How to Move from Forgiveness to Reconciliation

He said I am sorry, but it’s at least the tenth time! I don’t know what to do. I am told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive, and the Lord knows I’ve tried. But each time I forgive him, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes, and I just get angrier. What should I do?

Sound familiar? I encounter people all the time who are trying to forgive someone who has repeatedly hurt them. They know it’s their Christian duty to forgive, but they often feel they’re either being deceived or taken advantage of. They also have a disturbing sense that they’re enabling the selfish behavior of the very one they’re trying to forgive.

Is this what forgiveness requires? Is it possible to forgive someone and to withhold reconciliation? We must learn the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is always required by God, but it does not always lead to reconciliation.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Not the Same

Jesus clearly warned that God will not forgive our sins if we do not forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25). It’s not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving; instead, God expects forgiven people to forgive (Matthew 18:21-35). Yet forgiveness is very different from reconciliation.

It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with her offender. But reconciliation is focused on restoring broken relationships. And where trust is deeply broken, restoration is a process—sometimes, a lengthy one.

Differing from forgiveness, reconciliation is often conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. While its aim is restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process. If they’re genuinely repentant, they will recognize and accept that the harm they’ve caused takes time to heal.

In many cases, even if an offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is personal freedom from a vindictive or vengeful response (Romans 12:17-21), but not always an automatic restoration of relationship.

Even when God forgives our sins, he does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are often not enough to restore trust. When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin.

Timing of Reconciliation

The process of reconciliation depends on the attitude of the offender, the depth of the betrayal, and the pattern of offense. When an offended party works toward reconciliation, the first and most important step is the confirmation of genuine repentance on the part of the offender (Luke 17:3). An unrepentant offender will resent your desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance. The offender may resort to lines of manipulation such as, “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving,” or, “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”

Such language reveals an unrepentant heart. Don’t be manipulated into avoiding the step of confirming the authenticity of your offender’s confession and repentance. It is advisable in difficult cases to seek the help of a wise counselor, one who understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Such a counselor can help the injured person establish boundaries and define steps toward reconciliation that are restorative rather than retaliatory.

It is difficult to genuinely restore a broken relationship when the offender is unclear about his confession and repentance. We should strive to be as certain as we can of our offender’s repentance—especially in cases involving repeated offenses. Even God will not grant forgiveness to one who is insincere about his confession and repentance. The person who is unwilling to forsake his sin will not find forgiveness with God (Proverbs 28:13).

Of course, only God can read hearts; we must evaluate actions. As Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16a). We must not allow superficial appearances of repentance to control our responses. Displays of tears or appearing to be sorry must not become substitutes for clear changes in attitude and behavior.

Seven Signs of Genuine Repentance

There are seven signs that indicate the offender is genuinely repentant:

  1. Accepts full responsibility for his or her actions. (Instead of: “Since you think I’ve done something wrong . . . ” or “If have done anything to offend you . . .”)
  2. Welcomes accountability from others.
  3. Does not continue in the hurtful behavior or anything associated with it.
  4. Does not have a defensive attitude about being in the wrong.
  5. Does not dismiss or downplay the hurtful behavior.
  6. Does not resent doubts about their sincerity or the need to demonstrate sincerity—especially in cases involving repeated offenses.
  7. Makes restitution where necessary.

“If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother,” John R. W. Stott wrote in Confess Your Sins, “we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. Forgiveness which by-passes the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality.”

Ten Guidelines for Those Hesitant to Reconcile

Those who have been seriously (and repeatedly) hurt rightfully feel hesitant about reconciling with their offenders. When your offender is genuinely repentant, however, it’s important to be open to the possibility of restoration (unless there is a clear issue of safety involved). Jesus spoke about reconciliation with a sense of urgency (Matthew 5:23-24). If you are hesitant to reconcile, work through these ten guidelines:

1. Be honest about your motives. Make sure your desire is to do what pleases God and not to get revenge. Settle the matter of forgiveness (as Joseph did) in the context of your relationship with God. Guidelines for reconciliation should not be retaliatory.

2. Be humble in your attitude. Do not let pride ruin everything. Renounce all vengeful attitudes toward your offender. We are not, for example, to demand that a person earn our forgiveness. The issue is not earning forgiveness but working toward true reconciliation. This demands humility. Those who focus on retaliation and revenge have allowed self-serving pride to control them.

3. Be prayerful about the one who hurt you. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for those who mistreat them (Luke 6:28). It is amazing how our attitude toward another person can change when we pray for him. Pray also for strength to follow through with reconciliation (Hebrews 4:16).

4. Be willing to admit ways you might have contributed to the problem. As Ken Sande writes in The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict:

Even if you did not start the dispute, your lack of understanding, careless words, impatience, or failure to respond in a loving manner may have aggravated the situation. When this happens, it is easy to behave as though the other person’s sins more than cancel yours, which leaves you with a self-righteous attitude that can retard forgiveness (i.e. relational forgiveness). The best way to overcome this tendency is to prayerfully examine your role in the conflict and then write down everything you have done or failed to do that may have been a factor.

