The most liberating truth of the Christian life is that our sins have been forgiven. But one of the most difficult challenges of the Christian life is forgiving others as we have been forgiven. Does forgiving mean forgetting? If we forgive, must we still trust?
At our August 2021 CCL event, Kanishka Raffel, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, and Philip Kern, Head of New Testament at Moore College, lead us through what the Bible teaches about forgiveness and how we might in wisdom learn to forgive those who have sinned against us.
Links referred to:
- Learning to forgive: Watch or listen.
- Event slides (PDF)
- Event handout (PDF)
- Bold Love by Dan B Allender and Tremper Longman III
- Our October event: Raising the next generation with Paul Dudley and Mark Earngey (20 October)
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 1:22:55 min.
Chase Kuhn: Today on the podcast, we bring you a special episode with the audio from our recent live event on the topic of “Learning to forgive”. The most liberating truth of the Christian life is that our sins have been forgiven. But one of the most difficult challenges of the Christian life is forgiving others as we have been forgiven. Does forgiving mean forgetting? If we forgive, must we still trust someone? What about those who haven’t repented of the sin that they’ve committed against us?
At this event, we were privileged to hear from guests Kanishka Raffel, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, and Philip Kern, the Head of New Testament here at Moore College. They carefully led us through what the Bible teaches about forgiveness, and they offered to us wise and practical advice about how we might forgive those who’ve sinned against us.
I personally benefitted immensely from this event and have continued thinking on and praying on the things that I heard. And I’m hopeful that what you hear today on the podcast will equally benefit your life. Enjoy.
CK: Well, good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living live event. I’m very pleased that you’re joining us tonight online, wherever you are. The Centre for Christian Living is a centre of Moore College, which seeks to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And tonight, our topic falls into a broader series we’ve been doing all year on facets of community. And tonight, we’re looking at that most important thing for community: learning to forgive.
I think all of us know just how sweet it is to know the forgiveness that God extends to us because of the blood of Jesus—full pardon for all of our sins—all of our transgressions against God. And yet, the call for us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven is one of the most difficult things that we have to deal with in our lives as Christians. How do we overcome the kinds of hurt that we have known at the hands of others? What does it mean for us to extend forgiveness to them as we’ve known forgiveness? This is the question that we are considering this evening.
And before I introduce our guest speakers for this evening, please let me read to you from the letter to the Colossians just to help us see how important forgiveness is for community life together. Paul writes in Colossians 3 verses 12-14:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:12-14 ESV)
In response to what I’ve just read and in anticipation of all that we’re going to be hearing this evening, I’ll invite you to join me in prayer please.
Heavenly Father, there is no sweeter thing than for us to know that great forgiveness that you’ve given to us in your Son Jesus Christ. It’s a truth that we take for granted every day. And yet as we ponder upon the kinds of people we are—the things that we’ve done, the thoughts that we’ve had and the full pardon that you’ve granted to us in Christ—it’s amazing. And Lord, in response to this, we ask that you would help us to learn to forgive. So I ask tonight please, Lord, help us to listen well to the teaching of your word. And I pray that as our guests present this evening, that they will do so clearly and faithfully, and that we’ll take heed so that we might be loving and forgiving to one another as your people, because of the great grace that you’ve shown us in Jesus.
It’s in his name we pray. Amen.
I’m very pleased to introduce to you our speakers this evening. We have two speakers—the first being Dr Philip Kern, who’s the Head of New Testament here at Moore College. Perhaps his most remarkable quality is his beautiful accent, which is American, of course. And Philip has been a very gifted teacher and preacher in this community at Moore College and in around Sydney and elsewhere, and I’ve benefitted from him, listening formally—even at this lectern and in the pulpit here at college, but also informally in the relationship I’ve had with him as a friend and a colleague—I’ve benefitted immensely from knowing him.
Our second speaker is the Most Reverend Kanishka Raffel, who serves as the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. Before taking his episcopal office, he served as the Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral here in Sydney. Kanishka’s a man whose godly living, wise pastoral counsel and warm communication style has benefitted many men and women—me amongst them.
I couldn’t think of two other people that I’d really rather hear on this subject tonight of forgiveness. And so I’m very eager to be hearing from them in just a moment and I know many of you are as well. In fact, I’ve been blown away by how many people have signed up to this event—both because I know of the teaching that we’re going to receive, but also we’ve discovered just how important this topic really is to us and how difficult we find it. So this is one of our largest events we’ve ever had through this centre, and we’re really grateful that you’ve chosen to be with us tonight and hope that it will be of great benefit to you.
Before we hear from our guests, please permit me to run through just a few details for our time. The first is that I’m very grateful for the technology that we have: I’m really grateful for Daniel tonight, who’s helping run all this, and for Karen, who’s helped facilitate many of these details, as well as the CCL team from the student body. But if there’s any tech error tonight, can I just encourage you to refresh your web browser first? And if that doesn’t work, then I believe there’s a chat function that you may be able to sign into and ask for help.
But of course, at the end of this evening, all of this video will be online for you who have signed up to watch back again. And in the future, of course, in weeks ahead, we’ll be releasing it for a public audience.
Second, I’d like to tell you our plan for the evening: we’re going to be hearing two brief presentations—one from each of our speakers—and then we’re going to have a discussion based on the questions that so many of you have submitted through Sli.do in the last few weeks. And can I just say, we have been absolutely amazed at how many questions you have sent through. I think today I looked and we had over 70—or 75—questions that had come in up to that point. And it’s been brilliant, really, to see just how thoughtful you’ve been in advance of this event, and we’re hopeful that many of your questions will be answered this evening.
Finally, you’ll find on the webpage an outline for the evening that you can follow along with, if that’s of benefit to you. And we’ll be posting all the media, as I said, from this evening in the weeks ahead so that you can benefit from that as you re-watch it and learn from it later.
Now let’s get to our first presentation this evening from Philip Kern. As Philip comes up, he’s asked me to read a few Bible passages that he’ll be speaking from, and so I invite you, if you’d like, to open your Bibles up to Romans chapter 3, or if you don’t have your Bible handy, you can read along on the slides that will appear on the screen. We’re going to be looking at a few verses from the end of Romans 3 and then a few from Romans 4. So we’re going begin in Romans 3:21-26 and I’m reading from the NIV: verse 21:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for 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. 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—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. (Rom 3:21-26 NIV)
If you would turn over to Romans 4 now, the next chapter, we’re going to look at verses 3 to 8. Verse 3:
What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
(Rom 4:3-8 NIV)
Please welcome Dr Philip Kern.
Philip Kern: Thanks Chase! Let me start by thanking Chase for the invitation to participate in this CCL event. It’s been really helpful for me to wrestle with this topic and to reflect on aspects of my own life over the past few weeks.
