Forgive and Be Forgiven!
Since all of us have sinned (Romans 3:23) and continue to sin since we are still in the flesh (1 John 1:8-10), there continues to be an urgent need of forgiveness. The priority is to be forgiven by God, for without our sins being forgiven we cannot enter heaven. Sin cannot be in Gods presence (cf. Hebrews 12:14). But lets discuss a secondary but essential requirementthat of granting forgiveness to others and receiving forgiveness from others. Not only is it vital that we receive forgiveness from God, but it is important that we willingly offer the grace of forgiveness to others. And it is vital that we seek forgiveness from others.
The Importance of Forgiving Other People
Im confident that most people are unaware of the utter importance of human forgiveness. Lets explore what the Word of God says about this commonly misunderstood topic. First, lets look at the Lords teaching on forgiving others. In His model prayer, Jesus says, Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12). The term debts here refers to spiritual or moral debts, for we are debtors to God (or others) for our sins. Jesus makes this plain in Luke 11:4, where He gives His model prayer in these words: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
Jesus says that we should ask God to forgive us of sins as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us! The Lord must have known that He needed to explain this further, thus He said: For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15). This shows how crucial it is that we forgive others. If we refuse to forgive others when they sin against us, then God will not forgive us. We will remain in our unforgiven sins!
Our Lord reiterated this same instruction in Mark 11:25: Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgression. Again, notice that Christs followers are commanded to forgive so that the Heavenly Father will forgive them. Conversely, if they refused to forgive, then God would refuse to forgive them! The Lord said in another context, Pardon, and you will be pardoned (Luke 6:37b). This suggests that we will not be pardoned if we refuse to pardon those who sin against us. Someone once said, Ill never forgive that man! Another person replied, Then I hope that you never sin and need forgiveness, for God will refuse to forgive you!
Calvinists often have difficulty with this teaching. They believe that God forgives all sinpast, present, and futureat the point of justification, therefore they cant imagine God later refusing to forgive the Christians sins when he refuses to forgive others. Therefore, they refer to this forgiveness as a Fatherly forgiveness that pertains to day by day sins. They say that all sins, per se, are already forgiven at the point of salvation, but Jesus is referring to a secondary kind of sin. But there is no indication that there are two kinds of sins. We are guilty of all sins, unless they are forgiven by our gracious God, based on the perfect sacrifice of Christ. At the point of conversion, one is forgiven or purified from his former sins or pre-conversion sins (2 Peter 1:9), and after this, the Christian must be forgiven of subsequent sins (1 John 1:7, 9). So Jesus is saying that if we want to be forgiven of our sins, we must forgive others who sin against us. Let this sink into our heart.
Some people attempt to twist Jesus words by a reference to Ephesians 4:32, where Paul says that you are to be forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (see also Colossians 3:13). They say that Jesus meant that we are to forgive others as we have already been forgiven by God. While it is true that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven, this is not what Jesus said in Matthew 6 and Luke 12. As we have seen, in that place, the Lord plainly says that if we want to be forgiven, we must forgive those who sin against us.
The Nature and Motives of Forgiveness
We have noticed that one motive in forgiving others is that we ourselves might be forgiven. Weve also seen that we should forgive since we have received Gods forgiving mercy in Christ Jesus. The Lord said, Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Since God (Ephesians 4:32) and Christ (Colossians 3:13) have forgiven us and continue to cleanse us of all sin (1 John 1:7, 9), we should extend mercy and forgive those who have sinned against us. James gives a related motivation in forgiving others: Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13). If we refuse to show mercy toward others and forgive them, then God will not show mercy toward us. This is not a position we would want to have!
One person said something like this: How can I forgive if I dont feel like forgiving? I replied that in the Christian life, we dont act on our feelings but on our will. We choose to do Gods will even if we dont feel like it, knowing that our feelings will followif we are sincere in what we choose to do. In regard to forgiveness, we choose to forgive the offender and believe that God will bring the feelings along. As someone once said, It is easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel yourself into a new way of acting.
