Forgiveness might be one of the most significant concepts in relationships. It also might be the most misunderstood.
First, we cannot discuss forgiveness if we depart from the basis of forgiveness with God: the death of Christ. Christ’s blood has satisfied the justice of God, having broken down the walls between God and us. Paul the apostle applies this in Ephesians 2:13-15 where he explains this means in Christ there is no barrier between us. What is important to note is the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13b) is the same basis of forgiveness between believers. When I was brought near to God through Christ, I was also brought near to all others who were previously brought near to God through Christ; Paul highlights this in Ephesians 4:32.
But what is the nature of forgiveness? It is the actual wiping away of our sins so that they no longer testify against us. It is two-fold: event and process.
Event: asking and granting forgiveness on the basis of someone else’s work
Process: remembering and living in that event in the strength of someone else’s work
When are the “events” of forgiveness between God and us? When I first repent and believe in Him and each time I repent and believe (: 1 John 1:9) What is the “process” of forgiveness for God and us? He chooses to remember the blood of Christ on our behalf instead of our sins and we continue to repent when we sin. Why does God keep doing this? Because our forgiveness is not founded on our perfections but Christ’s; we have Christ’s perfection counted to us rather than our imperfections counted to us.
When we consider these things between men and women in the faith, it is functionally no different. For the Christian, forgiveness is always a possibility. We sometimes act as if what someone has done against us is so serious that it is beyond forgiveness. There may be genuine and horrific sin against you but the Scripture tells us that it is not unforgivable. When are we typically unforgiving people? In three cases: a) when we forget what God has done in forgiving us (Matthew 18:23-33); b) when we belittle our own transgressions against God and, c) when we forget just what had to happen so that we could live as free-people. For the Christian, forgiveness is also a duty. As we will see from passages like Luke 17:3-5 and Ephesians 4:32, we must choose forgiveness. God clearly holds us to forgive even so that we might be forgiven:
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37)
We may overlook offenses or we may only ever be able to adopt a disposition of forgiveness due to an unrepentant sinner, but these at least we must do.
For the Christian, forgiveness is a gift. One of the two principal words for forgiveness in the Old Testament has as its core idea, “to lighten by lifting.” We will discuss the nature of sin as incurring a debt. Many know what it is like to carry debts: houses, cars, credit cards, etc., none of these is desirable and we long for a time when we are debt-free.
Forgiveness is the means that God has ordained that we would experience relationships debt-free. In other words, through forgiveness we may have closeness, openness and safety that we would not have without it.
Forgiveness is not.
We often persist in sinful un-forgiveness because we don’t know what it means! Or we have a view of it that makes forgiving too hard. In the Bible, forgiveness is not a feeling. Therefore it isn’t only required when someone has recovered a sense of affection or good will towards a sinner (how easy would that be?). Instead, it is an act of the will after all God commands us to do so. Forgiveness is not passive. As we said above, to forgive involves someone sinned against canceling a live debt that he is owed. It involves both the sinner and the one sinned against to think-speak-act. It is also not forgetting. Forgetting is passive and is never guaranteed. We cannot think that until we have forgotten we have forgiven or that if we’ve forgotten we’ve forgiven. It is not excusing. As we will see, forgiveness is transactional and so it automatically assumes a wrong done for it to be valid. Sin creates debts that we as humans instinctively recognize (cf. Romans 2:14-15). We also recognize that as we sin against others we are saddled with a deepening burden for that debt over time.
Forgiveness does not allow this as it doesn’t automatically release a wrongdoer of the consequences. Consequences are often our teachers that instruct us and keep us from repeating sins against God and other people. Forgiveness takes the reality of sin into account and sets us on this path of learning (cf. Numbers 14:20-23 and 2 Samuel 12:11-14).
As a process, it is keeping no active record.
Jeremiah 31:34b: “…For I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.”
Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins.
Psalm 103:11-12: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Psalm 130:3-4: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”
1 Corinthians 13:5: “…[love] does not take into account a wrong suffered” (NASB)
Forgiveness is canceling debts people owe you. When people sin, they create a debt; they owe you. Ken Sande writes that to forgive is, “To release from liability to suffer penalty or punishment and to bestow favor freely and unconditionally.” How did the Matthew 18 parable depict this? First, Jesus equates sin (18:15, “if your brother sins…”) with debts (18:23, “settle accounts with his servant”). Secondly, Jesus equates forgiveness (Luke 17:3, “…and if he repents, forgive him”) with exacting payment (18:24-25, “one [servant] was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay…”). Sin creates a debt while forgiveness cancels the debt. In other words, forgiveness means that someone has done a wrong against you and they owe you / deserve punishment but you give up your right to recoup what they owe / punish them.