What about you? Are you here because learning to forgive sounds like the title of a “How to” lecture? Based on comments received and questions asked, forgiveness, both giving it and receiving it, is something many of us struggle with. How do we forgive? So after weeks of wrestling with this, I’ve arrived at a short and easy answer: unfortunately, it’s one of those answers that sounds religious and not particularly helpful. You probably know the type: when you’re struggling with the tragedies of life and someone says, “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds”—James 1:2—and you’re left thinking that violence sometimes is the answer.
So you’re here bearing scars. Or maybe they aren’t even scars yet; maybe they’re still wounds. Rub a scar and you don’t really feel anything; rub a wound and you could be in a world of hurt. Yet you’re here—maybe hoping to find something helpful. Maybe you know that you should forgive—even that you must forgive—but those wounds.
Nearly the entire Bible speaks of forgiveness. We could look at the Old Testament sacrifices or Jesus’ statement to the paralytic in Mark 2:5, where he says, “Son, your sins are forgiven”. Or the imperative spoken by Jesus or written by Paul—all of them point to the same thing: the short answer is this: forgive as God forgives.
But how does that help? If I were where you are, I’d be taking notes, because that’s what I do, and I would have just written something like this: “That’s as helpful as going to a swim class where the instructor says, ‘Swim like Ian Thorpe swims’”. So let’s see how God forgives and then explore some of the implications for our forgiving.
1. How does God deal with our sin? (Rom 3:21-26, 4:3-8)
How does God deal with our sin? To answer that question, we’ll need to start with a short Bible study. The most efficient way might be to look at some verses starting in Romans 3:21. So let’s turn to Romans 3 to see how God deals with sin.
Romans 3:21-26: the argument of Romans leading up to these verses that all are under sin—which is why the wrath of God needs to be taken so seriously. 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”. Well 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. God is the offended party: he’s 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 one hand, God says that sin results in death, and on the other, that he wants a relationship with us.
What does God do with our sin? Has God boxed himself in? How can he have a relationship with us when he’s said that sin leads to death? It means he can’t just say, “Whatever”. Can he justify us in the sense of declaring us right, when in fact I’m not right? That’s the impact of the first three chapters of Romans to this point. So how can God justify me 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?
3:23-24 provides the answer: 3:23: “all”—Jews and Gentiles alike—“have sinned”. 3:24: “all”—Jews and Gentiles alike—“are justified freely”—freely 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 our cost. Our acquittal comes through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
A redemption is business language. But there’s no store where God can buy your innocence. It’s a metaphor showing how unbearably high the cost is for God. And it’s a cost he himself paid so that you could be justified freely.
Let me step back for a minute and make a couple of 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, “Yeah, it’s okay”. And let’s be serious for a moment: if someone has torn your life apart, damaging your heart and soul and maybe your body, do you think it would be right for God to say, “Yeah, that’s all right. No worries”? That’s not justice! It isn’t even respectful. What if the only mark I leave on this world is the harm I’ve done, and God said, “You know what? It doesn’t matter”? It’s precisely because we do matter, and what we do matters, that God shows enough respect to judge and to take seriously what we do and who we are.
Second, God has been mixing metaphors: Romans 3:21-24 uses the language of the courtroom—right up to the point where Paul says how God justifies us freely. It is through redemption—3:24. So God as judge pronounces acquittal even as God the merchant has bought us. This now gives way to a third venue: from the courtroom to the marketplace to the temple. And the working end of the temple holds an altar with a sacrifice. With what were you bought? Verse 25: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement”, which 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”. That’s 1 Peter 1:19. So Peter and Paul both show that our relationship with God rests on the sacrifice that Jesus offered, which is the sacrifice the Father offered.
3:26: this means that there’s a basis for God declaring us just. 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. And the death that he dies 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 to 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 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 chapter 4, he credits Jesus’ righteous life to your account, just as he transferred your sin to Jesus.
In chapter 4 verses 5-8, the verses that Chase read for us, this principle’s applied: this causes David to celebrate in 4:6: God brings blessing precisely when he credits righteousness to his undeserving but faith-filled children. Then 4:7 speaks of forgiveness: is that where Paul was heading all along with this? 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 4:7 quotes David’s song to explain the benefits of the sacrifice of chapter 3 verse 25: sins are forgiven, covered by Jesus’ work on the cross, and if 4:8 continues in David’ 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 our 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. And Paul says we, like Abraham and David, are blessed because God won’t count our sins—the very sins covered in verse 7—against us. And because our sins are forgiven, we are forgiven.
2. How does forgiveness relate to judgement?
So how does forgiveness relate to judgement? When God forgives sins, he deals with missiles aimed at him. 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. Through this great substitution, we know that our sins aren’t ignored; they’re 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 Corinthians 5:10. If I forgive someone for a great hurt done to me, that doesn’t mean God will set it aside forever. We’re able to forgive because we know God has treated us kindly in our sin. 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.
Now, 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. Justice and all real forgiveness is ultimately in God’s hands. But we anticipate this 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’s a simple fact that you were wrong to do it and the thing that 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, and that’s difficult to do through our pain. God doesn’t have that difficulty.
Before we move on, I want to emphasise here that the fact of two sides to the story does not 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, really, is that justice and truth can be elusive for us in both our hurt and in our humanity.
3. How does forgiveness relate to reconciliation?
How does forgiveness relate to reconciliation? Ideally, forgiveness leads to reconciliation. Is reconciliation the same as restoration? Is it always possible?
a. Should we forgive without repentance?
Should we forgive without repentance? Have you noticed that God’s forgiveness precedes repentance? Indeed, Romans 5:10 tells us that while we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us. So, a) God forgives us, even though sometimes we’re not good at repenting. And b) God calls us to forgive not because the other person repents, but because we are forgiven.
What, then, does it mean to forgive someone who has, maybe, died or is otherwise incapable of receiving my forgiveness, or who won’t acknowledge doing wrong? Should I forgive that person? From all that’s been said, I think the answer is yes. But this highlights how one-dimensional, one-directional and therefore seemingly unfair forgiveness can be. God may be calling you to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it and doesn’t care if you forgive, and doesn’t even feel the need to repent. My forgiving someone doesn’t require their repentance, but 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. But a real and present danger is that the obstacle between you and another person just might become a barrier between you and God.
b. Should we forgive those who demand forgiveness?
Should we forgive those who demand [forgiveness]? Some ask what to do if someone demands [forgiveness]. What is forgiveness is presented as an obligation because God calls us to forgive? Well, this might be coming from the person who wronged you or from someone who provides spiritual counsel. And tragically, that might even be one and the same person. When people cause hurt and then compound the pain by demanding forgiveness, that strikes me as them being oblivious to their impact on relationships, and demonstrates a lack of repentance.
