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.
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.