Scott S. Mitchell
Readers of this essay might find the arguments presented surprising, perhaps even unsettling. My purpose in writing is to help righteous people feel better about themselves when the scriptures demonstrate they deserve to feel that way, and to help them avoid feeling guilt when the scriptures indicate they shouldn’t be feeling it. Too often in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and often in other Christian denominations as well), members are guilt-tripped into thinking they’re sinful if they find it hard to forgive someone who has sinned against them, but has neither repented of the sin nor sought forgiveness. Many times, these victims have been taught that to not forgive sinners, whether they’re repentant or not, is to commit a greater sin than the sinner. As this essay will show, this prevalent Mormon concept is utterly false and unscriptural. In fact, in the opinion of this writer, although the Lord is obviously displeased with unrepentant wrongdoers, he is also displeased when we, through our own ignorance, place extra burdens on victims by telling them that to escape condemnation themselves, they must forgive unrepentant sinners.
I recently had a private conversation with an acquaintance following an LDS priesthood lesson in which I, as a class member, had made a controversial statement. This acquaintance had stayed after class to question me further about my statement, because the subject of my comment was a matter of great importance in his life. I’ll write more about this conversation in the latter part of this essay. My comment in class had been that in all of scripture, there is no support for the idea that we are expected to forgive people who have wronged us if they haven’t repented and sought to be forgiven. In fact, I added, the Bible and Book of Mormon contain the opposite message: We do harm to forgive unrepentant sinners, and the Lord has expressly instructed us to do otherwise.
Before we review LDS scriptures covering this topic, important clarifications are necessary: First, the scriptures which address forgiveness don’t appear to contemplate situations where the law of the land prescribes a penalty for serious sins such as murder, rape, robbery or other crimes of great magnitude where the societal need for imprisonment or the death penalty is obvious. Instead, holy writ addresses wrongdoing by one person against another with which the governmental authorities are not necessarily involved–when the question of whether to grant or deny forgiveness by the church or by individuals is the main thing to be decided. Our discussion will therefore ignore the subject of civil-government-imposed punishments.
Second, the concept of “forgiving” or “forgiveness” anciently was not the same as the interpretation of these words by the average reader in 2018. As it’s used in the Bible and Book of Mormon, forgiveness seems to mean “to decline to expel from your midst,” when applied to the church, and “to decline to take action against” when applied to individuals. The modern connotation of forgiveness describing a particular emotional state doesn’t appear to reflect the meaning Jesus intended in the first century A.D.1 For example, two days after Dylann Roof was arrested for murdering nine people as they attended a Bible class in their South Carolina church, the relatives of some of the dead appeared in court to announce to all that they had forgiven Roof. Since Roof was later convicted of all nine murders and a host of other crimes, and sentenced to death by the jury, it’s obvious that what “forgiveness” meant to those admittedly gracious relatives was very different from what the concept meant to Jesus when he talked about it. The relatives of those who had been murdered were referring to their own emotional states when they said they forgave the shooter. But “forgiveness” 2000 years ago was never thought of as a proper response to murder, let alone mass murder.
This essay will also not attempt to delineate which acts are sinful and which are not. Jesus did not attempt to do so, either, when teaching about forgiveness. Some people seem to believe every time their feelings are hurt, someone has sinned and needs to pay. Some people truly enjoy being victims, and seek opportunities to claim they’ve been offended. They see themselves as constantly being sinned against in minor and major ways. This essay will presuppose that the acts for which forgiveness is being debated are what a reasonable person with a strong moral compass would consider sins.
By the same token, I will not here attempt to define which sins are serious enough to implicate or not implicate church action against the sinner. Nor did Jesus do so in his instructions to his followers. Some sins are truly minor, and shouldn’t be magnified to the point where they raise the question of whether or not the offender should be confronted. So, though reasonable minds can differ as to which sins are serious and which are not, the discussion below will presuppose that the sin in question is serious enough that the same hypothetical reasonable person described in the foregoing paragraph would believe it should not be ignored.
The Oft-Misunderstood Verses of LDS Scripture
I knew my comment in church would draw sharp disagreement, for several reasons. I’ve been attending Mormon services and classes my whole life, and know full well what is commonly taught there. In his famous book (among Mormons, at least), The Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball, who eventually became LDS Church President, wrote as follows: “Yes, to be in the right we must forgive, and we must do so without regard to whether or not our antagonist repents, or how sincere is his transformation, or whether or not he asks our forgiveness.”2 (Emphasis in original.) Brother Kimball was wrong, as I will show here, but we ought to ask ourselves, why did he have this idea in his head? I strongly believe it was because, as a lifelong Mormon himself, he had made the same mistake of ignoring the teachings of Christ in the Bible and Book of Mormon, and had instead placed undue reliance on some verses he misunderstood in the LDS canon Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C’). These verses, some of the most universally misunderstood within Mormonism, are from D&C 64:7, 9-13. Indeed, when he wrote the above-quoted statement, Kimball had just cited this scripture as authority:
7 . . .[V]erily I say unto you, I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness, who have not sinned unto death.
