So you want to learn how to forgive. You’re here bearing scars: someone has hurt you and you’ve got the marks to prove it. Or maybe they haven’t become scars yet: maybe they’re still wounds. Rub a scar and you don’t feel anything; rub a wound and you could be in a world of hurt. You know you should forgive—even, that you must forgive—but those wounds …
How do we forgive? Forgiveness—both giving and receiving it—is something many of us struggle with. One answer is to look at the Bible: nearly all of it speaks of forgiveness. We could look at the Old Testament sacrifices; or Jesus’ statement to the paralytic in Mark 2:5: “Son, your sins are forgiven”; or the imperatives spoken by Jesus and written by Paul. All of them point to the same thing: the short answer is forgive as God forgives.1
But how does that help? Isn’t that just as useful as going to a swim class where the instructor says, “Swim like Ian Thorpe”? It’s one of those answers that sounds religious, but is not particularly helpful. It’s like when you’re struggling with the tragedies of life and someone says to you, “Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jas 1:2), and you’re left thinking violence sometimes is the answer.
Nevertheless, if we want to learn how to forgive, we need to take a look at how God does it. We need to examine how God deals with our sin, how his forgiveness relates to his judgement, and how forgiveness relates to reconciliation. Only then can we tease out some of the implications for how we are to forgive.
1. How does God deal with our sin?
So firstly, how does God deal with our sin? To answer that question, we’ll need to start with a short Bible study on Romans 3:21-26:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
The argument of the Book of Romans leading up to these verses is that all are under sin—which is why the wrath of God needs to be taken so seriously.2 As Paul summarises his thoughts, he says in 3:19 that the Scriptures indict everyone “so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God”. That’s everybody.
Our universal plight is that because all have sinned, all are accountable to God, but can do nothing to fix the mess we’re in. God is the offended party: he is the one who said in the garden that sin will result in death, and again in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death”. So on the one hand, God says that sin results in death. Yet on the other, he says he wants a relationship with us.
Has God boxed himself in? How can he have a relationship with us when he said that sin leads to death?3 He can’t just say “Whatever” about our sin. Can he justify us—in the sense of declaring us right—when, in fact, we’re not right?4 How can God justify us and still be just? A judge in court can’t say, “The penalty is x, but because I want you to be my friend, I’ll hand down a verdict of acquittal.” That’s not just.
So how can God justify us and still be just? Romans 3:23-24 provides the answer: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” All—Jews and Gentiles alike—have sinned (v. 23). All—Jews and Gentiles alike—are justified freely (v. 24). “Freely” means it’s as an act of grace. But God doesn’t say “Whatever” and it isn’t really free. It’s only free for us because God bears the cost. Our acquittal comes “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (v. 24). “Redemption” is business language. But there is no store where God can buy your innocence. It’s a metaphor showing how unbearably high the cost is for God. It’s a cost he himself paid so you could be “justified freely” (v. 24).
Let me step back for a moment and make a couple observations. The first is that we’re talking about how God can forgive us. As I said, God can’t be true to himself and his word, and at the same time, just say, “It’s okay”. If someone tore your life apart, damaging your heart and soul, and maybe your body too, do you think it would be right for God to say, “That’s all right. No worries”? That’s not justice. It isn’t even respectful. It’s precisely because we matter, and because what we do matters, that God shows enough respect to judge—to take seriously what we do and who we are.
Second, God has been mixing metaphors. Romans 3:21-24 used the language of the courtroom—right up to the point where Paul says how God justifies us freely: “through redemption” (v. 24). So God as judge pronounces acquittal even as God the merchant has bought us. This now takes us from the courtroom to the market place to a third venue—the temple. The working end of the temple holds an altar with a sacrifice. With what were you bought? “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement” (v. 25)—a sacrifice that involves the shed blood of the lamb. Now as horrible as crucifixion was, it wasn’t a bloody death. Yet Peter says we were redeemed—that business word again—“with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet 1:19).5 So Peter and Paul both show that our relationship with God rests on the sacrifice that Jesus offered—the sacrifice the Father offered.6
This means there is a basis for God declaring us just (Rom 3:26). The substitute died in our place. The one who didn’t deserve punishment bears the pain, while we who deserve it are pardoned. And so, God’s statement that sin leads to death remains true, but the death is Jesus’ death. Furthermore, the death he died means another stands in for you, absorbing the sting of death and allowing you to be friends with God—all with God being true to himself and his own words.
So God doesn’t say, “Whatever” or even “You’re good enough”; what he says is, “In my kingdom, you will not be treated as guilty” because your guilt has been answered by Jesus’ sacrifice.