So should you forgive? Well, yes, ’cause 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 own terms, and has not understood forgiveness. Demanding forgiveness for ourselves is a dangerous thing. Demanding forgiveness of ourselves is something else entirely.
c. Should we be reconciled with those we forgive?
Thirdly, 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, nails our debts to the cross. But there’s 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 apart from repaying 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 someone borrows my car and maliciously damages it, and please know that I’m not referring to my car because I have any great affection for it; it’s because I don’t want to callously name sins that have cut you deeply. I’m talking about my car, but to be honest, every time someone has talked to me in the last few days about forgiveness, the issue has been with his or her father, which surprises me, or occasionally, with a spouse, which surprises me a little bit less. But back to my point: if you borrow my car and 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—that all consequences disappear. Reconciliation may be our ultimate goal, but the road to reconciliation can have many way points.
d. … but doesn’t God forget our sins?
But, hang on, doesn’t God forget our sins? It’s more accurate to say that God doesn’t remember our sins. Now, that’s not just a word game: first, God doesn’t forget anything, and 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 doesn’t say, “I remember when you did so and so”. That’s 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. I might even just say no. Your engaging with whatever we’re talking about here doesn’t mean feeding their weaknesses.
Some here will have fully forgiven an offender while knowing full well that the person is going to do it again. How would that relate to forgetting? And some here 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 where 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, entirely inappropriate.
4. Some final reflections
Some final reflections.
a. Hurt and shame: ourselves and others
Hurt and shame: ourselves and others. My internal voice shouts of wrong done to me, and a quiet whisper sometimes reminds me to forgive. The shouting can so overwhelm that 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.
Gratitude: we forgive because we’re forgiven. But that won’t work if it’s 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 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 (Col 2:13-14)
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: it’s 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 our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:13-14 NIV)
So we are forgiven based on the prior work of Christ on the cross. But some here 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? God forgives perfectly; I forgive imperfectly. Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive, divine”. But in fact, everything we do is human. For us, to err is to 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’s hard and we’re not always good at it.
So let me conclude by encouraging you to forgive, knowing that it may not be easy. And when it’s difficult, look away from yourself and away from the one who has hurt you to Jesus. Fix your eyes on him, the one who according to Hebrews 12:3, “endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (NIV).
And maybe as I finish, I should try to define the term we’ve been using. Some, when they drill down into forgiveness, think that it’s all about letting go of negative emotions, as though it 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 just adjusting our emotional life. Bearing in mind all the caveats and what I’ve already said, I think this is a good definition of forgiveness: this is from Allender and Longman: “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”.1 That’s what God has done for us. That’s what he calls us to do.
CK: Thank you very much, Philip. While I have you here, we’ve planned on having just a brief interlude after each of the talks where I might open up a question or two just in response to what we’ve heard, and I really appreciate what we’ve just heard; that was really helpful—especially for me. Separating out forgiveness and reconciliation, and seeing the distinction between the two, that really clarified a lot of things that I think are going to feature probably later on in our question and answer time.
One of the questions I’d like to raise right now comes from Jum Naden, who raised this question: you asked a question about “What’s the difference between how God forgives and how we forgive?” and I think there seems to be some basis upon the forgiveness that God extends to us that then enables us to forgive. And I think you hinted at this at the end. I think you gave three components of what is involved in forgiveness, and I wonder if you could just revisit these a little bit to think about how these function.
In particular, you said something about the future day of reckoning enabling us to forgive in a way. Can you explain that a little bit more?
PK: Maybe I could try. I think that some of us think as though forgiveness means that justice won’t be done, and the Scriptures keep reminding us that justice will be done. Sorry, this may be too long and unhelpful, but as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me if—and this might be a horrible thing; I hope it doesn’t trouble people. But if I were in a car accident because you were intoxicated, and you ran into me and I’m maimed and disabled and my entire family is maimed and disabled, and I forgive you, does that mean all the consequences are over with? I don’t think so! And even if every member of my family and I forgave you, does that mean all the consequences of that are over with? Again, I don’t think so, because it has implications for the community and the medical system. It has—the consequence of sin spiral outward.
So my engagement with sin doesn’t mean that it’s gone and done with. It can be gone and done with within our relationship, if there is a relationship at all. And that’s a beautiful thing. And that’s how it is between God and myself. But all these things will be dealt with in full and true justice one day. I’ve never been in this situation, but I’m sure some people have: that may be the only way they can let go of something—
PK: —and enter into a genuine forgiveness.
CK: That’s really helpful. What that shows me, too, is that this is actually an act of faith—
CK: —that we’re actually committing ourselves to what we know to be true about the coming future and allowing, in one sense, God to be God in bringing that justice and judgement in its right place and its right time.
CK: And that liberates us, then, in the moment as we live in faith. That’s very helpful, Philip. Thank you so much for what you’ve just shared with us. I really really appreciate it. You can have a seat and we’ll call you back up in the question and answer time in just a few minutes.
We’re just about to get into our second talk here in just a moment, and it might be a good time for you to just stretch your legs or stretch your back. I’ve been dealing with bad back during these last few days and weeks, and so I know what it feels like. So I welcome a stretch from you.
As you do stretch, I’d ask you to reach for your Bibles and open up to Matthew chapter 18 and we’re going to be reading the parable of the unforgiving servant. I’m going to read from the ESV this time: Matthew chapter 18 beginning in verse 21: we’ll read to the end of the chapter.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven].
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:21-35 ESV)
Well having heard that reading, I would like to welcome Archbishop Kanishka Raffel.
Kanishka Raffel: Thank you very much, Chase. It’s a great pleasure to be here and, of course, we’re very sorry that you all can’t be with us. But it is good to be able to have this opportunity to reflect on this very important subject and part of our discipleship and following of the Lord Jesus, and I’m very glad to be able to join you.
1. The God who forgives
Well, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: “Our Father in heaven, forgive us our debts”. He’s reminding us that we are all people who need forgiveness. And God is the God who grants forgiveness. The word “debt” conveys one aspect of what the Bible calls “sin”. Sin can include breaking God’s laws or falling short of God’s standards. “Debts” conveys the idea of what we owe to God. We’re in need of forgiveness, because we do not give to God what we owe him—thanks, praise, love and obedience. And we are in need of forgiveness because as the Anglican confession prayer says, we have not done what we ought to have done. Human beings are creatures who need forgiveness, and amazingly and wonderfully, the God we have offended is a God of mercy.
We just heard the story that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 18. Forgive me if I paraphrase: a businessman is in great debt to his bank. He owes millions. His overdraft is overdrawn. The interest bill is rising high. His credit card has maxed out. He can’t pay his bills. He can’t pay his staff. The bank calls him in: “You’re through! Take your kids out of school. Take your family out of your home. Hand over the car keys. You’re finished. You’re for it.”
“Have mercy on me! Give me time. I’ll pay you back.”
