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Feb 11, 2018

Mending Fences

Mending Fences

Passage: Philemon 1:1-25

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Colossians

Keywords: class, differences, forgiveness, grace, mediation, philemon, reconciliation, repentance, unity


Everybody has to deal with conflict in life, even in churches. The New Testament book of Philemon is a stunningly counter-cultural book on reconciliation carrying a myriad of amazing principles for anyone seeking restoration and growth in a now-conflicted relationship.


Mending Fences

Philemon 1:1-25

February 11, 2018


  • Have you ever had anyone take advantage of you?
  • Had someone take from you something that wasn’t rightfully theirs to take?
  • Maybe it was a business you had worked years to develop.
  • Maybe it was your sexual innocence.
  • Maybe it was a marriage… or a relationship with your children… or a friendship you loved and valued deeply.
  • Maybe it was your reputation they stole trough gossip…or
  • a school project where you did all the work and they got all the credit…or
  • an important business deal someone sabotaged that cost you dearly.  

            Depending on the circumstances or how much you lost, my guess is that most of those relationships never recovered.  My guess is that whether it was an unfaithful spouse or a church split or a child custody dispute or a business deal gone bad, most of the time those relationships never recovered. 

ILL:    Picture this!  Imagine you have some good family friends who are killed in an auto accident.  They leave behind three children and name you (by prior agreement) as guardians of their children.  So you take these three, now grieving and traumatized children into your home.  Their ages are 8, 12 and 15. 

            After about a year, you recognize that these kids don’t just need guardians; they need parents.  They have no extended family on their parents’ side that is taking an interest in them.  So you decide to adopt them into your family.  You scrape together the thousands of dollars necessary to go through the adoption process so they can be your children—legal heirs and relationally bonded to you as much as any of your natural children. 

            They all grow up and become responsible, productive adults.  One of them actually joins you in the family business you’ve built up over the past 25 years.  They marry, settle in the area and start having children of their own. 

            Then the family business starts to hit hard times.  The economy took a sharp downturn and your business took a dip right along with it.  Only your company seemed to take a particularly hard hit as the economy limped back to productivity.  Bills continued to mount and it looked like you might have to declare bankruptcy.  In a last-ditch effort to salvage this family business, you call in your accountant to do an audit and try to figure out what is happening. 

            About 2 days into the audit, everything blows up in your face.  His wife calls, rightly concerned because she hasn’t heard from him except for one text the day he left on a business trip to L.A. for the company.  Now his phone goes directly to voicemail.  She is rightly concerned.   

            Then later that day, your accountant comes to you and lays out what she’s discovered.  It turns out that your son has been embezzling funds from the company for now 2 years. The amount is somewhere north of a million dollars!  Given what she is seeing, it appears that your company probably won’t survive another quarter. 

            As you begin to unravel this mess, you find out that your son has actually skipped the country.  He was last known to be on a flight to Argentina from L.A.  But he has completely dropped off the radar since then. 

His wife and kids were left with an empty bank account, the mortgage on the house and maxed-out credit cards to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. They have no idea how they are going to survive.  You do because you know you won’t stand idly by and let them become homeless. 

            So in the midst of declaring business bankruptcy after a quarter-century of hard, hard work on the family company, you now are facing the task of finding or creating a new job and caring for your son’s family of  three which he has deserted. 

Just how would you be feeling about that son right about now?  Two years later?  6 years later? 

That little story might begin to give you a sense of the dynamic unfolding here in the book of Philemon.  It’s a book about a criminal whose crimes were worthy of death.  It’s about a family patriarch who has suffered significant business losses because of the crimes of a man in his own beloved household.  It’s about a whole city-church’s dynamics and relationships that are going to be affected by what transpires.  And it’s about a nation-wide cultural and economic practice that, as we saw a few weeks ago, could have profound impact on a whole city and even empire.

The key players in this story are 3 men:  the Apostle Paul, a runaway slave named Onesimus and his master named Philemon. There are 8 other people mentioned in this book as well as the entire church in Colossae.

            We were introduced to Onesimus in Colossians 4:9 where we were told that Onesimus, was Paul’s “faithful and dear brother,” a man who was “one of [them]”, i.e. from Colossae himself, a Colossian.  That’s a radically different picture from what I just painted, isn’t it?   

