Free To Forgive





When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them.  (2 Corinthians 2:4)

“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.”  (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)


What are Paul and Jesus actually asking of Christians here? Is this forgive and forget? Do I have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do I have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Am I supposed to move on and act like nothing happened?  Let’s look to Scripture…

1) Jesus sets the standard for forgiveness. Paul wrote elsewhere,

“For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)

“ In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us…” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

We were all in in the dominion of darkness.  We have so much sin that we deserve death. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us.  We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness.

“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”– C.S. Lewis

How many times has my anger been inexcusable? My judgment, my lust, my greed, my harsh and cutting words, my failure to respect and honor my parents, my wife and my kids; my laziness, my pride? How many times have they been inexcusable? All of them. And yet I have repented, and God has forgiven – and the people around me have forgiven me over and over. Christians forgive the inexcusable, because Jesus has forgiven the inexcusable in us.

2) Forgiveness is mandatory.

“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)

As an idea, that sounds really good. I really want other people to get this.  But what if I was personally were the one damaged by sin? “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  C.S. Lewis

Peter once asked Jesus if forgiveness was to be offered seven times. The Jewish rabbis at the time taught that forgiving someone more than three times was unnecessary. Peter was suggesting more than double the mandated maximum. They would have been stunned by Jesus’ lavish answer of 70x7 (which was a very Jewish way of saying there is no end). They were used to a law that had limits, not a grace that did not.

Jesus followed that up with the  parable of the unforgiving servant. God has forgiven us an enormous debt; how ungrateful must we be if we don’t do the same for others?

If I may note the wisdom of this on a practical level: we will probably assume God and others forgive us in the same way we forgive others. If we forgive partially and reluctantly and keep score somewhere, that’s probably how we view the forgiveness of God and others. This is the advice of a loving Father: forgive as God forgives. Forgive fully and freely. It will help us understand the nature of God’s forgiveness.

3) Forgiveness is patiently anticipatory

The Parable of the Two Sons (or the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15 reminds us that it is God who will wake people up in the midst of their sin. We may be the instrument God uses, but we may not be also. And I can almost guarantee that people who sin against you won’t respond with your sense of timing.

We can be so quick to want people to repent NOW. Did you? Or did it take some time to really see and understand your sin? How long did people faithfully invest in you before, like the Prodigal Son, you “came to your senses” by the grace of God?

Meanwhile, the father was alertly watching and waiting for the return of his son. The father had not closed the gates and turned his back. He wanted his son to come home. His heart was for his son’s healing. In spite of the hurt and humiliation he had experienced, one of his greatest joys would be having his son come home.

He was eagerly anticipating the moment of restoration and the life that would follow. When the prodigal moved toward the father, the father moved toward him. I would find it easy to defend the father if he just sat on the porch and waited; maybe even had a servant tell the son that he was in the back 40 and the son would have to wait. Or not respond to the son’s email for weeks. None of this happened. The father was watching; he saw the son returning, and he ran to meet him.

Do we move with forgiveness toward those who are moving toward us with broken repentance? Or do we wait, passively at best and defiantly at worst? How many times do people around us make gestures of repentance that we ignore because we don’t think it’s enough?

When I was coaching, there was a parent who really didn’t like me.  He would write me letters several pages long chronicling all the ways I failed. He would glare at me all the time. He disinvited me from his son’s wedding. Then Braden decided that this man was the coolest guy in the room during basketball games, and would climb to the top of the bleachers to sit with him game after game (Braden was probably 3 or 4).  One night after a game this man was waiting for me. I braced myself. All he said was, “You and I have had our differences, but you must be doing something right as a father.” That was the most I was going to get. I took it. We’ve been good ever since.

Do we move toward that offer of connection? My wife and I have an unspoken “connector” when there is tension or distance between us. We have to sit on the couch together rather than on separate chairs (that’s step one), and then we have to have physical contact (that’s step two). That’s the peace offering: “I know things are not well. They will be okay. We will work this out.” And in those moments the one of us who feels most offended – and we take turns on this – has a choice: do I move toward the one who is moving toward me, or do I make them do all the work?

There’s an entirely different discussion to be had about not staying in damaging, manipulative cycles of abuse where the supposedly repentant people are manipulating people around them.  If you think that’s what’s happening, talk to someone you trust who has wisdom in this area. But generally speaking, I believe we are called to move toward those who move toward us.

4) Forgiveness does not delete our history; it covers our history. The Bible uses language of God’s forgiveness that at a quick glance appears to say that God forgets our sin.

  • “All their sins and iniquities I will remember no more.” (Hebrews 8:12)
  • “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)
  • “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

Every commentary I read noted that this is not literal amnesia. It’s the best human language we have to explain that God does not hold our sins against us when our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus.  Paul remembered his sins and wrote about them to churches. If God had forgotten, then Paul remembered something about history that God does not. If I pray and ask God for ongoing healing for my past forgiven sins, God is not confused by my request. He knows why I’m asking.  He just does not hold them against me.

Memory was not part of the fall. It’s one of the good gifts God has given us. We are meant to learn from our past successes and failures. It’s part of how we mature. 