The bank manager says, “All right. I cancel the debt. Go home to your family.”
We’re told in verse 27 of Matthew 18, he had pity, he released him and he forgave the debt. The bank manager cancels the debt, so we know it’s not a true story; Jesus made it up. But the point is that God is the bank manager. God is the King in the story. God is a God of mercy. God’s mercy triumphs over his judgement.
The Bible uses many images to describe God’s forgiveness. We heard from Philip from Romans 4 verse 8 that God does not count or reckon our sin against us—against the one he has forgiven. We incur debt, but God wipes the debt column clean. Psalm 32 verse 1 says the one whose “transgression is forgiven” has their sins “covered”. We sin, but God works so that there is nothing to be seen. Isaiah 382 verse 17: Hezekiah praises God because he has put all the king’s sins behind God’s back—not turning a blind eye to sin, but dealing with our sin so that it no longer stands between us. Psalm 103 verse 12 famously records that God has removed our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west”. It is removed and consigned to a place that is beyond reaching. Psalm 51 verse 1: “Have mercy on me, oh God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgression”. David does not rely on anything about himself when he appeals to God for forgiveness; he appeals to God’s own character. He’s merciful to the undeserving—the God who forgives sinners.
Psalm 51 verse 2: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” We’re stained by sin. It clings and contaminates. But God washes, cleanses, blots out our transgression.
Well, we saw in the earlier lecture that the whole Bible teaches that forgiveness comes as God absorbs into himself the cost of forgiving us. The death of the sinless Son of God, the Lord Jesus, in our place for our sake: he pays the debt we owe. He takes our sins to the uttermost reaches where they condemn no more. He washes us clean so that God’s rebellious children may be forgiven, redeemed, purchased by the blood of Christ. The bank manager wears the debt himself because he’s merciful. God meets our great need of his mercy with the great gift of his Son. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts”, he’s reminding us that we need forgiveness and God will forgive.
2. Forgiven forgivers
But that’s not all, is it. The prayer doesn’t stop with “Forgive us our debts”. That’s only half the prayer. The prayer says, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”. In other words, the Bible consistently connects the experience of God’s forgiveness with the command to be a forgiver of others. So we’ve thought about the God who forgives; now let’s think about forgiven forgivers.
Jesus expounds the request of the Lord’s prayer in this way in Matthew chapter 6 verses 14 and 15:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14-15 NIV)
We are not only people who need forgiveness. If we are to be the children of our Father, we must be those who forgive others.
The story that Jesus tells in Matthew 18 has a second chapter: the businessman leaves the bank. He’s received mercy. He’s had his slate wiped clean. He was facing humiliation—deprivation—prison. But he’s going home.
He sees a man in the street who owes him $1000. He grabs him by the throat. “You miserable thief! You scoundrel! Where’s my money?”
“I haven’t got it!” the second man replies. “Please, have mercy on me and I’ll pay you back.”
“No. To prison with you.”
The bank manager hears what the man with the debt has done. He calls him back. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy just as I had on you?” And Jesus says, in his anger, he turns him over to the jailers to be punished until the money was paid back. And the Lord says, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:35).
It’s not that we earn our forgiveness by being forgiving. Rather, those who have received forgiveness must be people who offer forgiveness. The man in the story had forgotten that he had been forgiven and therefore must be a forgiver.
So let’s think about why we must forgive, what we do when we forgive and how we can forgive.
a) Why should we forgive?
Firstly, why must forgiven people forgive others? The sociologist and the psychologist will tell you what is true—that forgiveness is good for you, that it’s therapeutic, that it reduces the urge to violence and revenge, that it has a liberating power, regardless of whether the person who has offended against you has repented or not. All that, for as much as I know, is true and good. But for us, there’s no surprise in learning that what God commands is good for us. That’s not the primary reason why we are to forgive.
First, we forgive others because forgiveness is the heart of God. When God passes before Moses and discloses to a man for the first recorded time what his name is, he says this in Exodus 34:6-7:
“The Lord, the Lord, … slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exod 34:6-7 ESV)
The name of God discloses God’s heart of forgiveness. As Philip expounded for us, it exposed his heart of justice as well, and we saw how the cross reconciles mercy and justice. But the name of God discloses God’s heart of forgiveness.
Similarly, the ministry of Jesus puts forgiveness at the centre of Christian life and faith. As Jesus gathers his friends for a final meal, he teaches them about the cross and he teaches them about forgiveness. As he passes them the cup of wine, he says to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.
The fourth century prayer of humble access from our prayer book says,
We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose property [it means nature]—whose nature is always to have mercy.
The heart of God—the heart of the cross—the heart of the Christian life is forgiveness. So we must be forgiving.
Secondly, we must forgive others in order to be the children of our Father. Forgiveness is God-like. At just about 20 years ago on the 5thAugust 2002, the Murree Christian School for the children of Christian workers in Pakistan was attacked by gunmen during school hours. They killed six workers in the school while students and teachers hid in the classrooms under tables and hallways with the sounds of gunshot ringing around them. One of the students recorded the events in her classroom:
People were praying all around; a constant hum in the classroom. Now and then people would pray out loud, for God’s protection, for his angels around us, for Jenny’s mum who’d been shot and was lying on the floor in the hall, and for everyone else in the school. Someone prayed for the attackers.
A child at gunpoint prayed for her attackers. Forgiveness is God-like.
And thirdly, the point of Jesus’ story is that we must forgive others, because we have been forgiven. The church must be a community of forgiveness or it is not the church. As Chase read for us at the beginning from Colossians,
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col 3:12-13 ESV)
Churches must be communities of continual forgiveness. Someone didn’t listen—didn’t—remember—didn’t care. An insensitive remark—an unwarranted criticism—a careless response—a broken promise. Does that happen in church? It does. The church that does not practise forgiveness among its members is separated from its head. We think we can separate from each other and be forgiven by God. But God says, “Forgive each other or you will be separated from me”.
It’s so incongruous to be forgiven and to refuse to forgive others. The reality of my forgiveness must show itself in my forgiveness of others. If I bear a grudge to the grave, it will keep me from heaven, because ultimately, it will show that I have not truly repented towards God.
b) What am I doing when I forgive?
But if this is true, then we need to be clear what we are aiming at when we aim at forgiveness. So secondly, what am I doing when I forgive? We thought about why we must forgive; now what am I doing when I forgive?
Firstly, we’re condemning the sin. The cross of Christ, where Jesus secures our forgiveness by his death in our place, bearing the penalty our sin deserves, confronts us with the depth and the horror of our own sin. The self-sacrifice of the most beautiful human life in history, who is none other than God the Son through whom the universe came into existence, teaches us the gravity of sin and the desperation of our plight since only his sacrificial death could suffice to atone for the sins of the world.