Remember that Paul is writing from his prison cell in Rome.  An extraordinary series of events have coincided which have connected Onesimus, this runaway slave, with the great Apostle Paul himself. Rome was 1,200 miles away from Colossi.  Onesimus had chosen to flee to a place described by the historian Tacitus where “all things horrible and disgraceful find their way.”  There he probably intended to meld into the dark sordid world of alias names, lawlessness and immorality, at least until he and his money (or actually his master’s money) were probably soon parted.  [Cited from Ralph P. Martin’s book, Colossians & Philemon, 1978, pp. 18, 19 in Kent Hughes’ commentary on Colossians & PhilemonThe Supremacy of Christ, Crossway Books, 1989, p. 161.]

               Onesimus was in serious trouble.  He was guilty of two capital crimes: theft and being a runaway, fugitive slave in an empire that utterly depended upon slavery for survival.  If allowed to spread, these crimes could destroy the Roman Empire.  At best, rebellious slaves were to be branded on their forehead with the letter “F” for Fugitivus (Fugitive).  At worst, he would be eliminated.  “Onesimus theoretically could have gotten both punishments…if his master was in a good mood,” that is [Ibid, p. 161].

            Just so you know, this was no laughing matter.  Just a few years before this, a wealthy Roman named Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by 1 of his 400 slaves.  During the trial of that slave, the Roman historian Tacitus reported that the prosecution argued for the execution of not just the 1 murderous slave but all 400 of his fellow household slaves.  The prosecution won, and all 400 were publicly executed as an example to other would-be rebellious slaves in the Empire.  We’re talking about a civil crime that, unchecked, could have brought the destruction of the entire Roman Empire. 

            So not only did Philemon have all the legal right in the Empire to severely punish or even kill Onesimus; not only had he suffered great personal loss because of him.  There was immense social and civil pressure on him to do something that would uphold the rule of law, protect that rule of law and send a message to the enslaved half of the population that such acts of rebellion would not be tolerated. 

APP:   Keep that in mind next time you think someone you know has offended you.  Come back to this book and remind yourself just how radical the Gospel of Christ is when it comes to living a life of forgiveness.  Remember that forgiving whatever offense you may feel you have suffered by someone else is small potatoes compared to what was at stake with this letter’s call to the businessman and slave owner Philemon. 

            This is a book all about the cost of the path of reconciliation.  It’s all about the radical nature of the Gospel when it comes to relationships in the Body of Christ.  It is a book that addresses class issues, offense issues and brotherly love and forgiveness issues.  For our world and culture that is SO conflicted and offended by every little perceived personal slight, this is a book for our time.  But more importantly, this is a book for every person who claims to be a Christ-follower and must therefore learn to live in a community of other Christ-followers who will at times hurt them, offend them, damage them and need to be reconciled with IF we are to be the people God wants us to be in Christ. 

            As we work through this chapter, I start with some fundamental assumptions that are not listed here in Philemon.  But they are given in the commands of our Lord Jesus and other passages in the N.T.  Here are the assumptions.

  1. Jesus requires any of his followers to forgive just as we have been forgiven.
  • Ephesians 4:32—Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
  • Colossians 3:13—Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

HOW did Jesus forgive?  Partially or completely?  Some sins or all sins?  While we were still sinners or after we became saints?  Sins we recognize we commit or also sins we don’t recognize or realize we’ve committed?  While people are hurting you or after they have stopped hurting you?  (The cross.) 

  1. Jesus requires all of his followers to adhere to a clear, simple process of reconciliation laid out for us in Matthew 6 & 18 & Luke 17.
  • Matthew 18:16, 17--“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
  • Luke 17:3, 4--“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgiveEven if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
  1. Failure to do either of those two things faithfully puts us in the difficult place of discipline under God’s hand.
  • The Lord’s Prayer: 6:12—“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
  • The Lord’s Promise: 6:14, 15“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
  • Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in 18:23-35 ends with this warning: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Mending fences is a BIG DEAL in God’s family! 

So, assuming we are all Christ-followers…and assuming that we want to continue enjoying God’s free and full forgiveness every day of our lives here living with each other in this fallen world, let’s see what Philemon has to say about RECONCILIATION.

#1.  Reconciliation of deeply fractured relationships often requires the help of godly 3rd party mediators. 

