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There is perhaps no greater time in our culture’s history when this command needs to be examined and practiced. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 ESV). Forgive one another. There are many teachings telling us the need to forgive which indicates to me that God recognizes that we would struggle with this command.

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. (Colossians 3:12–13 ESV)

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15 ESV)

Forgiveness is important because it is a threat to our salvation. Not forgiving other people jeopardizes our own salvation. But part of our problem today is that we do not understand biblical forgiveness. There are so many different concepts thrown around about what forgiveness means, making it difficult for us to know what God means when he tells us that we need to forgive others.

False Understanding of Forgiveness

In our culture, forgiveness is a unilateral internal effort to get my own emotions under control. It is a therapeutic view of forgiveness. Forgiveness is about me. We see this in the way the word “forgiveness” is used. For example, we will hear people say that you need to forgive yourself. This does not make sense using the word biblically. The scriptures never say to forgive yourself. But what people mean about forgiving yourself is this unilateral internal effort to get your own emotions under control and move yourself to some sort of happy place. This is not a biblical view but you can see why there is confusion when we discuss forgiveness from a biblical basis. Another example of this misunderstanding of forgiveness is that you will hear people say that they have forgiven God or cannot forgive God. This is also nonsensical and ultimately blasphemous since God cannot do wrong and has done no wrong to any person. What I want us to see is that in our culture we use the word forgiveness in a therapeutic way, basing forgiveness on our feelings. We are talking about our feelings toward God if someone speaks about forgiving God. Forgiving yourself is actually talking about your feelings about yourself because you are feeling shame, blame, guilt, or some other feeling or emotion. We making forgiveness about us, so that we feel good about us. But this is not the idea of forgiveness in the scriptures by any means. Let me use one more example that we see today. A person will be convicted of murder and a family member will say that he or she has forgiven that murderer. But again forgiveness is not the right word because what the person is saying is that he or she has made this unilateral internal effort to get their own emotions under control. Thus, this is stated another way: we are at peace with it. We have made peace with the situation.

From the passages that we looked at earlier, you will note how God always ties the model of forgiveness in our lives to the forgiveness he performed. Forgive others just as God in Christ forgave you. As the Lord as forgiven you, so you also must forgive. If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. God teaches us what forgiveness looks like by telling us to look at how God forgave us. Please note that this cannot be a therapeutic forgiveness. God does not forgive so that he feels better about himself. God does not forgive as a unilateral internal effort to get his own emotions under control. God does not have to forgive himself. Again, I hope that we are seeing that the way our culture uses the word forgiveness does not match the way God does and this is what causes confusion in our understanding of what God is teaching us regarding this issue.

Forgiveness Basics

So we need to go back to basics to get a right understanding about forgiveness. The model prayer will help us get back to the basic understanding.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matthew 6:12 ESV)

At its core, the idea of forgiveness is the releasing of a debt that has been incurred. We understand this in the financial world where a debt is forgiven. If your college loan is forgiven, then the debt you have is no longer owed. If your loan on your house is forgiven, then the debt you had is no longer owed. What God teaches us is that sins incur a debt. Look at the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35 where this imagery is used.

21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 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. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21–35 ESV)

Peter asks how often he must forgive his brother who sins against him. Notice the illustration Jesus uses is an illustration of debt. The teaching is simple but profound. If you try to get out of others what you perceive they owe you because of what they have done against you, then God will get out of you what you owe to him from your sins. We have all incurred these debts against each other. But the greatest debt we have incurred is against God. We have wronged him the most. The operation of forgiveness is this: seeing how much God has forgiven our debts that we have against him (numerous and unpayable by us), then we must be desirous to forgive the debts of others who have wronged us (which are small in comparison to what we owe God).

But there is more to the impact and effect of reconciliation. Notice what the apostle Paul says to the Corinthians.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18–19 ESV)

The effect of forgiveness is reconciliation. In Christ God is not counting our sins against us, which reconciles us to him. This is what God has done with us. When the debt that our sins have created against God are forgiven by God, we are now able to have a relationship with God. Reconciliation is the effect of the forgiveness received.

