TOUGH STUFF: Forgiveness

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Tough Stuff

While I was traveling, I got to read some books for fun.  One of those was called Hunting Eichmann, about the search for Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader in charge of implementing Hitler’s Final Solution to wipe out the Jews.  The process they used was really quite interesting and sad, all at the same time.  The Nazis realized they couldn’t just enter a city and kill all the Jews directly without the rest of the population rising up in protest.  So they developed a staged process, called the Final Solution, to kill them.

They identified all Jews in a city and forced them to wear armbands when out in public.  They restricted public visibility using curfews and segregation to isolate them.  They removed their ability to earn a living and systematically destroyed their businesses.  They confiscated their property, redistributing their land and seizing their money.  Next the Jews were relocated  into walled ghettos, or sent away by train.  You know what happened after they got off the trains.

At each stage in the process, the Germans were weakening and impoverishing the Jews while telling them the opposite.  The armbands were required so that they could buy and sell their goods.  The curfews were said to be for their protection.  Their possessions were said to be put into safe-keeping for after the war.  The trains were to take them away from the fighting to a place of safety.  As the heat was turned up on them little by little, the Jews endured and stood firm, and as a result they endured unthinkable suffering and pain.

I do not want to make a direct comparison here, but I think the process can be similar in your life.  You can endure small pains and tragedies time-after-time in marriage and in your family, so much so that you eventually awaken to find yourself in incredible pain and suffering.

Today we’re looking at the topic of forgiveness, and you may be wondering why?

My relationships with other people are fine.  Life is peaceful most of the time.

My house is quiet in the evenings.  I just settle onto the couch and watch TV ‘til bed.  It’s said that a frog will let itself be cooked in a pot, if you put it in cold water and heat the water gradually.  As the water heats, the frog acclimates until it becomes too hot, and then it just passes out without a fight.  I fear that some of you are in that kettle right now.

A number of you participated in the last D-group study, Peacemaking for Families.  The resounding question I heard from people at the start of this study was, “Why?  I don’t have conflict.”

But by halfway through the study, I was hearing testimonies of men and women who were being convicted.  And often they were not the frogs.  They were the cooks who’d been turning up the heat.  And as I heard these stories, I wondered–how many more are out there?

In the counseling and shepherding that I and the other elders do–in a number of church discipline cases–in talking with other counselors in our church, this is a common issue that comes up.  Many people, many professing Christians do not understand what true forgiveness is.  Sometimes they can’t receive it.  But more often, they can’t give it to others.

This morning I want to help you better understand what the Word of God says about forgiveness.  If you’re one of those people thinking that you don’t need this particular topic, just keep listening.  I think you may be surprised.  What do you do when . . .

Your spouse commits adultery but pleads for you to forgive

Your boss lays you off without justification

Your brother or sister ruins your favorite shirt and says, “I’m sorry”

Your parents verbally assault you whenever you see them

Your friends at school spread rumors about you

Your husband cries in your arms, promising he won’t lie to you again

Your friends at church appear to walk away whenever you draw near

These are not normal parts of life.  Much of this is conflict that we have simply grown accustomed to.  The normal, natural response to things like this is to either flee or fight.  And some of you even do both.  You flee until pressured, then you turn and fight.

Conflict is not something to flee from.  Conflict is not something to fight about.

Conflict is opportunity from God for you to grow.  It’s not hard to find conflict.  It’s not hard to find people who fail you, who disappoint you, who sin against you.  What’s hard is to ask forgiveness.  What’s even harder is to grant forgiveness.

Luke 17:3-5 says, “Be on your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.  The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Literally, give us more faith.)

Jesus commands the disciples to do something radically different than their past religion called for.  Sin was something between man and God.  It was not often dealt with between men.  Sin was something which required work to repay.  Offerings had to be prepared.  Sacrifices had to be made.  Atonement was not easy.  For intentional sins, the sinner would need to wait for the Day of Atonement on which he would cleanse himself and then approach the temple with an offering for the sins of himself and his family.  Sin was not easily forgiven.

But Jesus is preparing his disciples for the day when sin would be paid for by his own life, when new sacrifices would no longer need to be offered.  His payment was once for all (Rom 6:10).

Jesus calls them to forgive a man, not just once, not just seven times, but even seven times in the same day.  In other words, he says–forgive one another as often as you are asked.  No limits.  No peace offerings.  No sacrifices necessary.

But what I think is outstanding is the response of the disciples to His words.

Lord, give us more faith.  They understood how difficult it can be to forgive.  And they didn’t think they were capable of it.

You may feel the same way.  You’ve been physically abused.  You’ve been repeatedly lied to.  All trust is gone.  The old playground saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a lie.