Assuming that you’ve thoroughly walked the first step of Matthew 18:16 of going directly and alone to an offending believer and trying to work, talk and pray it out together…and it hasn’t “worked”…the next steps all involve calling upon 3rd party Christ-following mediators.  This may be Spirit-filled and Bible-directed counselors.  It may involve spiritual leaders such as wise elders or pastors.  It may involve non-aligned, neutral and godly brothers and sisters. 

Having been involved in many reconciliation issues in 35 years of ministry, the wiser, more discerning and spiritual the mediators are, the better the chance of reconciliation.  Don’t choose family members.  Don’t choose people the other person doesn’t trust.  Don’t choose non-believers.  Choose spiritually mature, wise, equally trusted, God-fearing and Spirit-controlled mediators. 

And don’t give up until you have walked the FULL process of reconciliation!  That applies to marriages just as much as it applies to any other fracture among the people of God. 

            Notice how many people Paul invites into the reconciliation process in Philemon:

Philemon 1:1-2--Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Philemon 1:23-24-- Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

Which leads us to the second principle of reconciliation:

#2.  Reconciliation will often require mediation through some spiritual authority.  What do I mean by that?

Q:  Knowing this story, who would you say are the “spiritual authorities” in the lives of both Philemon and Onesimus? 

Answer:  Paul…the leaders of the church in Colossae…and the Word of God. 

This is why I think Jesus’ call in Mt. 18 to “tell it to the church” if the normal steps of reconciliation don’t produce reconciliation is really a call for the leaders/Elders/Pastors of a church to take a role in the reconciliation process. 

ILL:  Recently I was asked to be a mediator in a situation that involved three brothers in our city.  One was not currently attending a church anywhere.  The other two were.  So before I agreed to be part of that process, I asked all 3 of them what spiritual authority over them they would submit to in this process?  And I made sure that they understood that those authorities over them were to be viewed as if it was actually Christ’s authority over them.  If the issues at hand couldn’t be worked out by mediation, would they submit to whatever the combined counsel of their authority over them plus myself would, through prayer and discussion, determine needed to happen? 

            We live in a culture that would rather litigate than mediate.  I’ve been in mediation situations where everyone expends a lot of time and a lot of money to try and hash things out and, even after signing documents saying they would abide by the decision of the mediators if they couldn’t resolve the issues through the process, bolted and went back to court.  That is clearly in violation of I Corinthians 6.  Two believers, whether in a marriage dispute or business dispute or church dispute (or any dispute, for that matter) should never go to court against each other.  God tells us to trust Him and be wronged, if necessary, in order not to go to court before unbelievers, as Paul said, “…a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church” (6:4). 

#3.  Reconciliation must reach as deeply/broadly as the rupture did.

Who probably knew about Onesimus’ offensive and criminal behavior?  Philemon…Paul…Timothy…Apphia…Archippus…the church that met in their home…and the whole church of Colossae.  That included slaves and free people.  It included other slave-owners and other-slaves in Colossae.  This was an issue that reached far beyond just these two men of Philemon and Onesimus. 

            Most offenses don’t touch that many people, thank God.  So keep the reconciliation process narrow, focused and private in those issues. 

            But where the sin has spilled out into the church or surrounding community and where the reconciliation process has powerful and public implications for the church, then more people  must be involved.


  • Repentance, repair and restoration process of Minister of Music at Hinson Baptist Church when Sandy and I were on staff there.
  • Reconciliation between 4th Memorial & Faith Bible Churches here in Spokane. Was front-page, Spokesman Review material when the split happened so we made it front-page material when the reconciliation happened. 

#4.  Reconciliation must be covered, under-girded, surrounded by and immersed in GRACE. 

Philemon 1:3-- Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vs. 25--The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

            Paul bookends this entire process and call to reconciliation with GRACE.  If there is one quality, one attitude, one characteristic that must infuse reconciliation, it needs to be grace. 

  • Definition of GRACE? Giving people blessing who deserve punishment, kindness where judgment is justified, goodness where nothing good is required by the world. 

Grace is not what our hearts want to dish out when we’ve been hurt, abused, offended or otherwise damaged by other people’s actions.  But it is what God wants to see in every conflict and every reconciliation experience of His children. 

Which leads to a fifth principle of reconciliation in this passage:

#5.  Reconciliation requires prayerful connections to God. 

