Forgiveness Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Forgiveness

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Forgiveness, divine or human, is the gracious act of dropping justifiable anger against an offender, generously reconstruing him or her as someone better than a mere offender, and bracketing or "disremembering" the offense. Classically, forgiveness follows the offender's remorse and repentance. Human forgiveness requires both an infusion of divine grace and the victim's practice of the "art" or "craft" of forgiveness, in which the victim deliberately brings to mind considerations that soften his anger toward the offender.

In Scripture

"If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14).

"Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant. Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath" (Ps. 78:37 - 38).

"Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits — who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy" (Ps. 103:2 - 4).

"As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us" (Ps. 103:12).

"Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgement and by a spirit of burning" (Isa. 4:3 - 4).

"I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isa. 43:25).

"Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Isa. 55:7).

"Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Mic. 7:18 - 19).

"`And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. . . . For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses'" (Matt. 6:12, 14 - 15).

"Then Peter came and said to him, `Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, `Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times" (Matt. 18:21 - 22).

"When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, `Son, your sins are forgiven.' Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, `Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'" (Mark 2:5 - 7).

"`Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses'" (Mark 11:25).

"`Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, "I repent," you must forgive'" (Luke 17:3 - 4)

"Peter said to them, `Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:38).

"`Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses'" (Acts 13:38 - 39).

"`Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name'" (Acts 22:16).

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph. 1:7).

"Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Col. 3:13).

Points to Ponder

Forgiveness is a tough topic, full of questions and puzzles. Suppose you have been cheated out of your life savings by your friend and money manager, and you have discovered his fraud. Now you have to face a terrible truth: You have been betrayed, and you never saw it coming.

Some questions: What would have to happen before you could forgive this louse? Would he have to repent? Suppose you never see him again. Could you forgive him anyway? As a Christian, must you forgive him? How soon? For his sake or for yours? What if you try to forgive him, but can't? May your pastor, sedate in his wisdom, urge you to forgive? Doesn't that just add a load of guilt to your trauma?

Anyhow, isn't forgiveness too good for traitors? Isn't there something almost unjust about it — something that trivializes the offense and encourages the offender to repeat it? May people just go around hurting other people, changing their lives forever, and then casually accept forgiveness for all the litter they leave behind?

Suppose you eventually do succeed in forgiving the litterer. Does this mean you must take him back into your life somehow? Does it mean you would not testify against him at his fraud trial? Does it mean you like him better than you used to?

These are some of the questions and puzzles that arise in any discussion of forgiveness. This topical study will address some of them. We'll begin with God, an overflowing fountain of forgiveness.

The signature exhibit of God's grace: God's willingness to forgive sinners is the signature exhibit of God's grace. According to Scripture, God "does not remember" our sins. He "removes" them, "blots them out," "pardons" them, washes them away, treads them "under foot," casts them "into the depths of the sea." These expressions suggest that sin is odious to God and that God wants it gone, out of mind, out of the way, because sin taints our relationship with God.

Scripture is full of references to God's righteous hatred of sin and indignation against sinners. So forgiveness consists of God's removal of sin in ways just mentioned, and of dropping justified anger against sinners. "He does not retain his anger forever." Instead, God cloaks sinners with "steadfast love and mercy."

God sees sinners "in Christ." In the New Testament, the classic Pauline way of describing God's reconstrual of sinners is that God sees them "in Christ." Because Jesus Christ has atoned for their sins, sinners are now united with Christ, justified by his death and resurrection, cloaked with his obedience, covered under his policy. In a classic statement of justification, the Heidelberg Catechism says that "God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me" (Q&A 60).

