Repentant Leaders Deserve Forgiveness Too

Repentant pastors deserve our forgiveness.
Repentant pastors deserve God's forgiveness, and ours. (Lightstock )

As I look back at my experience at Mars Hill, one of my largest areas of personal sanctification and theological growth occurred in the area of repentance and forgiveness, especially in my role as a high-level church leader.

I am writing this post to help other leaders like me. I pray that someone—even just one person—can be spared the consequences of his/her own mistakes by paying careful attention to mine beforehand. I also pray that my public confession of sin and admission of mistakes will further enhance opportunity for reconciliation and restoration among those with whom I have experienced conflict.

Early on in my time at Mars Hill, I unfortunately operated in a sinful way that was consistent with the existing church culture that had grown and been cultivated since the early years of the church. Instead of being an agent of change for good, I simply reinforced negative sinful behavior (I am responsible for my own actions, and do not blame my actions on the culture).

I am so thankful for the kindness of God that has led me to repentance, the grace of Jesus that forgave my sin, and the love of brothers who exhorted me during those necessary times of growth. Somewhere between 2012 and 2013, with the help of Pastor Dave Bruskas and others, change began to take root in my heart. These lessons continue to bear fruit in my life as the Holy Spirit grows me to become more like Jesus. I do look back on 2011 and 2012 with a lot of regret, but I'm also very thankful for the Holy Spirit and his ability to grow us all to be more like Jesus.

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What About Repentance?

When the great reformer Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses, the first dogmatic statement about biblical Christianity that he chose to publically proclaim was that the whole life of the Christian should be one of continual repentance. There is no greater privilege that the redeemed, saved, adopted child of God has than to repent. Faith and repentance are the first acts that we do as a believer in Jesus Christ. Jesus gives us the faith to believe and makes us alive. Then our new hearts recognize our sinfulness and our need for him and we repent. We have a "change of mind" about our sin which is what the Greek word for "repentance" (metanoia) means.

Many verses focus on repentance (Acts 3:19Acts 11:18Matt 4:17Luke 3:8-9Matthew 3:1-2Isaiah 30:15).  Timothy even writes of its importance to the church leader:

"The servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but must be gentle toward all people, able to teach, patient, in gentleness instructing those in opposition. Perhaps God will grant them repentance to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

Paul clearly states that God grants repentance that leads to a knowledge of the truth, which then helps us escape from Satan's traps. (Side note: if we refuse to repent, we are willing joining the devil to do his will—not God's!) Additionally, Acts 11:18 also states that repentance is, first and foremost, granted by God. An unregenerate heart will not and cannot turn from sin.

Without being granted a new heart by the Holy Spirit, a person remains dead in sin and does not pursue the things of God. If a person has been led to repentance by the beautiful kindness of God (Romans 2:4), it is a sign that his or her heart of stone has been transformed into a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He or she is no longer an enemy of God, but one who has been made alive in Christ and is now friend, child, and heir of God with Christ.

God saves us as we are by his grace. He expects nothing of us to contribute to our salvation. However, Scripture is clear that he does not allow us to stay as we are! We are to be transformed into the likeness of his Son more and more (2 Cor. 3:18Romans 12:2).

We need to be seeking holiness, righteousness, and purity. We need to be constantly on guard against the enemy's schemes and putting our sinful flesh to death. As the great Puritan John Owen said, we need to be killing sin or it will be killing us. We will certainly stumble and fall and that is when we must repent. In fact, I believe that repentance is the "how" to killing our sin.

The Apostle James says, "But each man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. Then, when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin; and when sin is finished, it brings forth death. Do not err, my beloved brothers" (James 1:14-16, emphasis mine). Our sin wreaks havoc on our lives when it grows because it goes unchecked, unevaluated, and unrepented. Do not be deceived about that.

Our sin leads to our death. But Jesus died for our sin.

Therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can believe in him, have faith in him, and put sin to death for his glory and our good.

I have learned that repentance is confession of sin with your mind and mouth (Psalm 51:4). This confession is then followed by contrition of your emotions and expression (Psalm 51:1-3), which then leads to changes in your will and your acts (Psalm 51:12-1315). Confession to contrition to change. I challenge you to revisit Psalm 51 afresh in your time with the Lord today. Sometimes the most familiar Scriptures can unfortunately become the most overlooked.

What About Forgiveness?

Scripture has no lack of verses on forgiveness. In fact it is so important that Jesus chose for it to be one of the very last documented things he himself did on this earth as he hung dying on the cross (Luke 23:34). Not to mention, the gospels record numerous occasions of him commanding his disciples in regards to forgiveness. When they asked him to teach them to pray, he included asking for forgiveness from the Lord and giving it to others (Matt. 6:12). And this is only the gospels. The writings of the Apostles are full of exhortations regarding forgiveness.

Preach the Gospel to Yourself

First and foremost, when I'm wrestling through forgiving someone, I ask the Lord to remind me of the truth of one of my favorite verses, Romans 5:8: "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Paul is telling us that we did nothing to deserve Christ's love, grace, forgiveness, and righteousness. Nothing. You and I were still sinners and God saved us by his grace through the blood of his only Son, Jesus. That is always our starting point.

I must always first look at the grace that I have received from Jesus and extend that same grace to Christians and non-Christians who sin against me. The nature of truly received grace is that it can't be withheld. So when someone sins against me, I choose to forgive them, even if they do not "realize" their sin, or even repent of their known sin. I choose to forgive them because Jesus forgave me before I knew or repented of my sin.

You may know my testimony. While in a hunting blind in Africa, I got down on my knees and asked Jesus to save me, forgive me, and cleanse me of my sin. Within a very short period of time, being filled with the Holy Spirit, I began to realize the sin that I had committed against Jesus, my wife, my kids, and others. And this sin was not even in my mind when I asked Jesus to forgive me, but it was sin in my life nonetheless.

To me, Romans 5:8 was very real in those early days of my walk with Jesus (as it still is today, of course). Jesus forgave me and cleansed me of all my sin—past, present, and future—even while I was still sinning.

Freely Received, Freely Given

With this renewed and right perspective of the freely given grace of God, we can now discuss forgiveness of others. I am always challenged by Jesus' well-known words to one of Peter's most candid questions. "'Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'" (Matt. 18:21-22).

This is a wonderful example of the grace of God. Jesus commands multiplication of Peter's already generous suggestion of "seven times" to make a point that we should forgive, and forgive, and then forgive again. I would also like to point out that Jesus does not specify to Peter that he should wait and judge another brother on the fruit of his repentance before offering forgiveness.

There is no qualifier to the number of times Jesus tells Peter to forgive someone and, again, he commands forgiveness without the caveat of first witnessing the fruit of an offender's repentance. This point is critical to remember in the midst of offense, hurt, and pain. We want to see change and repentance before we remove our hands from their neck (Matt. 18:28). Remember the cross and ask the Holy Spirit to empower you to loosen your grip. The powerful truth of the doctrine of forgiveness is there's more freedom in letting go, than holding on.

Keep Preaching the Gospel to Yourself

Our God is a good God and a just God. If we are in Christ, he does not hold the sins that we have committed against us, because Jesus paid for these sins on the cross. God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

His perfection was credited to my account. The punishment has been paid in full. It is finished. This would be double jeopardy if a Christian's sins were punished twice. This truth gives us full freedom to repent freely to God and others, knowing that it does nothing to affect my standing with him. In the same way, it gives us freedom to forgive knowing that Jesus died for their sins too. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

"If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men" Rom. 12:18.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series for practical lessons on repentance and forgiveness.

Sutton Turner is the executive pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. For the original article, visit

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