Vs. 4-7—I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

What was Paul’s opinion of Philemon from this passage?  [Thankful, grateful for his love (2x), esteeming, partners, sharing things in Christ, joyful, encouraging, refreshed by him, honoring, etc.]  That’s how he talks to God about him.  Praying with respect and gratitude for people will change the way we relate to them.

Paul ends the letter with the same attitude as well as recognizing that Philemon is a man of prayer:

Vs. 22—And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

Q:  WHY is prayer so important in the reconciliation process?  [#1—It should change OUR hearts first no matter what position we play in the reconciliation as mediator, offended party or offender.  Genuine prayer before God should bring humility, patience, love, compassion, healing from hurts, etc.  Without getting that through direct relationship with the Father in prayer, we won’t have what we need to heal let alone restore. 

#2—It will change the people we pray for in love and thus the situation.]  

#6.  Reconciliation recognizes the good in both parties and helps them to see it in each other.

How many positive characteristics can you identify about Philemon from Paul’s statements about him?

Vs. 4-7—I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Here it is:  1.) love for God’s people, 2.) faith in the Lord Jesus, 3.)partnership…in the faith, 4.) love (again) that gives joy and encouragement, 5.) brother, 6.) refresher of hearts.  That’s an impressive list of wonderful qualities and accomplishments. 

            But what about Onesimus?  He’s not even mentioned until vs. 10 where he is called “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” 

Then Paul does a little play on words here.  The name Onesimus means “useful.”  So Paul says in vs. 11, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”  He’s actually started living up to his name.  “He may have been useless to you before, but Christ has enabled him to live into his name.” 

Vs. 12—“I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.  I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.” 

Vs. 16— He is called “a dear brother” and “very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.”  

In addition to these positive affirmations of Onesimus, Paul downgrades his role as a slave in verses 15-16.

“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

            Despite Onesimus’ past failure, Paul trumpets his present success and ministry:  twice he’s called “my son”; once “useful”; once “my very heart”; once “a dear brother”; once “dear to me” and once “dearer to you”; once a “fellow man” and once a “brother in the Lord.”  Then he is credited with “helping” the great Apostle Paul.  10 accolades!  10 positive descriptors of this “worthless slave.”  That’s 40% more positive designations than Paul even spoke about Philemon. 

Clearly, class and past did not matter to Paul…because they don’t matter to God!  He wanted an entire city-church to know that every person who truly encounters Christ through saving faith experiences a radical change.  It is a change not defined by past failures or present social class.  It is a change that makes ALL of us new creatures and places ALL of us on level ground before God. 

Reconciliation recognizes the good in both parties and helps them to see it in each other.

#7.  Reconciliation appeals to our forever family relationship in Jesus, not our fading positions in this life. 

Vs. 15-- Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

If there was ever a question as to the equal value and equal dignity of every human being, this verse should have settled it.  How pastors in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries of the United States could ever justify slavery and racial prejudice is beyond me. 

  • Galatians 3:28-- There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither 

slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

  • Colossians 3:11-- Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slaveor free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
  • I Corinthians 7:22-- For the one who was a slavewhen called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.

When will the church believe the Word of God?  When will we stop looking at people through the racial lens or the socio-economic lens or the educational lens, all of which inflate supposed differences and minimize actual commonalities?  When will we stop looking through the lens of clothing or the lens of attractiveness or the lens of male-female differences?  When will we really start seeing each other as the forever family God has called us to and is molding us into?  When will we determine to live the love of Christ as “fellow (hu)man” beings, as much loved brothers and sisters “in the Lord”…for that is what we are!

            This really is an upside down kingdom we have been placed in.  God hasn’t put it up for a vote.  He hasn’t made it optional.  He’s told us, “This is the way it is in my family and this is the way it is going to be forever in my family.”  That is why a lot of people who think they know God but in fact evidence that they don’t know Him by their abuse of other people different from them are going to be in for a very big surprise when they stand before God and find him to be Someone who they really don’t like or approve of.  They will not approve of the God who doesn’t approve of their prejudice or elitism or snobbery. 

APP:  I dare say that ALL of us have some prejudices hiding in our hearts.  We like to think we don’t.  But then something happens that we don’t like or that makes us uncomfortable and we find that we really do evidence a preference for one human being over another, one type of people over another. 

