by John Rysdyk
The scene is a classic. Dirty Harry, the cop, has finally come face to face with the vile criminal whose crimes are unspeakably evil. With a gun aimed point blank at the pervert, he dares the man to make one false move by saying, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Vengeance is glorified as a macho virtue.
Who has not enjoyed thoughts of vengeance? We so often tilt the scales in favor of what we deem to be justice, feeling somehow that it is our privilege, even our duty, to see that the guilty party suffers for the wrong they’ve done. To some degree, that is correct. God is a God of justice. In Exodus 23:7 He said, “I will not acquit the guilty.” In Nahum 1:3 we are promised that “the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” And the New Testament reinforces the concept that “whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7) because “God’s wrath is revealed…against all ungodliness.” So if the proverb is true that it is an abomination to “justify a sinner” (Proverbs 17:15), how does forgiveness fit in?
Romans 4:5, 7- 8 clearly states that God does justify sinners. His forgiveness is not contrary to His justice for one simple reason: Christ atoned for our sins. God’s holy demand for justice was satisfied through the shedding of Christ’s blood, his death on the cross (Romans 3:24-26) on our behalf. Because of Christ’s “payment,” God forgives our sin debt. This is the supreme example of forgiveness. In fact, we are commanded to forgive “just as God in Christ also has forgiven” us (Ephesians 4:32).
Why is it necessary for us to understand forgiveness? As anyone with counseling experience will confirm, most people who come for counseling fall into one of two categories. Either they are suffering from guilt and need to learn about God’s forgiveness, or they are blaming others for something not right in their own lives and they need to learn how to forgive.
The Importance of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is important for a number of reasons. First, it is at the very heart of the gospel message. God forgave us! --Such a simple statement, yet so profound. Were we deserving of His forgiveness? No. Did we earn our way into His favor? No. Yet He chose to forgive, having provided us with the redemption of Christ. Without God’s forgiveness we are all hopelessly lost. As foreign as forgiveness is to sinful human nature, it is characteristic of divine grace.
The second reason forgiveness is important is that it is taught in Scripture. Ephesians 4:32 strongly commands that believers be forgiving because they are to reflect the character of God. To refuse forgiveness, therefore, is an act of direct disobedience, a vile sin. Christ himself emphasized the importance of forgiveness when He referred to it in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:12), then reinforced it immediately after the “amen” (verses 14-15). His closing argument here is powerful and pointed, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This is a severe discipline for being unforgiving.
Christ later described both a supreme act of forgiveness and an appalling example of unforgiveness in His parable recorded in Matthew 18:23-34. A servant was brought before a king who was found to owe the king “10,000 talents,” a number commonly used to refer to an infinite number. Given the immensity of the debt, the servant’s situation was obviously hopeless. Yet the king showed mercy and completely forgave the debt, even though a debt that large had most likely been accumulated through embezzlement, theft, or some other criminal means. The mercy shown to this servant should have made him more merciful, but instead he displayed a grotesque lack of gratitude when he refused to show mercy on one who owed him a much smaller amount of money. What arrogance to assume he had the right to extract vengeance in the same situation where the very king had shown him mercy!
Likewise, the contrast between our debt to God and the relatively miniscule debts others may owe us is immeasurable, yet we often strut around like the wicked servant, demanding payment. We are, in effect, saying, “It was fine for God to forgive me, but I reserve the right to refuse forgiving someone if I so choose.” We are then in the dangerous position of placing ourselves above the King. There is a sad and sobering conclusion to this parable. When the master is made aware of the servant’s hypocrisy and callous lack of forgiveness, he angrily orders him to be severely punished--tortured for his evil deeds. Then comes Christ’s application: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (verse 35). Christians ought to be the most forgiving people on earth because they have been forgiven as no one else has. Therefore, those who refuse to forgive are worthy of the most severe kind of discipline from the hand of a loving Father.[i]
The third reason forgiveness is important is that it is necessary for our own personal healing and well being. Refusal to forgive ruins relationships with God and with others. It embitters a person and can even result in physical and emotional health problems. David Augsburger described the prison of bitterness in this manner:
“Bitterness slowly sets, like a permanent plaster cast, perhaps protecting the wearer from further pain, but ultimately holding him rigid in frozen animation. His feelings and responses have turned to concrete, and, like concrete, they’re all mixed up and firmly set. Bitterness is paralysis…bitterness cuts the nerve to our emotion.” [ii]
Being bitter can make people feel justified in blaming others, even God, for offenses. Early in history Adam blamed both Eve and God for his own transgression (Genesis 3:12). That surely seemed easier than accepting blame for the way things were. Bitterness springs from self-centeredness. A true understanding of biblical forgiveness can free someone from bitterness and restore broken relationships.