Such a step, however, is not suggested to promote the idea of equal blame for all situations (Matthew 7:1-6).

5. Be honest with the offender. If you need time to absorb the reality of what was said or done, express this honestly to the one who hurt you. Yet we must not use time as a means of manipulation and punishment.

6. Be objective about your hesitancy. Perhaps you have good reasons for being hesitant to reconcile, but they must be objectively stated. Sometimes, for example, repeated confessions and offenses of the same nature make it understandably hard for trust to be rebuilt. This is an objective concern. Clearly define your reasons for doubting your offender’s sincerity.

7. Be clear about the guidelines for restoration. Establish clear guidelines for restoration. Requirements like restitution can be clearly understood and include such factors as maintaining financial accountability, holding down a job, or seeking treatment for substance abuse.

8. Be alert to Satan’s schemes. In Ephesians 4:27, Paul warns about the possibility of giving Satan an opportunity in our lives. Significantly, this warning is given in the context of unchecked anger. A few verses later, he wrote, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:29-5:2). Meditate on these words and put them into practice.

9. Be mindful of God’s control. As the apostle Paul wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). And to the Romans, he wrote, ”We know that God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

To quote once again from Ken Sande,

When you are having a hard time forgiving someone (i.e. being restored), take time to note how God may be using that offense for good. Is this an unusual opportunity to glorify God?  How can you serve others and help them grow in their faith? What sins and weaknesses of yours are being exposed? What character qualities are you being challenged to exercise? When you perceive that the person who has wronged you is being used as an instrument in God’s hand to help you mature, serve others, and glorify him, it may be easier for you to move ahead with forgiveness (i.e. restoration).

10. Be realistic about the process. Change often requires time and hard work. Periodic failure by an offender does not always indicate an unrepentant heart. Behavior patterns often run in deep channels. They can place a powerful grip on a person’s life. A key indicator of change is the attitude of the offender. While you may proceed with some caution, be careful about demanding guarantees from a person who has truly expressed repentance. If they stumble, the process of loving confrontation, confession, and forgiveness may need to be repeated. Setbacks and disappointments are often part of the process of change. Don’t give up too easily on the process of reconciliation. Be open to the goal of a fully restored relationship.

  • Matthew Rushing

    I wanted to thank you for this. I have been learning about myself and the hurt that I have caused others and at the same time, being the one hurt. Your encouraging words are the things that God has been slowly teaching me in the last couple of years. It is good to have this reinforced this morning.

  • Anonomys

    What does one do when the offending party has never owned the sin or appologized, let alone, repented.
    ? It is so hard to completely forgive in that instance.

    • Steve Cornell

      I often hear this question but before offering an answer, I need to be clear about the fact that the act of forgiveness surrenders the desire for revenge in the context of one’s relationship with the God who said, ““It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” (Romans 12:19). Forgiveness is first about God. It’s not a “God will get you mentality” because that is an effort to use God rather than worshiping Him. I view forgiveness as an act of worship — as occuring in the context of worship. But it is not only a response to the God who holds the right of vengeance, but also to the God who forgave my sins (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).

      This provides a gospel-focused perspective that frees us from the grudge-bearing vindictiveness and the root of troubling and infectious bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). It equally empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8; see also, Genesis 5:15-20; Romans 12:17-21). Forgiveness liberates us to pray for those who mistreat them (Luke 6:28).

      Interestingly, when forgiveness is approached this way, one does not have to mitigate her sense of justice by falling for silly cliches like: “It’s no big deal.” or “We’re all sinners, you know.” Rather I bring the matter before the one who is both Judge of all the earth who does what is right and my faithful and merciful High Priest. No moral neutrality involved here.

      Please know that I don’t offer this as a trite notion of “Forgive and Forget.” When my heart leans back into deep feelings of hurt, betrayal and desires to “even the score,” I must return again to this place of worship.

      Now, with this in mind (and heart), in cases where a person is unwilling to acknowledge wrong doing, sometimes we have to build boundaries around our relationship with him or her. But, in cases of deep hurt and betrayal, we must guard our hearts (and perhaps seek wise counsel from one who understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation) so that our boundaries are not retalitory but wisely and appropriately protective with the hope of restoration.

      Quick reset: Forgiven people should be open to the possibility of reconciliation (unless personal or family safety are clearly at risk). Forgiveness requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and to regain trust.

      Forgiveness and reconciliation should occur together in relation to minor offenses. But when behavior is repeatedly hurtful in significant ways or trust has been deeply or repeatedly betrayed, “pretending” all is well (when it clearly is not) is not a loving option.

      John Stott helpfully noted that, ” “If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. Forgiveness which by-passes the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality (Confess Your Sins, p.35).