  • We will never gain necessary wisdom if we forget what it was like to be in chains to sin. 
  • We will not appreciate the forgiveness God and others show us if we forget how much we gave them to forgive.
  • We will not be able to encourage others with our testimonies of God’s grace if we can’t remember why God showed us grace in the first place.

5) Forgiveness does not cancel ongoing accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and protection can go along with forgiveness. Charles Stanley wrote, “Forgiveness is relational; consequences are circumstantial.”

  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like.
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the Promised Land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.

Paul noted in Galatians 6 that we will always harvest what we plant. It’s a principle God has embedded in the world, and God will not be mocked.

  • If I steal your wallet, but return the wallet and ask for forgiveness, forgiveness should be granted. But are you going to leave your wallet out again when I am around?  Wisdom would suggest you keep your wallet close, at least until I have shown myself to be trustworthy.  
  • If I share a deep secret you told me in confidence, and I repent and ask you to forgive me, you should extend forgiveness. But you probably shouldn’t tell me a deep secret again until I have shown myself to be trustworthy.
  • If you hurt or offend your spouse or a friend, ask for forgiveness. But don’t become annoyed if they put up some boundaries so they don’t get hurt again.

Life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We have hurt people. Our actions have consequences. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture.The goal of forgiveness is to restore fellowship with God and others. Circumstantial consequences may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.  It might just mean those who forgive are also wise.

6) Forgiveness is worth celebrating.

The father of the Prodigal Son was overjoyed the son had returned. It was the legalistic brother who said, “How dare you celebrate the lost.” How easy is it for us to think that if we forgive too lavishly we are somehow overlooking or enabling or smoothing over whatever sin someone is leaving? The celebration doesn’t deny the past; the celebration revels in the present and the future. There are still consequences that will play out because God has made a world of cause and effect, but in that moment, and (if the parable continued) for many days to come, the father would celebrate, because his child who was lost has come home. 

This one is hard, especially if you are the one who has been wounded by someone else’s sin. Yet I think our reaction to other situations are instructive here. Don't we love that the Amish community forgave the shooter? Don’t we love the stories of parents who forgive their child’s killer? We applaud, as we should. We aren’t opposed to the principle. It’s just hard when it applies to us. This is the cross we take up; this is cost of discipleship; this is what God commands – and equips us to do.



“’Will I remember no more’ - This is evidently spoken after the manner of men, and in accordance with human apprehension. It cannot mean literally that God forgets that people are sinners, but it means that he treats them as if this were forgotten. Their sins are not charged upon them, and they are no more punished than if they had passed entirely out of the recollection. God treats them with just as much kindness, and regards them with as sincere affection, as if their sins ceased wholly to be remembered, or which is the same thing, as if they had never sinned.” – Matthew Henry, on Hebrews 8:12

“’And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more’; by which are meant all kind of sin, original and actual; sins before and after conversion; every sin but that against the Holy Ghost, and that God's covenant people are never guilty of; these God remembers no more; he casts them behind his back, and into the depths of the sea, so that when they are sought for, they shall not be found; God will never charge them with them, or punish them for them: this is another phrase to express the forgiveness of sins, and distinguishes the new covenant from the old one, or the former dispensation; in which, though there were many typical sacrifices, and a typical removal of sin, yet there was a remembrance of it every year.” Gill’s Exposition Of The Bible, on Hebrews 8:12

“’As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.’ God's mercy is the cause, the removal of sin the result. The two are commensurate, and are "described by the largest measures which the earth can afford." Pulpit Commentary, on Psalm 103:12

“’As far as the east is from the west’ - As far as possible; as far as we can imagine. These are the points in our apprehension most distant from each other, and as we can conceive nothing beyond them, so the meaning is, that we cannot imagine our sins could be more effectually removed than they are. “ Barne’s Notes On The Bible

“Christ engaged as a surety for his people; Jehovah the Father considered him as such; and therefore did not impute their sins to them, but to him; and when he sent him in the likeness of sinful flesh, he removed them from them, and laid them upon him; who voluntarily took them on himself, cheerfully bore them, and, by bearing them, removed the iniquity of the land in one day; and carried them away to the greatest distance, and even put them away for ever by the sacrifice of himself; and upon the satisfaction he gave to divine justice, the Lord removed them both from him and them; justified and acquitted him, and his people in him: and by this means so effectually, and so far, are their transgressions removed, that they shall never be seen any more, nor ever be imputed to them, nor be brought against them to their condemnation; in consequence of which, pardon is applied to them, and so sin is removed from their consciences, as before observed; see Leviticus 16:21.”  - Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible

“Our thoughts of God as the All knowing preclude the idea of any limitation of His knowledge, such as the words “I will remember no more” imply. What is meant is that He will be to him who repents and knows Him as indeed He is, in His essential righteousness and love, as men are to men when they “forget and forgive.” He will treat the past offences, even though their inevitable consequences may continue, as though they had never been, so far as they affect the communion of the soul with God. He will, in the language of another prophet, “blot out” the sins which yet belong to the indelible and irrevocable past (Isaiah 43:25Isaiah 44:22).”  Elliot’s Commentary For English Readers, on Jeremiah 31:34

“’For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’; there was forgiveness of sin under the former covenant, but the blood of Christ was not then actually shed for it; it was held forth under types; and there was a remembrance of sin made every year; and saints had not such a clear and comfortable sight of pardon in common as now; and it was known and applied but to a few. This is the staple blessing of the covenant, and the evidence of all the rest.”  - Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible

Free To Repent




• “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations...” (Jesus, in Luke 24:45-47). • “They… glorified God, saying, ’God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:18). • “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation…”(2 Corinthians 7:9-10). • 'Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first...” (Revelation 2:5).

