From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 12 – What it really meant by forgiving others, and what does it involve?
When we forgive a wrongdoer it does not mean that he will never be judged. It is simply that they won’t be judged by us. Jesus will actually judge unrepentant, unsaved people with a severity which is far greater than anything we could do to them:
35 ‘Vengeance is Mine, and retribution,Deuteronomy 32:35-36 (NASB)
In due time their foot will slip;
For the day of their calamity is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them.’
36 “For the LORD will vindicate His people,
And will have compassion on His servants,
When He sees that their strength is gone,
And there is none remaining, bond or free.
Say to those with anxious heart,Isaiah 35:4(NASB)
“Take courage, fear not.
Behold, your God will come with vengeance;
The recompense of God will come,
But He will save you.”
5This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marvelled at among all who have believed–for our testimony to you was believed.2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (NASB)
It is not necessarily inappropriate for a wronged party to take comfort from, and even look forward to, the fact that Jesus’ judgment will come upon the wrongdoer. In part, it is the very fact that we know that that is going to happen which can make it possible for us to step back and to leave the judgment, and even the taking of vengeance, for Him to deal with instead of us.
Therefore we need not necessarily feel guilty or hypocritical about the fact that we want Jesus’ judgment to come upon a person who has done something wrong. It does not necessarily mean that we are being unforgiving. In itself it is consistent with ‘stepping aside’ and letting Jesus be the one who judges.
However, what if the wrongdoer has repented and been saved and forgiven by God? In those circumstances it would no longer be right to desire that they be punished. In such a case, everything has changed. The wrongdoer, if he truly has been saved, has now had all his sins washed away. That includes his sins(s) against you. Moreover, he now has all the righteousness of Jesus Christ, because it has been imputed or transferred to him, just as was done for you when you were saved and forgiven.
But then we might object that it would be unfair for that wrongdoer to be ‘let off’ by Jesus. We might see it as an injustice and feel aggrieved that he is no longer going to get what he deserves. In one sense that is an understandable emotion. However, we ought to think very carefully indeed before saying that we want everybody to get what they ‘deserve’. If God did that, then He would also have to give us what we deserve, not just other people. But that would be a place in the Lake of Fire, not forgiveness and mercy.
The point is how can we say that God should forgive us for our sins, including what we did to harm person Y, but then demand that justice and vengeance be shown to person X for the harm they did to us? Surely it has to be either both, or neither, of us that can receive God’s mercy? We can’t say that it should be shown to us, but not to person X.
If we did claim to be entitled to insist on justice as against person X then what if person Y, whom we have wronged, was to demand, in like manner, that God punish us? That is the dilemma we face. If we want to receive forgiveness we must also be willing to give it. Likewise, if we are going to demand justice and retribution for others then we would have to accept that those things should be dispensed to us as well, which would not be a good idea. It certainly wouldn’t get my vote.
If the wrongdoer meets God’s conditions, as we did, and receives His forgiveness, we cannot any longer look for God to take vengeance upon him. We have to accept the whole package, i.e. receiving forgiveness ourselves and also giving it to others. Otherwise, we have not really understood the gospel.
Let us now attempt to define forgiveness more fully and enlarge upon some of these other related concepts that have been mentioned.