In the first post on forgiveness, I introduced our revival theme Forgiveness: Receive It and Pass It On. In the last post, I looked at the first level of forgiveness: Receive It. Today, I want to take biblical look at the second level, which is captured in the phrase “Forgiveness: Pass It On.”
This level is the horizontal man to man aspect of forgiveness. You and I are to forgive one another. You see, when we sin, we don’t just sin against God. We also sin against each other. Therefore, forgiveness must happen between people.
The sad thing is that often it’s easier to be forgiven by God that it is by people, even Christians! Have you found that to be true? The lost have a pretty good excuse: THEY’RE LOST! However, Christians have no excuse because to be a Christian means that Jesus is not just your Savior but also your Lord. We’re to obey Him and model ourselves after Him, and we find Jesus forgiving other human beings who were committing the height of sin. We read about it in Luke 23:34, But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. Here is Jesus forgiving and asking the Father to forgive His murderers. They were wrongly putting to death God the Son, the Messiah, the Christ, the King of heaven and earth. This instance is the highest height of man to man sin. Yet, Jesus forgave them.
If Jesus is your Lord and since He forgave so greatly and so easily, shouldn’t we strive to do the same for much lesser things? Absolutely! Whatever sin has been perpetrated against you is lesser because nothing compares to the Messiah being murdered. As Jesus forgave, so should we.
We must not let the fact escape us that level 1 (God forgiving us) is connected to level 2 (us forgiving others). In other words, God’s forgiving us is connected to our forgiving others. First, God’s forgiveness is a positive motivation for us to forgive others. God’s forgiveness draws us toward forgiving others. God does this sort of thing all the time throughout Scripture. He puts heaven, blessing, peace, and many other things in front of us to motivate us to go forward. In relation to forgiveness, that’s what God’s forgiveness does for us. It puts a positive model in front of us, beckoning us to become more like Him.
We see the two levels tied together as a positive motivation in the following two verses:
- Ephesians 4:32, Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
- Colossians 3:13, bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
The fact that God has forgiven us is the motivation for us to forgive others, and that is a powerful motivation.
However, there’s another way the Bible ties together God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others. In this second way, God’s unforgiveness is a negative motivation for us to forgive others. God does this sort of thing all throughout Scripture as well. He puts heaven, cursing, strife, and many other things behind us to motivate us to not go backward. In relation to forgiveness, that’s what God’s threat of unforgiveness does for us. It puts a negative incentive behind us, warning us of the consequences of disobedience.
The Scripture is full of this teaching. Perhaps the most basic but often overlooked pieces of Scripture is found in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ model prayer implies that we should ask God for forgiveness only if we are unwilling to forgive others. It’s found in two of the synoptic gospels:
- Matthew 6:12, And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
- Luke 11:4, And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.
In both cases, Jesus is saying that we should ask God to forgive us in the way that we have forgiven others. Therefore, if we are unforgiving, then we should expect God to be unforgiving. Jesus then comments on the Lord’s prayer by saying, “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,” (Matthew 6:14-15). That’s as straightforward as one can get!
We’re also taught this same thing elsewhere in the Scripture. The Parable of the Wicked Slave makes this same point. In Matthew 18:21, Peter asks Jesus, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times? Jesus responds back with that famous line in Matthew 18:22, I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Of course, Jesus’ answer was radical to Peter and his contemporaries—and to us as well, for that matter. Therefore, Jesus illustrates why He answered thus through a parable found in Matthew 18:23-35:
- For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.
The slave who had been forgiven much by the master refused to pass on the forgiveness to his fellow slave who sought to be forgiven of little. Therefore, the master, in his righteous anger, made the wicked slave pay for his debt. Jesus summarizes His point in telling the parable in Matthew 18:35, My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart. Unforgiveness from God is ours if we do not forgive others. It’s important to point out also that Jesus is not just talking about lip-service forgiveness in Matthew 18:35. He’s not just talking about saying, “I forgive you.” He’s talking about heart-service forgiveness that totally forgives to the core of our being. If we do not forgive others from the heart, we will not be forgiven by God.
We find another example of this link between level 1 and level 2 in Mark 11:25-26 where Jesus says, 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. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.
So, the Scripture clearly links our forgiving others with God’s forgiving us. Now, some may object that this is akin to works-righteousness, but it’s not. Forgiving others doesn’t earn salvation for us. Rather, it’s proof that we are indeed saved. Forgiveness is the fruit of salvation, and those who refuse to forgive others testify against their salvation.
Let me close with three rapid fire questions concerning us forgiving others:
When should we forgive?
1) We should be ready to forgive as soon as forgiveness is asked for.
Jesus tells us so in Luke 17:3-4, 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. But, we should also notice from that verse that we shouldn’t just wait for forgiveness to be asked for. We should confront the sinner so that they are fully aware of their sin. That’s what Jesus means when He says, If your brother sins, rebuke him. It’s supposed to work this way: sin → rebuke → repentance → forgiveness. As soon as the sinner repents, forgive him or her immediately.
2) We should forgive before we ever give an offering to God.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:23-24, 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. If we bridge Jesus’ words from their Old Covenant setting to the New Covenant setting of today’s church, you should go ask forgiveness before you drop your money in the offering plate at church.
3) We should forgive before we pray publicly.
Jesus says 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. I believe that Jesus has public prayer in mind at the temple. Again, let’s bridge Jesus’ words from their Old Covenant setting to the New Covenant setting of today’s church. We should not stand to pray publicly at church without also forgiving our transgressors.
How often should we forgive?
We should forgive as often as we are sinned against and forgiveness is asked for. Peter asks Jesus in Matthew 18:21, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times? Jesus’ answer astounded His listeners, I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22). Jesus does the same thing in Luke 17:3-4, 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. Both responses from Jesus point to the limitless amount of forgiveness that we are to pass on.
Why do we not forgive?
The general answer is simply sin, but let’s get more specific. The three sins that I believe promote unforgiveness most in our hearts are:
- Self-righteousness – We’ve forgotten how much we have been forgiven. Instead we act as if we have earned God’s favor when in reality we are nothing more than beggars at the foot of God’s door. Self-righteousness is the biggest killer of forgiveness.
- Power-hungriness – We like the power unforgiveness has over people. It keeps people beholden to us, kowtowing before us. If we forgave them, we’d lose that power over them. We think we’re keeping them chained to us, but in fact, sin is deceiving us and enslaving us.
- Pride – We simply can’t believe that somebody would sin against us. How dare they? I don’t deserve to be sinned against. I’m better than to have this happened to. It’s a good thing God, who truly didn’t deserved to be sinned against, freely forgives.
In conclusion, receive forgiveness and pass it on. By grace through faith in Jesus, find out what it is to hear God speak the sweet word forgiven to you, and then extend it to all those around you. Don’t let forgiveness stop with you!