will be held responsible for their sin, even though we offer forgiveness. The only exception to evildoers receiving the punishment that they deserve occurs if they accept by faith the gift that was wrought through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. In other words, our holy and just God will either hold them responsible for their sin or will place their sin upon Jesus when they accept such forgiveness by faith. We, however, have no right to exercise that punishment ourselves.

Romans 12:14-21 may be the most helpful paragraph in the Bible for understanding how this works out in daily life. Verse 19 is the central verse: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” In short, Paul instructs us to kick retribution up another level. Leave punishment to God. Human forgiveness refuses to take matters into one’s own hands; rather, it allows God’s hands to mete out whatever penalty God deems appropriate. Furthermore, Paul in this passage shows us what it looks like in practice for a human to forgive:

  • Bless, don’t curse (v. 14)
  • Never pay back evil done against you (v. 17)
  • Try to live at peace (v. 18)
  • Never take your own revenge (v. 19)
  • Show kindness to the one who has wronged you (v. 20)
  • Overcome evil with good (v. 21)

That is what forgiveness looks like for the Christian who has been wronged. Human forgiveness ultimately entails that we refuse to take the matter of punishment into our own hands. We relinquish that right to God (v. 19).

There is more to be said about forgiveness than can be said today. There are other factors that need to be considered when fleshing out a full discussion of forgiveness. By way of example, here are three (of many):

  • God is often slow to punish because he desires to show mercy. He will certainly punish sin since he is a holy God. But God’s intentional slowness to punish sin needs to be factored into a fuller discussion of forgiveness (Rom 2:4; 3:25; 2 Pet 3:9).
  • Civil authorities have the right to punish evildoers. That right has been granted them by God (Rom 13:1-7). Civil leaders are not supposed to simply let evildoers go free.
  • God’s discipline of his children is something different from punishment (Heb 12:5-11). In a church setting, elders are to exercise discipline under the authority of Christ (Matt 18:15-20). The relationship of discipline to punishment also needs to be factored into a full-orbed understanding of forgiveness.

In other words, there is more that needs to be said about forgiveness than what I have written in this post. But the main point of today’s reflection is to remind us that God’s forgiving action is different in one important way from our forgiving actions. When God forgives, he forgives completely, absolutely, permanently. When we forgive, we relinquish our presumed right to condemn or forgive to the Righteous Judge who always judges justly.

Extra Note: 

While preparing this post, a colleague asked me what I thought about Jesus’s words in John 5:22 (cf. 5:27), “For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” I interpret Jesus’s comment to be forward-looking (eschatological), as the surrounding verses seem to confirm. Note particularly:

5:21: “as the Father raises the dead”

5:24: “has eternal life. He does not come into judgment”

5:25: “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live”

5:28-28: “for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voiceand come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment”

This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.