Forgiveness is costly. Sin-debts are real: they violate the covenants between people. Sin-debts are specific: those violations are never vague as they transgress real boundaries (see the Ten Commandments for example). Sin-debts are costly: they weigh on both parties. And sin-debts have lingering effects. Forgiveness minimizes none of these things.
Forgiveness is hard work: Matthew 18:22. What must’ve the disciples thought when Jesus answered the way He did?
[Isn’t there a limit! That’s too much!]
There is a distinct process in forgiveness written in many places. Luke 17:3-5 provides a condensed and effective summary. First, forgiveness is an event that involves a confrontation: 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; if he repents, forgive him.” In order to bring about forgiveness, there must be a confrontation. It must either be initiated by the one sinned against as in this case (cf. Matthew 18:15) or by the one who committed the sin (Matthew 5:23-24). So, who has the burden of forgiveness? The sinner and the saint.
Still, Jesus highlights that it is also a process: 17:4, “and if he sins against you seven times in the day and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent’ you must forgive him.” Someone who commits sin and repents must be forgiven. Lane and Tripp say, “The principle [of Luke 17:5] applies to countless offenses and even the same endlessly repeated offense. We’re tempted to think that once we have forgiven someone we’re done. But forgiving someone is not just a past event. It’s something we must continue to practice even when we’re dealing with an offense we have already forgiven.” In other words, the process of forgiveness is on-going or willful. Or acts of our conscious choice each time we have the opportunity or the need. Remember that God holds our sins against us no more when He forgives. He certainly remembers, but chooses not to act on a past, forgiven incident. It is a canceled debt.
- Would it make sense if a bank, whose debt you paid off, came to you and wanted to keep talking about the debt you used to owe?
When we say, “I forgive you,” we are pledging ourselves to this process where we actively say to each other:
I will not think about this incident anymore;
I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you;
I will not talk to others about this incident;
I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.
For each incident “I forgive you” means an affirmative answer to each of these questions about the incident. No one should suggest forgiveness is easy. In order to absorb the wrongs done, God will have to strengthen the offended party. Forgiveness in the strength of self-will lasts a very short time, if at all. Each offense contains painful detail, a decision to absorb them, a looking past the urge to punish and a commitment to treat the offender almost as if he never did them! Who is up to this task?!
Language in forgiveness is very important. What is the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me”? Usually, “I’m sorry” involves accidents while “Please forgive me” addresses sins committed. “I’m sorry” is sometimes very unrepentant; merely “I’m sorry I got caught” or “I’m sorry your such a wimp and you can’t handle this,” etc. “Please forgive me for…” makes no mistaking that a debt settlement is underway!
Jay Adams says, “Seeking forgiveness is not apologizing. There is nothing in the Bible about apologizing…[it is] the world’s substitute for forgiveness that doesn’t get the job done. You apologize, and say “I’m sorry” but have not admitted your sin. The offended party feels awkward, not knowing how to respond. You are still holding the ball. You have asked him to do nothing.”
The nature of sin is to create a debt, something objective. The nature of forgiveness is to forgive that debt in detail. Repentance and forgiveness must carry specificity in the language. When we confront an offense, we must be specific. We must be able to point to specific violations of God’s law (not preferences, remember?). So, be specific:
“I believe you have sinned against me by your coarse language”
“I believe you have sinned against me by not leading our family and asking me to do so”
You see that to use this language does two things: a) points out a biblical wrong has been done – this isn’t just a preference that’s been violated and, b) it calls the offender to action.
The response mirrors the confrontation:
“Please forgive me for using coarse language and treating you as if you aren’t truly valuable to me”
“Please forgive me for failing to lead our family”
You see that to respond in this language admits to both points above: a) a sin’s been committed and, b) action is being taken.
An unrepentant sinner may not keep us from forgiveness. Mark 11:25 says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (see also Luke 6:28 and Acts 7:60). God calls us to an attitude of forgiveness towards those who sin against us. We may have to hold onto an attitude of forgiveness until the offender repents. The attitude of forgiveness will transition into actual forgiveness when a sinner repents and asks for forgiveness. However, this may never happen. To fail to have an attitude of forgiveness violates Mark 11:25 and will inevitably lead to bitterness (Ephesians 4:31; Hebrews 12:15).