Do you see how this relates to forgiveness? God doesn’t overlook or forget, and he doesn’t tell a lie about you being just. Instead, he looks at Jesus and, to use accounting language as Paul does in Romans 4, he credits Jesus’ righteous life to your account, just as he transferred your sin to Jesus:7 “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (v. 3)
In Romans 4:5-8, Paul applies this principle:
However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
8Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
This causes David to celebrate in verse 6: God brings blessing precisely when he credits righteousness to his underserving, but faith-filled children.
Then verse 7 speaks of forgiveness: is that where Paul was heading all along? Sins can be covered; it’s what sacrifices were intended to do. But they were only forward-looking pictures until Jesus came as the true sacrifice, the ultimate covering of sin. So verse 7 quotes David’s song to explain the benefits of the sacrifice of Romans 3:25: sins are forgiven, covered by Jesus’ work on the cross. In addition, in verse 8, continuing with David’s words, we see a counterpoint to the Abraham story: verse 3 says that Abraham’s faith is counted as righteousness. Now from David’s poem, Paul says that sin isn’t counted. Your ledger has sin wiped away and righteousness written on it. Within the small stage of our lives, that’s the story of faith. On a broader stage, that’s the story of God entering into our sin in the person of Jesus, whose sacrificial blood was shed for us. Everything negative has been scrubbed from our account, replaced with only positive things. Furthermore, Paul says that we, like Abraham and David, are blessed because God won’t count our sins—the very sins covered in verse 7—against us. Because our sins are forgiven, we are forgiven.
2. How does forgiveness relate to judgement?
When God forgives sins, he deals with missiles aimed at him.8 But he doesn’t overlook them; indeed, he defines them. In effect, God says, “That act is wrong and requires the payment of a penalty”.
By my reckoning, forgiveness intersects with three moments of judgement. First, God absorbs the penalty of sin. As the Son goes to the cross, that penalty transfers from us to him and is paid.9 Through this great substitution, we know that our sins aren’t ignored; they are cleansed (past tense) by the offended one, the God who, today, offers us forgiveness.
Second, a future day of reckoning is coming when God will call to account (2 Cor 5:10). If I forgive someone for a great hurt done to me, that doesn’t mean God will set it aside forever.10 We’re able to forgive because we know God has treated us kindly in our sin.11 But what if by forgiving we overlook an ocean of injustice? In God’s reckoning, all injustice will be dealt with. Sometimes we’re only able to forgive because we know that God will deal justly with the person who has wronged us. This isn’t a gleeful celebration; it’s accepting that God will make everything right. Accepting this may be the means by which we can let go and forgive.12 Justice and all real forgiveness is ultimately in God’s hands. But we anticipate his final act of judgement—meaning both justice and forgiveness—as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Third, forgiveness intersects with our own judgements in the present: we only forgive what we think is wrong—and wrong against ourselves. That too involves a type of judgement. What we do is wrong and we are wrong to do it. Two things are thus being judged. This isn’t judgementalism: if you steal my car, it is a simple fact that you are wrong and the thing you did is wrong. I can only forgive by engaging with you and what you did. Forgiveness doesn’t pretend that the wrong wasn’t wrong or that the hurt doesn’t hurt. Forgiveness isn’t fantasy.
Having said that, this gets messy precisely because we’re talking about an act and a person. When God judges theft, murder, violence or lying, he does it as one who knows us perfectly and knows the act completely—though obviously, not experientially. But just as obviously, I know neither you nor the act in that way. This lack of knowledge regularly interferes with relationships, because we can fail to assess events correctly—which is natural, since we’re the ones who have been hurt. We almost always need to hear both sides of the story. That’s difficult to do through our pain. God doesn’t have that difficulty.
Before moving on, let me emphasise that the fact of two sides to the story doesn’t exonerate the guilty. It may even be hurtful to ask the offended party to see things from the other side. All I’m trying to stress here is that justice and truth can be elusive for us in both our hurt and our humanity.
3. How does forgiveness relate to reconciliation?
Ideally forgiveness leads to reconciliation. But is reconciliation the same as restoration? Furthermore, is reconciliation always possible? In this section, I want to look at how reconciliation relates to forgiveness and the implications this has for repentance.
a) Should we forgive without repentance?
Have you noticed that God’s forgiveness precedes repentance? Consider Romans 5:10: “while we were God’s enemies”, Christ died for us. God forgives us, even though sometimes we’re not good at repenting. In addition, God calls usto forgive not because the other person repents, but because we are forgiven.
What, then, does it mean to forgive someone who has died or is otherwise incapable of receiving my forgiveness—or who won’t acknowledge doing wrong? Should I forgive that person? From all that has been said, I think the answer is yes. But this highlights how one-directional, and therefore seemingly unfair, forgiveness can be. God may be calling you to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t care if you forgive, and doesn’t even feel the need to repent. My forgiving someone doesn’t require their repentance. However, any hope of reconciliation is built upon a foundation of repentance.