It follows, therefore, that forgiveness is not turning a blind eye to sin. Just as no one can come to the cross and seek forgiveness without acknowledging that we are needy sinners, so we do not hold out forgiveness apart from simultaneously condemning the sin that we seek to forgive. Forgiveness does not deny the truth of sin, it does not deny the harm of sin and it does not deny the evil of sin. Rather, forgiveness names and confronts sin.
Secondly, what we’re doing when we forgive is bearing the cost. We name the sin, but we bear the cost. As Christ on the cross pays our debt, so forgiveness bears the cost of the damage done by the offender’s sin. The forgiver releases the offender from guilt and debt and punishment. The forgiver forgoes vengeance, which is to multiply sin, and to an extent, they forgo justice, which is to repay sin. The forgiver doesn’t demand just recompense, but graciously forgives, releases, relents. Forgiveness names and blames sin, but it withholds punishment from the one who deserves to be punished. Instead, it is the one who offers forgiveness who absorbs the pain and forgoes the right to punish.
Instinctively, we know this—at least, we do if we’ve ever forgiven someone. The cost of offering forgiveness to an other is to absorb into ourselves the pain they have caused and to relinquish the demand that they suffer instead for what they have done. The forgiver bears the pain, the forgiver absorbs the injury, and the forgiven goes free.
So what about repentance? I am suggesting that there can be forgiveness whether or not there is repentance. If there is no repentance, there will not be reconciliation. But the absence of repentance must not be a cloak for nursing unforgiveness.
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant in response to Peter’s question, “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” To which Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy seven times” (Matt 18:21-22).
In Luke 17, Jesus puts it slightly differently: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (v. 3 ESV). But the point of these sayings is not repentance—not that repentance is essential. The point of these saying is that forgiveness is essential. Indeed, it’s arguable that when Jesus says you must forgive seventy-seven times, he means even if the repentance is shallow and short lived, you must forgive.
We must not justify resentment and unforgiveness on the basis that there has been no repentance. It is possible to release the debt—to give up the claim for vengeance—even if there is no repentance.
There is no forgiveness from God without repentance, because we must turn to the Lord if we are to find forgiveness. But we are bound to release others from their indebtedness to us, because God alone is judge. We forgive as forgiven sinners; we cannot demand repentance of others, but we must offer to forgive because we have been forgiven.
Philip had already addressed the question of whether a wrongdoer can demand forgiveness, and like him, I agree: they cannot. That is to avoid responsibility for what they have done. Real repentance, which holds out the possibility of reconciliation, involves full acknowledgement of wrongdoing and redress for loss suffered, if that is possible, and a commitment to real and lasting change.
Forgiveness can be offered even when there is no repentance. Without repentance, there will be no reconciliation. But I think it needs to be said that in some cases, even if there is a repentance which is genuine, nevertheless, restoration of relationship cannot always be assumed. Sometimes a sin can have such damaging consequences, or a pattern of sinning can have such damaging consequences, that they are not repaired or removed even by forgiveness and repentance. Forgiveness and repentance don’t undo the deed, and sometimes the consequences cannot be repaired. Sometimes the damage endures and will be healed only in the new creation.
Philip has already spoken about remembering—that God does not remember our sins. But God is not like us in this respect. [Laughter] But just because you remember some sin against you does not mean that you have not forgotten it.
We need to understand that the Bible permits some punishment for wrongdoing without forgiveness. The state exists to punish wrongdoing. The criminal justice system is not to forgive crime; it is to punish crime. The victims of crime, if they are believers, must seek God’s help to finally come to forgiveness of those who have wronged them. But the role of the state is to punish wrongdoing and to expect the state to do that is not to deny forgiveness.
And we need to bear in mind, as has already been said, that when we forgive someone their sin against us, we do not forgive their sin against God. And God will bring every sin to light. The person who does not repent toward us when we forgive them will face the judgement of God for their sin if they remain unrepentant. We do not have to think that we failed to forgive because the wrongdoer is punished by the state, or because we have not yet forgotten, or because we have not yet been reconciled. None of those things necessarily mean we have not forgiven.
c. How shall we forgive?
Why should we forgive? What are we doing when we forgive? And thirdly, how shall we forgive?
In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, the Apostle Paul says through Christ, God reconciled us to himself, not counting our sins against us and giving to us the ministry of reconciliation so that anyone in Christ is a new creation, and controlled by the love of Christ, we live no longer for ourselves but for him, who died for us and was raised (2 Cor 5:14-15, 17-19).
How shall we forgive? Not from our own strength. That would be foolish and proud and fruitless. We may dare to forgive only because of the grace we have known in the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. As a result of which, he lives in us. No, I can’t swim like Ian Thorpe, no matter how much anyone tells me. But if Christ tells me to forgive, and then promises to come and make his home within me, then I can forgive by the power of Christ in me. By his Spirit, he transforms me into his likeness. Forgiving is God-like, and it is the life of Christ in those who have put their faith in him which holds out forgiveness to others. That is why the failure to forgive can reveal that we have not ourselves repented and welcomed the forgiveness of God in our own lives.
We must stand at the Cross in order to forgive others, because we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. But at the cross, we do not forgive as anything other than forgiven sinners. We have been loved beyond measure, we have been forgiven at great cost, we have been welcomed and embraced in the love of God and indwelt by his Spirit, and only because these things are true, is it possible for us to forgive others.
It’s hard to forgive. It’s hard if you’ve been hurt. It’s hard and it’s slow. But God is able: he can do it. God is patient: he won’t rush you. God is gracious: you may go two steps forward and one step back. We must pray—ask God to teach us to forgive. And gather with another Christian if you can and together, ask the Lord to work.
Corrie Ten Boom came out of the Ravensbrook prisoner of war camp where her beloved sister Betsy had died. In Germany after the war, she speaks on reconciliation and forgiveness that can only be found in Christ. One day, a man comes towards her, and she recognises that he’s one of the soldiers in charge of the prisoner of war camp where her sister died. He recognised her in an instant, and he came to her with an arm extended. She prayed, “Lord, I cannot forgive this man. Please help me.”
He extended his hand towards her and said, “My sister Corrie, would you please forgive me?”
She put out her hand and prayed, “God, help me”. And she said God provided a word: “I forgive you, brother, with my whole heart”.
CK: Kanishka, thank you very much for that. Thank you so much for what you’ve just shared with us, and again, thank you for clarifying so much for us. I especially appreciated the way that you also helped us see the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, and the relationship of repentance to all of those things.
One of the things I also appreciated was that sometimes you said there are real consequences, and necessary consequences—even, perhaps, punishments—for those that have suffered certain wrongs, and that if those modes of justice are pursued, say, through the state, that does not necessarily indicate that we haven’t forgiven. I think that’s a really important word for people that have suffered particular crimes that really do need to have justice served.