The Meaning of Forgiveness
For many years I’ve encouraged Christians to forgive others without really explaining to them what that actually means. In my estimation, a simple reference to Colossians 3:13, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” was all that was necessary. Yet, as I’ve continued to counsel, it has become quite apparent that people have attributed various nuances of meaning to this Christian grace. So what is forgiveness, anyway?
Maybe to begin with, it would be helpful to explain what forgiveness is not. First of all, it is not a feeling. There is nothing in the Bible about “feelings of forgiveness” or “having forgiving feelings” toward one another. [iii] Regardless of how I feel, God expects me to forgive. For many in our feeling-oriented society, it is difficult to reconcile how forgiveness can be sincere if a person doesn’t feel like granting it. To them, such a prospect seems hypocritical. However, the truth is that many of us do things each day that are contrary to our feelings in order to be responsible. For instance, I get up every morning--against my best instincts to stay in bed--so that I can go to work, but I don’t view that as hypocritical. It is simply what God expects of me since I am to be the provider of the home. In much the same way, there may be times, humanly speaking, that I would rather withhold forgiveness, for instance, should someone commit an injustice against my wife or children, but if that person should repent, God requires me to forgive, no matter how I feel. It is my responsibility. The only way it becomes hypocritical is if I say, “I forgive,” but in reality I do not.
Secondly, forgiveness is not forgetting, no matter what the old adage may allege. Like it or not, it is very difficult to purge your memory of a transgression committed against you, either directly or indirectly. In fact, the more grievous the offense, the harder it is to let it go. Yet, because there are Scriptures that declare that when God forgives, He also promises not to remember our sins any longer (Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17), there have been many who have wrongly asserted that God has a perfect “forgetter.” “But to forget something, though, is to have no memory of it. Obviously, God, who is omniscient, has not lost His memory of our transgressions. Rather, He refuses to call them to mind. He promises not to bring them up.” [iv] Warren Wiersbe tells the story of the late Dr. William Sangster, one of England’s most effective Methodist preachers.
“He was addressing Christmas cards, and a house guest was shocked to see an envelope addressed to a man who had brutally attacked Sangster eighteen months before.
‘Surely you are not sending a greeting to him,’ the man said.
‘Why not?’ asked Sangster.
‘But you remember,’ the guest began. ‘Eighteen months ago…’
Sangster recalled the thing the man had done to him, but he also recalled that at the time, he had resolved to put it out of his mind. ‘It was a thing I would remember to forget,’ he said; and he did.” [v]
In essence, Dr. Sangster was expressing that he was not going to allow this offense to affect his relationship with this man by holding it against him. He willfully made a choice to bury the past and not to go back and dig it up at any point. In so doing, he forgave as God forgave him.
This is a perfect place to turn our thoughts to what forgiveness is. There are primarily two words used in the New Testament to describe this virtue. The first is the Greek word, aphiemi. It means, “to let go, release or remit.” It often refers to debts or sins that have been paid for in full and as a result, cancelled. The other word frequently used to describe the act of forgiveness is charizomai. It means, “to bestow a favor unconditionally,” which implies that forgiveness cannot be earned. Therefore, forgiveness is an undeserved action that releases an individual of his or her debt for sin. It is cancelled, never to be mentioned by God again. From a divine perspective, it is a promise from God that our sin has been dispensed of, once for all, and He will no longer hold it against us. W. E. Vine wrote, “Human forgiveness is to be strictly analogous to divine forgiveness.”[vi] Paul put it this way in Ephesians 4:32: We are to forgive one another just as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us. Therefore, following in God’s footsteps, when we forgive, we are to let go of the offense and promise to remember it no longer. Ken Sande, in his book, The Peacemaker, characterizes this as a fourfold promise:
By making each of these promises, we open the door to reconciliation, peace, and unity.
The Parameters of Forgiveness
Once a clear understanding of forgiveness is discerned, one might ask, “Is it ever appropriate to withhold forgiveness from someone?” In other words, is forgiveness conditional? There is some debate over this matter. Jay Adams wrote,
“It should go without saying that since our forgiveness is modeled after God’s, it must be conditional. Forgiveness by God rests on clear, unmistakable conditions. The apostles did not merely announce that God had forgiven men, …they were sent forth to preach ‘repentance and the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 24:47; Acts 17:30).” [viii]
W. E. Vine adds, “If certain conditions are fulfilled, there is no limitation to Christ’s law of forgiveness (Matthew 18:21,22). The conditions are repentance and confession (Matthew 18:15-17; Luke 17:3).” [ix] By contrast, David Augsburger wrote, “Christ’s way was the way of giving forgiveness even before asked, and even when it was not or never would be asked for by another.” [x] As evidence for this astounding statement, he cites Christ’s prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Augsburger continues, “To think that we needn’t forgive until we are asked is a myth to be punctured!” [xi] Em Griffin wrote, “My conclusion is that it’s possible to forgive an unrepentant offender. Not easy, but possible. If it weren’t, we’d be condemned to tote around a gunnysack of bitterness.” [xii] He offers no biblical grounds for his statement; only life experience.