This is what makes forgiveness hard. Forgiveness is not some sort of internal therapy on yourself so that you are now able to deal with your emotions. That is great but that is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is the erasing of the debt between us so that the relationship, which was fractured by the offense, is now restored. This is what God showed us forgiveness looks like and we are commanded to forgive one another just as God in Christ forgave us. Now this is important because it helps us understand what forgiveness truly is and why forgiveness is conditional and not unconditional.

Conditional or Unconditional Forgiveness?

God says as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Does God forgive conditionally or unconditionally?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 ESV)

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:1–4 ESV)

Notice that how God forgives is how we are supposed to forgive. If we seek repentance, then God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Notice the same picture is given in Luke 17. If a person sins, we need to bring it to them. If they repent, we are to forgive them. Why do we have to bring it to that person? Why can’t I just forgive in my heart? Why can’t I just have some sort of internal therapeutic forgiveness so that I have put my emotions under control? The reason this is not forgiveness is because the effect of forgiveness is the cancelling of the debt so that the relationship is restored. The relationship is to be restored. Friends, this is what makes forgiveness hard and we cannot cheapen it by simply calling forgiveness “controlling my emotions.” What makes forgiveness from God amazing is not that God has his emotions under control regarding us but that he erases the debt and restores the relationship with us! Forgiveness is not deserved. Forgiveness is not earned. There is not a list of requirements given before forgiveness is enacted. Forgiveness is restoring the severed, broken relationship that the offense caused. The reason why forgiveness must be conditional is not because God does not have enough love toward us. Rather, forgiveness must be conditional because a relationship cannot be restored unless both parties want it restored. Both parties have to acknowledge the offense and desire to go forward reconciled. God is not merely erasing debts. God erases the debt because he wants to be in relationship with us and our repentance declares we want to be in relationship with him. Forgiveness is the means for reconciliation.

The heart of forgiveness is the desire to restore the broken relationship. This is the heart of God. God desires to restore the broken relationship that sin damaged with every person on the planet. That is the heart we are to have for each other. I want to fix what is broken. I want to be a peacemaker. As much as depends on me I am going to strive to bring about peace in all the relationships I have with others. Listen to this: there is no point where the relationship is so fractured that it can never be restored. This is what it means when Jesus told Peter that you do not forgive up to seven times, but seventy times seven. There is no point where a person comes to you desiring to reconcile that you are able to say no. How many times can you violate God’s law and sin against him before God says no to forgiveness when you come to him seeking reconciliation? There is no limit. God will always receive us back. So we must forgive others as God has forgiven us. The forgiveness is undeserved, sacrificial, and repetitive. We do this because this is what God has done to us because we have received his mercy repeatedly, undeservedly, and sacrificially to himself.

Conclusion

So how do we know if we are where we need to be regarding forgiveness? Forgiveness is a heart issue. Notice that this is how Jesus ended the parable he told Peter and the disciples in Matthew 18.

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:35 ESV)

Is there forgiveness in my heart? Do I desire forgiveness with this person and do I create ways for reconciliation to occur? This reveals so much about if we will be forgiven by God. Do I want reconciliation to occur with this individual who hurt me and wronged me? Or do not hold a grudge, hold bitterness, become consumed with anger, and burn the bridge of relationship with that person because I want nothing to do with them? Do we want to fix the relationship and remove the offense between us? Or do I enjoy having something against another and I do everything I can do keep that barrier up? Forgiveness and reconciliation cannot happen if both parties do not want it. God shows that to us. There is no such thing as unilateral, unconditional forgiveness with God. We have to want forgiveness and come to him in repentance.

But consider this: God did everything he could on his end to remove the barriers and make lanes for us to come to him so that we could be reconciled. That is what we must do for each other. Imagine what the church would look like if we practiced. Imagine what the world would look like if after every offense committed, the two people would come together — one with sorrow for what they had done and one with the heart of forgiveness, looking to erase the debt. Think about how relationships would be whole and problems would be solved if we would be the kind of forgiving people that God has called us to be. Let us do it. It is good that you have your emotions under control but that is not biblical forgiveness. Biblical forgiveness erases the debt and restores the relationship with one who desires it.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15 ESV)