Another point worth noting here is the difficulty of forgiving. In Gods case, punishment is His just way of dealing with sin and rebellion. Since He is righteous, holy and just, He must punish the one guilty of sin. But since He also loves the sinner, He mercifully arranged a plan for Him to place the sin of mankind on Jesus who carried that sin in His own body on the cross. As Peter put it, He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross. . . . Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; cf. Isaiah 53:4, 11). He was offered once to bear the sins of many (Hebrews 9:28). Since Jesus bore our sins, we need not bear those sins ourselves! But when it comes to our forgiveness of others who have sinned against us, we choose to not inflict the punishment due those sins on the sinner or offender, but, instead, we choose to bear those sins in ourselves. We are willing to take the sins from the offender and not inflict harm on him, but this comes at a great priceour own suffering. Yes, forgiveness was extremely costly for God (in the giving of His dear Son) and it is also costly for us, when we choose to not inflict justice on our own offenders. We become like God when we are willing to forgive our offenders like God has been willing to forgive usHis sinful offenders.
Forgiveness the Characteristic of our Lives
The natural reaction toward someone who has sinned against us is to wish for that persons hurt and destruction. A person wants to get even or retaliate for the wrongdoing. The Christian response is the very opposite. Paul says, Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. . . . Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:17, 19). The apostle goes on to elaborate: If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head (v. 20). Our response should be different: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (v. 21). Our character is to be like Jesus, who was holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners (Hebrews 7:26).
Think about how Jesus responded to His persecutors. On the cross, the Lord prayed, Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Although these sinners must not have been forgiven at this point, in their unrepentance, we believe that they must have been forgiven later through the mercy of God when they came to Christ for His salvation and forgiveness (cf. Acts 2:5-41; 5:14; 6:7). Stephens attitude of forgiveness followed the example of His Lord. When he fell on his knees before the wicked and cruel Jewish leaders as they were putting him to death, he cried out, Lord, do not hold this sin against them! (Acts 7:60). Do we have such an attitude of forgiveness for even those who cruelly treat us? Do we have the nonresistant, merciful, and forgiving attitude of our Savior?
How Freely Should We Forgive?
Maybe because forgiveness is so difficult, one may raise the question about how freely it should be granted and how often it should be extended. Peter had this same concern. He asked Jesus, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times? (Matthew 18:21). Jesus responded with an astounding answer: I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven (v. 22). He was saying, in effect, that we should be willing to repeatedly forgive another if he seeks this forgiveness.
Jesus then related a parable to show the manner of our forgiveness. He told the story of a slave who sought forgiveness from the king. Going beyond his request, the king or lord of the slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt (Matthew 18:27). This was a gracious act that went beyond the bounds of justice. However, that forgiven slave went out and demanded to be paid what he personally was owed by a fellow-slave. The fellow-slave begged for mercy but the first slave refused to show the requested compassion. When the king heard of this hard-hearted response, he said to the first slave, You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you? (vv. 32-33). The king in anger delivered the unforgiving slave to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him (v. 34). Jesus conclusion is weighty: My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart (v. 35). This shows how vital it is that we willingly forgive others since we have received such great forgiveness from God.
Must We Forgive Everyone?
Some people stress the need to forgive everyone if we wish to be forgiven. They point out that Jesus said we must forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12) and that we must forgive everyone who is indebted to us (Luke 11:4). Jesus also said that we are to forgive if you have anything against anyone (Mark 11:25). Paul also said that we are to forgive each other (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). This seems like forgiveness should be granted to everyone without exception.
However, we have noticed in the previous parable that the second servant came to the first (forgiven) servant and pleaded for his forgiveness. This suggests that forgiveness is to be granted to one who sincerely seeks forgiveness. What if the second servant didnt want forgiveness? We may also remember the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In this case, the repentant prodigal planned his return home to his father (who represents God). He said, I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men (vv. 18-19). He did arise and go back to his father and made such a confession (v. 21). The father was merciful toward this wayward son: His father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him (v. 20). Forgiveness indeed should be freely given to one who repents of his sin and is willing to confess this to the one offended.
