Forgive Us as We Forgive - Part 1
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Rev. Martyn McGeown, pastor of Providence PRC
God’s Forgiveness of Us
Forgiveness of sins is such a beautiful truth of the Word of God. Many theologians fittingly call it the chief benefit of salvation. Without it we can enjoy no other blessing of salvation. The word “forgive” in Hebrew and Greek illustrates its meaning beautifully. To forgive is to send away, to dismiss, to lift up. Sin is a heavy burden, which God then carries away, so that it no longer lies upon us to crush us. When God forgives our sins, he does not hold them against us so as to punish us for them: “Their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12). “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). When God forgives our sins, he does not impute them to us, so that he does not reckon them to our account, although we committed them, and he does not punish us for them.
The reason for God’s forgiveness is not that we deserve it—we certainly do not deserve it—but the reason is God’s grace, his free mercy and love, rooted in election, displayed at the cross, and proclaimed in the gospel. On the basis of the perfect righteousness, the lifelong obedience, the atoning sufferings, and accursed death of Christ Jesus our sins are forgiven, and we appropriate that forgiveness by faith alone without our good works.
Our Forgiving of the Neighbor
God’s forgiveness of us is designed to be a pattern for our forgiveness of our neighbors. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:14) is our plea in the prayer that Jesus taught us. We are debtors to God and we seek the canceling of the debt. Others are debtors to us and they seek the canceling of their debt. When we forgive others, we do what God does, but on a much lesser scale, mimicking what God has done for us: “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:13).
Let us apply that truth to specific examples in our lives.
In forgiving us, God lets go of our sins or he dismisses our sins. On our part, then, we refuse to harbor in our heart malice, bitterness, or a vengeful spirit against that person whom we forgive. We do not hold his sin against him. God removes the burden, taking away the obligation to pay. Similarly, we do not seize our brother by the throat, demanding, “Pay me what you owe me,” but we release him from that obligation to pay. God forgets our sin, refusing to bring it before his mind as a reason to punish us. When we forgive the brother, we do not bring up his sin to use it as a club with which to beat him. While it is impossible to forget, we refuse to dwell upon the brother’s sin.
In addition, we forgive our neighbor, as God forgives us, in the forum of our neighbor’s consciousness. We tell him, we assure him, that he is forgiven, that we have forgiven him, so that he knows. We make that declaration, “I forgive you.” In our relationships we must say, “I love you.” Since we are sinners, we also need to say, and to hear, “I forgive you.” We need to say, and to hear, that often.
Your child disobeys you, and later he comes to you, “Mom, Dad, I am sorry.” Your response is, and must always be, “I forgive you.” Your sister insults you, and later she comes to you, “I am sorry.” Your response is, and must always be, “I forgive you.” You and your brother get into a fight, and he hurts, even injures you. Later he says, “I am sorry.” Your response is, and must be, “I forgive you.” Your spouse, your husband or your wife, is impatient with you, snaps at you in anger, and hurts your feelings. Your spouse says, “I am sorry.” Your response is, and must be, “I forgive you.” A church member sins against you, and he apologizes. Your response is, and must be, “I forgive you.” The response must not be, “Do not worry about it. It does not matter. It is no big deal.” If it was important enough to confess, and if it was a sin, it is a big deal, and it does matter: you must say, with conviction, “I forgive you.” Those words, “I forgive you,” mean something: I put your sin away; I do not hold your sin against you; I will not use your sin against you; I harbor no ill-will or desire for revenge in my heart against you. I forgive you.” “I forgive you” is the only appropriate response.
Making Important Qualifications
Having said that, we need to make a few qualifications.
First, there is a relationship between forgiveness and repentance. God does not forgive impenitent sinners, those who refuse to confess and forsake their sins. Ordinarily, we are not called to forgive those who do not repent. If two brothers are fighting, it is not appropriate to say to the brother who is the aggressor, “I forgive you,” before he stops hitting you and before he says “I am sorry.” If a child is in the very act of disobedience, a parent does not say, “I forgive you.” The child should first say, “Sorry.” You do not say, “I forgive you” to your spouse before he/she stops the offensive behavior and apologizes. Luke 17:3-4: “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him.” Notice, we rebuke him, he repents, and we forgive, even seven times a day. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” Jesus answers, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times, but, Until seventy times seven.” Although Jesus does not mention repentance, repentance is implied.
However, that does not mean that we simply wait passively for the brother to repent. As Jesus says, “Rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him.” We seek his repentance. We come to him in meekness, we lay before him his sin, and we call him to repent, holding out to him the promise of forgiveness. If he refuses to repent, we do not leave it there: we bring another person to witness his impenitence, and we seek his repentance again. Then if he still does not repent, we bring him to the elders, who then seek his repentance (Matt. 18:15-17). And even if he never repents, we put away, as much as we can, all bitterness from our hearts; we pray for him, and we do everything that we can to be reconciled to him. That is what God did: he came to us with the law, and he came to us in the gospel: he called us to repent, and he worked repentance in us, and he forgave our sins, and he told us that he forgave our sins so that we know and are assured of his forgiveness.
Second, while God perfectly forgives sins, we forgive sins only in a creaturely measure. Strictly speaking, only God can truly forgive sins. Our forgiveness is a dim reflection of his forgiveness of us. Forgiveness of sins is a divine activity. The Pharisees were right when they asked, “Who can forgive sins, but God only?” (Mark 2:7). They were wrong to deny Jesus’ divine right, as the Son of man, to forgive sins. Only God can forgive sins, which are committed against his commandments and against his most divine majesty. That is why, when you say, “I forgive you,” you must go with your neighbor in prayer to the cross, where our sins are blotted out. If your neighbor does not seek refuge in the blood of Christ, you might forgive him, but God does not. And God’s forgiveness is infinitely more important than your forgiveness.