These are my notes for my student group’s Bible study. Forgiveness stands as such a central concept in Christianity and it was exciting to be able to address it with others in light of what the Bible has to say (at least I hope the others found it as exciting as me). Chris Braun’s book Unpacking Forgiveness was a real help and I recommend it for anyone is interested in digging deeper into this important topic.
What is forgiveness?
Some suggestions for defining forgiveness: (1) accepting someone who has “asked for forgiveness”; (2) forgetting that an offense has occurred, i.e., not keeping “a record of wrongs”; (3) restoring a relationship back to its pre-offense condition; (4) treating the person as if the offense never occurred in the first place; (5) desiring that only good, and not punishment or consequences, would befall the offender (Justin Taylor).
We should try to understand divine forgiveness first before we consider what ‘horizontal’ forgiveness looks like and what it means to forgive others. Because God is supremely good and valuable, He is therefore our standard and ultimate pattern.
Psalm 32: (Read the passage here)
Background things to ponder when reading a Psalm:
What can we say about the writer and his circumstances?
What does the writer tell us about who God is? What are his expectations of God? What characteristics of God does he base his petitions on?
Things to notice:
1) We shouldn’t be afraid to see joy and happiness as motivations for living out forgiveness.
David here links forgiveness with happiness: “Blessed (happy) is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
Why do we need divine forgiveness? Because we are sinners and not only fail to put God at the center of lives but actively do wrong.
Yet forgiveness is not the ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is not to be pardoned, or even to be pardoned so we can get to heaven. Our chief goal is to know and enjoy God. Forgiveness is essential and necessary, but only a means to enjoying God.
2) Forgiveness is neither easy, nor a straight-forward concept.
Forgiveness begins with a decision but can be a difficult and lengthy process. Taking revenge is the default option. To refuse revenge is enormously costly (because instead of the offender paying the emotional debt, we have to pay it ourselves). We will want to see the person who has wronged us equally hurt. But to return evil with evil shapes us into likeness of the evil. When we make the other person pay, we are becoming like the evil done to us. We must beat this process with love. But how?
3)Forgiveness should only occur when proper conditions have been met.
Why was David in agony? Because of his silence (verse 3). He needed to acknowledge his sin (verse 5) to find forgiveness from God.
God does not just forgive everyone. He is gracious and willing to forgive everyone but His forgiveness is conditioned on our confession and repentance. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
It is the same for our horizontal relationships. We must always be in a position of forgiveness and ready to offer it, but for actual forgiveness to take place, change has to occur in the party that has wronged us.
4) We should distinguish between an attitude of forgiveness and the act of forgiving
To clarify this, it is helpful to separate forgiveness into “positional forgiveness” (the attitude or readiness to forgive) and “transactional forgiveness” (the act of forgiving)(Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries):
The Bible is clear about positional forgiveness:
a)We should not be revengeful:
“See that no one repays another with evil for evil.”1 Thessalonians 5:15
“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Romans 12:19
b) We should not bitterly wish harm on the wrongdoer:
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17
c) We should seek the best for them and come to their aid, if possible:
“Bless those who curse you.” Luke 6:27-28
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.” Exodus 23:4
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44,
d) We should always seek reconciliation with them
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Romans 12:18
But while we should always pursue reconciliation and maintain a ready position of forgiveness, we should not actually go further and grant forgiveness where there is an absence of repentance. In fact, it is wrong to forgive unless there has been a change in the part of wrongdoer (Luke 17:3 “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”) Our forgiveness must never take place in a way that is inconsistent with justice. Just as God’s moral law is perfectly upheld in His forgiveness (The cross enables Him to be both just and the justifier, Paul writes in Romans 3:26) In seeking revenge, we give into selfishness, but in automatic forgiveness and mere resignation we risk selfishness too. Why? Because we do not care about God’s justice and whether the injurer will keep sinning.
4. Our willingness to forgive is a test of whether we will go to heaven (Matthew 6:14-15)
It is important to see that this is not a unique test. All the ethical commands of Jesus are virtues and characteristics that he demands in our lives, and on which our eternal destination hangs (see Matt 5:22, 29, 44; 7:21-23; 18:6). Forgiveness is not an exception, it is the rule. So why then does Jesus bring it up? Because it mocks God to come to Him for forgiveness if we esteem it so poorly in our own daily lives with others.
We need a forgiving spirit that doesn’t like conflict and yet doesn’t avoid it. We need an attitude that doesn’t return evil and yet doesn’t wrongly capitulate to resignation and ignore a responsibility to justice.
5. But how do we do this? How do we bear this enormous cost and cultivate an attitude of forgiveness?
Through the Gospel. Through seeing and adoring Jesus Christ and knowing that he himself paid the greatest sin-debt and didn’t make me.
I’ll never be able to pay the debts people have to me unless I see the infinite debt I have before God. After all he’s done for me, I’m glad to have the opportunity to demonstrate to Him what he means to me by paying this debt.
“Forgiveness is not a work by which we earn God’s forgiveness. It flows from a heart satisfied with the mercy of God and rejoicing in the cancellation of our own ten million dollar debt.”
Old nails picture by Lewis Walsh