      One more consideration of Christian calling is that this does not exempt us in the context of Christian witness from loving even our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us. We are to overcome evil with good.

      • Friend from Flourtown, PA

        Thank you for this very insightful article on the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I have a long history in counseling having studied at CCEF and involved in many ministries of our church and this is one of the most helpful articles I have read. I have applied much of the same scripture to my own personal life where I am dealing with an unrepentant church member who sinned against me. I will also use this information for other situations in the lives of my counselees as they arise.

  • Jeremy Taylor

    In his book, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, James Denney says, “Forgiveness is the most powerfully reconciling force.”

  • Reg Schofield

    What can one do if ones repentance is not believed and outright rejected ? Or the offended party acts with an attitude of not some much anger but hatred and belligerence? I have been hurt and have hurt others in my life time. I don’t think anyone who has walked this broken world hasn’t to some degree. It is true sometimes the depth of hurt or broken trust is deeper but if someone ask for my forgiveness and I then lay out a long check list to see if they have crossed all the dots and jumped all the hoops , then I believe my heart is not seeking forgiveness or reconciliation but vengeance and payback. Even as Christina we are a cynical lot and I would say suspicious of another who repents and shows contrition.

    In many situations I have witnessed an attitude of superiority over another who is trying to repent and would seek reconciliation. I’m not talking about violent or life threatening issues , but matters that broke trust on a more personal level . Then we judge others motives , thinking that they just want something out of us and we justify withholding forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. I did that to someone and it ate at my soul but was totally liberated when I forgave .

    • Steve Cornell

      Your experience, concerns and comment are why I recommend working with and under wise and godly counselors. The Lord Jesus is clear (as I stated) about the requirement of forgiveness. But it’s also sinful for a person to think that forgiveness requires others to “treat me and trust me as if nothing ever happened no matter how much damage I’ve caused.” I don’t hear you saying this but I see a lot of this kind of manipulative behavior from users and abusers. Sadly, I also observe Christians wrongly thinking that forgiveness means allowing myself to be used and abused. In cases of persecution for one’s faith, this might be how things end up. But in normal relationships and community, individuals must be held accountable and responsible for behavior that wrongs and damages others.

      “Check lists” as you refer to them, at least the ones above, are meant to protect both parties by offering objective means for trust to be rebuilt. If a party refuses to pursue reconciliation or tries to use a restorative process as a means of retaliation, I recommend involving Church leaders to guide the process according to the narrative of the gospel. But this can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Manipulative abusers tend to isolate those they abuse from authority figures to make it difficult for outside intervention or guidance. And sometimes those who have been repeatedly and significantly hurt (because they don’t handle things the right way for extended periods of time), allow their hearts to become hardened against any thought of reconciliation.

      When an offender responds with godly sorrow and makes sustained efforts to “clear himself” (see: II Corinthians 7:10-11), he must be sure he’s doing this first and foremost to honor God (no matter what the outcome). This should be done as a faith step toward God based on Proverbs 3:5-7. It is difficult to walk by faith in these circumstances but God is able to restore the years the locust have eaten. Practice Psalm 62:8 and Hebrews 4:16. But also seek wise and godly counsel.

  • Paul Cummings

    Steve, thank you so much for this article… Very helpful and insightful.

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  • David Baker

    Thank you – I have found this enormously helpful and liberating.

  • Stephen Byrd

    Brother, I just wanted to say thank you for these words. I’ll echo the sentiments of another comment – “more than helpful and liberating”. Good stuff!

  • Hal Dixon

    Undoubtedly the best discussion on this subject that I’ve ever read.

  • David Adams

    Thank You for raising your comforting and challenging words and the scriptures you offered.
    Our Pastor (Reformed Calvinist) teaches that in certain circumstances that it is OK, to reject apologies and withhold forgiveness, if one is unable to recognize repentence.
    He also preached that he didn’t see enough recognizable suffering and persucution within the congregation required, of a saved body.
    Jesus commanding us to forgive 7 x 70 has at times been a challenge not only for me but possibly for the people I have hurt in my lifetime.

  • Seth

    Reconciliation has been a huge theme of life, thankfully. Your article was spot on what I was/am trying to do. It’s a tough road ahead, but I pray I’m going about this the right way. Thank you for your words of reinforcement.

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  • AAK

    In my family’s situation, one member wrongly accused another member. The accusation is a lie but the offender will not admit to lying. How is the innocent party to respond? Is there any way out of this deadlock?

    • Steve Cornell

      False accusations are serious matters. When one is the object of them, on a personal level, the first thing I recommend is sober reflection on the fact that our Lord and Savior personally knows the experience of being wrongfully accused. At His so-called religious and political trials, “many brought false witness against him” (Mark 14). They said, “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King” “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.”

      On this level, I follow the pattern our Lord gave us. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (I Peter 2:23-24).