The father of the prodigal son: In Jesus's longest and most famous story, the father of the prodigal son absorbs his son's insulting request for an early inheritance and his refusal of their culture's expectation that he take care of his father (Luke 15:11 - 32). In effect, the son says to his father, "Drop dead." The son shames his father and then runs off to a "far country" where he shames himself by wasting his inheritance. He sinks low enough to feed pigs and to hunger for what he's feeding them — a setup so miserably unclean to a Jew that it becomes revolting to him. When he comes to his senses, he trudges back toward home, rehearsing his filial confession of sin. But his father sees him from a distance, fills with compassion, and runs out to embrace his son, kiss him, and welcome him home before the son croaks out even one word of his confession. His son's return was remorse and repentance enough.

God's forgiveness and our forgiveness: In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul yoke God's forgiveness of us to our forgiveness of others. In Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, and then comments on just one of the petitions: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." His explanation is intimidating. He says that God will forgive us only to the degree that we are willing to forgive others. In other words, forgive or be damned. This is a hard teaching that needs a good commentary, especially since in Romans 5:8 - 11 Paul testifies that "while we still were sinners Christ died for us," reconciling us to God.

This does not stop Paul from urging the necessity of our forgiving others. He says in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 4 that just as God has forgiven us, so we also must forgive.

Why such stern imperatives? Neither Jesus nor Paul spells out the reason, so we are left to surmise. Surely one reason is that forgiveness of others is so obvious a sign of gratitude for having been let off the hook ourselves that failure to do it amounts to a demonstration of ingratitude. And ingratitude amounts to a demonstration of alienation from God. If we will not forgive we appear to be ungrateful and we appear to be alienated from God.

No community without forgiveness: There's another reason: we cannot have peace and we cannot have Christian community without a good deal of traffic in forgiveness. Forgiveness helps to restore unity, and unity brings peace. If the goal of God's whole program is the establishment and re-establishment of shalom, then forgiveness is one of the main instruments of peace.

Forgiveness softens hearts: There's a third reason, which L. Gregory Jones eloquently develops in his book Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis . Forgiveness is so urgent because we are hardhearted people who need to have our hearts softened. Our own sin hardens our hearts against God and against others. We then become bad forgivers, uptight, closed-in, jealous of our prerogatives and jealous of our status as victims. Under these circumstances forgiveness is mortifying to us. So we shrink from it.

Yet the gospels and Paul combine to say that mortification of our old selves is necessary in order to open the way for vivification — the coming to life of our new selves. We have to die before we can rise. And forgiving another person is a shot to the heart of our old selves — the jealous, self-protective, hard-hearted selves.

Forgiveness is self-sacrificial: Forgiving the sins of another is one form of dying and rising because it is self-sacrificial. And the main thing we sacrifice when we forgive another person is the anger we have a right to. Someone has wronged us and is to blame for it. We are justifiably indignant at both the wrong and the wrongdoer. Our indignation is righteous anger.

Christians who want to live out the gospel, who want to forgive as they have been forgiven, now have a tough assignment: namely, to soften their own hearts, to dissipate their anger against the offender.

But is that really possible? Can we actually act against one of our own emotions, and one of the most powerful ones at that?

The answer to this question has to be yes. God does not assign impossibilities. That we ought to do something implies that we can do it. And people who are good at moving against their own anger develop a sequence of moves that make up a "craft" (L. Gregory Jones) or an "art" (Lewis B. Smedes). We learn forgiveness the same way we learn a musical instrument: by having a good teacher or two and by lots of practice.

A gift of God: Christians do not deny that the ability to forgive others is also a gift of God. All the virtues of Christ and all the fruit of the Spirit are both God's gift and our calling. So too with forgiveness. The readiness to forgive others is an implication of love, and of patience, and of goodness, and of self-control, all of which are fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22 - 23). So we are gifted and enabled to forgive by God, who is our ultimate teacher, but we are also commanded to practice this ability. And there's where the craft comes in.

What's involved in this craft? We are trying to forgive an offender, to drop our anger against him. In the craft of forgiveness, we purposely "take certain generous considerations to heart" (Roberts, 194).

1. I, too, am a sinner, much in need of forgiveness, and I have been forgiven a very great deal. It would be fitting for me to forgive those who have given offense. The idea is that from those to whom much has been given, much may be expected — in forgiveness as in all else.

