“When someone says they’re sorry but they don’t back their words up with real and lasting changes in their behaviors, sorry becomes meaningless. It is not enough. . . . It’s more often due to the pain they’re in or the pain they fear rather than any genuine remorse.” By saying: “I’m sorry” this person often thinks they are entitled to amnesty, forgiveness and full restoration of relationship—without having to make amends, without suffering consequences, or working to rebuild trust.
Tearful, weepy confessions of sin and wrongdoing have passed for true repentance on too many occasions, deceiving spouses, parents, friends, and even pastors and church leaders. And as Leslie Vernick noted in her July 22nd, 2014 newsletter, if the “sorry” one isn’t readily offered forgiveness, the hesitant one can be labeled as ungracious, ungodly, rebellious or hard-hearted. After their tears, the offender needs to be asked: What amends will you make? What will be the fruit of your repentance?
Even within one of the classic New Testament passages teaching forgiveness, the call for repentant fruit is evident. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus told his apostles: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Their response was “Increase our faith!” They felt Christ was asking for the impossible.
There is no limit to the extent of forgiveness you should offer to someone who sins against you; and it should be granted without hesitation. BUT such forgiveness should be preceded by repentance—by the offender turning around or retreating from their wrongdoing. So there is a two-fold process in true repentance—saying “I’m sorry” and turning away from the sinful behavior (repentance). Saying: “I’m sorry,” without turning from wrongdoing is pseudo-repentance.
In his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, John Calvin said of Luke 17:3-4 that “Christ does not order us to grant forgiveness, till the offender turns to us and give evidence of repentance.” In an aside Calvin added that in doing so, it appears that Christ is commanding us to shut our hearts against the obstinate (unrepentant) and refuse them pardon.
He thought there were two ways in which offenses could be forgiven. The first was to give up the desire for revenge and not cease to love the one who did you an injury. You might even repay kindness for the injury. Yet you could entertain an unfavorable opinion of the person, as they deserve. “For when God commands us to wish well to our enemies, He does not therefore demand that we approve in them what He condemns, but only desires that our minds shall be purified from all hatred.”
The second kind of forgiving is when you receive a brother or sister into favor, being convinced that the remembrance of their offense is blocked out in the sight of God. “This doctrine is very necessary, because naturally almost all of us are peevish beyond measure; and Satan, under the pretence of severity, drives us to cruel rigour, so that wretched men, to whom pardon is refused, are swallowed up by grief and despair.” Here Calvin said a question arises: “As soon as a man by words makes profession of repentance, are we bound to believe him?”
First, the passage relates to the daily faults in which even the best people need forgiveness. What would be the consequence if at the second or third fall, the hope of forgiveness was cut off?
Second, Christ does not deprive believers from exercising judgment, so that they are to believe every slight expression of remorse. He only desires that we are merciful and willing to stretch out our hand to the offenders “provided there be evidence that they are sincerely dissatisfied with their sins. For repentance is a sacred thing and therefore needs careful examination.”
Third, someone could expose himself to suspicion regarding the sincerity of his repentance through light and unsteady behavior. We may grant pardon if he asks, “and yet may do so in such a manner as to watch over his conduct for the future.” This is done so that our forbearance and meekness in granting forgiveness may not become subject to his ridicule.
In summary, then, Calvin suggests that with the daily faults that we are all prone to exhibit, we should be ready and willing to grant forgiveness to others. But an offender should show signs of repentance before receiving forgiveness for other offenses. There should be evidence that they hate their sin. Finally, we are not ordered by Christ to forgive as soon as someone says they are “sorry.” Granting forgiveness can wait until the offender demonstrates their repentance.
The offender’s repentance is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” There can and should be a turning aside from the offense. There should be clear evidence that they are repentant. And if the person is unrepentant, we can refuse to offer this second kind of forgiving.
Even with sincere repentance there may be some failures by the offender. The one who was sinned against needs to realize this and not too quickly judge the offender unrepentant and refuse forgiveness—provided there is evidence of they are “sincerely dissatisfied with their sins.”
We do not have to believe every slight expression of remorse. We can offer forgiveness in a way that includes some accountability, some watchfulness over the offender’s behavior in the future.
We are not required to then become friendly with an offender when offering them forgiveness. We should surrender our desire for revenge, perhaps even repay kindness for the injury. Here God wants us to be free of all hatred. Yet we may still reserve an undesirable opinion of the offender; they may still be an enemy even after receiving forgiveness from us.
Do you think John Calvin’s suggestions could alleviate pseudo-repentance if they were applied more readily?