      The present tense phrase “he (kept) entrusting himself to him who judges justly” offers an insight from the scene of the cross not as evident in the gospel. When following this pattern one is not treating lightly the false accusation but entrusting it to the just Judge of all the earth.

      On a relational level, one thinks of the apostle Paul who defends himself before the Church of Corinth (a Church that appears to have allowed themselves to be swayed against the apostle by the detractors who wanted to dislodge the loyalties of the Church from Paul and shift them to himself. The apostle did not desire to engage in self-defense but was willing to do so when the spiritual well-being of others was attacked.

      Finally, my point about boundaries and seeking mediation (in answer to a question above) equally apply to this case. Without knowing more details, I cannot offer much more. But I will say a prayer for the situation.

  • David M. Adams


    Having something horrible happen to the innocent or to anybody is difficult. God revealed to me, when people like this family member that lied who find it difficult to apologize, they will also find it difficult in accepting apologies when they have been wronged.
    Maybe the Lord’s prayer wasn’t instilled deeply enough in the heart of this family member who lied. In Matt.6:9-13 Focusing on “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. This person may be living a miserable existence, even if it doesn’t show on the surface.
    Prayerfully the pain caused, hasn’t effected the victim who may have been faithful in their walk. This is a test I’ve experienced in my own life.
    My situation is different, but God revealed this passage 2 days ago, because I’ve been burden with a family member who has deeply hurt me. God reminded me, that I’ve been guilty of unforgivably in my life and it has been a distraction in my own walk. Depending on the severity of the sin, the pain can effect our health and the path and decisions we make.
    God also reminded me during the course of the last 50 years, of people I’ve wrongly offended who deserve an apology they never got from me either through ignorance or arrogance and now the distance time has made it impossible to make things right. I hope the person suffering through this difficult time will not allow this to happen to them like what I have allowed it to happen to me.
    I’m relieved that God’s word is helping me get past the harm and unforgivably that has festered in my heart of the wrong others have done to me.
    Trust me unforgiveness is a far greater burden to endure than to forgive. (actually trust God’s word)
    Peace in Christ

  • Ouida Gabriel

    Thank you so much for this article. I too have hurt and been hurt in my life; now I am trying to make it right. I have spent a lot of money on books to try to learn how to forgive others as well as ask forgiveness (or forgive myself for my actions) but I finally started to read the Bible on the subject. This information is solid Biblical advice. Thank you for being a source of wisdom.

    Ouida Gabriel

  • Tim

    What can you do if you’re in a place where you feel a person has very severely wronged you – and where many others agree – but where the person simply doesn’t believe that they have? That is, the person says that they would be very willing to repent if they truly felt they had done something wrong, but despite being told that they have by several parties, they disagree.

    A number of us who have been praying about this situation are sadly concluding that the person is deluded about the issue (and not here using that term pejoratively) and that no amount of explanation will convince them of a different view of their actions. Therefore, we’re now wondering how we accept the fact that we are unlikely to ever see repentance. In essence, our question is, what will it look like for us to have fully forgiven this person if we need to abandon hopes of reconciliation?

    It is compounded by the fact that the person is a pastor in a church and that we are likely to cross paths with them quite regularly.

    • Steve Cornell


      It’s hard to answer this kind of question without details and yet I realize that this is not the venue for those details. Advice does depend on many possible factors. I assume you’re not dealing with a minor grievance that should be covered in love (I Peter 4:8) or with a non-essential matter (Romans 14:1-3). I assume that what you’re referring to fits in the category of Matthew 18:15ff. where Jesus anticipated fractures in Christian fellowship (as in Matthew 5:23-24). The tension we all face is being realistic about life in a fallen world while conducting relationships with humble integrity. Forgiveness is not whitewashing or pretending nothing happened when an offense has driven a wedge between two people. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to neutralize our sense of justice. The very act itself takes seriously the offense. But forgiveness does involve a surrender of desires for revenge. As such, it is an act of worship in the presence of the God who forgives our sins by acknowledging God’s sole right to punish our offender (see: Genesis 5:15-20; Romans 12:17-21). It frees us from grudge-bearing vindictiveness and empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8).

      But (as I am recommending here) there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with an offender (Joseph being a great example). Reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships.

      On this note, we should attend to the priority Scripture places on pursuing peace:

      “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
      “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace …” (Romans 14:19).
      “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
      “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy …” (Hebrews 12:14).

      What do we do when peace is not possible? Well, it depends on the nature of the situation. If the person is part of a fellowships of believers (as what you describe), we must follow Biblical mandates for protecting the unity of believers. The steps Jesus taught begin with private confrontation (after the personal preparation of removing logs from our own eyes, Matthew 7:3-5). If private confrontation does not remove the wedge, private conference must take place involving the offender brother and two or three others (enlisting those who are spiritually prepared (Matthew 7:3-5), spiritually mature (Galatians 6:1), and entrusted with spiritual oversight (I Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28 ).This only becomes necessary, if the one confronted has as obstinate attitude (v. 16). When a sinning member of the church refuses to heed the confrontation of a fellow believer, thus refusing to be restored to proper fellowship, the circle of confrontation must broaden so that it includes one or two others.