One thing I’d ask for you just to clarify or expound upon just a little bit is the conditional nature of forgiveness. So following on Jesus’s prayer that he taught us, he says that we forgive as we’ve been forgiven. If you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven. Can you just explain that a little bit more? Are we in danger of somehow having something we must do, then, in order to be saved? Or is this flowing out of our salvation? How do you help people understand this relationship?
KR: Yes. I think that’s right. It’s clear from the Gospels—from the structure of the gospel—[Laughter] from Jesus’ own ministry that our salvation is entirely worked by God. So the condition that Jesus is referring to there, I think, is really a way of exposing our true heart. If we can’t forgive, we’ve not yet sufficiently repented. We’ve not yet welcomed the forgiveness that God gives, because to know the forgiveness of God in our own lives is to be transformed by it in such a way that recognising ourselves to be forgiven sinners and recognising those who have sinned against us to be like us—to be sinners in need of forgiveness—that is the work that the gospel does in us. And so, I think Jesus is really challenging us about our relationship with God if we’re unable to forgive others.
CK: Yeah, very very helpful. It’s something that we have known and therefore we’ve shown, and if we haven’t been able to show it, maybe we haven’t known it, is the question there.
KR: [Laughter] I think that’s right.
CK: Yeah. I think the parable is so illustrative of that, because it gives us a scenario that we can really relate to. Maybe we can’t relate to millions and millions of dollars of debt. Maybe we can.
CK: But maybe we can’t.
CK: But we can relate to a hundred dollars of debt or something, and we feel like, “Pfft. Someone owes me that”—that “I feel like I should get that back”. But if I had actually been in that much debt before—
CK: —you know, it really gives us perspective on the dynamics between what we’ve known from God—
KR: And—and that parable draws attention to the great debt that we owe to God—
KR: —that he forgives at great cost and then says, “Yes, you have debtors too. I know you have debtors too. But you’ve been forgiven.”
KR: “You must forgive.”
CK: “See, you’re a debtor as well”. That’s right. That’s very helpful. Thank you very much.
CK: I’ll let you have a seat for a second.
CK: Before I call you both back up for a Q&A, I just want to give you a couple of announcements, all of you that are listening. One of the things we want to do at the Centre for Christian Living is provide as many resources as we can for you to keep growing in your walk with God and the ministry that you’re doing in whatever way you’re serving in your local church, and so we want to keep giving you as many resources as possible.
We have another event coming up, but for a different centre: one of our partner centres is the Priscilla & Aquila Centre, and it thinks in particular about helping women in ministry—women and men do ministry together. And one of the things that they’re running in September is a seminar on dating. It’s asking the question about God’s wisdom for dating. And my dear friend and colleague Paul Grimmond is going to be presenting that night at 7 o’clock pm. You can find out information and register on the Priscilla & Aquila website: paa.moore.edu.au/dating.
The next thing is that we have a CCL event—our final one for the year—on community coming up in October. And what we’re going to be addressing there is “Raising the next generation”. We all have a community that we belong to that’s not a static community, but it’s dynamic; it keeps growing, and it goes from generation to generation. And one of the pictures that we get throughout the Scriptures is this responsibility that we have to the generations of raising up the next generation. And so we’re going to be thinking about this from a few different angles—about investing in those that are younger than us, and so if we’re young, if we’re old, if we’re somewhere in the middle, I—I want you to take an interest in your place in thinking about the future of God’s people and how we together as a community are responsible for that future. And so I’d love for you to come and hear Paul Dudley, who’s a chaplain at Shore School, as well as my colleague Mark Earngey, who teaches Church History here at Moore College. And we’d love to have you join us on another Wednesday night in October—that’s October 20th, I believe, from my memory.
Two other resources from the Centre for Christian Living, if you aren’t already checking them out. Maybe you’re new the Centre—maybe a friend told you about this event—we have regular things that we’re trying to make available to you to keep growing in your walk with God, as well as our annual that we’ve published of some of the collections of our highlights from last year: the 2020 Annual you can find through all different ebook distributors, and we hope that you’ll pick that up and read these short entries that will surely help you keep thinking well on living this life as a disciple of Christ.
Those are the announcements from me. I’m going to call up my friends once more for some questions and answers.
CK: Thank you to all of those of you that submitted questions to Sli.do in advance. We had more than 70 questions submitted to us. You can imagine that in the next 20 minutes, there’s no way we’re getting through 70 individual questions. But what I hope to do is get to as many of them as possible—if not specifically in the exact wording, then at least in what I hope you can recognise as an attempt to getting to it.
What I’ve done is actually I’ve spent a lot of time reading through each of the questions—many of them wonderful, many of them very honest, and I appreciate your honesty and transparency of raising questions from your own experience. I’ve been able to categorise them in four main areas, and so we’re going to speak to those four areas. And I hope you’ve already been able to hear how many of the questions have been addressed deliberately in the talks. As Philip and Kanishka prepared, I know that they were looking over those and recognising many of the kinds of concerns that people had and trying to speak to those. But we’ll try to tease out some more of the implications as we spend the next few minutes together thinking about these things.
Forgiveness and the unrepentant
So let me just begin with the main category of forgiveness and the unrepentant. There’s been a lot of talk about the nature of repentance and forgiveness, and how these things work together. One of the main things people have raised, and the top question we had was, what if somebody doesn’t admit that they’re wrong? How do we actually go about forgiving them if they don’t admit that they’re wrong? And this may come back to the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. But what does it mean to actually extend forgiveness to somebody that doesn’t think that they’ve done anything wrong?
Either of you can answer this, or both of you. And I’d love for this to be a conversation as much as you want.
PK: Well, if you think in terms of a debt as, I think, Kanishka developed that idea: forgiveness is the willingness and the ability to let that debt go. And in a sense, that’s a statement about who I am and what I need to do, rather than what the other person does. So there is always, I think, an element of unfairness in the way God deals with us: we get so much more than we deserve, and there’s an unfairness in our call to forgive. And what we’re talking about is a situation where that unfairness is really ramped up and can be especially hurtful and painful. But that doesn’t mean it’s unlike those other areas where we forgive.
PK: We give something that’s undeserved in any forgiveness.
CK: Yeah, and I think you spoke about this in your talk—that actually, we bear a cost in doing that—that we actually have to choose not to punish in the way—or deliver on the thing that’s owed to us in the way that we might otherwise. That was a very helpful clarification and I really appreciate that.
PK: One of the things that Kanishka mentioned to me a while back—I don’t remember the context, even—was a book called Bold Love. I referred to it once as we went along. And the reason I mention that is there’s some good stuff on forgiveness in the one fifties pages, but for me, it really draws to mind the notion of loving your enemy. Doesn’t that have something to do with this? “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8 ESV): surely that’s a way of talking about forgiveness without using the language of forgiveness. Loving your enemies. We’re talking somebody who’s unrepentant: well, this is ramping that up even more. And yet we’re still called to love—
PK: —that person.
