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.
END NOTES ABOUT GOD’S MEMORY
“’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 43:25; Isaiah 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