As Christians, we are to forgive those who trespass against us (Matt 6:12; 18:22; Mark 11:2526). Frequently, Christians say they are seeking to be forgiving as God is by forgiving someone who sinned against them, regardless of whether the person repents or is even remorseful for his sin. They may say, well, I just love them and forgive them as God does. But the question is, is that forgiveness flowing from God’s love?
And how can we reconcile that kind of forgiveness with biblical injunctions such as, “abhor what is evil” (Rom 12:9), shun even its appearance (1 Thess 5:22), and to distance ourselves from those who persist in their sin (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:11; 15:33).
Thus, the real question is, how are we to forgive those who sin against us or persist in unrepentance without undermining God’s holiness, the gospel, and the sinfulness of sin? I believe we can find the answer in distinguishing between vertical and horizontal forgiveness. Vertical forgiveness speaks of the forgiveness in our hearts for those who sin against us as it relates to our relationship with God. Horizontal forgiveness speaks of forgiveness associated with restoring a broken relationship between a sinner and God or with the person who wronged us or sinned in a way that hurt us.
It may also include how to forgive those who have hurt others and continue to sin without repentance. Accordingly, vertical forgiveness is the willingness to forgive the wrongdoer and horizontal forgiveness is the actual experiential forgiveness that restores a broken relationship between the wronged and the wrongdoer. This distinction is clarified by considering the nature of the gospel.
The gospel is God’s message to the world of his love and sacrificial provision for every person to have the opportunity to be forever forgiven by him of every and all sins no matter how vile or often they were committed. But hearing the gospel, knowing the gospel, or even fully understanding and appreciating the gospel does not result in a person experiencing God’s forgiveness. That comes only by repentance and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15; John 3:16).
In other words, the provision of forgiveness is readily available in the heart of God, but the experience of his unlimited forgiveness comes only when a person repents and believes the gospel (Matt 12:41; Luke 24:47; Luke 17:4; Matt 18; Acts 2:38; 3:19). Therefore, although Christ’s heart is love, and he desires to forgive, which is evident by his provision for our sins (John 1:29), he will judge everyone who does not repent (Matt 11:20; Luke 13:1–5).
The cross perfectly displays both vertical and horizontal forgiveness. There we see Christ fulfilling the heart and love of the Father (John 3:16) by dying for the sins of humanity (John 1:29). We see that Christ expressed his compassion and love by saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Yet, we know that not everyone received the forgiveness that was offered that day.
To simplify, we can see all of humanity represented in the two thieves on the crosses. Christ died for both, but only the one who cried out in faith and repentance received God’s forgiveness. He said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), to which Christ responded, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Christ paid for both thieves’ sins, but one did not experience that forgiveness because he did not repent; consequently, the relationship between him and God was still severed by sin.
Christ paid for the sins of both (had vertical love and forgiveness in his heart between him and the Father for them), but only the repentant thief experienced a restored relationship with God. Yet, Christ was in fellowship with God because he had love and forgiveness in his heart for the thief, which could have been experienced by the unrepentant thief if he had repented. But only the one who confessed and repented received forgiveness and had a restored relationship with God, which is horizontal forgiveness.
God’s provision and desire to forgive is always in his heart, but forgiveness is only granted to those who repent. This is true whether we are considering a lost person (Rom 10:9–10) or a Christian (1 John 1:9). The nature of a relationship is that there are two involved. Restoration cannot be accomplished by only one party. It takes both God and the sinner desiring restoration, or in human relationships, it takes both people.
The wronged must be willing to forgive (vertical forgiveness), but the relationship cannot be restored until the sinner repents and seeks forgiveness from the wronged individual (horizontal forgiveness). Jesus said, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4). Note the presence of the willingness to forgive is not experienced until repentance takes place. The same model we saw at the cross between God and the two thieves.
To walk with God, we must let God’s forgiveness for the wrongdoer reside in our hearts so that we are ready to forgive if the person repents, which is vertical forgiveness. This is essential to our walk and fellowship with God. To be unwilling to forgive impairs our relationship with God; this unwillingness is a lack of vertical forgiveness. But to forgive an unrepentant person in any manner undermines the gospel.
Related to this is the difference between forgiveness and trust. We can fully forgive someone who repents without placing complete trust in them. For example, while a person convicted of embezzlement can be forgiven upon repentance, that does not mean we should make them the church’s financial secretary. Resultantly, while forgiveness may include the restoration of trust, it does not do so automatically or necessarily. Depending on the sin, the relationship may never be restored to the level of trust that once existed. But it is possible that trust may be reestablished after forgiveness has been granted.
Therefore, we must do the spiritual work of giving God our hurt from wrongs committed against us in order to avoid estrangement in our relationship with God and the root of bitterness taking hold in our life (Heb 12:15), vertical forgiveness. In doing so, we are in one accord with God who desires all to be saved or forgiven and restored to fellowship (1 Tim 2:3; 1 John 1:9). But we cannot truly forgive and experience a restored relationship with someone, allowing us both to experience horizontal forgiveness and restoration of our relationship until there is repentance.
Resultantly, we can walk rightly with God regardless how many damaged relationships we experience as long as we are ready and willing to forgive when others repent and ask for forgiveness. And, relationships can only be restored so that the gospel is not compromised when there is acknowledged repentance by the wrongdoer.