Jesus tells us how to respond to someone who sins against us. He utters these sobering words: Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, I repent, forgive him (Luke 17:3-4). The apostles responded to this insistence on forgiveness with shock, Increase our faith! (v. 5). Notice this narrative for a moment. Jesus says that if one sins against you, you are to go to that person and make sure that he is aware of his sin. Then, if he repents of this sin, we are to forgive him. Even if he sins repeatedly against us and then repents and confesses this to us, we are to continue to forgive the sincere repentant confessor. This teaching was so radical that the apostles knew they needed increased faith to put this into practice. Instead of following the Jewish teaching that sinners should be forgiven three times, Jesus went on to say seven times and even seventy times sevenin effect, endlessly.
The point we want to notice here is that Jesus says that we are to forgive when the person repents of his sins and is willing to confess this to us. This is like Gods own forgiveness. He doesnt forgive everyone unconditionally. Although there is a popular teaching in our day that says God Himself unconditionally forgives the sinner and requires unconditional forgiveness, on our part, this is not found in Scripture, that I know of. Gods forgiveness is very conditional! When Simon in Samaria sinned, Peter told him, Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you (Acts 8:22). Repentance was required. God calls on one to repent of his sins in order to be forgiven. God then wants the repentant brother to confess his sins, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). The interested reader should read our exposition, Forgiveness: Our Desperate Need!, which explores this matter more fully. The point is that Gods forgiveness is conditional, and this is what our own forgiveness of others is. We call on one to repent of his sins and this gives the opportunity to freely forgive the person.
Forgiveness Brings Reconciliation
When this forgiveness occurs, this opens the door to reconciliation. When the repentant prodigal returned, this brought him back into the fellowship of his father (Luke 15). This is the case of a sinner at Corinth who repented of his sin. Paul tells the assembly, Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). This repentant brother should be forgiven and comforted and fully accepted. They should reaffirm their love for him and welcome him back into full fellowship once again. This is the intended result of excommunication or withdrawal of fellowship, with a subsequent attitude of repentance. The goal is the salvation of the offender (1 Corinthians 5:5) and restoration to fellowship.
Jesus gives careful instruction to us if someone sins against us. Notice His words: If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother (Matthew 18:15). Although this may be a difficult procedure to follow, we can see how the sinners repentance will bring reconciliation to an alienated relationship. The Lord goes on to say that there is a further procedure to follow if this offending brother refuses to repent. Notice that Jesus didnt say that one should just forgive the sinner regardless of what he does or what his response may be. In fact, if he refuses to listen to other Christians as they plead for his repentance, he should be entirely rejected and put out of fellowship (cf. vv. 16-20).
Nurture a Merciful and Forgiving Attitude
Even if a person refuses to repent of his sins and insists on his self-chosen sinful way, we should maintain a merciful spirit toward the offender. Jesus says that we are to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). We are to do good to our enemies, be kind toward them, and be merciful toward them (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36). Our response toward sinners of all kinds should be very different from that of the world. We are to have a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). We are to have a brotherly attitude toward a fellow-Christian who has sinned and is not in fellowship (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). We are to be patient when wronged and gently reach out to them to rescue them from Satans power (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Even when they refuse to repent and seek forgiveness, at least we should maintain a merciful and forgiving attitude. We should not nurse grudges and maintain a resentful, bitter, and hateful attitude toward someone who has sinned against us. We should be known as loving, kind, patient, and forbearing people who have a forgiving attitude.
Be Willing to Practice the God-like Attitude of Forgiveness
This matter of forgiveness is so important that our salvation depends on it. As we noticed at the beginning, if we refuse to forgive others, God will refuse to forgive us. If we keep a bitter and resentful attitude toward others, then we will face a God who Himself is merciful. Remember the words of James, Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13). Let us be like Yahweh God who appeared to Moses with this description:
The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will no means leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:6-7).