This week, I’m talking to me and you as the offenders, the sinners, the ones who have helped make the world a little more broken. The question we are going to ask is, “How do we genuinely, healthily repent??” ______________________________________________________________________

1) Own our offense

People try to find creative ways to say “I’m sorry” that can sound good but often conceal a deflection of blame. A popular phrase going around right now is ‘fauxpology,’ words that sound apologetic but really aren’t.

“I’m sorry I’m not perfect.” (the other person’s standard is too high) “ I am sorry that you were hurt.”(the other person is too sensitive) “I’m sorry that I don’t meet your expectations.” (the other person is too judgmental) “I’m sorry that I was not more self-aware.” (my stupidity is too blame)

Now all of these things might in some sense be true, and it doesn’t mean this should not be part of what you say if you have sinned against someone. But there is a far more important thing to acknowledge. The heart of the biblical words of genuine repentance are as follows: “I have sinned against God and you.” Repentance requires you to own what you need to own. Repentance does not excuse, justify, avoid, deny or cover up. I read an article a number of years ago about Lance Armstrong’s attempt at an apology for the performance enhancing drugs he used:

More than once in the interview Armstrong indicated that his hyper-competitiveness fueled his toxic need to control every outcome. That control was much in display throughout the confession. At one point, Oprah mentioned Betsy Andreu, one of the honest critics that Armstrong smeared. Armstrong acknowledged that he called her a b**** and crazy, but disputed that he ever called her fat. Such defensiveness undermines the whole apology.

An effective apology means giving up your argument with history. It means letting the victims have the last word. But throughout the interview, Armstrong displayed a constant need to have the last word for himself. It’s clear that he is not quite ready to do the heavy lifting of apology. (

Repentant people face a hard truth — they have offended God and others. It’s the hardest thing in the world to just take a deep breath and say, “God, I have sinned against you. And my friend, I have sinned against you and really hurt you. I’m sorry.”

Some of you were interacting with me on Facbook this week about this issue and pointed out that our rational, decision-making capacity can be deeply, deeply influenced by our environment. I was introduced to a new term last week: “epigenetic trauma,” which is a fancy way of saying that experiences change our DNA, which effects our genetics. In other words, experiences change our very biology. Or consider that our memory is not stored just in our brains; memory is stored in organs like the heart and can be passed on to heart transplant recipients.

So the impact of our influences should not be overlooked, because they certainly form us and incline us certain directions. “Hurt people hurt people” is a proverb that reflects the reality that we often pass on our woundedness either intentionally or unintentionally. The impact of mental or emotional health issues are important as well. Our bodies reflect the broken reality of this broken world in many ways.

Ideally, when we face this reality, we develop a longing for God to bring us freedom from the damage and sin in our past, at whatever level that has impacted us. And while there are helpful ways to address this with medicine or counseling, we can only be truly healed by the transformation of our hearts and minds that only Christ can bring.

So should we ever give ourselves a pass when it comes to our sin? In Luke 12, Jesus offers a clear principle: “If you are given much, much will be required of you. If much is entrusted to you, much will be expected of you. (Luke 12:48). I think this is a broad way of saying that we are held responsible for what we do with who we are or with what we have been given.

The Bible does not allow followers of Jesus to passively shrug off our patterns of sin because we have found an explanation for “the sin that so easily besets us” (Hebrews 12:1). It demands that on the one hand we repent for the sinful things we have done. Then we beg for the God’s healing mercy, knowing this is our only hope. Then we ask for the forgiveness of others, because no matter the reason we did these things, we hurt them, and we must own our offense.

2) Turn Around “They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, [John] said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance…” (Matthew 3:5-8).

Being emotionally undone is not the same as repentance. It might be part of the process, but tears do not equal repentance. Repentance requires a reorientation, a fundamental transformation in one’s relationship with God and others.

“Some tax-gatherers came to be baptized, and they said, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” (John the Baptizer, in Luke 3:11b-14)

Once again, you see this idea of a change of direction – a change of life.

By the grace and power of God, the truly repentant will surrender to God’s will and proactively reject their former patterns of sin.

If someone says to you, “I appreciate your repentance, but it’s going to be hard for me to believe that you will not lie to me again/keep watching porn/stop demeaning me with your words,” mere words are not going to do the trick. You need to establish a commitment to changed patterns in your life to show that you meant what you said.

The truly repentant surrender themselves to God’s will, submit themselves to the accountability of others, and deliberately plan to not do what they did before.

This requires God’s strength because we’ve already shown our strength is not enough. This should make us really, really humble. This also requires a community of accountability, a plan where we put people around us who can be strong when we are weak, or who have understanding when we don’t.

