Many believers think that forgiving a person means letting them completely off the hook for their transgressions. They erroneously equate Christian mercy with allowing someone to get away with their wrongs. But it’s possible to personally forgive others and still work toward seeing that their evil is punished.
One of the reasons for our confusion is that, in our minds, we conflate sins, crimes, and offenses. But those are three very different things.
- Sins are against God. They are the violation of His will for mankind, the falling short of His divine standard of holiness.
- Crimes are against society and the state. They are the violation of the laws of the land, those statutes and ordinances established by the powers-that-be for the well-being of the community.
- Offenses are against individuals. They are the personal wrongs committed between people. They’re the damages that someone’s actions or words cause to someone else, either physically, emotionally, or financially.
So of course we’re told, as Christians, to forgive others. But forgive what? Well, if a sin is against God and a crime is against the state, then you and I have no power to forgive either. Nor are we commanded to. Those two things are completely beyond us as individual human beings.
Passages like Matthew 6:12, Luke 17:4, and Ephesians 4:32 are dealing with offenses—the only things we can forgive. God wants us to show mercy to those who have personally wronged us. He wants us to let them off the hook for the debt they owe just like He let us off the hook for ours when we accepted Christ.
How do we handle sin, then? The answer is, we don’t. No man has the power to absolve another man of sin. That’s strictly God’s domain, and He will deal with it. Either those sins will be washed away in the blood of His Son or they’ll be justly punished on Judgement Day. All we can do is cultivate the heart of God that wants to see no one perish (2 Peter 3:9) and work to share the Good News that will save us all.
Well, what about crime? While spiritual justice is God’s domain, secular justice is something that He has left in human hands. He has established the governing authorities to protect the innocent and punish the wicked, thereby maintaining order and peace in society.
Listen—there is nothing wrong with believers advocating for those authorities to do their God-given job. We can personally forgive those who personally offend us, pray and work toward the remission of their sins through Jesus’ blood, and still desire to see them get the just penalty for their crimes.
But not only is there nothing wrong with fighting for justice, there’s actually everything right with it!
The heart of God Himself cries out against the injustice that He sees upon the earth (Amos 1:2). He is angry with those who are committing egregious wrongs against their fellow man (Amos 2:6–8).
Those who are taking bribes and showing favoritism.
Those who are knowingly condemning the innocent and intentionally letting the guilty go free.
Those who are taking advantage of the weak.
Those who are oppressing the poor and adding to their burdens.
Over and over again in scripture we read of how the Lord feels about these things and that His wrath is coming because of them.
If we are God’s people, then His heart should be our heart.
We should rage against inequity. We should scream against racism and discrimination. True Christians should roar with righteous indignation against oppression of every kind.
It’s not being a good Christian to simply turn the other way and tell yourself that God will judge the unjust in the end. Of course God will eventually punish their sins, but He expects us to deal with their crimes. We delude ourselves when we remain silent under the guise of being “forgiving people” or when we ignore injustice under the pretense of “showing mercy.”
Being a good Christian is speaking up and standing up against injustice when you see it. We all know that loving one another is the greatest commandment next to loving God (Matthew 22:36–40). In fact, we don’t love God if we don’t love one another. Well, one of the most loving things we will ever do in this world is to fight for justice.
Fighting for justice is love in action because it shows that we value the vulnerable.
First, it demonstrates that we care about those who have been wronged.
And let’s be honest, those who are most often wronged are those who are in a position of weakness relative to others—racial and ethnic minorities, women, foreigners and immigrants, the poor, the very young and the very old, the disabled, and so on. Christ had a heart for “the least of these.” And Christians should too.
When we stand up for the rights of those who are at a disadvantage…when we make sure that the silenced voices are heard…when we demand that the underprivileged get the same privileges that the people with money and power get, then we are indeed loving God by loving His people.
Secondly, upholding justice serves to protect those who could be harmed by undeterred wickedness.
When evil goes unpunished and unrebuked, it only emboldens those who perpetrate it. One function of the authorities is to put the fear of justice into those who do wrong so they’ll stop doing wrong (Romans 13:3–4). Or at least think twice about it. If there are no consequences, then there’s nothing for them to think twice about. If there is no justice, then there’s nothing for evildoers to fear.
Love always protects (1 Corinthians 13:7). When we hold everyone equally accountable for their wrongs—from the poor to the powerful, from the populace to the police, from the pews to the pulpit—we’re protecting those who are vulnerable from harm. We’re shielding them from the wickedness that would be done to them if it weren’t for the deterrence of the penalties the law imposes.
It is not being hateful to demand justice. It is not being unmerciful or un-Christian. And it is not something that “the church shouldn’t be involved in.” On the contrary, it is our divine calling as the people of God. It is our undeniable mandate from a loving God who loves justice and cares deeply for the weak and the oppressed.
To speak and to stand is to love.
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