Jesus words on forgiveness are stark: Unless you forgive others you cannot be forgiven. He makes that very clear in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:15), in the parable of the indebted servant in Matthew 18:21-35 and elsewhere.
However forgiveness and pardon are not the same thing. To pardon someone is to let them off, to not enforce a judgement that is against them. If you have the authority to pardon someone, that means you have some authority over them. Kings, Queens, Presidents, some politicians and judges have this kind of authority. Prison governours, members of tribunals, parole boards, military leaders and policemen also have this power at times. Employers have authority over employees. But the most relevant authority to most of us is that of our parents.
As a Christian, whoever you are, you are called to forgive. But if you are a Christian in a place of authority over someone then you need to be careful before you extend that forgiveness into pardon. If the person who you have the authority to pardon is unrepentant then the pardon will just lead to more opportunity for that person to cause the same type of trouble again.
I am really enjoying the Netflix series “The Crown” mainly because of its historical accuracy and attention to detail. In Series 2 episode 6, the Queen is strongly impressed by Billy Graham who is holding a crusade in the UK at the time. She invites him to the palace on two occasions. Interwoven with these visits is an attempt by her uncle (formerly Edward VIII who abdicated before the war to marry a divorcee) to return to the UK. Through powerful contacts he manages to convince the government to offer him some high profile ambassadorial roles. Only the Queen is between him and a happy homecoming. She has to decide whether to give him a royal pardon and let him in the country or to refuse and to leave him in exile.
The trouble is her uncle is unrepentant. He is still as treasonous in his heart as he has ever been.
The Queen is confused between forgiveness and pardon. The Netflix portrayal makes it clear that she hasn’t distinguished between the two. She asks Billy Graham should she forgive her uncle, to which Billy rightly responds that she should. In the end she tells her uncle that she can never forgive him – but when she said that she used the wrong word. To protect her family and her country she could never pardon him. In her heart she could and did forgive him but he was unrepentant. She used the wrong word but made the right decision. But she ended up confused.
We need to know the difference between forgiveness and pardon because all of us have either been a parent or a child. Parents need to always be able to have an attitude of forgiveness towards their children but they would be foolish to pardon them and let them avoid the consequences of their wrongdoing – especially if they are unrepentant. Children need to understand this distinction.