Understanding Forgiveness Toward Others

So, you’ve been sinned against. You are hurt. You know you ought to forgive. So, you say, I forgive them in my heart. But, do you really? You continue to harbor resentment. You have no desire to see them. Have you really forgiven them?

Forgiveness is both a disposition of the heart as well as an action (transaction) toward them. The forgiving disposition of your heart releases you from bearing the burden of anger and resentment. The action of forgiveness releases the offender from the burden of guilt. When both the disposition and action are rooted in mercy, reconciliation is possible.

What is forgiveness?

The two primary Greek words for forgiveness have the idea of “cancelling a debt” (charidzomai – Eph 4:32; Col 2:13-14) and of “letting it go” (aphiemi – 1 John 1:9) (http://tinyurl.com/yh7242jd).

I like the definition that Christian Pastor, theologian, and counselor, Jay Adams, offers. Forgiveness is . . .

. . . a lifting of the charge of guilt from another; a formal declaration of that fact; and a promise (made to be kept) never to remember the wrong against him in the future.

Forgiveness is an unqualified giving of mercy and love to another. In extending forgiveness, we willingly relinquish our right to justice. We step outside the system of law and enter the realm of mercy. In forgiveness we give notice to the offender, not of our hurt, but of our desire to forgive and to extend mercy. Forgiveness is the tearing down of the wall that prevents unhindered fellowship.

We will see that forgiveness is both a disposition of the heart (i.e., the character of those who are being transformed by the grace of God) and an action (transaction, i.e., forgiveness is both given and received).

When is forgiveness necessary?

Forgiveness is necessary when someone’s sin toward you is such an offense that it disrupts the relationship.

Not all sin toward us becomes an offense that disrupts the relationship. We may be aware of the offender’s circumstances in life, or their immaturity in life, or other things that mitigate the offense. In this case, we practice 1 Peter 4:8,

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

Also,

Proverbs 19:11 Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.

Where the sin does not create an offense that disrupts one’s relationship, forgiveness is not necessary, because there is no offense that has broken the relationship.

But, love doesn’t cover all sins. Some sins do offend and disturb the heart and disrupt the relationship. In this case, we just can’t say, “I forgive them.” We know in our own hearts, when anger, bitterness, resentment, and alienation begin to build up. When that happens, we must follow the biblical pattern of first, coming to a willingness to forgive because of the mercy we have received; secondly, going to the offender with rebuke and an offer of forgiveness; and thirdly, hopefully followed by repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

How does forgiveness take place?

Forgiveness is first of all a disposition of the heart.  Jesus indicates this in Mark 11:

25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive,if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.

In private prayer, we cannot expect God to hear our prayers, if we do not have a disposition of forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. Anger and bitterness in our hearts grieve the Spirit of God. In private prayer, this spirit of forgiveness takes place in the heart in the sight of God.

This disposition of forgiveness is possible (i.e., a willingness to forgive) because God has been merciful to us.

             Lk 6 36  Be merciful, even as  your Father is merciful.

As in the parable in Matthew 18:23-35, God’s mercy toward us is the basis for our mercy to others. We forgive others as God’s has forgiven us.

33  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

Also,

Eph 4 32  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted,  forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

How is God’s mercy toward us a pattern for our mercy and forgiveness toward others??

  • It is the nature of God to be forgiving.

Numbers 14:18
‘The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.

  • Under the Old Covenant, God made provision for forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial system. In Numbers 14 the “guilty’ are those who have not repentant. All sinners are guilty. Repentant sinners can be forgiven.

18  ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty,  visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please  pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just  as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

  • In the New Covenant, God provides for forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ.

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

  • God is ready to forgive because provision for forgiveness has been made. So, when we forgive others, as God has forgiven us, we begin with hearts that are becoming merciful, like our Father’s. We are ready and willing to forgive our offenders because of God’s mercy to us and His transforming power at work in us.

Col. 3:12   Put on then, as  God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,  compassionate hearts,  kindness,  humility, meekness, and patience, 13  bearing with one another and,  if one has a complaint against another,  forgiving each other;  as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

A Walter Wangerin says,

When Christ is the single most solid reality upon which you stand; when in faith you find the source of your own life in Him; when you yourself do dwell within his loving mercy and his forgiveness, then you are empowered to forgive your spouse, infinitely. Christ is the well from which to draw the water for your thirsty wife or husband. But this must be remembered: only as you know Jesus’ limitless forgiveness for you  (that first! — that personally!) are you able limitlessly to share forgiveness with your spouse (that second — but that personally as well) (Wangerin, 8-84).