Only God can do the necessary interior work in our hearts and minds that genuinely brings about righteousness in what we think and what we love. Meanwhile, we can put safeguards in place to restrain and maybe even retrain us. This does not save us, but investing whatever sweat equity we are capable of shows our honor of God’s desire for our lives.

3) Brace Yourself

After his adultery with Bathsheba, David wrote:

“For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight. You are justified when You speak, and blameless when You judge. “ (Psalm 51:3-4)

David repented - then asked for nothing. He knew what he deserved, and he did not ask God to remove the consequences.

Be ready to harvest what you planted. There is a principle of sowing and reaping God has placed in the world (Galatians 6:7). If you drive drunk and have an accident, God and others will forgive you, but you will still do time. Repentance is not a ‘get our of jail free’ card in a very practical sense. And God designed the world to work that way.

More personally, brace yourself for the intensity of emotions from those you have wronged—anger, hurt, grief, disappointment, and distrust. The truly repentant don’t pressure people to move on. They don’t ask why the other person just can’t get over it. They simply ask for forgiveness, turn around, and patiently wait as God uses His Holy Spirit, time, and our new way of life to heal the wounds. (We will talk about forgiveness next week)

In addition, repentant people accept boundaries. They recognize that they have created distrust and earned caution. Their offense may be of such a nature that trust can be regained – or it might not. That’s the reality of their situation, and they accept their boundaries. To be sure they do this well, they become accountable. They invite people into their lives, and they embrace correction, direction, and encouragement.

4) Pursue Life Together

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24).

If you are right in the middle of focused worship, and you know that you have hurt someone else, Jesus would rather have you try to mend that relationship than continue in your worship. If you show up on a Sunday and see someone across the room who has something against you – that is, you have sinned against them, wounded them, offended them – you should skip music and the sermon and take them into the prayer room and be reconciled before you sing or ‘amen’ as if nothing is wrong. It’s more important.

Once that community has been restored, there is more. David did not see repentance and forgiveness as the whole story. He desired to teach others:

“Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners will be converted to You.” (Psalm 51:13).

David would be teaching sinners as a repentant sinner. His teaching would seek to turn sinners from their sin. Why waste forgiveness and repentance on just ourselves?

Repentant people should be bold. Stories of repentance and forgiveness make beautiful testimonies, but no one can benefit from your experience if no one knows. If you say, “Forgiveness and grace are beautiful things,” and someone says, “Why?” What will you say? “Oh, just because…”

Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).

Paul wrote without shame: ”For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

Runners and Rulers (Insights From Philemon)

Paul  wrote to Philemon, “So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me.” When Paul talks about partnership in a mission, he uses the word koinonos - one with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). There is a mutual partnership aspect. It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive or solo.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community.

Disunity is not an option for followers of Christ. Unfortunately, Philemon and Onesimus were undermining this project. Through them, we learn two important things: If you are a follower of Christ committed to doing life together, you shouldn’t run, and you shouldn’t rule.


Don't Run

Onesimus is a runner. He apparently stole from Philemon, took off, was captured, and ended up in prison. The Bible doesn’t say if he knew Paul before or if he just happened to meet him in jail, but there they are. While in captivity, Onesimus commits his life to following Christ. Paul says he’s now a “dear brother in the Lord” who lives up to his name (“useful”) and ministers to Paul.

 If I were Onesimus, I would be thinking, “Awesome! I’ve got Paul on my side. Paul will set Philemon straight on the whole ‘servant’ thing, pacify him, and tell him to give me what I deserve now!”  But Paul’s apparently thinking, “Awesome! Onesimus is a follower of Christ now. He’s in the family. Now he can fix the relationship he broke!”

 It seems much easier to run away after we offend someone, especially if the consequences are daunting.  It's hard to fault Onesimus on this point, especially considering the way in which runaway doulos were handled at that time. Philemon was apparently well respected for his kindness and generosity, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Onesimus could have just returned without there being significant consequences (see my previous post for the life of a doulos).

But Paul knew what he was doing. If Onesimus was truly a follower of Christ, then he had committed to a particular way of doing life.  We'll look at how Paul handles Philemon as well, but for now let's focus on Paul's challenge to Onesimus: Followers of Christ cannot run from conflict. Onesimus ran physically; we can run just as far in other ways as well.

 1. We run from the reality of our actions

I was sitting at a coffee shop a couple months ago when I overheard a someone tell a friend about some interaction between her and her boyfriend. From what I could tell from her own very confident presentation of herself, they were both jerks in that situation. But her conclusion was: “I’m a lot of woman. If he can’t handle me, that’s his problem.”  That’s running away from your actions. Any time we say,“They started it. I had a bad day. I wasn’t feeling well. It’s just my personality!” we are running away from the reality of the impact our actions have on others.  

2. We run from our emotions

First, we can do this by minimizing an issue.  “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. They’re tough – they can handle it.”  Sometimes, other people do need to learn how to let things go. But other times, this reaction shows how we are able to minimize significant issues – usually when we were the one at fault. If our life was a movie, we would star in “Honey, I Shrunk The Problem!”