2. The offender and I have a long relationship together. (This may or may not be true, but consider cases when it is.) We have shared stories, shared memories, a shared history — all of which are imperiled if I do not forgive. But these things are precious to me. The relationship is important to me. I want it to continue. So let me forgive that we may live another day to love and tell stories and eat together.

3. The offender may not be wholly to blame for his offense against me. He is to blame, else there is nothing to forgive. But aren't there mitigating circumstances? Was this person born irritable, for example, so that it is hard for him to control his temper and to control the sharp tongue that is attached to his temper? Temperament is a mitigating circumstance. So are environmental influences. A kid who was more beat up than brought up may still be responsible for what he does with his anger, and in any case he may be a person I steer a little clear of in certain circumstances. But if he assaults me and if I forgive him for the assault, I will bring to mind that he had been much abused.

4. I may be partly complicit. In family squabbles, when husbands and wives tangle, or parents and children, the mature peacemaker, the person with the hair-trigger for forgiveness, will search his own heart for anything he may have contributed to the problem. Did I provoke my spouse by assuming once more that things must go my way? Did I foster carelessness about obligations within my son by promising to go to his home games and always coming up with excuses? What's my complicity here?

5. Most heart-softening of all is the offender's repentance. In Luke 17:3, it looks as if Jesus assumes that repentance will quite typically be part of the picture whenever we are busy with forgiveness. "If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive." Jesus doesn't say that repentance is a condition that must be met before we forgive, only that if somebody does in fact repent, then we must forgive. Indeed, he adds: "If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, `I repent,' you must forgive."

The offender's repentance softens our hard heart. Why is the offender's repentance such a terrific collateral consideration that it ought to trigger our forgiveness? The offender's repentance softens our hard heart. It calms our angry spirit. As Roberts says, it changes our view of the offender from an alien to someone more like a human on the same side of the issue as we are. Now the offender too thinks that he did something crummy. And we are especially softened if the offender can describe to us exactly what he did and why it was so wrong. Now he joins us in understanding why his offense was so painful and alienating.

This does incline our hearts to forgive, especially when we have some other motivations as well.

Still something left: But notice that there still is something left to forgive. The offender's repentance doesn't, so to speak, cancel the debt and therefore remove all reason for our anger. If somebody assaults a precious child and is later repentant, it's not as if the repentance pays back for the offense. After all, the child, and people who love the child, will still have to deal with the damage and struggle toward healing for a very long time. Indignation is still relevant. There is still much to forgive. But repentance is a softener that helps to melt some of the anger of the victim because it shifts the power balance between offender and victim, and some of the pain of the offense is now shared by the perpetrator, who has to live with what he did.

6. Christians take a long view. We believe that evil will not win, cannot win, should not win. We believe in the victory of Jesus Christ over evil. We believe in the judgment of God. So, as a collateral consideration, we may deliberately bring to our minds that even if we cannot get justice where an offender is concerned, even where we cannot get repentance, we aren't the only offended party. God has been offended as well, and God is able to sort matters out with perfect justice and love. Some people who are trying to forgive therefore hand the matter over to God for adjudication. Meanwhile they pray the psalms of lament. In their lament, they pray their anger into the heart of God.

A move against our anger: The craft of forgiveness consists in making a move against our anger — an anger we have a right to. We make this move successfully when, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to bring collateral considerations to mind that help us drop our anger.

Reconstruing or reimagining the offender: Besides attempting to soften her own heart, a forgiving Christian will also try to reconstrue or reimagine the offender: he is, after all, a human being, created in the image of God. Maybe he is by temperament and upbringing only partly to blame. Maybe I start to look at him as a person God loves and for whom Jesus died. Maybe he's a bad apple but not quite a rotten one. Maybe, as a Christian told to love my enemies, I at least wish him well, including his repentance and conversion.