PERS:  Dinner at Life Center about racial reconciliation a couple of weeks ago.  Helped me realize I need to get closer to some pastors “of color.”  It wasn’t African-American brothers God was nudging me on that I think I need to lean into and get to know their hearts and lives better.  It was actually Hispanic brothers that I think I need to get to know as my forever brothers so that everything from my politics on immigration policy to my preferences on languages and cultures don’t end up looking far more worldly than heavenly, far more American than Christ’s Kingdom-like.  I’ll keep you posted in coming days about how God is changing out my earthly “lenses” of preference for some heavenly “vision” of the Kingdom. 

#8.  Lastly, reconciliation requires a real dealing with debts, a real settling of accounts.  Where offenses and hurts are concerned, there are only a couple of currencies we can use:

1.) repentance

2.) forgiveness

The only meaningful and satisfying currency the offender or perpetrator of an offense has to offer is REPENTANCE.  You can bet that Paul made it very clear to Onesimus that if he was going to receive God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ and take up his cross to follow Christ daily, that it was going to eventually involve returning to his master, Philemon, and facing the music.  But when you find the Lover of your Soul, your Maker, that “Pearl of Great Price,” all other “prices” fade from view.  To find forgiveness of sins from God himself makes acknowledgement of sin before others far less difficult. 

            Onesimus had cheated or robbed his master, Philemon, out of some significant change.  He had robbed him of the labor and work due him.  He had disgraced his master and done damage worthy of capital punishment.  And the only way he could deal with that debt was in the currency of repentance. 

            Repentance doesn’t demand forgiveness; it recognizes it is a gift that can only be given or withheld. 

            Repentance doesn’t expect to escape the consequences of bad behavior.  It simply throws itself upon the mercies of those who have a right to judge that behavior. 

            I wonder whether, upon his return to Philemon, Onesimus gave his own statement of repentance first and then Paul’s letter OR gave Paul’s letter and then his expression of repentance?  If he was following in Paul’s footsteps and trusting wholly in God’s sovereign care, I’m thinking he gave Philemon his repentance before he gave him Paul’s letter.        

            And maybe Philemon threw him in jail before he read Paul’s letter.  Maybe he let some of his anger and bitterness about what had happened flow towards Onesimus before he let the grace of God flow.  If he did, I’m imagining that there was a little repenting Philemon had to do towards God and his servant, Onesimus, before reconciliation really happened. Because repentance is the only real currency an offender has to deal in. 

NOTE:  It’s interesting that Paul was willing to pay any restitution that might have been required (vss.18-19).  Onesimus couldn’t pay it.  And neither can most offenders.  In fact, I have never seen a payment of restitution take away the bitterness that victims feel towards their offenders.  Money is simply the wrong currency when it comes to reconciliation.

            On the other hand, forgiveness is the only currency that ever led to reconciliation for a victim.  The only way for Philemon to be reconciled to his criminally negligent slave was for him to pay with the currency of forgiveness.  Forgiveness, whether God’s or Philemon’s, was the only thing that would set Onesimus free from the guilt and shame of what he had done to his master.  And forgiveness was the only thing that would set Philemon free from the bitterness and wounds of Onesimus’ sin.  Forgiveness is a currency that pays both giver and receiver. 

CONCLUSION:  So what happened to these two men in the end?  We cannot say definitively though there is some historical indication that these two men and the efforts of those around them did, in fact, mend the fences of life.  

Many commentators believe that Philemon, in deference to Paul’s expressed desire to have Onesimus back (vv. 13, 14, 20), returned him to Paul in Rome, where he developed into a great man of God.  The historical evidence suggests this. 

Fifty years later when Ignatius, one of the great Christian martyrs, was being transported from Antioch to Rome to be executed, he wrote letters to certain churches.  In writing to Ephesus he praised their Bishop Onesimus, even making the same Pauline play on words about his name!  It is likely that Onesimus, the runaway slave, had become, with the passing of years and the healing of reconciliation, the great Bishop of that great church of Ephesus.  Truly God’s ways are marvelous and truly this letter is proof of the power of righteous reconciliation. 


1.)  Been running from your offenses?  Ready to trust God with them and embrace repentance and the freedom it brings?

2.)  Been running from your need to practice forgiveness?  Ready to set yourself and your offender free with the coinage of forgiveness?  How about stating that to God…and then to the one who has hurt you and sinned against you? 

APPENDIX 1--The following material was supplied by a member of our congregation to clarify an important point on vertical and horizontal forgiveness.  