God is a forgiving God, but He responds differently to those who insist on remaining in the guilt of sin. Like God our Father, let us forgive sins committed against us and let us do what we can to bring reconciliation with those who are repentant and honest with God. Let us forgive as God has forgiven us. Let us show grace toward our offenders as God has poured forth His abundant grace toward us!
Let Us Seek Forgiveness from Others
We have discussed at some length the need to forgive those who have sinned against us, but we need to also explore the need to seek forgiveness from others. We cant go through life without failing in many ways. James reminds us, We all stumble in many ways (3:2). We all know that it is possible to sin against God for He is the great Lawgiver, the One to whom we are accountable in every way. But when we sin against a brother or sister in Christ, we also sin against our fellow-Christian. Paul writes, By sinning against the brethren . . . you sin against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:12). This shows how serious it is to sin against a fellow-member of the body of Christ. It must also be true that when we sin against an unsaved person, we sin against God since He made the sinner also.
Think of the many people with whom you have contact. There may be a father or mother, a son or daughter, a brother or sister. Then there are uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces. There are neighbors and friends. There are people with whom you work or serve. The more you think, the more you realize that we have contact with many different people, probably every day.
Now think of the many ways that it is possible to sin against another person:
1. You may speak about a person in cruel and disrespectful way.
2. You may lie to him.
3. You may speak to him with anger.
4. You may steal something from him.
5. You may not honor your commitments to him.
6. You may not return something you borrowed from him.
7. You may not do to the person what you would want him to do for you.
8. You may not love the person.
9. You may not give what the person needs that you can fill.
10. You may not share the good news of Christ with him.
11. You may not share the Word of God with him.
In a family setting, the possibilities are seemingly endless. If you are a husband, do you sin against your wife by failing to love her (Ephesians 5:25), or by being bitter toward her (Colossians 3:19)? If you are a wife, do you sin against your husband by failing to submit to him (Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:22-24), or by disrespecting him (Ephesians 5:33; 1 Peter 3:2)? If you are a son or daughter, do you sin against your parents by refusing to obey them (Colossians 3:20) or failing to honor them (Ephesians 6:1-3)? If you are a parent, do you sin against your children by failing to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4), or not teaching them the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15-17), or loving them (Titus 2:4)? In so many ways, we can sin against those who are part of our physical families.
How Can We Seek Forgiveness?
As we earlier noticed, it can be a particular challenge to forgive someone who has sinned against us, but what about the reverse of this? How can we seek forgiveness from others? This also can be a challenge and it will require great humility on your part. Peter shows the importance of this humility: All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5).
The body of Christ should be a confessing community. James gives this instruction: Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed (5:16). Just as we are to love one another, edify one another, pray for one another, and help one another, so we are to confess our sins to one another. This is a way of life. We should be conscious of sin and should be willing to humble ourselves before others whom we have offended.
Jesus gives some instruction on how to seek forgiveness. In the context of the Jewish system, the Lord says: If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering (Matthew 56:23-24). This shows that it is a greater priority to seek forgiveness and reconciliation than it is to worship God! Unless we do what we can to gain forgiveness, how can we approach God in prayer or praise?
In order for us to nurture the kind of mutual confession in the body of Christ that we should have, become more sensitive to sin. Understand what sin is. Understand the forms of sin, the ways sin may be manifested, and how it is possible to sin against another. Understand the meaning of love and how love will keep us from hurting another person. Paul says, If because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died (Romans 14:15). Too often we hurt another person and this can lead to his destruction. Be willing to restrain your liberty to do certain things or go certain places, so that you might not sin against a brother.
We know that it is possible to carry this principle too far. Some people are sensitiveactually hypersensitiveand nearly everything can be interpreted as an offense against them. It is hard to speak to them, or relate to them, or have meaningful fellowship with them, for so many things offend them. This situation makes a relationship very difficult. In fact, it may be nearly impossible to keep from offending an extremely sensitive person. But let us do all we can to avoid offense. If we truly love, we will be able to avoid much of this. We are not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brothers way (Romans 14:13).
