Colossians 3:12–13 uses the language of clothing in reference to virtue. In short, we clothe ourselves with Christ (cf. Romans 13:14), and, more specifically, we “put on” virtues like “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” We are also to “put on… bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” The Lord’s forgiveness of us is our example for how to forgive one another.
“Bearing with one another” assumes that we fall short of treating one another as we ought from time to time. “Forgiving one another” involves “a complaint against another” that must be forgiven. Whether bearing or forgiving sin, love is the basis for our interaction with each other (Colossians 3:14; cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1–7).
So, assuming we are wearing the clothing of the new man (i.e., the virtues listed above), how do we go about forgiving one another?
Sometimes we can bypass forgiveness altogether by overlooking an offense and letting love cover the brother’s sin (Proverbs 19:11; 1 Peter 4:8). His sin may be individual (against me alone), intentional (he meant to do it), and even important (it has serious implications), but even then, we can patiently love the offender and overlook the offense (e.g., Genesis 45:4–5; 50:20; 2 Samuel 16:5–14; 19:18–23). At the least, we can be eager to forgive (e.g., Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60).
Sometimes, however, confrontation is necessary, and a formal apology and forgiveness must take place. Perhaps someone sins against another so significantly as to break their relationship (Matt 18:15–18; Luke 17:3–4). Perhaps someone is so caught up in his sin that another needs to intervene in order for restoration to take place (Galatians 6:1). Perhaps someone might take advantage of another, requiring a third party to help the disadvantaged (cf. James 1:27 with Exodus 23:6; Proverbs 31:8–9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3). Perhaps the sin is simply so significant and public that the testimony of the church is on the line (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5). In all of these instances, there must be a confrontation, repentance, and forgiveness. If repentance is not forthcoming, the church may eventually have to exclude the sinning party from their fellowship and treat him as an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17).
If confrontation is necessary, this interaction should be treated with utmost care. All parties involved should affirm their love for one another in Christ before and after their interaction. The one confronted should humbly recognize his sin, be thankful his sin was exposed, repent, apologize, and go forward in the relationship. The one confronting should make sure his reasons for confrontation are sound and seek to gain his brother. The goal is never rebuke alone but repentance and restoration.
May God help us not to sin against one another. But if we do, may He also help us to bear with one another and to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us.
All quotes ESV. Articles by Pastor Huffstutler are at davidhuffstutler.com.