NOTES on forgiveness: 

     Forgiveness is often misunderstood and misapplied because of failures to recognize two very important distinctions concerning the subject.  One is the failure to realize that Jesus taught two very different kinds of forgiveness for two entirely different purposes.  The first (which can be thought of as PRIMARY or first level forgiveness) is found in Mark 11:25-26.  It is UNCONDITIONAL,UNILATERAL (one way), and VERTICAL (for the transaction is between a person and God).  Its purpose is to restore us to right relationship with God after our own resentment and bitterness from being offended, whether the offender repents or not.  The second kind of forgiveness Jesus taught (which can be thought of as SECONDARY or second levelforgiveness) is found in Luke 17:3-4. It is CONDITIONAL, BILATERAL (two way), and HORIZONTAL (for the transaction is between two people).  Its purpose is reconciliation with the offender who violated our trust, but trust cannot be restored and genuine reconciliation occur unless the offender repents. For more on this vital and little understood distinction, see the excellent book by Mennonite pastor David Augsburger (which has two front covers and no back cover): CARING ENOUGH TO FORGIVE (True Forgiveness) / CARING ENOUGH NOT TO FORGIVE (False Forgiveness), available athttps://goo.gl/bRR9kM.

    The second failure is that of not discerning that FORGIVENESS and PARDON sometimes mean the same but also often mean something very different. When they are different, forgiveness means giving up resentment and hostility toward an offender, while pardon means excusing the offender from any discipline or other consequences for the offense.  For more on both of these important distinctions, see Don Moore’s article on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/notes/don-w-moore/forgiveness-and-pardonsometimes-the-same-sometimes-very-different/904506916270366/.  


The two kinds of FORGIVENESS that Jesus taught (with very different purposes)

October 29, 2015 at 4:36pm

Most believers do not realize that Jesus taught two different kinds of forgiveness for two very different purposes:

#1 UNCONDITIONAL,UNILATERAL (vertical) FORGIVENESS, for the purpose of restoring us to right relationship with God after our own resentment and bitterness from being offended, whether the offender repents or not. [This is VERTICAL forgiveness, for the transaction is between a person and God.]

Mark 11:25-26  (New King James Version)

25 “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”


#2 CONDITIONAL,BILATERAL (horizontal) FORGIVENESS, for the purpose of reconciliation with the offender who violated our trust, but trust cannot be restored unless the offender repents. [This is HORIZONTAL forgiveness, for the transaction is between two people.]

Luke 17:3-4  (New King James Version)

3 Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you,rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’you shall forgive him.”


For more on this vital and little understood distinction, see the excellent book by Mennonite pastor David Augsburger (which has two front covers and no back cover): CARING ENOUGH TO FORGIVE (True Forgiveness) / CARING ENOUGH NOT TO FORGIVE (False Forgiveness), available at https://goo.gl/bRR9kM. (You can literally start reading the book from either side, and they meet in the middle.)


FORGIVENESS and PARDON—sometimes the same, sometimes VERY different


“Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”Numbers 14:19 (English Standard Version)

When Moses uses both PARDON and FORGIVE in this request to God, he is using them inter­changeably as one of the several forms of parallelism so common in the Hebrew writings of the Old Testament—in this case, synonymous parallelism. (See https://goo.gl/NLiLD2 for an explanation.) This kind of parallelism repeats the same idea in different words for the sake of clarity and emphasis. While most common in poetic writings such as Psalms and Proverbs, parallelism also occurs in narrative writing as it does here. We find a similar use of pardon and forgive in Isa. 27:9 (New American Standard Bible), and Micah 7:18 (New International Version). Note that not every translation uses both PARDON and FORGIVE in translating these three verses.

This biblical use of these two words as synonyms is consistent with some of the dictionary defini­tions of these words as well, where they are often used to define one another and as examples of synonyms. This is important to understand so that we do not try to make artificial distinctions between FORGIVE and PARDON where the inspired writers did not intend to make any. But this is only one side of the coin and the other side is at least equally important if not more so. Let’s start with the dictionary definitions of these two words.


FORGIVE (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/forgive)

1 a : to give up resentment of or claim to requital for <forgive an insult>

   b : to grant relief from payment of <forgive a debt>

2 : to cease to feel resentment against (an offender) : pardon <forgive one's enemies>


PARDON (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pardon).