      Those called to be part of the confrontation are not required to be eyewitnesses of the sin confronted (If they had been, they should have gone to confront the member themselves). Ideally, it would be good to include people who are known and respected by the erring member but this is not always possible.

      The one or two witnesses are involved “so that every fact may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (v.16). Their purpose is not to threaten or intimidate, but to help the erring brother to understand the seriousness of the matter. Their main purpose is not to evaluate the truthfulness of the charge, but to strengthen the rebuke and the call to restoration. After private conference, if the erring member remains obstinate and unwilling to acknowledge and repent of the sin, Jesus teaches a fourth step.

      Each of the four steps has as its primary aim the restoration of the brother to proper fellowship. The fourth step is public announcement (v. 17a). Jesus said, “Tell it to the church (the assembly). This step is a sobering reminder that sin is not merely a private and personal matter for Christians. Sin that separates and alienates believers, must be dealt with and resolved. But how do we take this step of public announcement? In our church (due to size), we’ve sometimes handled this in the adult fellowship group the member participates in. Other times, we’ve communicated to all the covenant members through a special meeting of the membership. Some churches make these announcements during communion. Others will use a letter to the membership. However this happens, all churches should clearly spell it out in their documents and seek agreement from the membership to follow it. This step involves the fellowship in some kind of public confrontation. In v. 17b, Jesus implies that the church (as an assembly) has made an appeal to the erring member.

      When the church is informed, (which reasonably implies that the pastors will be involved) .warnings should be made about the need for the whole assembly to avoid gossip, slander and a proud or critical spirit (Matthew 7:3-5; Galatians 6:1). Members should not play spiritual detective or allow a lenient or punitive attitude. They should be encouraged to pray for repentance and restoration, and to appeal to their fellow member to submit to the leadership of the Church. In such an appeal, one might humbly say, “I don’t know all the details, nor is it my place to know them, but I do want to encourage you to make things right with the church.”

      No one should give the erring member the feeling that he is in good fellowship with the Church (cf. II Thessalonians 3:12-14). Never act in cross-purpose with the church. We should not do anything that would cause disrespect for the leadership. Remember the goal: “Win your brother.” It is redemptive!

      The final step Jesus taught is public exclusion: removal from membership. The primary aim of this step is to protect the purity of the assembly (see: I Corinthians 5:1-11). Failure to practice these steps invites God’s discipline on the entire assembly (see: I Corinthians 11:30-32; Revelation 2:5, 16, 20-23; 3:3-19).”

      This is a long answer but these are the truths we must work through when faced with a situation like you describe — even if it involves one in spiritual leadership One final word. Be extra cautious with accusations against spiritual leaders. Remember the words of the apostle Paul: “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism” (I Timothy 5:19-21).

      • Tim

        Hi Steve,

        Thanks so much for getting back at such length – I’m grateful for your time on this.

        The 1 Tim 5 quote at the end is perhaps the most challenging for the particular situation I have in mind. It would be a huge thing to suggest a pastor has behaved inappropriately. But then, if you do reach that conclusion in sober and prayerful conversation with other believers who know the situation, it would also be a huge thing to act on it.

        I think most of the counsel I’ve received so far is along the lines of ‘yes, something unacceptable has happened, but there’s nothing you can do about it other than i) ensure you’re fully penitent for whatever your part was ii) offer forgiveness without qualification and then iii) be open to the less-than-ideal-but-more-realistic possibility of reconciliation without them ever acknowledging their wrongdoing’.

        Clearly, there are steps in the Mt 18 / 1 Cor 5 process that are much harder to carry through when the person in question is a leader. It would be interesting to have an article written on what the 1 Tim 5:19-21 passage looks like in action.

        This is probably not the place for me to go into more detail but again, I’m thankful both for your article and the time you’ve given in responding to individual comments.

  • Anon

    Hi Steve,

    I’ve posted this anonymously, as I don’t think it right to identify myself or others in this forum. However, your article spoke to me deeply, since I have been struggling with this exact issue. Indeed, I have wrestled with the question of whether forgiveness means reconciliation, or if it is possible to do the former without being committed to the latter. Let me explain. About two years ago, my father revealed to us that he had been having an affair with another man for the previous 18 months. We were devastated – especially my mum. For a short while, he left the relationship, but has since returned. He still claims to be a committed Christian, but sees nothing wrong with being in a homosexual relationship (with a non-Christian man). All the while, I’ve struggled with the betrayal, the massive destruction of trust and the hypocrisy (which is still occurring). Not to mention my mum’s emotional upheavals. I am working on forgiveness – and am almost there. Question is: am I obliged to reconcile with my father? He doesn’t acknowledge his sin, and I don’t have any desire for an intimate (even distant) relationship with someone who has committed such betrayal. Can you offer any further wisdom?