What would forgiveness look like in this situation? Well, it won’t involve a hug, because the person you’re moving toward isn’t moving toward you. This may be one of those “seventy times seven” situations Jesus talked about (Matt 18:22). But a real and present danger is that the obstacle between you and another person can become a barrier between you and God.13
b) Should we forgive those who demand forgiveness?
What should we do if someone demands forgiveness? What if forgiveness is presented as an obligation because God calls us to forgive? This might be coming from the person who wronged you or from someone who provides spiritual counsel. Tragically, that person might even be one and the same. When people cause hurt and then compound the pain by demanding forgiveness, it strikes me that they’re being oblivious to their impact on relationships and demonstrating a lack of repentance.
So should you forgive? Yes, because you should forgive all wrongs against you. But should you equate forgiveness with reconciliation? No. Usually the one who makes such demands is looking for a relationship on his or her terms, and has not understood forgiveness. Demanding forgiveness for ourselves is dangerous. Demanding forgiveness of ourselves toward someone else is something else entirely.
c) Should we be reconciled with those we forgive?
So should we be reconciled with those we forgive? God forgives our sins apart from any restitution. What could we possibly offer him? He frees us of our obligations, pays the price of our sins and nails our debts to the cross.14
However, there is another element to this: forgiveness won’t always require restitution. But suppose someone stole my wallet with $500 in it. Turning around and saying “Sorry” doesn’t mean much; except in unusual circumstances, we would expect the return of the money. In fact, sometimes saying “Sorry” means nothing without repayment of the $500. Do we have the wisdom to know when a debt can be repaid and when it can’t—or won’t—yet still needs to be forgiven?
Forgiveness doesn’t mean being foolish. If you borrow my car15 and maliciously damage it, does forgiveness mean I lend it to you again? I don’t think so. I might forgive you—genuinely forgive you. But that doesn’t mean everything is automatically what it once was and that all consequences disappear. Reconciliation might be our ultimate goal, but the road to reconciliation can have many waypoints.
d) Should we just “forget and forgive”?
That said, doesn’t God forget our sins?16 It’s more accurate to say that God doesn’t remember our sins. That’s not just a word game. First, God doesn’t forget anything. Furthermore, he doesn’t relearn our sins every time we think about them. Saying he doesn’t remember them means that when thinking of you, he doesn’t call them to mind. He, within his relationship with you, doesn’t say, “I remember when you did so and so”. That is a beautiful thing, but it also might point to another difference between God’s forgiveness and our own: if my son borrows $500 and then uses it on something foolish, the next time he asks to borrow money, I’ll demand an accounting—or I might just say no. Your engagement with others doesn’t mean feeding their weaknesses.17 Some of you will have fully forgiven an offender while knowing full well that the person is going to do it again. Some of you will have forgiven with the knowledge that forgiving doesn’t always make the hurt go away. If I lose my leg because of your sin, I might forgive you, but I will never be able to forget.
This has implications for how you relate to someone who has harmed you—when the threat remains that it might happen again, and yet you’re being prompted by God’s Spirit to forgive that person. You can genuinely forgive without opening yourself up to further harm. In some cases, being vulnerable to another person is commendable, but in others, inappropriate.18
4. Some final reflections
Let me conclude with some final reflections.
a) Hurt and shame, ourselves and others
There are things we carry because, to use common language, we aren’t able to forgive ourselves. Sometimes we may even feel the sort of shame that’s crippling. My internal voice shouts of wrongs done to me, whereas a quiet whisper sometimes reminds me to forgive. The shouting can so overwhelm the whisper that I can’t hear it at all. Maybe maturity entails letting the two voices even out—or better still, letting the voice of forgiveness overwhelm my hurts.
We forgive because we’re forgiven. But that won’t work if it is a law, or any sort of external imposition, because true forgiveness comes from within. Often when we say, “I’m sorry”, the hearer says, “Thank you”. That’s because an apology confesses that I did wrong, and when someone says, “I forgive you”, I might reply with, “Thank you” because releasing someone is a powerful act of grace. Have you ever seen someone’s shoulders drop at the words, “I forgive you”? It’s as though a physical burden has been removed.
c) The limitless God and the limited Christian
God’s forgiveness differs from our forgiving of others in the way it relates to time. That is, we can say something about when God forgives: before we repent. But what does that look like? Colossians 2:13-14 says,
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of your legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
We are forgiven based on the prior work of Christ on the cross. But some know that forgiveness can be an ongoing battle. Yesterday I forgave that person, but today I’m struggling with it all over again. Have I really forgiven? More to the point, can forgiving someone “for a lifetime of harm” ever be “entirely finished”?19
God forgives perfectly. I forgive imperfectly. Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive divine”.20 But in fact, everything we do is human. For us, “to err is human, and to forgive is human”. So why would you expect your forgiveness to be anything other than imperfect? Our human limitations must never become an excuse for sin. But they do explain the frustrations we face in so much of what we do. So we forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven. And then we do it again. Because it is hard, and we’re not always good at it.