Hateful, insulting, exploitive things have been said to you.  You’ve suppressed it.  You don’t think about it every day any more.  But when you do it brings tears, and it brings anger, and you can barely control it.  Forgiveness is hard.  Jesus’ disciples knew that. You know that.

But here is why it is such a big deal.  Earlier, when teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus told them to cry out to God.  In Matthew 6:12 it says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

That is not what I want to pray.  We often pray, “Forgive my sins, and help me to try and forgive those who’ve sinned against me.”  But that’s not what Jesus tells us to pray.  He calls his followers to pray for equal treatment.  Jesus commands us to pray for equal treatment.  Uh oh!

He then explains in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Another day he told them, in Mark 11:25,  “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”

These are hard words that we often read without thinking.  So listen carefully.  Jesus says–your forgiveness by God is dependent on your ability to forgive others.  If you do not forgive the sins of another person against you, God will not forgive your sins.  Are you getting the seriousness of this issue yet?

Forgiveness is not just about your relationships with friends and family here.

Forgiveness on earth has a direct correspondence to your own forgiveness from God.

If you don’t experience forgiveness yourself, if you don’t offer forgiveness to others, you will die in your sins, separated from God, and will quite possibly be surprised to hear the words, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”

Its incredibly important to understand what God says about forgiveness.  And in order to tackle that, we’re going to look at a fair number of passages today.  Rather than just stay in one passage, we’re going to move around and try to get a full picture of what the Bible says about forgiveness.  We’re going to see . . . What is forgiveness?  What does it look like?  What is it not?

Many have a wrong understanding of Biblical forgiveness.  They think that forgiveness means saying, “No problem, it’s okay,” or “I’m sorry.”  Allowing time to pass and letting things cool off to where the conflict goes unmentioned.  Allowing lingering anger in your heart over what happened to subside.  All consequences for the sin should be removed.  Punishing the person for a time by withholding conversation, affection or privilege.  Smiling when you see the person who betrayed you.  But those are not Biblical descriptions of forgiveness.

If you want to compare your forgiveness to what the Bible says, let me give you a simple tool for evaluation.  Are you willing to be forgiven by God in the same way you are forgiving this person?  Is anger in your heart okay?  Is some punishment and guilt okay?  Can you forgive but not be emotionally close to them again?  Are you willing to receive forgiveness from God in the same way you give it?

This is the easiest and clearest way to think about Biblical forgiveness.  This is how Jesus responded to Peter when he asked Him, how often should I forgive my brother?  Read Matthew 18:23-35.

A talent was the highest unit of currency, and 10,000 was the highest number in the Greek language, so this is an unimaginable number.  Think of it as ten lifetimes of upper middle class work, or a billion dollars.  This is a picture of our sins against God.

But the slave said, “I will repay,” which was impossible.  There is a cry for mercy.  And the Lord forgave–no repayment plan (like today)–no reduced principal.  100% forgiven!

Now this forgiven, debt-free slave had a fellow slave–another man, just like him–who owed him a debt of 100 denarii.  But a denarius was one day’s wage, so 6,000 denarii equal one talent, or 1/600,000 of the debt from which he had been forgiven (not inconsequential, but trivial in comparison).  When his debtor asked for mercy, he was unwilling, though he had been forgiven himself.

The key phrase is in verse 33, “Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow slave in the same way that I had mercy on you?” Are you willing to receive forgiveness from God in the same way that you give it?

Let’s talk about what that means.  If you want to know what Biblical forgiveness is–it is the forgiveness we have from God in Jesus Christ.  Let me unpack this . . . when you saw your sin against God and cried out for mercy, He chose to forgive you (1 John 1:9).

When you cried out to God for forgiveness, you acknowledged your sins to Him.  You told Him how you had failed Him, sinned against Him and hated Him in your heart.  God, for His part, chose to forgive you.  He did not have to.  He was not under some higher law.  He chose to forgive you.  It was a decision He made.

First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Likewise, when you forgive someone, you choose to.  Forgiveness is not something passive that happens with time.  Forgiveness is active.  It’s a decision by you to pardon the offense.

Biblical forgiveness means actively choosing to hold innocent the person who sinned against you.  What does that mean?  Let’s go on.  God does not make you pay for your sin or earn His forgiveness (Ps 103:10).

God’s decision to forgive you is not the result of you doing something that earned His forgiveness.  He did not decide to save you because you wrote him a big check, made some promise to change, you cried so long that he felt bad for you.

He didn’t say, “I’ll forgive you if . . . ” (you become a missionary, you promise to read my Word every day, you never do that again).  His forgiveness and grace are free and unmerited.  Like the mercy shown to the billionaire debtor, it’s something you don’t deserve.

After you confessed your sin and asked for forgiveness, God did not withhold his forgiveness until extracting some payment back from you.  If you withhold affection from your spouse, if you are cold and distant to a person, if you continue to speak negatively about them to others, if you don’t take their calls or answer their emails . . . you have not forgiven them.

