God is not the strict schoolteacher with a soft heart who says: 'Well I'll let you off this time but don't let me catch you doing it again'. He knows He will catch us again, and we know it too. His mercy is constant, but if we are to experience it in future, there must be a forsaking and confession of sin, and a recognition that we are living in His mercy. When we are baptized, we enter into Christ. God counts us as if we are as perfect as Christ. God imputes His very own righteousness to us through Christ, even though we are not perfect on account of our own obedience to commands. This is the basis of justification by faith, rather than by obedience and forsaking of sins alone. In prospect we have already been saved, all our future sins were in prospect forgiven at baptism. We are here and now in the heavenly places with Christ. How God treats us is how we should treat each other; we too must look at each other as if we are perfect: " Forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Paul does not say we should forgive as Christ is forgiving us. Our forgiveness was granted at baptism; the power of sin in our lives was overcome by baptism into Christ's death, which destroyed the devil. Therefore anyone baptized into Christ is not a servant of sin, unless they leave Christ. Of course, we know that in practice we all keep on sinning. But our spiritual man is in Christ, God looks upon that side of us, not upon the devil within us. We cannot destroy the devil within us- his destruction is in death (Rom. 6:23). That natural man cannot be made subject to God's word (Rom. 8:7; Gal. 5:17,18; James 3:8). What God requires is a growth in the spiritual man, living in a way of life which on balance shows that the new man is more fundamentally 'us' than the old man. As God eagerly looks upon that new man within us, so we too should perceive the new man in our brethren. Too often extreme brethren look upon how bad the old man is in a brother, and how publicly he is manifested (e.g. in marital problems)- rather than assessing the new man, " the hidden man" which is surely to be found deep within all brethren and sisters. Note that the unworthy in Mt. 25:42-45 are condemned for what they omitted rather than for what they committed.
If we are intended to grant forgiveness for specific things rather than showing a covenant of mercy, it follows that we must be able to know when someone has repented. We need to carefully consider the question: 'Can we know when someone has repented?'. If the answer is 'Yes', then we are judging by the outward appearance. We are saying that our assessment of another's spiritual strivings is ultimately correct. The more reasonable Christian would say 'Sometimes'. But if that is true, we presuppose that we do have some criteria to decide whether someone has repented. But what Biblical evidence is there to define these criteria in crystal clarity? It is therefore difficult to avoid concluding: 'No, we don't know when someone has repented'. Repentance must precede baptism, indeed baptism may not be valid without it; but how can we know when and whether repentance has actually occurred in the candidate? How can we judge whether there has really been a forsaking and confessing of sin in truth? Most interviewing brethren accept that they cannot know when or whether the candidate has repented- and therefore it is rare to ask 'Have you repented?' in the discussion before baptism. The Lord's command to forgive 490 times per day (Mt. 18:22) is surely teaching that we have no ability to judge the sincerity of repentance; all we can do is forgive.
It is often argued: 'We can only forgive you if you repent and forsake and confess your sin'. This sounds very convenient when dealing with some more public sins. But if we are going to make this equation a general principle governing fellowship, then we must consistently apply it. We can only forgive a brother if we see him forsaking his sin. If this principle were applied to every sin, then we would have a community which could not " forbear one another in love" to the slightest extent; a community where everyone holds a gun at his brother's head unless there is forsaking of the weakness.
To 'sins' like occasional drunkenness, loss of temper, married couples deciding to permanently separate etc., Christians (generally) have never said: 'We can't forgive you unless you forsake that behaviour'. Instead, there has always been a spirit of forbearance and overlooking, as God overlooks our own more hidden failings. So, why apply this principle of 'No forgiveness without forsaking' to some areas of life and not others? We all sin, repent- and go on doing the same thing! We all strive against the same recurring failures- and fail. A couple with marriage problems may do this- and some will refuse them fellowship. Yet we all do just the same. Is there really such a difference between private sins and public ones? We must ever reflect the overwhelming zeal of God to patiently bring about repentance. Luke 15 contains two parables concerning repentance, where the restored sinner is in fact not repentant: the lost sheep and the lost coin. The Lord searches for them until He finds them; neither of them actually repent and seek to come back. Indeed, the coin is inanimate, it can't repent. It was actually the woman's fault that it got lost in the first place. Now all these are surely examples of hyperbole- a gross exaggeration to make a point. It isn't the Lord's fault that we stray. But He speaks as if it is in this parable, in order to make the point that He so strenuously seeks our return to Him. Likewise Yahweh likens Himself to a worthless husband who forsook His sweet wife of Israel in her youth (Is. 54:6). Of course we must use our freewill and repent, but the Lord likens us to things which cannot repent and are not repentant, and yet all the same are brought back by the Lord's endless searching and pastoral care. By all means compare this with Peter's comment that the Lord's exaltation was in order to give repentance, not just forgiveness, to God's people (Acts 5:31; 11:18 cp. 2 Tim. 2:25). This is the extent of His atonement for men; not only to enable forgiveness, but to show His matchless grace yet further in even granting repentance to men. In the light of this it remains open to question how much credit we can personally take for our repentance. Not all lost sinners will come back, but the Lord speaks as if He will search always, in every case, until they do. These hyperboles are all to teach the vast extent of His desire to win back the lost. In the light of this, who are we to start questioning whether or not a brother has actually repented, if he says he has and shows this to some extent?
There is surely a difference between a weak brother sinning against the ecclesia, and sinning against God. Lk. 15:18,21 implies that there is a difference here. We are expected to forgive each other as God has forgiven us- but this does not mean that when we forgive each other, this is on God's behalf. Forsaking and confessing sin against God must be done to Him. Our decisions about forgiveness aren't dictating to God what His response should be. Instead, the reverse must operate- God's response to us should determine our response to our erring brother. It may or may not be ultimately true that God will only forgive us if we repent and forsake our sins. But there seems no Biblical evidence to show that our forgiveness of others must be on this basis. We forgive others on the basis of how He has forgiven us, and is merciful to our continual failures. But the basis of God's forgiveness of our brethren is different- it is centred around a person's faith in the blood of Christ. We do not ask our weak brother whether he believes in the victory of Calvary's cross before we forgive him.