CK: Yeah. This brings up another area. And maybe, Kanishka, you might want to speak to this. But what happens if there’s ongoing offence. I mean—
CK: —not only that they don’t recognise that they’ve done wrong, but they just keep on hurting you, whether that’s physically or emotionally or any other way, but they keep doing damage to you.
CK: What does that mean to forgive, and how does that actually work in the dynamics, maybe, of the relationship?
KR: Yeah, I think that is possibly one of the contexts in which this issue of unrepentance comes up, because it may be part of the pattern of relationship. I mean, you know, you might have a friend who has—always breaks their promise, or you might have a parent who is highly critical, or you might have a work colleague who is constantly exploiting you in some way. And so there might be a pattern of behaviour. And part of the reason they don’t repent is because actually, this is just how they normally treat you.
KR: So that’s incredibly painful—incredibly painful and difficult. And it’s the kind of situation in which it’s easy to understand why a person could be consumed by anger or driven into despair. And I do want to just mention that book again—Bold Love by Allender and Longman, which has this subtitle of “Loving your enemies” and thinks quite carefully and systematically about the different kinds of little enemies that we can have, who, nevertheless, have a very destructive impact on our sense of who we are and our operation in a particular context.
But I think one of the important things about that is that I think union with Christ is a very significant element, which is what I was getting at towards the end when I was talking about how we can forgive. I think it’s as we grow our own sense of identity in Christ—of security in Christ—as we are loved by him—as we are loved by the Lord—we’re enabled to release some of that anger to avoid the despair or any kind of vengeful attitude towards others.
KR: Because if they’re not repenting, they’re not going to give us anything to work with, right? [Laughter]
KR: So it has to come from the Lord.
KR: And at that stage, there won’t be any reconciliation. But, you know, the Bible tells us very surprising things like “Do not repay evil with evil, … [but] with [good]” (1 Pet 3:9). And so you can disarm that kind of stuff by practising kindness and blessing a person who causes you grief. Now, you can’t do that without the help of the Lord Jesus.
KR: But under God, those kinds of strategies can work in surprising ways.
CK: It just—
KR: In any case, it’s what the Bible says—
KR: —for you to do. So that’s a good reason to do it.
CK: Well, and just to be clear as well, I mean, what you said earlier about how some things need to be prosecuted still, I mean, self-protection is an okay measure, even if you are forgiving somebody. So if somebody continues to perpetuate the same wrong, it doesn’t mean you have to keep taking it on the chin, does it. I mean, you can actually say, “I forgive you, but …”—
KR: Yes, absolutely!
CK: —“this can’t keep going on”.
KR: Yeah, absolutely. And it doesn’t have to be secret, because forgiveness is not merely internal. It exists in a social relationship: there is always a forgiver and a forgiven—an offender and one offended against—although [Laughter], we tend to be in both places, and we can often be in both places in the same relationship.
KR: So, you know, these are not absolute categories. At the foot of the cross, I can’t say that I’m absolutely innocent. [Laughter] Right?
KR: Even if I’m a victim. So when forgiveness is working, it does result in reconciliation. It does result in people saying, “Oh. That was wrong. I need you to forgive me.” And so it does restore relationship. And that’s the direction you want to work in if you can. But if you can’t, then you’re not called to put yourself in harm’s way. The call to forgive is not a call to submit to destructive behaviour.
KR: —in an indefinite way.
CK: Yeah, that’s very helpful.
CK: Yeah, thank you.
Forgiveness and trust
CK: Another category that really evolves out of this, then, from the questions, was about forgiveness and reconciliation, and quite a few people have raised this about—I think they’ve been seeing how forgiveness and reconciliation often go so closely together. What I loved is that both of you have helped to tease those apart and show the kinds of space where reconciliation is enabled, but that forgiveness does not necessarily equate to reconciliation. So I just want to ask you does forgiveness mean that you’ll necessarily trust someone? Or does forgiveness mean you necessarily forget? And I know there’s been a lot of that already addressed now. But Philip, I mean, do you want to speak to that? You said quite a lot about that earlier.
PK: It’s possible that I might trust and, in fact, know a certainty that goes beyond trust that you’re going to do it again—that you’re going to be wrong in the way you treat me. So that’s just the reality of life. So we have to talk about a gap between forgiveness and reconciliation, and the one doesn’t automatically lead to the other.
I think our goal in relationships always should be reconciliation. I probably should qualify that in some ways [Laughter]. I think, generally, that’s our goal as Christians—God—
CK: It’s the ideal, yeah.
PK: —we’re reconciled with God; he calls us to be reconciled with one another. But we can’t be naïve about this; there are some people with whom we can’t be reconciled, and so we can do what we’re called to do. We can’t do what the other person needs to do to bring about that reconciliation all the time.
I’m reluctant to say this, because I might get this all wrong. But I wrote down a note and I have no idea where it came from. But I think this note that I’ve got handwritten is that people in the past didn’t talk about the benefit of forgiving for ourselves, but in a pre-therapeutic age—is the way I wrote it down—people like Calvin and Owen talked about the way forgiveness works on the other person. And reconciliation may be the outcome of forgiveness. In other words, forgiveness is other-person-oriented, and it may be the means by which people can be drawn. But we don’t know that. We can’t know that. So to use the language of trust, well, I’m confident that you’re going to get it wrong again! Well, that might reality. And yet I can still hold out forgiveness—
PK: —and dream of reconciliation—
PK: —hope for reconciliation.
CK: Well, anecdotally, I mean, as someone that’s been forgiven, I mean, we’re not just that we’re trying to forgive others, but as people that have actually been forgiven by others, I mean, I can remember how powerful that’s been for me in testifying to the gospel to me. But also knowing there’s no reason why you as the offended should trust me, in one sense. I’ve done you wrong, and I’m coming to you saying, “Sorry”. When somebody genuinely extends to you that gracious offer of forgiveness—
CK: —I mean, genuine forgiveness, and you know it, one, that’s liberating: it’s a real tangible experience of it, in one sense, the gospel power. But also it actually drove me to wanting to be different. I thought, “I really don’t want to wrong you again. I know what it felt like to wrong you. I pleaded with you. You’ve been unfair, in one sense, in giving me this gracious forgiveness. And now I definitely don’t want to wrong you again.” I mean, that’s so powerful to me—of wanting me to be somebody different and wanting that reconciliation.
What if we can’t forgive?