    • Steve Cornell

      I am really sorry to hear about your father. I cannot imagine the depth of hurt and sense of loss you’re dealing with. I feel deeply for your mom and pray that God will protect her heart from the multiplication of your father’s sin through destructive responses of bitterness. He has chosen to train wreck; you don’t have to connect to his train. What I have explained here about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation is really important for your circumstances. I tend to doubt that your father is truly in the kingdom (I Corinthians 6:9-10 “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-20; Ehpesians 5:5-7). This means that he should not be treated as if he is in Christian fellowship but as one who needs to respond to the gospel. He also must be aware that his actions have cost him losses. Without being vindictive, you should convey a loving aloofness with the purpose of prompting shame and repentance (a principle from I Thessalonians 3:14). It is not love to allow him to think that everything is fine when it clearly is not.

      • Anon

        Many thanks, Steve. I appreciate the time you have taken to respond to my questions. Both your article and your advice are a blessing to me. And thank you, too, for your prayers.


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  • Richard

    Thank you for a very insightful article. You may be interested in Steven Tracy’s book “Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse.” In chapter 10 he outlines the scriptural data on forgiveness and comes to very similar conclusions. He uses the language of “three different categories, or types, of forgiveness.” He distinguishes (1) Judicial forgiveness–that which comes from God and can only be given by God, (2) Psychological forgiveness–letting go of hatred and personal revenge while seeking to extend grace to the offender, and (3) Relational forgiveness which he defines as synonymous with reconciliation. Tracy’s discussion and counsel for application dovetails nicely with what you have written here.

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  • Steve Cornell

    Answering the following question: “What can you do when you feel a person has severely wronged you but the person simply doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong? In this case, the person happens to be a pastor.”

  • Mrs.LastName

    WOW. Such a good article thank you so much for sharing. You say so eloquently what my husband and I have been thinking in regards to the huge hurts from his family. They like to tell us to FORGIVE FORGIVE but there is zero repentance from them. No apologies, no admission that they were wrong to treat our children poorly, nothing.
    They want forgiveness so they can continue abusing.

    Husband and I understand that we must forgive and not wish harm on them, but that doesn’t mean we allow ourselves and our kids to be further mistreated. We simply back away and trust that God has seen all and God will deal with it.

  • Stephanie Wilson

    Thank you so much for sharing your message on this subject. I have struggled with this for a long time since my divorce. I also found the following discussion on unforgiveness that was a blessing and I pray it will bless someone else as well. Thank you for making it plain. Victory is ours in Jesus name!

  • Grainne

    Thank you so much for your article and for your profound answers. I have been struggling with this question too for 3 years now. My older sister has always been a dominant person in my life and often, I am sorry to say, I allowed myself to be influenced by her dogmatic views – against my deeply held Christian beliefs I am ashamed to say. After my father’s death, my husband and I looked after my mother for seven years and then she went to live with my sister who thought she would not live very long. we were abroad but came several times in the first year to help out. My sister became angry when my mother did not die, treated her very poorly, and eventually decided, without saying anything to my mother, to take my mother back to England from France to an Old People’s home. My mother was not consulted and my sister and brother gave her tranquilizers, knocking her out, and brought her by plane to the Home where she was left. She was completely unaware of the journey and woke the next day wondering where she was.My mother was heartbroken and would not speak to my sister. I came to the UK and spent a month visiting with her daily. Of course, there is a lot more that happened but this is the gist. After a year I wrote to my sister explaining that I loved her, but that she had done very wrong. I know everyone has problems with caring for elderly relatives but my mother did not deserve what happened. I tried to examine myself and to ask God for forgiveness for allowing myself to be influenced and for him to forgive my failures in all this. She did not answer that letter and although she has tried to make contact I have felt unable to do so. I have taken counselling and received excellent advice. I have drawn boundaries and will not let her into my life until there is repentance. I pray for her every day, that the Lord will speak to her, will send her someone to point her back to Himself. In this I feel I have forgiven her, although sometimes anger rears up and I have to go back to the throne of Grace.I feel however, that reconciliation can’t take place yet. Am I on the right track? Every so often I hear sermons or talk about forgiveness which seem to imply covering over all the past without any admittance of or responsibility taken for what has happened. Now my problem is that I don’t know whether taking it before the church would be relevant in this case. She does go now to church in another country but I am not sure of her spiritual state. I feel happy to be far away!

  • Susan

    I really appreciate this article. However, I am still confused about the nature of forgiveness vs. reconciliation. It seems to me that popular culture has espoused a new brand of forgiveness that is divorced from reconciliation. I do not believe that this follows the Biblical pattern, but I may be wrong and would welcome correction.