Ken Sande, taking a more neutral position, maintains that “ideally, repentance should precede forgiveness” and he cited Luke 17:3. [xiii] John MacArthur wrote, “It is obvious from Scripture that sometimes forgiveness must be conditional (Luke 17:3; Matthew 18:15-17).” [xiv] Yet he goes on to say that there are also times when “forgiveness is to be granted unconditionally.” [xv] To defend this statement he uses Mark 11:25-26, asserting that this passage describes “an immediate forgiveness granted to the offender with no formal meeting or transaction required.” [xvi]
In an attempt to sort out this dilemma, let’s begin by considering Augsburger’s use of Luke 23:34 since it is the verse commonly cited by those who propose an unconditional forgiveness position. If Jesus did unconditionally forgive those who crucified Him, then why did Peter, on the day of Pentecost, implicate those Jews for this very sin and encourage them to repent so that they could receive forgiveness? It seems quite evident that Jesus’ saying from the cross was not a declaration of forgiveness, but a prayer; a prayer that the Father would answer through the bold preaching of Peter and the apostles. The same is true of Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” On this basis alone, Augsburger’s proposition loses validity. However, even though Augsburger’s use of Luke 23:24 is faulty, I am not convinced his position is totally wrong.
In fact, in contemplating the arguments on both sides, it appears the two groups come to comparable points of view in the end. Although each author seeks to specify in detail the uniqueness of his conviction, I believe that when everything is boiled down, the difference is largely just a matter of semantics. Each author would probably agree with Ken Sande’s statement that the ideal scenario would be for repentance to precede forgiveness. Yet it is also quite clear that each would agree that there are minor offenses that can and should be overlooked in an attitude of love, for “love covers over a multitude of sins”
(1 Peter 4:8).” This is where the semantic game is played. Although Jay Adams plainly acknowledges this principle of love, he quickly adds that it is not forgiveness. He therefore makes a distinction between covering another’s transgression and forgiveness. Unfortunately, as John MacArthur points out, “The Bible itself makes no such distinction.” [xvii] In fact, Psalm 32:1 and Psalm 85:2 clearly equate these two concepts through the use of Hebrew parallelism:
“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven,
Whose sins are covered.”
“You forgave the iniquity of your people
And covered all their sins.”
Since this is true, one must conclude that unconditional and unilateral (one-sided) forgiveness is acceptable and even preferable when it comes to minor offenses. Obviously, from a practical perspective, if married couples or friends saw it as their responsibility to confront and seek repentance for every offense, the relationships would soon be too much to endure.
The question, then, is, “When should confrontation and repentance be required? As a general rule, you should not overlook an offense if:
- You observe a serious offense that is hurting someone else. Scripture permits, even encourages us to overlook sins committed against us personally, but we are forbidden to ignore wrongs done to others (Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 16:20; Isaiah 59:15-16; Jeremiah 22:3).
- You observe that the offense is harmful to the offender. To confront someone who is hurting himself or herself is an expression of true Christian love when done in the proper spirit (Galatians 6:1-2).
- You observe that the offense dishonors God and may potentially damage the body of Christ. Some sins have a very far-reaching effect, harming the reputations of both God and His church (Hebrews 3:13; 1 Corinthians 5:1-6).
- You observe that the offense has damaged the relationship with another person. Reconciliation is the goal in such cases (Luke 17:3; Matthew 5:224; 2 Thessalonians 3:15).
It seems that the only time an offense can be overlooked is when you are the only one offended and you are willing to make the promises of forgiveness without a confrontation and without repentance from the other party. But in such a case, the decision to forgive must be as complete as if the other party had formally repented.
The Process of Forgiveness
The next question that must be answered is, “How do I forgive?” Forgiveness begins in the heart. Before we can outwardly forgive someone, we must first settle matters with our heavenly Father. Mark 11:25-26 addresses the attitude a believer must have when approaching God in prayer. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” In commenting on these verses, Jay Adams observes that
“Jesus is concerned about the attitude of the believer as he stands before God in prayer. If he is inwardly unwilling to forgive his brother or sister, he cannot expect forgiveness from the Father. Thus, preceding the promise (or granting) of forgiveness to another, one must prepare to lift that guilt so that the promise he makes, even if against his feelings, will be sincerely meant and kept.”[xviii]
If we are finding it difficult to forgive, there are some important concepts to keep in mind. First, the offender is a human soul, the highest unit of value in all of creation (Mark 8:36-37). Secondly, he or she is a human soul for whom Christ died (1 John 4:20). God valued that person enough to give the life of His own Son in exchange for that soul. Furthermore, this soul was meant to be a child of God. No man is too low to be an object of God’s love. No man is to be excluded from God’s forgiveness, except by his own unrepentance. No man can be considered worthless when Christ died for him. No man is unlovable; if God loves him, then God can love him through me. [xix] Ralf Luther put it this way, “To love one’s enemy does not mean to love the mire in which the pearl lies, but to love the pearl that lies in the mire.” [xx]
It is not possible to muster up love and forgiveness for your enemy by sheer willpower. It is a gift from God, which enables you to see the value of every man’s life and soul. Therefore, you need to pray that God will enable you to see past the offense. Ask God to clothe you with “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, [forbearance, and forgiveness]… in love” (Colossians 3:12-14).