CK: Just thinking a little bit further ahead, then. I mean, we talked a lot about how forgiveness works from God to us, but also about how that, then, extends to others. There’s been quite a few questions, again, about the conditional nature of this. And I just want to raise one question that somebody raised: what happens if you can’t forgive? I mean, you raised this, Kanishka, I think: you said, “If we can’t forgive, we might need to be checking our own salvation, in a sense—that if we’re going to take this kind of bitter hatred to the grave, that we might actually be in peril ourselves. How does that work out, and how do we not scare away anybody? But also how would you help somebody that’s really struggling with that?
KR: Well, first of all, I think I want to encourage people to be slow to decide that they can’t forgive. Because, in actual fact, Christian people trusting in the Lord are constantly offering forgiveness to others around them. So we find these hard cases—there are hard cases—
KR: —we have hard cases in our own lives with particular people or situations. And they are hard. But I do want to encourage people that in reality, probably, most people are doing quite a lot of this. [Laughter] So it—they’re not strangers to the practice of forgiveness. But they might have a hard case. And if there is a hard case, and there are some very hard cases where before you begin to think about forgiveness, you might need to think about safety—so you don’t need to think that the first thing on your agenda with a particular person who wrongs you—that the first thing on your agenda with them has to be forgiveness. It might be that the first thing is safety.
KR: And healing. And there might be other steps that the Lord is going to take you through before you come to a place where you begin to say, “Now I know I need somehow to move to forgiveness, and how would I do that?”
KR: And I think we do need to look to the Word and to rely on the help of the Holy Spirit and the counsel of other Christians around us, and begin to tease that out. But it doesn’t have to be like that. [Laughter]
KR: It can be a process.
KR: It can be a step in a process that begins with some other things that are important to do first.
KR: And then it will be a matter of whether that person is repentant, whether they’re alive, and then you would have to work through it. So the first thing I want to say is don’t be quick to say you can’t forgive, because there may be many reasons why you’re just not up to forgiveness yet.
CK: Yeah. Yeah.
KR: But I do think that the warnings that Jesus gives are pretty stark. So I think they put the importance of forgiveness—it’s very important. It may not be the first thing that you need to do in a broken relationship, where somebody has hurt you badly, especially. But it is an important issue, so we need to prayerfully get to it at some point.
CK: That’s good.
KR: But also, we shouldn’t lose hope that God can do that.
KR: We’re not being asked to do this on our own. And so, nothing is impossible for God.
CK: Yeah. That’s really helpful. I mean, one of the things we talked about earlier was that some of those deep hurts that even we’ve known, they’re the kinds of things that haunt you. And actually, recognising forgiveness isn’t instantaneous, nor is forgiveness something that doesn’t require sometimes some measured steps. We don’t do it alone; that is, God helps us. But also that we sometimes have to process forgiveness even in community as we think about gospel logic being applied into each of our circumstances—those hurts that we’ve known. And it’s really good for us to be willing to share some of these things to help us think through and reason about them.
When others refuse to forgive us
CK: Just as we get a couple of last questions, we’ll go one more just for a moment, how do we think about this in terms of reaching people that may be don’t want to extend forgiveness? I mean, I think one of the things that people have said is that you can’t demand forgiveness of somebody. But what if you’ve wronged somebody and you genuinely would love to have their forgiveness, but they’re just saying, “I’m unwilling to give it to you as a Christian”?
CK: I mean, that’s hard! You said that’s the church—that if we are the church—
CK: —we need to be pursuing these things together.
KR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CK: But how do we actually say that? I mean, maybe this is, again, where we need to be distinguishing between reconciliation and forgiveness. I mean, it’s a very tough situation. Do you want to say something, Philip?
PK: Oh, I don’t think so! [Laughter] Here’s how I’m processing this, and it may be—
PK: —totally unhelpful. Sometimes we have to live with the consequences of our sins.
PK: And if we’ve wronged somebody, we may just need to wear that and bear that for a long time. And that’s not something to take lightly, but it’s the reality of life at times.
CK: Yeah. And if we’re genuinely remorseful of our own sin, making that demand upon somebody else can actually add further—
CK: —injury at some points to that relationship. Sometimes we have to do what we can on our end, but actually prayerfully wait on the Lord for them to—
KR: Yeah, and I think—
KR: —in pastoral ministry, you do find these circumstances. I think you have opportunities to see remarkable expressions of repentance and forgiveness—
KR: —and reconciliation and restoration. But I also know in my own experience of 30 years of church ministry that there are situation where, in a sense, people are doing the best they can to forgive and to repent. And yet, they can’t restore. It’s the consequences issue—that the effect of some sin is so persistent and so—the behaviour has been so destructive—
KR: —that going back to where we were before isn’t possible.
KR: You never want to say “Never”.
KR: But I think that situation can occur.
CK: Yeah. I think that’s really important for us—that actually, in recognising forgiveness from somebody else, sometimes we want all the consequences to be erased as a mark of that forgiveness. But that’s just not feasible. It’s not possible. And that might be a really good thing for us to recognise—that we still have consequences to our sin, even if we’ve received full pardon from God, and maybe even from our neighbour. And that’s something that we need to keep on prayerfully committing to the Lord and asking his help and …
CK: We’re out of time, folks, and I just want to ask you wherever you are to join in thanking both Philip and Kanishka with me. I am grateful to both of you, brothers. I really am thankful for the work that you put into preparing this and for the questions we’ve been able to have and dialogue about. Undoubtedly you have more questions. I mean, we had more than 70 questions. [Laughter] I really think we addressed quite a few in the talks, and I think if you go back and listen to this material, you’ll find a lot of helpful material to get you through quite a few questions that were submitted.
But if you’re ever stuck, let me just give you two further steps—a few things. First of all, relisten to the material. Two, start talking about this with people in your church and reasoning about it with them. And if you’re still stumped, of course, we’d love to hear from you at the Centre for Christian Living, and we’ll do all that we can to respond to you with as much wisdom and help as we can offer. But we do hope that you’ve benefitted from this evening, and we hope that you’ll continue to join us for other events and other resources that we’re providing from the Centre for Christian Living.
I’ll close in prayer now.
Heavenly Father, how thankful to you we are for what we’ve heard tonight and once more, for the forgiveness that you’ve shown us in your Son Jesus Christ, the redemption purchased by his blood. Lord, may we think on these wonderful truths again, and may these wonderful things spur us on to living in godliness in ways that extend the grace that we have received to others. Help us, Lord, as your people, to be marked by gospel truth so that we might honour you in our lives together. Thank you for letting us join virtually tonight. We pray that you’ll keep us well in lockdown, that you’ll keep us mindful of others in our communities and that we’ll be thoughtful of how to reach out to them and love them, and for all of those that are hurting and suffering through pain tonight, Lord, from relationships now or relationships in the past, may your grace extend to them the forgiveness that they need to give to others, Lord. Help them through this I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please subscribe to our podcast. You also might like to visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre.
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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.
2 Kanishka mistakenly said Isaiah 36 on the night.