    If Christians are to follow Christ as our example and “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” then how can we forgive *without* reconciliation? Is this the kind of forgiveness that our Father extends to us? Does God forgive us while at the same time excluding us from His presence and fellowship? How can any of us be sure that we are walking in friendship with God, then?–Perhaps we’ve only been forgiven and not reconciled.

    I see this as the Biblical pattern:
    There can be no forgiveness without repentance. In order to receive forgiveness one must have true contrition and repent. In order to extend forgiveness to another, one must be ready to reconcile with the offender.

    If someone says, “I forgive you, but I still can’t be your friend,” that person is lying; she has not truly forgiven. She still holds her friend’s offense against her.

    It goes without saying that it hurts when someone offends us. But, the thing is, we all hurt one another and commit offenses against each other, big and small. How are we behaving any different from the world when we say we forgive, but then withhold our friendship?

    It seems to me that nowadays we have confused true forgiveness with the popular notion that it helps the victim as much as the offender. We encourage victims to “forgive” so that they may heal, but what we are really advising them to do is *move on*–which is excellent advice, however, let’s not confuse it with forgiveness.

    It is simple to follow Christ, but very, very hard. My faith is a tenuous thing that I cannot take for granted.

    Am I in error?

  • Susan

    I want to add that the truly repentant will do everything in their power to make amends for the hurt they have caused. Christendom has always believed in penance as a necessary act of faith which follows repentance.

    • Steve Cornell


      Consider this perspective: Leave your Grudge with the Judge

      • Susan

        I read ,”Leave Your Grudge with the Judge”. It was very good, but I am confused about why you asked me to read it. I hope you do not think that I was advocating grudge holding in my previous comment. Absolutely not! I tried to explain (albeit not very clearly) that it seems to me that forgiveness and reconciliation are one and the same in God’s eyes. I am concerned that modern Christians are falling into an error (in following current pop psychology) by treating the two terms as if they are not concurrent.

        Likewise, I think that modern Christians have made a mistake in identifying “justification” and “sanctification” as separate terms. Justify: to be declared righteous; Sanctify: to be made holy. One *is* holy if one is righteous; one *is* righteous when one is holy. We are taking a simple (yet difficult) faith and twisting it into a complicated mess. Thus, today we have people who forgive, but are not reconciled to one another, and righteous, but not living holy lives.

  • Nancy Maurice

    I was taught that we forgive with no expectation of change from the other person, yet I hear you saying we should expect change. I believe it’s all about our own personal healing of our hearts by asking God every day to soften our hearts toward those who have hurt us. We are to be humble and meek and loving no matter what others have done to us. That’s how I read the scriptures.
    I believe the goal is to change ourselves and others will change because of our loving attitude.

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  • Tim

    I have offended my now ex-wife. I became an alcoholic. I drank most of my life, since I was twelve years old. My father used to purchase it for me. I was married for almost ten years. When my children were born I began to drink more than ever. I was not prepared to be a father. My father was not a good father, so I don’t have much to refer to. Instead I put my faith in the bottle. I became verbally abusive and when things got worse between us I fell into adultery and sexual sin. She left me because of the alcohol and abuse. I confesses later to the adultery after turning to Christ. I have spent the last eighteen months trying to convince her that I have changed and would be willing to do anything that would lead to reconciliation. She rejects the thought of it. We have two boys together. My heart was so hard. Christ has changed my life and I am truly repentant.

    My ex-wifes father is a pastor in the PCA. His belief is that reconciliation is not the restoration of the relationship. In fact he has accused me of idolatry for seeking restoration.

    I know I have made serious mistakes and I have sinned against her and God. I have repented. I carry the burden of guilt for what I have done. I now know what God expects of me as a follower of Christ, as a husband and as a father.She has moved 30 miles away and almost completely cut me out of her and my children’s lives.

    The only thing I fought for in the divorce was for the relationship. I gave up everything of material value. I gave up who I was to God. He has done a lot to transform my life and will continue to do so. Walking with Him takes a lifetime and we still fall short of His glory.

    Can you offer any suggestions to help?
    Thank You

  • Tim

    My best advice is to talk to a local gospel-hearted pastor.

    • David Mark


      Besides visiting a Gospel Hearted Pastor, I’d continue to stay sober and live a repentant life.

      Your kids and wife are watching you and will be impacted by your progress in the years to come. (whether or not reconciliation with your wife occurs) Being drunk and womanizing reconciliation won’t happen and will deepen the wedge in your relationship with your kids.

      Piece your life together that is pleasing to God.

      • Tim


        I’m not familiar with “womanizing reconciliation”. Can you elaborate?

        I want to walk according to God’s will and not my own. I believe I am trying to be obedient to God’s will according to scripture, divorce care,material I read on the internet and different sermons. I have offered to do anything that would lead to reconciliation on any level. I am broken because of the pain and turmoil I have put her and my children through. I have made some bad choices in my life. I putting every effort forward to learning to and making good choices. I believe those choices will align with scripture. Am I wrong?