 I’ve noticed a tendency to do this in the mornings when I’m tired.  I become critical and snappy, and it’s so easy to drive my boys to school in awkward silence thinking, “My boys are upset because they can’t handle it when I’m just trying to help them become men.”  Actually, I am passive-aggressively whining about every little thing that’s out of place and didn’t annoy me last night when I wasn’t tired but became the most important thing of the morning.”  If I want a good life together with my boys, I can’t deflect and minimize. I have to be an honest person.

 Second, I can pretend something didn’t matter to me when it really did. The other night, my wife and and I were talking about a situation in the community in which I felt I needed to be involved.  She said, “Why do you feel obligated to be involved in that? You don’t have time!”  And I said, “How can you lack so much empathy?” It was not one of my better moments.

 At that point, we both wanted the conversation to end. I was watching an NBA playoff game and Sheila had a book. We both thought about running away into those diversions. Five years ago, we might have sprinted into the safety of our own little worlds. But we are trying not to be runners, and we stayed there, which forced some introspection.

 I realized I had lashed out with an unfair criticism because I wanted to avoid what I was really feeling. I had run from myself, then tried to deflect my failure onto her. So I had to acknowledge to Sheila: “You know what? That wasn’t fair. I wasn’t honest.  I don’t have time to get involved in this thing. You’re right. I said what I did so I didn’t have to acknowledge something else I am struggling with.” And then it was time for the hard work of honesty.

We can’t run away from reality emotionally by minimizing our impact on others or hiding from ourselves. It will kill relationships.

 3. We run from the situation

We think, “If I just go here – in another room, in another house, with another friend, to another job or church – this problem will go away. “ Don’t misunderstand: there are some problems that require distance, in particular situations of abuse or volatile emotional conflict. Space can be a blessing in certain situations if it is uses wisely and purposefully.

 But in general, running away from conflict won’t resolve the situation or the heart of the problem.  Running might feel good – ah, peace! – but whatever instigated the conflict will probably just pop up in another situation, because all the core reasons the conflict happened in the first place have not been dealt with.

  • Why do my friendships keep eroding?
  • Why is every boss such a jerk?
  • Why am I getting consistent critical feedback in this area?
  • Why did I feel comfortable saying something so mean?
  • Why did I think it was okay to act so selfishly?
  • What is causing me to believe that I am owed something by others?

There’s a common denominator in all the situations we are in: us.  If we keep running when we should be staying, we will never see ourselves clearly, we won’t change, situations won’t change, and we will never stop running. Staying means revisiting the situation, revisiting the people, swallowing hard and being just as honest in self-confrontation as we are in confronting others.

That’s hard – but so is not changing. “Staying” has the potential to bring life. Paul said, “I am sending Onesimus to stand before you” with this goal: “You will have him back forever.” We can’t run.  We must stand.  It’s the only way to genuinely build relationships and a community that will stand the test of time.

Don't Rule

If Onesimus’s problem was that he Ran, Philemon’s problem was that he Ruled.  

Paul does not say this directly, but the letters to Philemon (and to the Colossian church of which he was a part) offer reminders about what ought to be happening – and you usually don’t have to correct things people are doing right. In this case, Philemon had some work to do. He is fighting to overcome a lifetime of social, emotional, relational, and spiritual baggage. This may be a trickier issue for Paul to handle, because Philemon probably didn’t even see it in himself. He grew up in a culture in which the following mindset was pervasive:

  •  “The Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.” (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). They scorned anyone who did not have freedom – in this case, the doulos, servants or slaves.
  •  Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ slaves by nature, almost like animals.  “The doulos belonged by nature not to himself, but to someone else” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona," no personality. He has no identity or status apart from what his master and his usefulness granted him.  In fact, in legal cases, the “character” of the doulos was considered representative of the master's character.
  •  When we read the dramas and poetry that has survived from Paul’s time, we see that the Athenians viewed people like Onesimus as skilled and productive, but assumed they were con artist acting nice but planning devious things.

Philemon was used to being one of the free Greek citizens whose worth and dignity was defined by freedom (except his doulos to the civil law – that was the only way that word was used for free Greek citizens).  He had been raised to simply accept his culture’s perspective, probably without thought.  That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. He had given his life to follow Christ, but how easy it must have been for him to default to his former perspective:

  • “Onesimus has no rights; he’s not my equal.”
  • “Onesimus is by nature meant to serve me.”
  • “Onesimus betrayed me – he is a con artist.”

We we see in Paul’s letter a call to face our sinful attitudes and the way they impact others. It seems much easier to ignore our ingrained pride or elitism, or simply refuse to hear that we could possibly be contributing to the problem.  An obvious connection is the sinfulness of thinking we are better than others because of their race or gender.  Other forms of elitism are more subtle. But when we refuse to deal with the pride within us, we take on the mindset of rulers.  It’s not pretty. I suspect we all struggle in some area of our life with “ruling”, believing that we are intrinsically just better than other people in certain areas. Christian rulers have certain attitudes in common:

  • They think people who don’t have as much money or things must be lazy or dumb or bad Christians.
  • They think people who struggle with a sin they don’t are more deserving of judgment by both God and other people.
  • They believe usefulness is a marker of worth.
  • They assume people who don’t experience God the same way they do are automatically not as spiritual as they are.
  • They elevate or disdain certain people based on class, skill set, personality, or interests. It’s no surprise that the most important people are just like them.