1 : indulgence 1

2 : the excusing of an offense without exacting a penalty

3 a : a release from the legal penalties of an offense

   b : an official warrant of remission of penalty

4 : excuse or forgiveness for a fault, offense, or discourtesy <I beg your pardon>


Note that the essence of PARDONING is the removal of penalty for an offense. FORGIVENESS often does the same, but may only mean the giving up of resentment and anger toward the offender without the removal of penalty for the offense. If we do not understand this, we will jump to very erroneous conclusions about God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of one another.

When God forgives a man for murder, he removes the eternal penalty for that offense but rarely does he remove the temporal penalties for it. No matter how repentant he may be, the man generally experiences lengthy prison time or even execution as the consequences in this life for that offense. When God forgives a woman for choosing to have sex outside of marriage that leads to an unwanted pregnancy, he removes the eternal penalty for that offense but rarely does he remove the temporal penalties for it. No matter how repentant she may be, the woman generally experiences the numerous bleak realities of having an unwanted child, and perhaps lifelong sexually transmitted disease as well.

We see this principle illustrated in Num. 20:7-12 and Deut. 34, when God forgave Moses for his disobedience in striking the rock (forgiveness which enabled Moses to go to heaven and to have the privilege of standing with Jesus in his transfiguration, along with Elijah), but did not allow Moses to go into the promised land he had so long looked forward to entering (and, no, the promised land does not symbolize heaven, as is so often mistakenly believed).

We also see the principle explosively illustrated in 2 Sam. 12, when God forgives David for his terrible sins of murder and adultery, but warns him of the horrible consequences of those offenses which he will experience most dreadfully for the rest of his life.

Failure to understand this results either in despising the chastening of the Lord or in being discouraged when we are rebuked by him, not seeing that our heavenly Father chastens those he loves and scourges every child he accepts (Heb. 12:5-8), just as Jesus rebukes and chastens those he loves (Rev. 3:19). That same failure to understand this principle also leads children to either of those two mistakes regarding the discipline they receive from their earthly parents, despising the discipline or being discouraged by it.

And this same failure to understand that there is no inherent inconsistency between forgiveness and discipline leads parents to one of two equally disastrous extremes—withholding proper discipline in the misguided attempt to be forgiving, or withholding proper forgiveness in the misguided attempt to provide discipline. Parents ALWAYS need to forgive their children’s offenses in type one forgiveness (the unconditional, unilateral, vertical forgiveness taught by Jesus in Mark 11:25-26), and they often (but not always) need to administer wise and loving discipline for those offenses as well. (NOTE: Discipline will never be wise or loving unless parents have FIRST forgiven the offenses for which the child is being disciplined, forgiveness that is essential for getting their own heart right with God.)

This takes us back to the very different type two forgiveness which Jesus taught in Luke 17:3-4, which is conditional, bilateral, and horizontal in nature. It is conditional on repentance, because repentance by the offender is essential for restoring trust broken by the offense. Since there is risk involved for both parties, this kind of forgiveness necessarily requires bilateral or two-way effort. This kind of forgiveness is essentially the withholding of pardon (pardon understood as release from penalties or negative consequences for an offense) until the offended party is satisfied that the offender has repented—has shown the kind of fruit (Matt. 3:8) which makes it reasonable to run the risk of trusting him again. Discipline is often but not always necessary to bring about such true repentance.

Perhaps we can summarize forgiveness and pardon this way. To be right with God we must ALWAYS forgive our offenders in the type one forgiveness of Mark 11-25-26, essentially giving up our resentment and anger toward the offender (Eph. 4:31-32: Jam. 1:20), and acknowledging that only God has the right to exact vengeance against the offender (Rom. 12:19-21). SOMETIMES we should immediately pardon the offender as well, exacting no penalties for the offense, especially in accidental, unintended offenses—even when serious injury or loss has resulted.

OTHER TIMES though a parent has a responsibility to discipline a child, or church leaders have a responsibility to discipline a wayward member, or governing authorities have a responsibility to discipline someone for criminal conduct. In those cases it would be just as wrong to pardon the offender—i.e.remove all penalties for the offense (or prematurely grant type two forgiveness), as it would be to withhold type one forgiveness. Thus forgiveness and pardon are sometimes the same in meaning, and other times VERY DIFFERENT indeed.