. . .
. . .
9 Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.
10 I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.
11 And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds.
12 And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall bring before the church, and do with him as the scripture saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation.
13 And this ye shall do that God may be glorified—not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law, that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver. . .
Typically, the only parts of these passages quoted in Mormon discussions on forgiveness are verses 9 and 10, probably because those verses contain unique and memorable language not found in either the Bible or Book of Mormon. What is overlooked in these discussions is the specific context in which these two verses fall. Regardless of whether the reader believes the above verses were revealed by God, or were merely Joseph Smith’s own thoughts on the topic of forgiveness which he claimed to be divine revelation,3 when all the verses are read together, it is evident that verses 9 and 10 are to be understood in the context of verses 7 and 12. In verse 7 the Lord is quoted as saying that forgiveness is appropriate only after it is sought and the sinner has confessed his sins. In verse 12 he’s quoted as instructing what to do in the event the sinner has not confessed or repented of his sins. In that case, the sinner is not to be forgiven, but is to be treated in accordance with scriptural instructions found elsewhere (which will be specifically discussed hereinafter). Verse 12 would be superfluous and unnecessary if all people are to be forgiven no matter what (as verse 9 appears to suggest only if read out of context).
In other words, the above passage from D&C 64 is not meant to be interpreted simply as, “I, the Lord, forgive whomever I decide to forgive, but you must forgive everybody, no matter what the circumstances.” Instead, taken as a whole, the quoted verses should be interpreted thusly: God forgives all who confess and repent of their sins and seek repentance. He knows their hearts, so he knows whether or not their repentance is sincere. But we here on earth, lacking God’s perceptive abilities, may not be able to discern whether the confessing, supposedly repentant sinner, who seeks to be forgiven, has truly and sincerely repented. If we lack enough evidence to gauge the sinner’s true degree of penitence, we are to err on the side of forgiveness, leaving God to judge the extent of his sincerity and reward him accordingly on the final judgment day. But if the sinner is remorseless, and hasn’t even pretended to repent, we are not to forgive him, but are to take church action against him as described in other scriptures which address this situation.4 We take this church action not because we’re unforgiving people, but because it offends the Lord to not protect the integrity of the church.
Book of Mormon Scriptures Which Remove Interpretive Doubt
How do we know that the interpretation of D&C 64:7, 9-13, provided immediately above, is correct? Because that interpretation is taken straight from the precise language of the Book of Mormon. In fact, D&C 64:7, 9-13 is nothing more than a less-precisely-worded restatement of clear, precisely-worded scriptures in the Book of Mormon dealing with the exact topic of when forgiveness is required of Christians, and when it’s inappropriate. In Moroni 6:5-8, Moroni explained to the reader how the church of Christ was run after Jesus’s visit to the Nephites:
5 And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.
6 And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus.
7 And they were strict to observe that there should be no iniquity among them; and whoso was found to commit iniquity, and three witnesses of the church did condemn them before the elders, and if they repented not, and confessed not, their names were blotted out, and they were not numbered among the people of Christ.
8 But as oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.
Jesus had also previously admonished the Nephites to not allow unrepentant sinners to participate in the sacrament. In 3 Nephi 18 he instructed:
28 And now behold, this is the commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it;
29 For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul; therefore if ye know that a man is unworthy to eat and drink of my flesh and blood ye shall forbid him.
The above two Book of Mormon scriptures, and the next one referenced two paragraphs below, appear to be the ones alluded to in D&C 64:12, where the church is instructed to “do with [the unrepentant sinner] as the scripture saith.” They thus inform the context of, and provides the doctrinal framework for, the D&C 64 verses. As the Book of Mormon verses state, no one was forgiven in Christ’s church unless they confessed and repented of their sins. If they remained unrepentant, they could not partake of the sacrament and lost their membership in Christ’s church (though they could still attend meetings). If they were sincere, they were forgiven. We will see below that this strictness with unrepentant sinners was all done in the interest of protecting the righteous from iniquity.
The question of what to do with unrepentant sinners had arisen many years earlier, before Jesus’s birth, not long after Alma founded the first church of Christ. Iniquity among members and leaders of the branches of the church had been discovered and brought to Alma’s attention. The sinners had not repented, and importantly, neither had they withdrawn from the church. Alma inquired of the Lord how to proceed, being greatly concerned that he might err in his handling of the crisis. In Mosiah 26, we read the Lord’s response to Alma’s questions:
19 . . .[B]ecause thou hast inquired of me concerning the transgressor, thou art blessed.
. . .