Paul didn't’ let Onesimus run, but he’s not going to send a Runner back to a Ruler. Paul says of Onesimus, “receive him” (v.17) – literally, “take him into your home with kindness.” Onesimus is Philemon’s “brother,” a term the Greeks NEVER applied to anyone other than a blood brother – until now.  Paul said Philemon was a doulos to God – an idea which the Greeks NEVER applied to someone’s relationship to the gods – until now.

 Paul was saying (and I paraphrase), “Philemon – your view of people is deeply wrong. You think others aren’t as good or deserving or useful as you are. You and Onesimus are brothers, so you should protect, defend and honor him. You are both doulos to God, so your character needs to match your master - forgive and receive Onesimus as Christ has forgiven and accepted you.” 

If Philemon takes Paul seriously, there is no way Onesimus – or Philemon’s other servants – will be treated as “living tools” lacking intrinsic value or worth.  In fact, if the early Christians reading this letter took Paul seriously, any system of slavery, exploitive servitude or arrogant elitism would only whither and die. If all followers of Christ are truly brothers and sisters, a community of compassion, service, honor and love is the only way the God's spiritual kingdom can be embodied on earth (see the quotes about the early church at the end of my previous post to see how this played out in the 1st and 2nd century). 

Don’t run. Don’t rule.

Live bound together as brothers and sisters, servants of Christ.  Commit to being part of a spiritual family that loves deeply and sacrificially.  It won't be easy – but life together never is. It’s risky, vulnerable, and humbling. But it’s the only way to truly build a church, and it’s the only way to experience genuine life together in Christ.  



The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

"New Testament: Philemon," (

"Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline," (

"The Epistle to Philemon," (

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (

 “Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli,

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

"Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians," by Mike Rogers (

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (

"Women, Children, and Slaves,"


Understanding Forgiveness


At the time I wrote my last letter, I was suffering terribly. My eyes were full of tears, and my heart was broken. But I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I only wanted to let you know how much I cared for you. I don’t want to be hard on you. But the man who caused all the trouble hurt you more than he hurt me. Most of you have already pointed out the wrong that person did, and that is punishment enough for what was done. When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them. I also wrote because I wanted to test you and find out if you would follow my instructions. If you forgive someone, so do I. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did in the presence of Christ for your benefit. I have done this so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not unaware of his intentions. (2 Corinthians 2:4-11)

The man to whom Paul is referring ( see 1 Corinthians 5:1-2) had damaged his relationship with God, his family, the community within the church, and the witness of the church in the city of Corinth. The church’s discipline had accomplished the purpose of humbling him and bringing him to repentance. Now, Paul gives them the ultimate goal: forgive, comfort, and keep him from the despair of a broken spirit.

As an idea, the idea of forgiveness sounds really good. It’s a principle that we really want other people to grasp. But what if we are the one damaged by sin?

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” -C.S. Lewis

What is Paul actually asking of Christians here? Is this "forgive and forget"? Do we have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do we have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Are we supposed to move on and act like nothing happened? Let’s look at some principles of forgiveness as we see in this situation and in the rest of Scripture.

1) Forgiveness of those who repent is mandatory. The Bible is clear that if you want to be forgiven by God, you must forgive those who wrong you.

“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)

“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.” (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)

2) Forgiveness comes from the forgiven. Paul wrote elsewhere, “For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)
I was in the dominion of darkness. So were you. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us so that forgiveness is available to us. We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” – C.S. Lewis

3) Forgiveness requires honesty. We have to be honest about the nature and depth of the offense. Sin leaves a mark on individuals and communities, and we minimize its true nature at our peril. Those who harm others need to understand the price they are asking others to pay in order to forgive them.

If someone says, “I’m sorry,” we don’t have to just say, “That’s okay. It was nothing.” It wasn't okay (though it might be eventually); if it were truly nothing, it would not need forgiveness.

4) Forgiveness does not cancel accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and forgiveness are not enemies.

  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like. 
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the promised land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.

We have a tendency to think that the offended person should just get over it and move on, as if somehow the fact that our actions had consequences has now become the other person’s problem. But life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We hurt them. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture. Consequences are a gift; they make our path clear. Circumstances may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.

5) Forgiveness does not delete history. Paul didn’t unwrite his first letter to the church in Corinth; I don’t get the impression that anyone in the church was trying to act as if nothing had happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a biblical command for us. Have some survivors of the Holocaust forgiven the prison guards? Of course. Have they ask for the Holocaust Museum to close? Absolutely not.

Forgiveness is meant to fully bring repentant people back into fellowship with Christ and healthy fellowship in church community. If this process requires memory loss, we will not fully appreciate the power of forgiveness and grace.

Remind Me Who I Am


While in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. He had to tackle a couple of serious issues that were not only dividing the church, but also harming their witness in the city of Corinth. Though Paul dealt with specific moral issues, his goal was far more encompassing. He wanted to say something important about life in the Kingdom of God.

Imagine (if you will) PauI taking a break after writing the first couple of chapters. He decides to meet a friend for breakfast to talk throughs some of the issues as he prepares for what is now referred to as 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. ( I should note that all the cultural details I give in this conversation are taken from some very detailed history of the Greeks and Romans culture of that time. Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among The People" provides an excellent historical background for this imagined conversation).