A generous act: Forgiveness is a generous act, intended chiefly for the good of the offender and for the good of my relationship with him. This is the clear import of Scripture. Forgiveness is pure, liquid grace. But forgiveness also benefits the forgiver. She can now sleep nights. Her blood pressure goes down. The skies look bluer and the sunlight brighter. Forgiveness may be a generous act of grace, a gift to the offender, but it is also a gift to the victim, and it is not wrong for her to know that as she undertakes to forgive. It is not wrong for the victim to know that in God's universe doing good can also be a way to do well.

Acting against our memory: Although forgiveness has centrally to do with acting against our anger toward an offender, it also has something to do, secondarily, with acting against our memory. We can bracket or background our memory of the offense by muscling it aside when it comes to mind and by no longer dwelling on it or discussing it with others. We can "disremember" or "nonremember" the offense, letting it slide toward oblivion. In doing so, we are following excellent precedent. It's God, after all, who "does not remember" our sins.

Must the offender repent before we forgive him? Here, eminent Christian thinkers differ. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that simply to forgive an unrepentant offender is to insult him and demean oneself. You are not treating the offender or the offense with moral seriousness. You are trivializing both (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Eerdmans, 2011, pp.173 - 74). On the other hand, Miroslav Volf contends that our forgiveness, like God's, should be unconditional. It doesn't require repentance in advance. "Forgivers' forgiving is not conditioned by repentance. The offender's being forgiven is, however, conditioned by repentance." The offender must accept the blame inherent in being forgiven, or else he rejects the forgiveness and changes a forgivable sin into an unforgivable one (Volf, Free of Charge, 183).

Needless to say, the matter is complicated.

We might forgive a person and still not trust this person for a time. Suppose one of your children has a short history of stealing family money for drugs. It would be possible to forgive your child, but also quit leaving money lying around. It is even possible to forgive a family member but also to get the locks changed on the house.

Allowing consequences: It may also be possible to forgive a person but still require the person to take some of the consequences of his action. Suppose, for example, that your child drives drunk and smashes up the family car. You eventually drop your anger, and generally normal relations return between you and your child. You could rightly say you have forgiven him even though you refuse to hire a lawyer to fight your son's big DUI ticket or the huge change in his insurance status. He may need to take these consequences and learn from them. What you forgive your son for is his lapse in love for you, his lapse in justice toward you, his lapse in holding the family trust.

Not necessarily a return to previous relationship: Forgiving a person does not mean that the relationship with this person returns exactly to where it was before, even if the offender repents. Depending on the nature of the offense and the depth of the relationship and the depth of the offender's repentance, the relationship might actually get stronger. Jacob and Esau might have been closer after their reconciliation. Same with Joseph and his brothers. It is possible for relationships to be stronger at the places that have been repaired.

At the same time, I think we all know that some relationships even after repentance and forgiveness will probably never get back to where they were. Abraham may have repented of trying to pass his wife Sarah off as his sister, and Sarah may have forgiven him for doing it, but things were never again quite the same between them.

Even if a person repents and you forgive, there may be respects in which you cannot go back to where things were before. This might, for example, be a person against whom you have given up your anger. You can speak quietly with this person and take the Lord's Supper with him or her. But this might be a person you never laugh with again.

Forgiveness may take a long time. In public lectures on forgiveness, Lewis Smedes used to say that forgiveness is a journey: "the deeper the wound, the longer the journey." We might have to entertain the possibility that truly grievous offenses committed against a person might take until eternity to forgive, especially if the victim doesn't have a long time to live.

Forgiveness is not for weaklings. Forgiving those who sin against us is fitting for people who have been forgiven. But the actual machinery of forgiveness is often hard to start and hard to maintain. This shows, I think, that just as the forgiver offers grace — softening his own anger, or even letting it drop altogether — so the forgiver needs the grace of God even to get into the mood to try it. Forgiveness is not for weaklings. This takes spiritual muscle, and it's therefore a discipline that needs both God's grace and our practice.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.