29 Therefore I say unto you, Go; and whosoever transgresseth against me, him shall ye judge according to the sins which he has committed; and if he confess his sins before thee and me, and repenteth in the sincerity of his heart, him shall ye forgive, and I will forgive him also.
30 Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.
31 And ye shall also forgive one another your trespasses; for verily I say unto you, he that forgiveth not his neighbor’s trespasses when he says that he repents, the same hath brought himself under condemnation.
32 Now I say unto you, Go; and whosoever will not repent of his sins the same shall not be numbered among my people; and this shall be observed from this time forward.
33 And it came to pass when Alma had heard these words he wrote them down that he might have them, and that he might judge the people of that church according to the commandments of God.
34 And it came to pass that Alma went and judged those that had been taken in iniquity, according to the word of the Lord.
35 And whosoever repented of their sins and did confess them, them he did number among the people of the church;
36 And those that would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity, the same were not numbered among the people of the church, and their names were blotted out.
Some may counter-argue that the above verses should only apply to questions of church membership, but that our relationships with others who don’t profess membership in the church of Christ should be governed by less exacting standards. But this reasoning, when closely examined, is illogical. First of all, the standards governing how to treat our fellow Christians constitute the highest level of morality; hence the generous availability of forgiveness to all those who say they repent. Christians should graciously grant forgiveness when the sinner professes repentance. To apply a lesser level of morality to our non-Christian acquaintances would not be charitable, but would be a disservice to them. The high level of morality that governs the church is also the most forgiving.
In connection with this highest level of morality, it’s crucial to remember the purpose served by not tolerating iniquity. The reason why the Lord’s high moral code doesn’t condone iniquity among church members is because iniquity victimizes those Christians against whom it is practiced, or tempts them to participate in it if it becomes common among them. To not condone iniquity is thus an act of protecting the innocent from people who will otherwise do them harm. To impose no sanction against evil behavior is to remove any frame of reference whereby the wrongdoer or the innocent can properly judge which actions are right or wrong. We don’t forgive unrepentant sinners because doing so makes it much more likely that they will continue harming others without any incentive to stop. Applying this morality to the non-Christian world, can we logically say, then, that to forgive (i.e., ignore and take no action against) iniquity when non-Christians are victimizing others, actually helps someone? Is it less harsh to forgive remorseless wrongdoing, or is it best understood as more harsh to the victims? If a supposedly Christian man beats his wife repeatedly, and doesn’t repent, we expel him from the church. But is the wife of a non-Christian, unrepentant wife-beater always supposed to forgive her mate, taking no thought for her own emotional or physical safety, or that of her children? Isn’t she entitled to the same protection we try to afford the wife of the Christian? If a non-Christian daughter remorselessly steals the meager earnings of her mother, is the mother helping herself, or anyone else, if she always forgives her daughter? If the daughter figures out that she may lose her place to live, or her freedom, if her mother musters the will to stop forgiving her, she might stop stealing. And if she stops stealing long enough to think about what she’s been doing, she might begin to empathize with her mother. Wouldn’t that please a loving God more than if her mother always forgave her without her repenting, and she felt no compunction to motivate her to change? It is evident, then, that Christianity’s judicious withholding of forgiveness, as well as its liberal granting of forgiveness, are beneficial to Christians and non-Christians alike.
New Testament Teachings of Jesus Regarding When to Forgive
A review of the most famous teachings on forgiveness in the Bible demonstrates that in every case, the admonition to forgive is accompanied by the presupposition that the wrongdoer professes personal fault and seeks forgiveness. Jesus said: “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” (See Luke 17:3-4; emphasis added.) In probably the most famous New Testament teachings on this subject, Jesus had instructed his disciples how to deal with wrongdoers who refuse to repent of their offense: In Matthew 18:15-17, we read Jesus’s initial words:
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man [i.e., not allowed to be counted as a Christian] and a publican.
Peter, hearing this, was perplexed by the seemingly heavy burden Jesus’ words seem to place on Christians against whom trespasses have been committed. From the same chapter of Matthew, we read:
21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt [i.e., withheld any immediate penalty he was entitled to exact].5
28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
In this allegory we thus see that in each case where the king and his servant attempt to collect debts owed them, the debtor admits that the debt exists and is validly collectible, but seeks to be spared immediate punishment and instead be allowed an extension of time to provide restitution. These acts by the debtors are the allegorical equivalents of confessing their wrongdoing (which wrongdoing consists of failing to keep the promise of repaying the loan by a certain date), demonstrating repentance (expressing their desire to make the creditor whole by promising to repay the loan in full as soon as possible) and seeking forgiveness (by begging the creditor to remove the threat of immediate punishment provided by the law). When the first debtor shows that he is not the forgiving person his master has taught him to be, he then proves himself unworthy of the forgiveness he initially received. His lord then revokes that forgiveness. It’s impossible to read this allegory and come away with the impression that Jesus advocates granting forgiveness irrespective of the attitude of the sinner. We must repent to be forgiven, and we must forgive other repentant souls to remain forgiven by God, as Jesus explained in Matthew 6:14-15 and 3 Nephi 13:14-15. The wrongdoer’s desire to do right is manifestly the condition upon which forgiveness is based.
