When we have been sinned against, real forgiveness should flow out to the offender at two levels.
First, internally, within the thoughts of our own hearts, we should forgive the offender unconditionally and immediately. That is extremely difficult. But it is how God forgives us. So we know that radical forgiveness is right. Not easy, but right.
Secondly, externally, in our relationship with the offender, we should follow the path the Lord gave us in Luke 17:3: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” John Stott, in his book Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation, page 35, writes about this verse:
“We are to rebuke a brother if he sins against us; we are to forgive him if he repents — and only if he repents. We must beware of cheapening forgiveness. . . . If a brother who has sinned against us refuses to repent, we should not forgive him. Does this startle you? It is what Jesus taught. . . . ‘Forgiveness’ includes restoration to fellowship. 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.”
Luke 17:3, then, is a huge verse, too often overlooked. What is the Lord saying here?
“If your brother sins, rebuke him.” If you have been sinned against, the Lord is telling you you can name it. You can and should call sin sin. It is not to be exaggerated, nor is it to be denied. But in this verse the Lord is talking about sin — not hurt feelings or disappointed expectations. So the word “sins” in this verse means something like, “If your brother behaves in a way that, according to God, chapter-and-verse in the Bible, goes against his will, then a rebuke is right.”
What then about this rebuke? Surely, since this verse is the Lord speaking, his kind of rebuke is not angry venting. His kind of rebuke is fair-minded and not blood-thirsty, calm and not explosive, citing facts and not hearsay. Maybe it could go like this: “Brother, here in [biblical text], God says . . . . But you will recall that, on that painful occasion, you said/did . . . . But I can’t see how your behavior lines up with what God says in Scripture. I’m troubled by this. I want to be able to trust you and think the best of you. And the consequences of your behavior are landing on me hard. I believe you should reconsider what you did.” Not vague generalities, but verifiable facts, clearly addressed by the Bible.
A rebuker will make sure that his rebuke is fair enough to stand a chance of being received. So it is wise to avoid the verb “to be” (“You are . . .”) or the words “always” and “never” (“You always/never . . .”). Those categories are too absolute to be fair. They blast the offender to smithereens, with no dignity left. They presume to redefine what another human being is, and no one but God has the right to do that. A wise rebuke limits itself to observable behavior.
“And if he repents, forgive him.” I wish we were all so tender before the Lord that obvious sin, lovingly rebuked, always evoked repentance. Sadly, that is not so. Hence, the word “if,” rather than “when,” in this verse. But if the relationship is to be restored, the offender must confess his sin as sin and repent of it. How can a sin be forgiven, if it’s never been confessed as sin? So hopefully the offending brother will say, after carefully considering your rebuke, “You’re right. I didn’t see it that way at the moment. I was too riled up. But now I see what I did, and I see what the Bible says about it, and I am making no excuses. I was wrong. I’m sorry. And, God helping me, it won’t happen again. Is there anything I can do that might make a positive difference?”
At this point, the victim faces another difficult task. The rebuke wasn’t easy. It required much death to self. So does forgiveness, and probably more. Here’s why. The offender is simply unable to make up to you all that his sin destroyed in your life — perhaps years of hardship, many sleepless nights, losses of money and reputation and opportunity, lost friendships because of misinformation and even lies that have been spread, and more. A serious sin pushes dominoes of consequence over in many directions. And now the offender finally sees the impact of his destructive foolishness. Hopefully, he is devastated. That will lead him deeper into God’s blessing, which is your desire. But a big part of the mercy God intends for the offender will come now through you. So here is your next hard assignment. You must accept that you’re not going to recover everything that that person’s sin cost you. A big part of the tragedy of this life is that we do things to one another we cannot later remedy, no matter how penitent we become. It’s why we must be so cautious in how we treat one another. But the role God is calling you to now, as the victim, is two-fold. On the one hand, guide the offender toward some form of reparations that are possible. Don’t demand of him what he cannot do. That would amount to sending him to hell. And you don’t have the right to do that. So, ask something of him, something relevant to your losses but still doable, so that he can have the satisfaction of knowing that his own repentance is real. But don’t be so demanding and so severe that you destroy your penitent almost-friend-again. On the other hand, you must accept, as from the hand of God himself, that your story is now permanently changed because of the sin of your offender. Under God, your sufferings are not a loss but a gift. You are now more profoundly qualified to comfort others with the comfort God has given you. That is a privilege, not a death-sentence – if you’ll let the Lord tell your story.
Now you are ready to bless your offender with real forgiveness: “Dear brother, thank you for receiving what I said so humbly. I do forgive you, completely and wholeheartedly. Thank you for asking about follow-through. Yes, there is something positive that would help. What would you think of . . . ?”
Joseph tested his treacherous brothers. He wanted to know if they had really changed. And they had. So he embraced them. But from the start, his only desire was their restoration. He used his power not to punish them but to forgive them and provide for them. He was a picture of Jesus.