Does Grace and Forgiveness Erase Negative Consequences or Amends Making after Serious Sin?
by Leslie Vernick
Recently a man wrote me and was challenging my theology. He told me I was stuck in Old Testament legalistic thinking. He said that if his wife practiced New Testament grace and forgiveness they would still be together. Instead they were separated.
I asked several clarifying questions and it seems that after an abusive incident (not the first one) he expected that as a Christian, his wife would forgive him, offer him a clean slate as sort of a do-over mentality where they would start fresh and not bring up what happened yesterday or the day before.
But rather than the clean slate he longed for, this time his wife told him she was separating from him. She told him that unless he got professional help and showed her over time that he could be safe and manage his negative emotions in a mature way, she would not be coming back. She could forgive him, but she could not live with him. He said her offer of forgiveness was insincere unless she was willing to fully reconcile.
Their church agreed that his behavior was sinful, but in the end sided more with his thinking than hers. He was welcomed back into fellowship with open arms because he said he was repentant. His wife was disciplined and shunned because she wouldn’t comply with their church’s counsel to move back home. After all, he said he was sorry and was willing to meet with the pastor for counseling. She was labeled hard-hearted and rebellious because she refused to subject herself to the possibility of further abuse.
It deeply concerns me how quickly in Christian circles the focus of the problem gets twisted. The victim is now labeled the unrepentant, hard-hearted one because she refused to quickly reconcile. The one who sinned against her is now seen as the victim of his hard-hearted, unforgiving spouse.
Therefore, it’s imperative that we wrestle with the question: Do claims of repentance immediately cancel out any negative consequences a person repenting experiences for their own sinful choices? Does grace and forgiveness mean that there is never any extended relational fallout or broken trust in one’s relationships?
And, is there ever a need to show over time (especially when the sin has been repetitive) that repentance has indeed occurred? Is there a place in New Testament theology for making amends to the one wronged or is that just an Old Testament concept?
When a wounded spouse eventually starts implementing boundaries and consequences she has often been accused of being unforgiving and lacking grace. But is it possible that boundaries and consequences are evidence of godly love?
Paul says that godly love does no harm (Romans 13:10) but that does not mean biblical love never hurts. Paul spoke sternly to those who claimed faith, but whose actions showed otherwise and encouraged setting firm boundaries with these individuals (1 Corinthians 5:9).
Jesus often spoke firmly to the Pharisees, and Proverbs reminds us that a good friend might inflict loving wounds (Proverbs 27:6). All of us find it painful to swallow the medicine of hard truth. It hurts, but like strong ammonia revives the faint, hard truth can shock us awake so that true healing can take place. (See, for example Matthew 23 or Mark 7:6-12).
When a wife refuses to pretend, to placate, or continue the same destructive dance, she is not only doing that for her welfare, but also for his. This is biblical love at it’s best. It’s risky, sacrificial, and acts in the best interests of the beloved.
Once the boundaries and painful consequences are in place, the individual runs to the Christian counselor or pastor. He pleads, begs, and pours on the charm attempting to persuade us that God is doing a great work in his or her heart. Not necessarily true. Listen carefully. Tears indeed are the language of the heart but what exactly are their tears saying? I’m so sorry. I’ve sinned against God and my spouse? Or poor me. I feel devastated because these consequences are painful. There is a huge difference.
In discerning genuine repentance, we want to know: Is he aware of the pain he has caused? Does he show concern for his spouse’s suffering or only his own? Is he aware of deeper heart issues such as attitudes of entitlement, selfishness, laziness, or pride? Or is he focused primarily on himself, his own pain, his own justifications, and on what his spouse is supposed to do such as forgive him, remove negative consequences, and reconcile?
Genuine repentance acknowledges that serious and repetitive sin does have negative consequences on relationships. Is he willing to do what it takes to change and make amends without focusing on the response of the wounded? Like Zacchaeus, once he saw the kindness of Christ, he was changed. We see evidence of this because his first action step was to make amends and offer restitution to those he had harmed. (See Luke 19:8)
If there is no evidence of these things, then their sadness is sorrow for themselves, not godly sorrow. Words won’t show you these things, only actions over time will (Matthew 7:20; 1 Corinthians 4:20).