When the aforementioned acquaintance spoke to me after class, he explained that his ex-wife had repeatedly and remorselessly been unfaithful to him. She had never apologized or expressed regret for her deeds before or after the divorce. Though her actions had caused much upheaval in his life and wounded him deeply, he had not sought revenge. But he believed that his own church’s doctrine required him to forgive her, lest he be deemed by God to be worse than she. Nevertheless, he had struggled to do so, especially knowing she didn’t care whether he did or didn’t.
I responded by commending this man on his desire to conform his behavior to what he perceived to be Christ’s teachings. But, I explained, his decision on how to respond to his ex-wife’s sins didn’t raise the question of forgiveness, but something else entirely. I shared the outlook expressed in this essay, and told him it would actually be counterproductive to forgive his wife under these circumstances. Otherwise, iniquity would be condoned, and without the requisite stigma, it would be less restrained. However, my friend’s decision now involved a different teaching of Christ’s–whether he should seek to punish his ex-wife for her remorseless evil, or should “turn the other cheek.” In Jesus’ sermons to the Jews and to the Nephites, both groups were taught to react this way if someone were to wrongfully smite them on the cheek. To turn the other cheek, when someone has struck you on the first one, is to exhibit the highest and most difficult level of Christian behavior. It is to refuse to foster enmity even with those who haven’t repented and aren’t entitled to forgiveness; those whom the Lord describes as “evil” and “unjust”: From Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 (and his sermon to the Nephites), we read:
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist [understood generally as meaning “fight back against” in today’s English] not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
(Emphasis added; see also 3 Nephi 12:38-49.)
When the conversation with this acquaintance ended, he still believed he’d run afoul of God’s will if he didn’t forgive his unrepentant ex-wife. Of course, he hadn’t carefully studied the scriptures cited above. But he did know that as a Mormon, he’d been taught that he was worse than his ex-wife if he didn’t forgive her remorseless serial adultery. It was too hard for him to consider the possibility that the LDS interpretation of D&C 64 was wrong, or that those who’d inculcated him could have ignored those Bible and Book of Mormon scriptures that made this subject clear. And so, as happens so often, he walked out of church that day needlessly feeling guilty about how hard it is to forgive his ex-wife, sadly unaware of the great strides he had made toward perfection by turning the other cheek. Hopefully, though, in time, he and all of us will study the scriptures thoroughly enough so as to allow them to comfort us when we deserve to be comforted.
1. See Maria Mayo, M.Div., Ph.D, “5 Myths About Forgiveness in the Bible,” online article in HUFFPOST at huffingtonpost.com, October 11, 2011.
2. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), p. 283.
3. I personally don’t believe the quoted passage is divinely inspired, for at least two reasons. Verse 8, which I’ve omitted from the quoted verses, doesn’t appear historically accurate, as it makes a vague reference to some failure of Christ’s unnamed disciples in ancient times to forgive one another, which failure is uncorroborated in either the Bible or Book of Mormon. Presumably, if the persons alluded to in verse 8 qualified to be called disciples, they followed Christ’s teachings and were appropriately forgiving. Nor does the language in verse 9 appear inspired or reflective of the Lord’s outlook. He would be cruel and harsh indeed, if a person’s failure to forgive any sin, no matter how serious, made him or her more evil than the original sinner. If a murderer killed my child, for example, and I could not forgive them, would I myself then become worse than a child murderer in God’s eyes? Clearly, it seems to me, the language in verse 9 is too sweeping, over-inclusive and misleading to have come from God. Nevertheless, even if the scriptural passage from D&C 64:7-13 could be shown to be from God, as opposed to a somewhat careless rewording of other scriptures which are inspired, its message, when interpreted in context, demonstrates consistency with other scriptures in the Book of Mormon and Bible covering the same topic.
4. These church actions, as demonstrated later in this essay, refer to removing the person from church fellowship if the offense he is charged with can be sufficiently proven true. As stated above, this essay doesn’t address the separate question of which offenses are serious enough to trigger such church action, and which are not. Perhaps a later one will. However, the author encourages those who wish to discuss this topic to do so by contacting the author via the means provided on the website.
5. It is unclear whether the lord of the servant merely waived the right to seek immediate enforcement through imprisonment and bondage, or went further, fully nullifying the very existence of the debt. I believe from the context that the former interpretation was intended, but regardless, the overall point of this essay on the need for repentance to precede forgiveness is unaffected by which interpretation of the word “forgave” is adopted.