For this first post of our newly resurrected blog, it seemed fitting to follow up on Sunday’s sermon. While I said at the outset of the sermon that we wouldn’t be able to address all the particulars of forgiveness, a few are worthy of mention before too much time passes.
First, as we saw in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35), forgiveness is a transaction involving two people. The servant owed a debt to the king, and the king “forgave him the debt” (v. 27). This is true in relationships as well. For the goal of forgiveness to be accomplished (a restored relationship), the sinner needs to ask for forgiveness from the one he has sinned against. Luke 17:3-4 provides a helpful picture of this:
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
The sinner in this case says to us, “I repent,” which is shorthand for acknowledging sin and asking for forgiveness. In that case, “you must forgive him.” Forgiveness clearly has two sides to it.
Second, while forgiveness requires something of both parties in the relationship, we can (and must!) cultivate a forgiving heart even if the other party never acknowledges their sin or asks for our forgiveness. That is the real point of Matthew 18:21-35, that we have a forgiving heart toward our brother or sister in Christ. This is important for cases where the person who sinned against us may have died, or where their hardness of heart may keep them from ever acknowledging that what they did was actually sinful. We may never be able to tell them that we forgive them (and it would not be appropriate to say that), but it is still our obligation before the Lord to cultivate a forgiving heart toward them. This would affect how we think of them, feel about them, and how we pray about them.
There is an interesting example of this at the crucifixion. Remember Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Note that Jesus does not say, “I forgive you.” This would not be right in light of his own teaching on forgiveness. His accusers were clearly not repenting and asking for his forgiveness. So, like Jesus, we can have a forgiving heart and pray that God would forgive another for their sin against us; but we need not say to the person, “I forgive you.”
Last, we recommended two resources, Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker, and Dave Harvey’s, When Sinners Say, “I Do.” Ken Sande has something in his chapter on forgiveness that you might find helpful. He calls it, “The Four Promises of Forgiveness”:
- “I will not dwell on this incident.”
- “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
- “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
- “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”
The “I will’s” that start each of these statements remind us that forgiveness is a determination of our wills as much as it is a feeling in our heart. Further, forgiveness requires of us a sometimes difficult self-control where we determine not to think about or speak about the person or their sin in a way that indicates their sin has not been properly dealt with. The case is closed and we need to live accordingly. Sande does say that not all of these promises can be made if the person never asks for our forgiveness. We might need to “talk to others” to help rescue them from their sin (Matt. 18:15-20). We might need to be careful how we relate to this person and the incident does in some way “hinder our personal relationship.”
The topic of forgiveness is a massive one because it touches so many areas of the gospel and so much of our relationships with others. May God use his word to help you grow in this critical area of healthy relationships—both inside the church and outside.