God does not make you continue to pay for the sin which He has forgiven.  He does not make you do things to earn His forgiveness and get in His good graces.

Psalm 103:10 says, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.”  So what has He done with your sins?  What does His forgiveness mean?  When God forgives you of sin, He puts your sin out of His mind forever.

Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”  And Hebrews 8:12, “I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”  Some people believe that forgiveness means that you must forget about the sin completely.  And because the sin against them has been so extreme and painful, they find they cannot forget, therefore they simply cannot forgive the other person.

Understand something . . . God does not forget about your sin as if it never happened.  If He could do this, there would have been no need for Jesus to die.  Your sins still exist in God’s knowledge, but they are no longer counted against you.  He removes them from you.  When it says He will not remember them, that means He does not assign them to you anymore.

And here’s what this means for you . . . Biblical forgiveness does not mean you must forget everything that happened.  But it does mean you do not hold that sin against the other person any longer.  A forgiven sin cannot be brought up in a later argument as ammunition.  It does not appear in lists you whip out in the heat of battle.

Forgiven sin means you do not keep that person at arm’s length, emotionally or physically.  Forgiveness means their sin is not counted against them.  You separate that past act from who they are now, and you love who they are now.  You choose not to dwell on the past hurt.  You choose not to bring it up again–ever.

Biblical forgiveness means God enters into full, unhindered relationship with you (2 Corinthians 6:18).  At the moment you put your hope in Christ, and God forgave you of your sins, you were adopted into His family.  You were given His Spirit to indwell you and seal you for a future day of redemption.  From that moment, the sins of your past had no bearing on His love or affection for you.  You confessed it and it was gone.

God never looks back on your past and grows embittered towards you.  He never grows angry about sin you’re repentant over.  When you cry out to Him for forgiveness, He does not remain cold toward you.  Second Corinthians 5:18 says, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Reconciled means the exchange of hostility for a friendly relationship.  Biblical forgiveness means that all hostility ceases and friendship begins.  Venomous words are done.  Poisonous thoughts stop.  Slander ends.  Your heart is now filled with love.  Friendship is desirable.  Their past sins against you do not negatively affect your relationship.  You are reconciled to them.  There is nothing that hinders your friendship.  And because God has done that for you, He now desires only the best for you.

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  God now desires only the best for you.  He makes everything work out for your good.  You used to be an enemy and a hater of God.  But when He forgave you, then everything in his control began to work in your best interests.

He does not want anything bad to happen to you.  He actively works to protect you from harm.  He refuses to listen to anyone who accuses you.  Your great enemy becomes your greatest advocate.  In Biblical forgiveness, you choose to advocate and do good to the one who sins against you.  When given opportunity to take revenge, you refuse.  When others tear him down, you protect him.  When something bad happens, you cry for her.

There’s no smugness or inner satisfaction.  To forgive as God forgives is to desire the very best for that person.  Hopefully, it makes more sense now when I say that . . .

True Biblical forgiveness by you is a choice.

You choose not to dwell on the past hurt.

You choose to forgive freely, without making others earn your love  and mercy.

You choose not to bring up offenses ever again.

You actively commit not to use it against them in the future.

You choose not to talk to others about it.

You determine not to allow their past sins to hinder or negatively affect your relationship.

You desire the very best for them.

That’s Biblical forgiveness.  It’s not easy.  It’s often a process.  But forgiveness starts with a decision.  You choose to forgive.  How do you know that you’ve actually forgiven someone?

I like Thomas Watson’s answer.  He’s a Puritan, and he said, “When we fight against all thoughts of revenge; when we refuse to do our enemies mischief, but wish good for them, when we grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to help them.”  (slightly modernized by JFP, from Body of Divinity)

That is a great description of forgiveness.  You can say that you have forgiven someone when:

You refuse to take revenge on them.  (Romans 12:9)

You don’t slander them to others or do other evil against them.  (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

You want good things for them.  (Luke 6:28)

You are sad when something bad happens to them.  (Proverbs 24:17)

You pray for them, not for justice, but mercy and grace.  (Matthew 5:44)

You do what you can to be at peace with them.  (Romans 12:18)

You’re willing to help them however you can.  (Exodus 23:4)

Actions like these are manifestations of a heart of forgiveness.  And this is tough stuff.  This is not easy.  And truthfully, for most of us, it is harder to forgive than to seek forgiveness.  For that reason, I’m really focusing this morning on how to forgive.

Ken Sande wrote an excellent book called The Peacemaker on how to deal with conflict and seek forgiveness.  I wrote a brief summary of the process in your notes.  The book is incredibly good–ask anyone who was in a D-group last spring and they’ll tell you.

