Christ came, “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God…” (Luke 1:76-78). The birth of Christ in Bethlehem was always about the death of Christ at Calvary. Therefore, forgiveness, which brings relational peace between God and man, is at the very heart of the gospel. However, forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for Christians to understand and to practice.
Christmas can be the best of times for us to bear witness to the gospel, but it can also be the worst of times. Extended families are thrown together into a relational slow cooker, which often simmers and then boils over in anger or impatience towards one another. Mercy goes out the window.
But forgiveness is the key to unity in the church, marriage and all relationships. So over the next two weeks we will (i) define what is forgiveness and (ii) what the practice of forgiveness looks like.
Christian counselor Tim Lane says,
“Until we die or Christ returns, we will have to practice forgiveness in our relationships with others. But words of forgiveness such as, ‘I was wrong. Will you forgive me?’ and ‘Yes, I forgive you’, are rare”.
We must practice it but first we must know what it is.
(i) What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness cancels a debt.
- In Matthew 18:21-35 and the parable of the unforgiving servant we see a man who is forgiven an irredeemable debt by his master. Where there is debt, someone must pay. Either the one who owes must pay back or the one who is owed must absorb the cost. If I break a vase in your house, either I pay or you let me off the debt and pay yourself.
- It is the same with forgiveness. Either the one who sinned must make amends, or the one who has been sinned against must bear the pain and cost. The sin cannot be ignored or minimized.
Forgiveness is an act of compassion and mercy.
- The master “out of pity” released him and forgave his debt (Matt. 18:27).
Forgiveness is a threefold promise.
- “I will not bring up this offense again or use it against you.” We raise the offense with the offender for reconciliation only, not vengeance.
- “I will not bring it up to others in gossip, or malign you because of it.” It is easy to slip into gossip when we keep re-telling the event to others and establishing blame again and again.
- “I will not bring it up to myself and dwell on this offense.” I won’t play the videotape of the offense over and over in my mind.
Failure to forgive turns victims into victimizers.
- We feel justified in our anger and take the place of God as divine judge, dishing out our own form of punishment. Like the unforgiving servant we forget the infinite debt God has forgiven us and we “choke” the one who owes us. We might lash out violently leading to murder, or we might murder them by treating them as if they were dead. We act as if the offender doesn’t exist, by giving them the silent treatment or by cutting off the relationship.
- A root of bitterness forms and this can grow and cause all kinds of pervasive evil, slander, divisiveness and so on (Heb.12:15).
Consistent failure to forgive has eternal consequences.
- The unforgiving servant went to Hell (Matt. 18:34).
- Consistent failure to forgive shows you are not forgiven (Matt. 6:15; cf. Matt. 5:7)
Forgiveness is both an event and an ongoing process. It is unlimited.
- “I forgive you” is one time. But it is also ongoing when I remember that offense. How many times? “Seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21-22).
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting.
- When God forgives our sins he does not forget them. God says in Jer. 31:34, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” But God is omniscient. The word “remember” here refers to “covenant”. In the new covenant, God promises not to treat us as our sins deserve but chooses to absorb the cost himself in the person and work of Christ our Lord and Savior.
- God will ultimately judge a person’s sin either on the cross or in Hell. You can forgive and mercifully confront sin and point a person to the gospel.
Forgiveness is not peace at all costs.
- Forgiving someone does not mean you become a doormat.
- Love is holy and demands appropriate confrontation, from individuals and in corporate church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20).
My notes are taken from “Forgiving Others: Joining Wisdom and Love” by Tim Lane (New Growth Press).