“So Paul, how’s the letter going?”

“Well, I took a little time to talk about humility and pride, and how God has a way of using the unnoticed and overlooked to build his kingdom. I told them they were like a field that God farms – the dirt, specifically, that just nourishes what it’s been given. That was to bring them all to the same level. Then I told them they were like God's building – they are all still chosen and placed in the structure by God, but He’s building a presence in Corinth that provides safety and stability. I finished with the claim that they were like a temple. God’s presence and spirit inhabits them, which makes them holy. “

“I like it. Dirt’s humble, but temples are holy. Good combination. There's both a humility and honor that comes with committing to the service of Christ.”

“That's true. I hope those analogies connect.”

“So what’s the next topic?”

“Well, I told them in my last letter not to tolerate sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). They took that to mean that they couldn’t hang out with anybody who was immoral, which meant pretty much everybody in Corinth. That wasn’t my point. I was hoping they would read that as “raising the bar” within the church. On the one hand, they got super spiritual and disconnected from the community. On the other hand, they overlooked a huge problem right there in the church. I don’t know if I told you, but there’s one guy in the church who is sleeping with his father’s wife." (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).


“She’s his stepmom, but it’s still adultery and awfully close to incest.”

“That’s not good.”

“That's an understatement. Then there’s all the people throwing lawsuits at each other and making fools of themselves in the courts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:5-8). And if that’s not bad enough, they aren’t just looking for justice – they are cheating other people in the church. As if they weren’t having a hard enough time spreading the message of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. I have to get through to them that this is not the Kingdom of God. This is not a life of grace and peace – and holiness.”

“Why is it that these kind of issues pop up in Corinth and not, say, in Thessalonica?”

“The Thessalonicans were busy staying alive. It’s not like that in Corinth. Power isn’t their enemy; pleasure is. Have you ever been to Corinth?”

“No, but I’ve heard stories.”

“Well, there’s a lot to learn about what it means to be a Corinthian. There’s a lot of idol worship. There are 10 temples at least, and maybe up to 24 or 25 holy places. And all the gods are in competition, so all the followers are in competition too. So when people decided to follow Jesus, the transition was a little messy. They didn’t all like each other, because they were following different gods before. It was easy to copy the pattern, just this time it was, “I’m was with Apollos” instead of Jupiter, and “I was with Paul” instead of Artemis,” and “I was with Peter” instead of Poseidon. They still thought they to earn the favor of the gods by being impressive; they had to follow just the right person to be on God’s good side depending on what they want.
     I don’t think they ever came to church with actual idols, but the old mindset was still there. They didn’t believe God was actually interested in them unless they could get his attention. The idea of grace – God “leaning in to you”, being on your side - was brand new.

“So you’ve got a church full of people trying to impress God like they tried to impress their old gods.”

“Yep. And if you have the mindset that God’s love is based on how impressive you are, then most of the people in their church have their work cut out for them. You can’t earn God’s love, but even if you could, they were in for a rough road. For example, there are plenty of men joining the church who were into the symposiums.

“I’ve been to symposiums here, and it was just a bunch of old guys sitting around and talking about ideas.”

“Symposium literally means “drinking together.” For some people, that’s just a way of saying it’s a social gathering with some wine, but not in Corinth. A bunch of guys would get together, ban their wives, and drink themselves under the table… where the flute girls were waiting for them, and they weren’t playing music. It was a rare symposium that got anything constructive done.
     But the symposiums were just entry level. The komos guys were worse. They were the ones who led the late night parties, the ones who would drink excessively all night, then walk around the town and kidnap and rape people in the name of having a good time.”

“Sounds like a’ reality play’ waiting to happen – 'Keeping Up With the Corinthians.'”

“It’s hard to keep up with the Corinthians, let me tell you. It’s not just alcohol and parties either. There are thousands of temple prostitutes, and huge parties that eventually end up with everybody sleeping with everybody else.
     In Corinth they have a word, “porneia.” which describes a particular type of woman. The men would parade the slave girls, the "pornos," through the marketplace naked. Many of the men would buy them and beat them – you can buy vases in Corinth with drawings that celebrate their sexual and physical brutality. These men treat these women as objects, and they see sex as a simply a thing to buy and sell. As you can imagine, this mindset effects every woman to whom they relate."

“Sounds like it’s tough to be a woman in Corinth.”

“It’s tough to be a young man, also. In Corinth, it’s not unusual to find an adult man who targets a young boy, and basically owns him sexually until he gets tired of him. The conqueror is considered manly and admirable, I guess because he has shown that he is powerful and can take a young man full of potential and life and break him.
     But the boys they choose are from then on considered soft or effeminate – the Corinthians use a word “malakos” that means soft, like a garment - and less than manly, and socially they are ruined and shamed for the rest of their life. Believe me, fathers keep a close eye on their sons in Corinth.


“Is all this just no big deal in Corinth? Is there any kind of social stigma attached to any of this – the prostitutes, the affairs, the homosexuality?”

