There once was a businessman who was in great debt to his bank. He owed millions. His overdraft was overdrawn. His interest bill was rising high. His credit cards were maxed out. He couldn’t pay his bills. He couldn’t pay his staff.
The bank called him in and said, “You’re through! Take your kids out of school. Take your family out of your home. Hand over our car keys. You’re finished.”
The businessman sank to his knees and said, “Have mercy on me! Give me time. I’ll pay you back.”
The bank manager then said, “All right. I cancel the debt. Go home to your family.”
The eagle-eyed will have noticed that I have just paraphrased the story Jesus tells about a king and his unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. Peter has just come to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” and to his shock, Jesus answers “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” before launching into the parable (Matt 18:21-22). It’s an important story because it tells us much about not just who we are and what we are called to do, but, more importantly, who God is.
1. The God who forgives
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven … forgive us our debts” (Matt 6:9, 12), he reminds us of two things. Firstly, we are all people in need of 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, whereas “debts” conveys the idea of what we owe to God. Jesus reminds us we’re in need of forgiveness because we do not give to God what we owe him: thanks, praise, love and obedience. Furthermore, we are in need of forgiveness because, as the Anglican confession prayer says, “we have done those things which we ought not to have done”.1 Human beings are creatures who need forgiveness.
But secondly, Jesus reminds us that God is the one who can grant us the forgiveness we so desperately need. Amazingly and wonderfully, the God we have offended is a God of mercy. Jesus illustrates this with that story about the king and his unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35—and he does this in order to make the point 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.
Indeed, the Bible uses many images to describe God’s forgiveness. Consider Romans 4:7-8 (quoting Psalm 32:1-2) where the one whose “transgression is forgiven” has their sins “covered”:
“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
God does not count or reckon our sin against us who have been forgiven. We incur debt, but God wipes our debt column clean. We sin, but God works so that there is nothing to be seen. Consider Isaiah 38:17: Hezekiah praises God because God has put all the king’s sins behind his back—not turning a blind eye to it, but dealing with our sin so that it no longer stands between us and him. Consider Psalm 103:12, which famously records that God has removed our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west”, consigning it to a place beyond reaching. Consider Psalm 51:1, written by King David after his transgression with Bathsheba:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
David does not rely on anything about himself when he appeals to God for forgiveness; instead, he appeals to God’s own character, because he knows that God is merciful to the undeserving. God is a God who forgives sinners. Finally, consider the next verse of Psalm 51, where David begs God to “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (v. 2). Sin stains us, clings to us and contaminates us, but God washes us, cleanses us and blots out our transgression.
We saw in Philip Kern’s talk 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 in our place for our sake pays the debt we owe. The sinless Lord Jesus takes our sins to the uttermost reaches where they condemn us no more. He washes us clean so that God’s rebellious children may be forgiven, redeemed and purchased by his blood. 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, furthermore, that God will forgive.
2. Forgiven forgivers
The story 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 now he’s going home.
Then 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?” he says.
And Jesus says, in his anger, the bank manager turns the man over to the jailers to be punished until the money was paid back. The Lord finishes by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:35).
The Lord’s 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” (Matt 6:12). In other words, the Bible consistently connects the experience of God’s forgiveness with the command to be a forgiver of others. So now that we’ve thought about the God who forgives, let’s turn our attention to forgiven forgivers.
Jesus expounds the request of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:14-15:
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)
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. 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.
That said, why must we forgive? What do we do when we forgive? And how can we forgive those who have sinned against us?
a) Why should we forgive?
The sociologist and the psychologist will tell you that forgiveness is good for you, that it’s therapeutic, that it reduces the urge to violence and revenge, and 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, even though it makes sense that what God commands is good for us, that’s not the primary reason why we are to forgive.
i. The heart of God
Firstly, we forgive others because forgiveness is the heart of God. When God passes before Moses and, for the first recorded instance, discloses to a man what his name is, he says this:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, 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)
God’s name discloses God’s heart of forgiveness. It also exposes his heart of justice, with the cross reconciling 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 about forgiveness. As he passes them the cup of wine, he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).