How Can We Confess our Sins?
Although the details are not given, it would be wise to make a simple confession of sin to the offended person. Simply identify the nature of the offense against the other person, the way it may have grieved the person, and then sincerely ask for the persons forgiveness. The prodigal in Jesus parable did something like this. As he determined to return to his home and father, he planned to say to the offended father: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men (Luke 15:18-19, 21). The son said that he had sinned against both God and the father. Although this definitely is an abbreviated account and the actual picture may have been much more involved than this, we can see that a verbal confession is needed. A letter may also be used in certain circumstances, just as a phone call could be used. These may need to suffice, particularly if the person is living a long distance away.
Someone may realize that he has sinned against another person, but he also knows that the other person has sinned against him. This is a particularly difficult situation. Probably the best course is to only mention your own sin in such a meeting of confession. One could bring up the other persons sin at another time (see Matthew 18:15-20). But focus on your own sin for this is your immediate priority. Resist the temptation to cast blame on the other person, even if such blame rightly is there. Just be willing to humbly go to the offended (sinned against) person, explain the reason for your call or visit, describe the nature of your offense or sin (without casting blame), and sincerely ask the person to forgive you.
Although this can be a difficult experience, it can be done with the help and grace of God. There may be different results:
- The offended person may be relieved because you came and full reconciliation may occur.
- The person may be reluctant to forgive, for he may want to see if you make restitution for the offense.
- The person may want to see if you do have a different attitudea humble, submissive, and gracious spirit.
- The person may especially wait to see if you recognize how much your sin has grieved him.
- The person may confess his own part in the offense and he may ask you to forgive him as well.
Some years ago, after receiving teaching dealing with the need to forgive and seek forgiveness, I contacted a number of different people, including family members, and asked them to forgive me for any offenses of the past. They were all willing to grant such forgiveness and this definitely was a freeing experience! Even earlier than this experience, I was living in a distant state from where I was raised. One night I called a number of people on the phone and confessed to various attitudes from years gone by. They also all forgave me.
Although you may hope that the other person will be willing to use the occasion to ask you to forgive him as well, this often will not occur. Generally, it hasnt occurred in my experience, but we can hope and pray that it does occur. You may also be concerned about a certain offense of the past and you may want to seek forgiveness in order to please God and also to clear your conscience. Yet you realize that the offense was perhaps only 10 percent your fault and as much as 90 percent the other persons fault. It is probably better to concentrate in your own fault for this is your responsibility. The other person must work out his own guilt and be willing to humble himself just as you are willing to do. But determine to get right with God yourself, by making things right with the other person.
In many offenses, you may need to make restitution. When Zaccheus came to the Lord for salvation, he said, Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much (Luke 19:8). If you have stolen $100 from a person, when you return to that person and make confession, be willing to give the person the stolen amountand maybe even an additional amount. If you have shoplifted a product from a store, be willing to take the item or purchase price back to the owner, along with any additional amount needed. Do whatever is needed and be willing to make an honest restitution as an evidence of your sincere repentance. John the baptizer said, Bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8). Paul also said that people should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance (Acts 26:20). Let your repentance be seen in your willingness to make restitution for your misdeeds against another person. Without this, your confession will be empty and hypocritical.
Forgiveness is Needed
We have seen how important it is that we forgive those who have sinned against us. It may be true that most people are not interested in rectifying their past wrongs, but at least be willing to plead with them to make confession. Be willing to humble yourself and forgive them, regardless of the cost. On the other hand, if you have sinned against another person, be willing to make a full and honest confession to that person. In both the granting and receiving of forgiveness, pray for God to work a humble and contrite heart in you. Renounce all pride and self-sufficiency. Walk humbly with God. Take sin seriously and do what you can to grant forgiveness and seek forgiveness.