“There are only two kinds of people that the Corinthians reject: the boys I just mentioned, and those who commit adultery with a married woman. Adultery is off limits. Men get beaten, castrated, and even killed if they choose married women; the women lose their households and their children are declared illegitimate, which means they lose their inheritance and their citizenship. And the boys who are targeted by the adult men become outcasts as soon as the men are done with them. Other than that, men can do what they want. It’s not a great town for women or young men."

“That’s a lot of people in need of healing – not just the victims, but the abusers.”

“That’s true. I’m glad the gospel of Christ is up for the task. The church is the only place to provide a place of grace and peace.”

“It sounds like the Corinthians brought a lot of Corinth into the church with them. That makes peace a difficult thing to achieve, doesn’t it?

“That’s not the half of it. Corinth has a ton of money parading through its streets, and it’s so easy to get caught up in the money game. Some people don’t go to temples to worship idols; they sit in the bank and worship. They would steal, they would run these schemes where they would learn people’s secrets and run this extortion racket – and believe me, there are a lot of skeletons in Corinthian closets. They are used to getting what they have through bribery and corruption. They are used to using the legal system to sue people and take what is not rightfully theirs. We’ve brought in some people whose objective in life was to acquire of more wealth, and that’s not a habit that is easily broken."

“I know a guy named Ponzi who is really into that.”

“Yep, he’s got quite a following. Anyway, collecting the offering is tricky.”

“I have to think that it’s hard for people to ignore the histories of the people in the church. I’m assuming everybody knows about the others?"

“Slander and gossip is practically a game in Corinth. Have you seen all the scrolls at the checkout out lines at Jebediah’s Coconut Mart?"

“Pilate was an alien, apparently.”

“Right…. Anyway, they are nothing compared to what happens in Corinth. Any rumor is a good rumor, and people have been made and broken because of the sharp tongue or sharpened pen of some babbler who constantly destroys other people with their gossip. So add that to the mix in our church."

“So let me see if I have this right. You started a church with some serious partiers, actual idol worshippers, people who will do anything sexually, prostitutes and rapists and abusers – AND their victims. You have greedy thieving, gossiping, slanderous people. And that’s the Corinthian church?”

“I have a different way of looking at it. Who needs Jesus more than these? They are all desperately in need of a community of people who will accept them, love them, forgive them AND challenge them to be a temple for God. Jesus himself said he didn’t come for the healthy and the righteous, right? He came for the sick and the sinners (Mark 2:17). Is there a better message of hope than one that says God can turn these people into a temple in which His Holy Spirit dwells?


“So when you went there, you were surrounded by people with all this sin. It must have been easy to think, ‘Thank God I’m not like them! I only did…THIS!’ How did you stay humble? How did you keep this all in perspective?

“Well, look who you are talking to. The ‘I only did this’ is that I killed people. I hunted Christians down and stoned them to death. And Jesus appeared to me and called me into his service anyway. So if they can’t be a church, well, I can’t be the church either. But even if a sin wasn’t so noticeable, we all have sinned. Sometimes sin is really obvious; other times it’s far more subtle, but just as real.
     God’s love is for everyone, so we started a church with the humiliated, the shamed, and the broken, with no future for them in Corinth. And we talked about grace, and peace, and forgiveness, and holiness and what life in the Kingdom of Heaven looked like. “

“I've heard you preach the same message here. Because of Christ,  people who did evil things and people who had evil things done to them – they all can be restored and used in the service of God to bring truth, justice, peace, and grace to the world.”

“Precisely. That’s the piece of the puzzle the church is missing right now. They are having a hard time letting go of the their own past as well as the brothers and sisters in Christ. On the bad days, they still think there is no way they are good enough for God, or that they can ever overcome their past. They are still very Corinthianized. It's hard to overcome a lifetime of experiences.

“So here’s my summary: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God“ (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

“That’s a pretty grim list when you put it that bluntly.”

“It’s honest.”

“Yes, it’s honest…but it’s incomplete. I also need to remind them that their history is not their destiny. They don’t have to be stuck with the guilt and punishment of sin. Put next, “And that is what some of you were" (1 Corinthians 6:11). They may think their identity is based on what defined them in the past, but that’s not who they are now. If they are feeling guilty and condemned, I want to point out that through Christ their penalty has been paid, so add this too: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

“You might have to clarify your terms here. I think the Jews know all the terminology – will the Corinthians get it? They are mostly Gentiles. ”
 “Washing is purifying. They had been made pure by the sacrifice of Christ. That’s one of the symbols that goes with baptism, or with washing each other’s feet during the Lord’s Supper – they were dirty, but now they have been made clean.

     Sanctified is just the ongoing process of purifying. If you walk across Ephesus, you’re feet get dirty. You wash them again. As we walk through life, our souls and lives get dirty. God washes them again.
     Justified is a legal term, and believe me, this church knows about legal terms. Even though they are guilty of a lot of sin, when they stand before God He will pardon them because the penalty has been covered by Christ. They will own nothing, even though they once owed everything.

“That’s always good to hear. All of us need God’s mercy and grace. It’s easy to think that all of our past failures somehow define us, and even thought I know in my head that’s not the end of the story of my life, it’s not always easy to really let that sink in. I know what I was, and that can be depressing if I stop there. Thank God that’s not who I am now."


                       Jason Gray, "Remind Me Who I Am"