  • Susan


    I hope that reconciliation with your wife and children is possible. But, I also hope that they are not the reason behind your change in behavior. None of us knows what he will face in this life. God needs to be the reason for all we do. Cling to Him, obey Him, and trust Him.

    You have repented and God has forgiven you. Have you also made reparations for your sins against your wife and children to the best of your ability (penance)? Can you make their lives easier for them (perhaps financially) without burdening them with your feelings of guilt, shame, and your desire for reconciliation? One of the fruits of the Spirit is longsuffering. Be patient, unobtrusive and helpful to your family. Trust God and move forward in His Grace *no matter what happens*.

    Peace keep you, Tim.

    • Tim


      I truly believe God found me where I was. I was face down in the carpet when I realized the implications of the choices I made and how I hurt my family. Over the last eighteen months I lost my family and all of my material possessions. I recently lost my job- I worked for a start up. I am basically living in poverty at my parents house. I press into God at every turn. I love Him with my entire being. There is no desire to have another God before Him-namely alcohol. I learned to run instead.

      I have offered to do whatever in necessary,without limitations on my part, to find a path of reconciliation to my ex-wife, her mother and her father. I wholly believe God desires reconciliation for His people. I am committed to following His will, His way according to His time. As I am learning from the characters of the bible-nothing can be accomplished without the Father.

      Thank you

  • David Mark


    I apologize to referring to sexual sin as “womanizing” it was a poor choice of words.

    Your testimony and humility appears to be genuine.

    The point I was making is stay the course you are on, whether or not you and your wife can reconcile enough to restore the marriage. Your kids will still need you to stay sober for the duration as they enter adulthood.

    You have made great strides. I know because much of what you described in your childhood I experienced myself. (I’m 53)

    Being connected with a “Sound and Loving” Church (with the emphasis of “Love” 1 Corinthians 13:13) is paramount and discussing this matter with a qualified church counselor with a real counseling degree preferably from a Christian University will be more beneficial to you.

    My intent is not to be judgmental, my intent was to encourage you to stay the course so you can be an effective mentor for your children even if the marriage can’t be restored.

    • Tim


      Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I was really blessed by this post but I am feeling conflicted about my particular situation. Long story short, my ex-husband abandoned his kids over ten years ago and has refused any contact and does not pay the court awarded child support. Although I do not know if he still does, but he once participated in the homosexual lifestyle. I allowed him telephone access to the kids and unfortunately he tried to portray me in a negative light. I continue to pray to the Lord to strengthen my resolve to walk in a spirit of forgiveness but I am very concerned about reconciliation. He is obviously the same person he was when he left his kids. And I do not want to give him access to hurt me or them anymore. I also have spiritual concerns. Since the telephone conversation, both myself and the kids have been spiritually attacked (what scientist refer to as “sleep paralysis). I feel like I may have opened a spiritual door to the enemy but God says to seek reconciliation…I am utterly confused…and God is not the author of confustion. Please help! Thank you!!!

  • Jude

    Hi Steve, this is a really interesting article and a good insight into what I am dealing with in my marriage right now. My wife is a repeat offender of sexual infidelity, and I am finding it very difficult to forgive and reconcile this time. Is it possible I can call you and have a discussion with you. t

  • Briana

    I just wanted to say that this was a really encouraging article. I have been praying that I can reconcile with my ex-best friend/ex-boyfriend for many months now. I am praying first for his salvation and for the Lord to turn his life around, but this will come in handy for when the day comes. The verse that has really been going through my head today is “Call unto me and I will answer thee and show thee great and mighty things thou knowest not” -Jeremiah 33:3. I know not every relationship in my life will be reconciled, but I feel a bit more at peace knowing I’ve done my part by forgiving in those circumstances. Just very encouraging!

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  • Angel

    Hi Steve,
    Thank you for this article. It is precise and speaks clearly on the issue. My husband and I are working through our marriage after his affair.
    He is repentant and I have forgiven him because I still love him but rebuilding the trust is a very difficult process. Occasionally there are those days where anything, something in the paper, on tv our from conversation that triggers the past memories and I relive the horror all over. I know this will not be automatic and am trusting God to break free from the hurt and resentment.

    Regarding persistent offenders, I agree with the notes on reconciliation based on trust and genuine actions. The world is full of pretentious and self-serving people who manipulate situations and relationships for personal gain. however we are called to forgive as the Lords forgives us – 70×7 times i believe. At the same time, we are called to walk in wisdom and Jesus did teach us that ‘…by their fruits you shall know them’ Mathew 7:16. I believe He is giving us clear principles on how to walk in wisdom and assess genuine repentance from shallow guises.

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  • Clay Mize


    Awesome article. I am going to use this in a class I am teaching. It was revealed that many thought forgiveness meant reconciliation. This article is perfect for presenting the separation of the two. Would love for you to check out my site at