There’s nothing better than being forgiven – that sense of relief when someone overlooks your hurtful words, or covers the cost of a breakage themselves, or gives you a hug after you’ve been unkind. Forgiveness is like the sun coming out through the clouds after a dark storm. Forgiveness, though, is not just something to be enjoyed. For the Christian, forgiveness is something to be understood, appreciated and expressed. It is a significant biblical doctrine and an essential virtue with real warnings for us if it is absent from our lives. The chances are that this is an area you (and I) can grow in, so read on for more.
The Bible doesn’t give us a textbook definition and explanation of forgiveness. Instead, it teaches about it clearly through various prayers, psalms, historical events and parables. Essentially, forgiveness involves the cancelling of punishment and the expression of kindness. When Joseph forgave his brothers in Genesis he did not pay them back for all the wrongs they did to him (Gen 50:15); instead he provided for them, “reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:21). He cancelled their punishment and showed them (and their children) kindness.
In his prayer at the dedication of the temple, Solomon asked God to forgive the people when they sinned so that he might cancel their punishment and show them kindness in the form of rain, freedom or the restoration of land (1 Kings 8:22-52). The same aspects of the cancellation of punishment and the expression of kindness can be found in other parts of the Bible such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) or the testimony of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:12-17:
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
It’s important to grasp that forgiveness is costly to the forgiver. Offence and hurt is not simply shrugged off as if it is nothing. The aggrieved father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son gave up his rights, honour and pride to welcome back his son. God the Father gave up his son to secure our redemption and forgiveness of sin (Eph 1:7). Each of us, if facing the question of whether to forgive someone, instinctively feel what we might lose if we do so. Our loss could be things like pride, righteous indignation, relational superiority, or even something too hard to put into words, and thus we hesitate to forgive. There’s no doubt that forgiveness is costly.
That’s probably enough about the basics of forgiveness; let’s get into some points of application gathered under three headings: “We have been forgiven”, “We must forgive others” and “Forgiveness must shape our community”.
We have been forgiven
As Christians, a key part of our identity is that we have been forgiven. Psalm 32:1-2 says:
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
This blessing is something we know and love as Christians. God has blessed us with “every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3) including the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7). Using the terms explained above, God has cancelled our punishment and now shows us kindness.
Forgiveness, though, is not a once off event like, say, regeneration. As we continue to sin we continue to ask God for forgiveness. There is a brilliant promise in 1 John 1:8-9:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us all our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Confession and the receiving of forgiveness is best seen as a regular habit like brushing our teeth or washing our clothes. In fact, in my prayer diary I have a line on my daily page labelled ‘confession’. It’s there on the (safe) assumption that I have sinned in some way in the last 24 hours and should be coming to God about it. But also I should probably grow more in being quick to confess and ask for forgiveness at any hour of the day when I sin (and am aware of it). So forgiveness is not a once off thing. Forgiveness is something we ask for and receive from God every day of our lives.
A final point under this heading of “We have been forgiven” is that our understanding of our own forgiveness has a direct relationship with our love for Jesus. If we doubt (consciously or subconsciously) whether we have much need of forgiveness our appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice will be small. Correspondingly, our love for Jesus will also be small. There will be little joy in our Christian life and things like Bible reading, giving, and singing in church will feel tiresome.
In contrast, when we grasp God’s forgiveness for us, we will have a great and growing love for Jesus. This is explained powerfully in Luke 7:36-50 in the account of Jesus being anointed by a woman in the home of a Pharisee (a passage worth meditating on deeply). Jesus concludes his rebuke of the Pharisee with these words in verse 47:
“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little”.
The great love of the woman testifies to her appreciation of the forgiveness of her sins. Jesus challenges the Pharisee (and us) about our love for him and our grasp of our own forgiveness. To put it simply, the more we appreciate how much we’ve been forgiven, the more we will love Jesus.
We must forgive others
The second big application is that because of what God has done for us we must forgive others. There’s really no way around this. Although we are saved by God’s grace and mercy and not by our own good works (Titus 3:5) we must forgive others. It may not be easy or quick but God does call us to cancel punishment and show kindness to those who have offended us (not withstanding certain situations such as when it might be unsafe or the offender has died). Forgiveness is not optional for the Christian. In fact, withholding it from others puts our own status as forgiven children in danger.
We see this repeatedly in the teaching of Jesus, for example, in the Lord’s prayer:
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Two verses on, Jesus explains the connection very clearly:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.”
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (verse 35).
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving…” (2 Tim 3:1-3a)
Now again it’s worth stressing that forgiveness of others is not a work that earns for us God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is freely granted, and our forgiveness is nearly always partial, imperfect or ‘a work in progress’. But it does not make sense for us to be selective about forgiveness, i.e. “let it be for me but not others”. Being a Christian is about being a “forgiveness person”. Forgiveness is what we love. Therefore, withholding forgiveness from others puts our own forgiveness at risk.
In practice, how it looks to cancel punishment and show kindness will look different in case to case. It might mean stopping hating the person, not bringing up their fault ever again and no longer criticising them to others. Kindness might mean genuinely praying for their good and speaking gently and warmly with them. Perhaps our pastors can help if we’re not sure.
Now for some of us forgiveness might seem like an impossible task. As we saw before, forgiveness is costly. The world is a dark and evil place and humans have done unspeakable things to each other. So for some of us the cost might feel too great.
Yet the call for us to forgive remains in Scripture. On this point we must remind ourselves that God knows us and our stories better even than we do. We must remind ourselves that despite our suffering, God is a good God and his word (including his teaching on forgiveness) is good and what we need to hear. One of my Bible college lecturers, Mark Baddeley, has written an excellent series of posts on this topic called “Forgiveness and Repentance”. These are well worth reading, especially in considering more complex issues.*
Forgiveness must shape our community
Lastly, forgiveness must shape our community. Forgiveness is not just an individual activity that we pursue alone, it’s something that should be a feature of our whole church community. Our heavenly father is “forgiving and good” (Psalm 86:5) so it’s right that his people should be like him in this way.
When Paul gives a series of instructions to the church in Ephesus he says:
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
And similarly, to the Colossians, he writes:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3:12-14).
We see from these passages that forgiveness should shape our community. Forgiveness is the opposite of bitterness and is an expression of love. For the church community, forgiveness is a like the oil in a car’s engine – always necessary so that the whole thing keeps moving. If it leaks out everything seizes up and the car breaks down. If it’s kept topped up and fresh the car can go along fine.
This communal feature of forgiveness also has a missional aspect. Our forgiveness (as an expression of love) testifies to the world about our relationship with Jesus. Being a forgiving community makes us stand out in the world. Jesus told his disciples:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
We’ve covered a lot in this post about forgiveness! Forgiveness is about cancelling a punishment and showing kindness (at a cost). It is something that we have received from God because of Jesus and his sacrifice. It is something we need to pass on to others and it must shape our community.
This topic may be straightforward for you – perhaps you’ve got a few things to bring to God or you might need a small “course correction” in your Christian life. Or the topic might be very raw and painful. Either way it would be good to pray to God now: giving thanks for his forgiveness and asking for help in forgiving others. Please do speak with your Growth Group leader or pastors for help if this is a particularly tough area for you.
A good place to finish is another great verse from the Bible, this time from Micah:
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).