How do you seek forgiveness?   (Sande)

Confess your sin to God  (Psalm 32:5)

Explicitly confess to people affected by your sin  (Luke 19:8)


Admit specific attitudes and actions–no generalities

Acknowledge the hurt caused  (Galatians 2:12-13)

Accept the consequences and make restitution when possible (Luke 15:19)

Explain how you will alter your behavior in the future  (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10)

Ask for forgiveness (and give time if needed)

The one thing I want you to remember is that true forgiveness is demonstrated in God’s forgiveness of you.  How you forgive others now demonstrates if you know God’s forgiveness in your own life.

Significant Questions:

Do they have to repent first?

No.  Every day, you are called to overlook and forgive minor offenses.  Every day, you are called to forgive.  How do I know this?  Tell me what God does with you.  Does he overlook sins in your life, or hold you accountable to confess every one?  If you have been forgiven a billion dollar debt, how will you be mad about $150?

When should I overlook sin?

1)  The sin has not caused serious harm to God’s reputation, to others, or to the offender.

2)  The sin is not a pattern in their lives.

3)  The sin has not caused a wall between you, or made you feel differently towards them for more than a short period of time.

Overlooking is not passive or natural.  It is an active process where you decide not to talk about it, dwell on it or let it make you bitter.

What if I don’t think this person is repentant?

If they said they are, then you need to accept their words until their actions indicate otherwise.  You can go to them with your concerns and express the difficulty you have believing them.  But you can’t know their heart–you can’t assign them motives.  If they ask your forgiveness and express an understanding of the sin which they’ve committed, then you need to forgive them.  After that, if their actions appear to indicate their repentance is suspect, then you are called to go to them, with grace and charity, and tell them of your concerns that they may not understand the full extent of what they’ve done and their need to repent further.

Even when a person does not repent, we are commanded to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

“I’ve been hurt by them than more you can imagine.  I don’t think I can do this,” you say.  I’m sorry–I would encourage you to turn your heart from fear of them and the hurt they’ve done, to fear for them and the hurt that awaits them.  If you know the mercy of God in your life, you can do this.  It won’t be easy, but the Spirit of God can change your heart.  The key is to drink the Gospel deeply into your life every morning, and pray to God that He would help you to forgive them.

What if they don’t want to be reconciled?

Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.“

And Matthew 5:23-24 reminds us, “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”

God prioritizes active peace.  He calls you to do what you can to be reconciled.  But forgiveness and reconciliation are different.  You are commanded to forgive those who sin against you.  And you are instructed to do what you can to be reconciled.

“When a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness.  We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.” (John Piper)  Forgiveness can be granted by you, even when not sought by the other person.  Reconciliation is a mutual friendship, and that can’t happen until there has been repentance.

Do I have to forgive them, if they ask me to?

Not immediately, in that very second of the request, but yes, eventually.  It may take a day or two, but it shouldn’t take a year.  Let me put it this way–in your heart, you cannot be unwilling to ever trust them again.  You cannot refuse their efforts to establish trust again.  You cannot hope for the total ruin of their life.

What if I can’t stop thinking about their sin?

Some of you have been hurt very deeply.  It’s hard enough when someone you love offends you.  But some of you have had your trust betrayed.  Physical wounds, emotional scars, verbal assaults, mental images that won’t fade.  I want you to know that God understands your pain.  He has endured it.  And there have been people who hurt Him even more deeply than you’ve experienced.

And those who came to Him repentantly, He has forgiven.  And He’s called you to do the same–to be such forgiving people that it looks weird to the world–that you are so full of grace that even other Christians are surprised by the forgiveness that you extend to those who’ve hurt you.

Ephesians 4:32-5:2 says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

Colossians 3:12-13 adds, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”

Your ability to forgive others is grounded in the forgiveness you’ve received from Christ.  The more you understand your sin and God’s forgiveness, the more easily you will forgive others.

Just less than a month ago, one of the men in our church was convicted during the preaching of a sermon by Chris on 1 Peter.  He had been falsely accused and slandered by another Christian family.  They had spoken against him to others in the church, and tried to get him in trouble with the law.  The man was overwhelmed by how poorly he had responded to the trial and after being broken by the Word, poured out his heart to his family during lunch afterward.  As he finished sharing his heart with his family, the other family walked into the restaurant.  After praying with his wife, the man walked over with her and confessed how he had been filled with hate towards them, wanting vengeance and justice for them.  And then he told them how Christ had changed his heart and asked them to forgive him for his sin.

I’d love to say that they broke down and repented too, but it didn’t happen that way.  And that makes what he did all the more remarkable.  We don’t forgive when others initiate.  We don’t forgive to gain an apology.  We forgive because we are forgiven.  As Christians, we are the most forgiven people in the world.  Therefore, we should be the most forgiving people in the world.

About John Pleasnick

John serves as a pastor and elder at Faith Bible Church