The fourth century prayer of humble access from The Book of Common Prayer 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 [i.e. nature] is always to have mercy.2
The heart of God—the heart of the cross—the heart of the Christian life—is forgiveness. So we must be forgiving.
ii. Children of the Father
Secondly, we must forgive others in order to be the children of our Father. Forgiveness is God-like. Just about 20 years ago on 5 August 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, 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.
iii. The forgiven forgive
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 Paul puts it in 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)
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. Do these things happen in church? They do. However, 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?
If what I have said is true, we need to be clear what we are aiming at when we forgive. We have thought about why we must forgive; but what are we doing when we forgive?
i. Condemning sin
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—the sacrifice of the one 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.
ii. Bearing the cost
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, debt and punishment. The forgiver forgoes vengeance, which would multiply sin. To an extent, the forgiver forgoes justice, which is to repay sin. The forgiver doesn’t demand just recompense, but graciously forgives, releases and relents. Forgiveness names and blames sin, but it withholds punishment from the one who deserves to be punished. Instead, the one who offers forgiveness absorbs the pain and forgoes the right to punish.
Instinctively, we know this—at least, we do if we have ever forgiven someone. The cost of offering forgiveness to another is absorbing into ourselves the pain they have caused and relinquishing our demand that they suffer for what they have done. The forgiver bears the pain and the forgiver absorbs the injury; the forgiven goes free.
iii. What about repentance?
But what about repentance? I am suggesting that there can be forgiveness whether or not there is repentance. However, if there is no repentance, there will be no reconciliation. Even so, the absence of repentance must not become a cloak for nursing unforgiveness.
In Matthew 18, as I said earlier, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”—to which Jesus replies, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:21-22). In Luke 17:3, Jesus puts it slightly differently: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them”. But the point of these sayings is not that repentance is essential; the point of these sayings is that forgiveness is essential. Indeed, it’s arguable that when Jesus says you must forgive seventy-seven times, he means that 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.
iv. Can forgiveness be demanded?
Philip Kern has already addressed the question of whether a wrongdoer can demand forgiveness, and like him, I agree: they cannot. That is avoiding 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 genuine repentance, 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 those consequences 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.
v. Does forgiving mean forgetting?
Philip has already written about how God does not remember our sins. God is not like us in this respect. But just because you remember some sin against you does not mean that you have not forgiven 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 there to forgive crime; its job 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.
Finally, 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. God will bring every sin to light: the person who does not repent toward us when we forgive them will face his judgement 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?
We’ve already looked at why we should forgive and what we are doing when we forgive. Now let us consider how we are to forgive. In 2 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul says
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again …
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:14-15, 17-19)
How, then, 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 that holds out forgiveness to others. That is why the failure to forgive can reveal that we have not 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. It is only because these things are true that it’s possible for us to forgive others.
Knowing the forgiveness of God, knowing the love of Christ, knowing the power of the Spirit, we forgive. So we pray, we trust, we hope in God, we long for those who have wronged us to be made new—to become what God would have them be. So we forgive.
We must pray. It is hard to forgive when people do the wrong thing—especially when people do the wrong thing to someone you love. Ask God to help you put off grudge-bearing and the desire for retaliation. Ask God to help you put on a good will, a forgiving attitude to the person who has wronged you.
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. God is kind: he gives us each other for mutual help and encouragement. We must pray. We must ask God to teach us to forgive. We must ask the Lord to work in us.
Corrie ten Boom survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War II. In Germany after the war, she spoke on the reconciliation and forgiveness that can only be found in Christ.
One day, a man came towards her. She recognised him as one of the soldiers who had been in charge of Ravensbrück, the camp where her older sister Betsie had died. He recognised her in an instant and came up to her.
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”.3
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 From the order for morning prayer, The Book of Common Prayer (1662): http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/daily/morning.html.
2 From “The Order of the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion”, ibid.
3 Corrie ten Boom, with Jamie Buckingham, Tramp for the Lord (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), 217–218.