However, forgiveness is not only a disposition of the heart. It is an action (transaction) toward others. Forgiveness is extended and received in response to repentance. Though we are to always carry the willingness to forgive, we forgive people who repent of their sin against us.

Forgiveness is a personal transaction between the offender and the offended. Forgiveness is not something we offer to sinners in general. We do not need to or have the right to forgive people because they are sinners. That’s God’s prerogative. We don’t forgive people for who they are or what they do, we forgive them for what they do to us. We forgive people who repent of their sin against us personally.

  • In the Old Covenant the nation and individuals were always called to repentance. God was willing to forgive but did not extend forgiveness without repentance.

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

The Bible clearly illustrates that repentance is necessary for God to forgive sin. Repentance was required in the Old Testament, just as it is in the New Testament. Several scriptural examples show God withholding His forgiveness from those who did not truly repent (Deuteronomy 29:20Numbers 15:30–361 Samuel 15:27–35Isaiah 2:9Hosea 1:6). However, when people repented of their sins and returned to the Lord, God extended forgiveness (Hosea 14:2Isaiah 33:24Jeremiah 33:8Psalm 65:3Psalm 78:38). The psalmist declared, “Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone” (Psalm 32:5, NLT) (https://tinyurl.com/2yjfhczu).

  • In the New Covenant God provided for our forgiveness through Christ’s paying the debt of our sins and He extends forgiveness upon our repentance.

Matthew 4:17 – From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”


Acts 3:19 – Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,

2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Acts 2:38 – And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 17:30 – The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,

Luke 13:3 – No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

We see in Jesus’ teaching that forgiveness is an action (transactional) toward an offender.

Luke 17:3 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.”

Here forgiveness moves from the disposition of the heart to action toward the repentant offender.

Also, in Matthew 18 where Jesus gives the parable about extending to others the kind of mercy that God has extended to us (23-35), He begins the section with giving a pattern of confronting an offender (calling him to repentance) so that you can be reconciled to a brother. It’s then that Peter asks, how often do we forgive. Jesus essentially says, “always”. In context that means, every time you show a brother his fault and he hears you (i.e., acknowledges his wrongdoing, i.e., he repents), you forgive him and are reconciled to a brother. This is consistent with Luke 17:1-4.

A biblical theology of forgiveness does not depend on one of two Bible verses. If taken alone and out of context, Luke 17:1-4 and Matthew 18:21-22 are contradictory. If taken together, informed by the rest of the Bible, the normal pattern for forgiveness is 1) a disposition of forgiveness, 2) an offer of forgiveness, 3) repentance, and 4) forgiveness.

What is the relationship of forgiveness to reconciliation?

When repentance is offered, forgiveness is extended and reconciliation becomes possible.  

Reconciliation is the restoring of a relationship that has been disrupted by sin. Forgiveness removes the barrier between the offender and the offended. It opens the door to a renewed relationship (reconciliation). This new relationship progresses in accordance with the measure of mutual Christian love that is invested in the relationship.

Reconciliation to offended brothers is required for acceptable worship to God.

Matthew 5 23  So if  you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5 gives the necessity of reconciliation, but it anticipates Matthew 18 which gives the process of reconciliation (going to the offender with rebuke and an offer of forgiveness, and hopefully followed by repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation – “you have gained a brother”).

Both Matthew 5 and 18 indicate an interrelationship between myself, God, and my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Apostle John says it this way in 1 John 4:

20  If anyone says, “I love God,” and  hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot  love God  whom he has not seen. 21 And  this commandment we have from him:  whoever loves God must also love his brother.

If I truly love God, I am always repenting of my sin against my sister and brother or I am repenting of my unwillingness to forgive my brother and sister.

Both the disposition to forgive and the desire to repent takes place in the presence of God.

How is it possible to have a disposition of forgiveness and the actions of forgiveness?

The gospel of Jesus Christ brings to us an experience of God’s mercy, the joy of forgiveness, and a new relationship with God (reconciliation). It is only from this deep well of mercy and forgiveness that we are able to forgive the offenses of others toward us.

No one’s sin against me will ever be greater than my sin against God. Therefore, the mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received in Christ is always greater than any mercy or forgiveness that I need to extend to others. The well of God’s mercy and forgiveness is infinitely deep.

Through union with Christ, our capacity for mercy and forgiveness to others is sufficient to forgive seven times a day (Luke 17:3-4) or seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).

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