Let me conclude by encouraging you to forgive, knowing that it may not be easy. When it is difficult, look away from yourself and away from the one who has hurt you, and look instead to Jesus. Fix your eyes on the one who, according to Hebrews 12:3, “endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart”.21
As I finish, I should try to define the term we’ve been using. Some, when they drill down into forgiveness, think that it is all about letting go of negative emotions—as though forgiveness means not feeling angry or hurt or vengeful. If my past, present and future are undone by hurt and anger, I probably haven’t forgiven. But forgiveness means more than adjusting our emotional life. Bearing in mind all the caveats in what I’ve already said, I think this is a good definition of forgiveness:
To forgive another means to cancel the debt of what is owed in order to provide a door of opportunity for repentance and restoration of the broken relationship.22
That’s what God has done for us. That’s what he calls us to do. So go and forgive as God has forgiven you.
Except as otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.
1 For a helpful discussion of what God does when he forgives, see John Stott, “The Problem of Forgiveness”, in The Cross of Christ (Westmont: IVP, 1986) 87-110. For recent (and local) discussions of the nature of forgiveness, including pastoral implications, see Peter Jensen, “True Forgiveness” (in The Global Anglican 134.4 : 291-98), and Lionel Windsor, “The power of forgiveness (Ephesians 4:31–32)” 4 September 2019, http://www.lionelwindsor.net/2019/09/04/ephesians-4-31-32/
2 God’s wrath is mentioned already in 1:18 as “revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people …”
3 This tension was already felt by Athanasius: see his On the Incarnation §6
4 That’s the impact of the first three chapters of Romans up to this point.
5 Ephesians 1:7 also links redemption, forgiveness and Jesus’ blood.
6 “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19).
7 Romans 4:3 teaches that he has always worked this way: even before the law was given and the nation was formed, God was counting Abraham’s faith as righteousness.
8 See Psalm 51:4: “Against you only have I sinned”.
9 That doesn’t mean the Father judges the Son and finds him guilty. But it does mean that we don’t bear the penalty; he does.
10 Justice will be done: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).
11 We talk about forgiving almost like a form of therapy: it’s for our own good. This is surely true, but in pre-therapeutic talk, the focus was directed toward the sinner, not the self. As we forgive, we can be the means of grace.
12 Thinking that my forgiving something makes it eternally right assumes that I alone am affected by the sin. Can I forgive a drunk driver who leaves me crippled? Maybe. Would that be the end of it? Maybe. But what if I forgive a drunk driver who has hurt my entire family? How could doing so absolve that person of the full significance of his act? And if my entire family agrees to forgive the driver, residual communal implications would remain—such as the cost of ongoing medical care, the impact on local road users, etc.
13 Compare 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers”.
14 Colossians 2:14.
15 Please know that I’m not referring to my car because I have great affection for it, but because I don’t want to callously name sins that may have cut you deeply. Every time someone has talked to me about forgiveness, the issue has been with his or her father, which surprises me, or occasionally with a spouse, which surprises me less.
16 See Jeremiah 31:34, cited in Hebrews 8:12; Psalm 25:7. See also Psalm 103:12: “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us”.
17 This of course relates to final judgement: 2 Corinthians 5:10 teaches that God judges based on deeds—good or bad—performed while in the body.
18 This starts to hint at the difference between personal and institutional forgiveness. I might forgive something, but the state might still exact a penalty. A minister might genuinely repent of the sin that led to his or her removal from ministry, but that doesn’t mean the church should say, “Well, as long as you’re sorry…” The New Testament sets out a set of principles, and they do not suggest that restoration to all prior activities and privileges is an automatic follow-on from repentance or even from forgiveness.
19 Allender and Longman, Bold Love, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992) 158.
20 Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, Part II (1711) :
Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.
A note for the pedants: this was written before the standardisation of English spelling, so “humane” was the accepted spelling of what we render “human”.
21 If you’ve been alert, you may have noticed that I’ve smuggled in the who, what, when, where, why and how of forgiveness. It is what God has done for us through the cross of Christ, because he desires a relationship with you.
22 Allender and Longman, Bold Love, 160.