It is essential to remember that we must renounce personal sin so that our relationship with God is not hindered (Psalm 66:18). This will include assessing any contribution we ourselves may have made to the problem as well as attitudes of bitterness or hatred.
Your prayer must also include praise. First of all, you must praise God for forgiving you. When we remember all God has done in forgiving us, it is easier to forgive others. We can also praise God for the situation itself, knowing that God will ultimately work all things out for our temporal and eternal benefit (Romans 8:28). After all, we are commanded to give thanks in all things (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Once the heart is prepared to forgive, the validity of that forgiveness will become evident when we confront the offender. Having forgiven him or her in our heart and mind, it is necessary to offer forgiveness in word and deed as well, if at all possible. When we approach an offender, we are cautioned to exercise gentleness and humility (Galatians 6:1-4). Confrontation is seldom pleasant, yet it can be the beginning of much needed healing. Ideally, it should result in the repentance of the guilty party. According to 1 John 1:9, God forgives us when we confess our sins. Likewise, we must forgive a brother or sister who repents of his or her sin. Now, it may not always be the case that the guilty party repents. We have no control over the actions of others—only our response to them. The focus of forgiveness in scripture is not so much the terms of forgiveness but rather the attitude of the forgiver (Matthew 6:12, 14-15; 18:35; James 2:13).
Once forgiveness is offered verbally, it can be reinforced by action. “Loving actions can do much more than change your feelings; they can also communicate in unmistakable terms the reality of your forgiveness and your commitment to reconciliation.” [xxi] And there is an added benefit. When you sincerely pray for someone, forgive them, and display acts of love toward them, inevitably you will find yourself experiencing a genuine Christ-like love for them.
One of the greatest contemporary examples of forgiving even when it was difficult is the story told by Corrie ten Boom.
“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S. S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendall the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
So I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on Him. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.” [xxii]
The Blessings of Forgiveness
The past is done. It cannot be changed. The meaning, however, can be altered. Forgiveness robs Satan of an opportunity to embitter saints, ruin the reputation of Christ, decay relationships and destroy lives. When a person chooses to be forgiving, many burdens are lifted. If the guilty party repents, he or she is relieved from the burden of guilt. But those who choose to forgive even someone who is unrepentant will find a freedom that will bring them peace: peace in their own hearts and minds, peace with others, and peace with God. As Charles Spurgeon so eloquently put it, “God does forgive sin for the sake of glorifying Christ. Christ took the shame so that He might magnify His Father, and now His Father delights to magnify Him by blotting out men’s sin.” We are commanded to forgive as God forgives, and what was His motivation? It can be summed up in three words: for Christ’s sake. If there is no other reason strong enough to give you the will to forgive, this phrase alone should be effective. “For Christ’s sake our love suffers long and never fails. Do it for His sake.” [xxiii]
[i] John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 1998), 111.
[ii] David Augsburger, The Freedom of Forgiveness (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 30-31.
[iii] Jay Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1994), 11.
[iv] MacArthur, Ibid., 189.
[v] Warren Wiersbe, On Being a Servant of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 136-137.
[vi] W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1981), 122.
[vii] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 164.
[viii] Adams, Ibid., 34.
[ix] Vine, Ibid.
[x] Augsburger, Ibid., 32.
[xii] Em Griffin, Making Friends (& Making Them Count) (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1987), 198.
[xiii] Sande, Ibid.
[xiv] MacArthur, Ibid., 119.
[xv] Ibid., 121.
[xviii] Adams, Ibid., 30.
[xix] Augsburger, Ibid., 25.
[xx] Ibid., 25-26.
[xxi] Sande, Ibid., 173.
[xxii] Corrie ten Boom, from her book, The Hiding Place (Bantam, 19974), p. 238, as quoted in The Peacemaker by Ken Sande, Ibid., 170.
[xxiii] C. H. Spurgeon, from his classic sermon Forgiveness Made Easy, as quoted by John MacArthur, Ibid., 227-228.