Leave Room

April 10, 2014

Leave Room

Leave Room

The most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed is reconciliation between two hurting sinners. I am passionate about seeing broken relationships healed. But, what do we do with that broken relationship that haunts us? Is it ever okay to give up pursuing reconciliation with another person?

Well, it depends.

First, let’s define a few terms.


Human forgiveness does not depend on the attitudes or actions of the offender. When in conflict, an offended person can (and must) forgive the offender, even if the offender fails to repent or confess their sins. Why?

All of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven by God when we put our faith in Christ. Jesus secured our forgiveness through His perfect work on our behalf. As forgiven sinners, we are wealthy in grace. Our wealth is so vast, and our gratitude so deep, we can’t not settle the “debts” others owe us by extending forgiveness.

On account of the gospel, even massive debts of pain, loss, and grief can be settled from our own “bank account” of grace. Our grace accounts are so great that we will never miss the payments we make to set others free of the relational debts they owe us.


Reconciliation requires mutual repentance, confession, and forgiveness.

Not all relationships “break” as a result of conflict, therefore reconciliation (as defined above) is not always required. Conflict in which no one is harmed, and Christ’s reputation is not damaged, can be resolved when one person covers another person’s sin with love. Love in the form of unilateral forgiveness is sufficient to make the relationship whole again. We call this overlooking an offense. When a husband absent-mindedly leaves his shoes under the coffee table after agreeing to put them away, the irritated wife has it in her power to make whole the relationship by choosing to cover the offense with forgiveness, even in the absence of a conversation, by reminding herself of how much she has been forgiven in Christ.

When a relationship breaks because someone is harmed or Christ’s honor is damaged, reconciliation is necessary. Reconciliation requires both parties to recognize their sins and failures (repent), own their contributions to the conflict (confession), and forgive each other. A broken relationship cannot be made whole when only one (or neither) party takes responsibility or forgives. Reconciliation is not in the power of one person. It takes two people to reconcile a relationship.


Restoring a relationship is different than reconciling a relationship.

While reconciliation requires mutual repentance, confession, and forgiveness, restoration is a process of rebuilding trust, respect, and closeness in a relationship. Reconciliation and restoration have different goals with different paths. However, restoration requires sufficient reconciliation.

The illustration of a broken bone might be helpful to understand the difference between relational reconciliation and restoration. A broken bone must be “set” or returned to its proper place in order to heal properly. Some breaks are so serious that the break and the surrounding tissue damage require extensive intervention in order to bring the broken bone back into place. When the injured limb is finally in a position to heal, the protective cast is employed.

Reconciliation is like setting a broken bone and, when conflict is severe, reconnecting severed arteries or torn muscles. Restoration, on the other hand, is like placing a cast around the “reconciled” bone, providing the necessary time to heal, and employing physical therapy to regain the use of the injured limb.

It is unhelpful to attempt to restore what has not been reconciled. Counseling that focuses on restoring trust and respect, in the absence of reconciliation efforts, fails to be effective for people in significant conflict.

Make Every Effort

Believers are called to “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone…” (Hebrews 12:14). The apostle Paul instructs us that, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). How are we to live at peace?

Living at peace with others is hard work. It is also transformative. When we keep in mind the message of the gospel, God reconciled us to himself through Christ, we are inspired to see and own our sin, seek forgiveness, help others see and own their sin, and extend forgiveness. With God’s help, we are enabled to repent, confess, and forgive.

However, others with whom we find ourselves in conflict might not choose to join us in this God-honoring endeavor.

What Do We Do Then?

When we have done all we know to do to pursue reconciliation, and we have prayed and asked God for help, and we have repented and confessed our sin, and we have forgiven the person who has hurt us, and we have included others in the process to help promote reconciliation, and we have turned to our church for help, and we don’t know what else we can do… there is still one thing left to do.

Leave room.

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

Leaving room for God’s wrath is not washing our hands of the relationship, turning our back on the person, ceasing to be concerned for them, or hoping that God punishes them. Leaving room is an act of faith in the God who is always at work to grow us more into the likeness of Christ.

Leaving room is an act of hope in the God who delights in reconciliation, and might choose to work in other ways to promote repentance, confession, and forgiveness in the reluctant party.

Leaving room is an act of love when it is accompanied by a watchful and prayerful heart waiting for the “green light” to reengage our efforts to live at peace.

Join the Conversation

How could you apply these principles of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration to your life and relationships?

8 thoughts on “Leave Room

  1. Luke 17:3 — “If he repents, forgive him.”

    Are there no biblical counselors reading this blog who will challenge this? Have you completely abandoned what you have been taught by Jay Adams (From Forgiven to Forgiving)? The author gives no Scripture to support her view that we are to forgive those who have not repented. If this is a coalition of “biblical” counselors, then should you not more carefully vet what you post here to be sure it is biblical?

  2. In Luke 23:34a Jesus forgives those who hung Him on the Cross and in Acts 7:60 Stephen forgives those who stoned him to death. I believe these to be beautiful examples of forgiving hearts, rather than a hardened heart where bitterness would eventually settle in. I have great respect for Jay Adams but follow my Saviors example.

  3. Julie, Jesus did not forgive his killers from the cross. He prayed for them.
    God answered His prayer in Acts 2:34-41 when those who killed our Lord
    repented and believed. I urge you to read Dr. Adams’ book.

  4. Thank you for your blog comment. The concerns that you are expressing are concerns that many biblical counselors have and should wrestle with. The wrestling itself, in light of biblical teaching, is a critical component of developing and maintaining a strong biblical ethic. So, over the years, as I have wrestled with the question, “What does it mean to forgive?” I have read many Christian authors, men who I trust and admire (including Jay Adams). I have discovered that there are quite a few biblical counselors and pastors who do not agree with one another about forgiveness, or how to practice it. Some authors even contradict their own writings in a matter of a few pages. Biblical forgiveness is an area where increased biblical scholarship would be very helpful to us all.

    My own belief is that biblical writers are confused on the topic of forgiveness in part because of a lack of clarity about how God forgives. John MacArthur, in The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998) on pages 58-59, presents the notion that God forgives in at least two different ways—judicially and parentally. Human beings, commanded to forgive as God has forgiven them (Eph. 4:32 and Col. 3:13) are helped to ask the question: “In what ways does God forgive that I, too, can and must forgive?” I think it also helps to ask ourselves this question: “Are there ways that God forgives that I cannot forgive?” MacArthur points out that human beings can never forgive salvifically, but they can and should forgive relationally.

    Robert Cheong, biblical counselor and pastor, co-authored an article with Frederick DiBlasio called “Christ-like Love and Forgiveness: A Biblical Foundation for Counseling Practice” (Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 2007, Vol. 26, No. 1, 14-25). This article also helps the reader think through the question, “How am I to forgive?” In addition, just about anything Don Carson has written about forgiveness is worthy of a careful read.

    Good men in Christ, when they disagree about significant theological concerns, present us with the opportunity to grow in faith as we dive into the Word of God to seek answers to our uneasy questions. I commend the above writers to you, and encourage you to continue testing all that you read against Scripture. May your journey reward you with much to share with all of your fellow biblical counselors.

  5. You should not quote MacArthur so quickly as to infer he shares your opinion. In further writings, he clearly states the fact that there are different types of forgiveness.

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