Luke 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they parted his raiment and cast lots.
What is forgiveness? When Jesus utters this phrase, what is he saying? In other words, what exactly is Jesus asking his Father to do? And how does that apply to us? Some would say that because Jesus prayed for those who persecuted him to be forgiven, we should all forgive all offenses against us. Others have said that since God doesn’t forgive everyone, that means we don’t have to either. I’ll try to lead you to an answer to these questions as we develop thoughts surrounding forgiveness.
What is the nature of forgiveness? That is, what does forgiveness “tell us” about the parties involved in the act? I think we all know what forgiveness is but let me offer a general working definition: to forgive is to no longer hold someone accountable for an offense. In other words, when someone is forgiven, he or she who had been offended by that person now becomes willing to send their offense away (that is the literal meaning in the Greek), the forgiver decides that the person who did the wrong will not be penalized any more than they already have for the act that was committed. A trite example would be the idea of forgiving an actual monetary debt. No one would say they forgave a $100 debt then still collect. But still, the forgiver would remember what had transpired to cause the debt, and may tread carefully with that person in the future.
Next, we need to decide, “Is forgiveness ever deserved?” Looking at the very nature of forgiveness, it is implied that there is a sin that has been committed. Someone has offended someone else by violating them in some way or other. It could be stealing, adultery, gossip…it doesn’t matter. When you think of sin against God, it must be punished. God is Holy and just and His character would be tarnished if He could allow sin to go unpunished. Does anyone merit God’s forgiveness? No. Unfortunately for the religious, the self-righteous and the pious, there is no one who merit’s God’s favor. We are all unclean; we are all stained by sin. Holiness and unholiness cannot mix and create holiness; that combination only stains the holiness. No, God forgives sinners by His grace alone; His wrath poured out on His undeserving Son; He is pleased to grant remission of sins to those who trust in Him by faith.
So does any human ever deserve forgiveness from another human? What a tough thought! I’m not sure. I wouldn’t try to prove this dogmatically, but I’d say the answer is “no.” When we sin against other people, we are sinning against people made in the image of our Creator. I’m open to correction, but I see very little biblical reason that a person “deserves” forgiveness from another person. If the person pays back the debt…they are not truly forgiven, they’ve paid it back. Therefore, forgiveness is always unmerited.
It concludes that forgiveness is an action on the part of the forgiver, and a passive act on the part of the forgiven. Anytime an act of forgiveness occurs, it tells you more about the forgiver than the forgiven. The most we can understand about a forgiven person is that they must have committed some violation. This is not flattering; nor is it anything to boast about. Let this be a reminder to you who have been forgiven of all your sins by God, all this says about you is that you are a sinner. There is no room to boast. It is also interesting to note that forgiveness cannot be “denied,” that is to say, the forgiven has no authority to reject forgiveness once it is established. (This is called irresistible grace when it comes from God)
But the forgiver, oh what a beautiful picture this paints of the forgiver’s character. Let’s take the case of God forgiving sinners: what does His divine forgiveness tell us about His character? First of all, it reveals His amazing grace. The mere fact that no forgiven being ever earned it or deserved it reveals an astounding amount of love and grace in the character of God. He is altogether just if He would forgive NO ONE, yet he delights in the sacrifice of His son and the remission of sins that was bought. Secondly, God’s forgiveness exhibits His mercy. It is divine mercy which restrains our angry God from exacting punishment upon sinners. God’s mercy demands no ritual or penance to atone for sins. God, in His mercy has chosen to forgive sinful souls on the basis of another’s merit, His own. He has shown that mercy extends grace. God’s mercy forbears punishment, sending our sin away from His thoughts. Not only are we forgiven, our sin is ‘forgotten.’ You must understand this; if you are saved today, your position before God is as if you had never sinned!
So the nature of forgiveness is that it is an act that reveals a Godly character in the forgiver. Forgiveness never needs to be dependent upon the merit of the offender. It follows logically that there can be no act on the part of the forgiven which must precipitate forgiveness. Sure, someone may ask for forgiveness and repent of sin…but the actual forgiveness is endowed based solely on the desire of the forgiver.
Next, let’s look at the result of forgiveness. What is the ultimate effect of forgiveness; what happens when someone is forgiven? As far as forgiveness of sins before God is concerned, the result, is not only an avoidance of divine punishment, but reconciliation. We are reconciled to God through Christ. Our relationship with God that we had in Adam is restored. We now have fellowship with God and can enter His presence. He is no longer set apart from us in the sense that He has folded us into Himself. As creatures, we are certainly always different from God. But as adopted sons and daughters of God, we can enjoy fellowship with Him. A lot of people say Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. The accuracy in that statement derives from the fact that fruit of forgiveness is a restored relationship to God through Christ!
So what happens to the parties in a relationship with God based in forgiveness? Well, the forgiven, (at least in my case), feels an even greater debt to the Forgiver than he or she had felt before. I want to serve my Forgiver out of a thankful heart and a real love for Him. Acknowledging my lack of any right to having been forgiven, I am wholeheartedly dedicated to doing all I can to show my real gratitude as well as an understanding of the enormous debt I’ve had wiped away: a debt I could never had paid myself. How does forgiveness affect God? First of all, let’s remember that God Himself is unchanging (Mal 3:6), but His relationship with us does change (at least in the temporal sense, since the elect have been chosen from eternity past, in a sense our salvation has never been in question). God, prior to our coming to faith in Him, was somewhat bound by His perfect unchanging character. In His sovereignty, He never violates His perfect attributes. So prior to my salvation, God unwaveringly hated me. I was loathsome to Him by my very sinful thoughts, even those that never saw birth as action. After forgiving me of ALL MY SINS, God can now allow me in His presence. He provides me access to His throne to make requests of Him and has even provided me with His Holy Spirit, to indwell my heart and bear witness to me that I am His own. The same God who would not listen to my heathen prayers (Proverbs 28:9) now hears every one of my prayers, and even helps me by his grace to pray according to His will. God hasn’t changed, but our relationship has. In fact, the relationship changed before I even changed much. God’s forgiveness and love toward me, while I was undeserving was an irresistible force which cause me, thankfully, to love Him in return. (1 John 4:19)
So what’s the point of all this? Why am I going into so much detail about forgiveness? Is forgiveness really special? That is, don’t non-Christians forgive people all the time too? Let me go back to an original point that I brought up. I have heard people ask if Christians should really forgive EVERYBODY. The basis of the argument posed is that God doesn’t forgive everybody, and it isn’t necessarily unconditional. God forgives only some people, and only people who repent of their sin and place their faith in Christ alone.
I disagree with a few points above, so I’ll take them one at a time.
1. God unconditionally forgives those whom He chooses to forgive. As God chose His elect before the foundations of the world were laid, He de facto chose those whom He would forgive before they repented. In fact, it is His regenerating effect which is the cause of repentance, so to imply that God’s forgiveness is dependent at all upon the sinner is irrational. By His irresistible grace, God calls those whom He will forgive to Himself.
2. I do not believe that just because God doesn’t forgive everyone that we should not. Ephesians 4:32 is clear that we ought to forgive, just as we’ve been forgiven. Even if you want to say this verse is only talking about fellow believers, you must admit that everyone, even the vilest sinner who offends you, is a possible brother or sister whose name if written in the Lamb’s book of Life. It may be your forgiveness that God uses to draw them to Himself.
Dear Christian: do you desire to be like Christ? Is your earnest desire to be Godly? There is little you can do that is more Godly than forgiving your enemy! Did you get that? To hold onto the resentment, or even hate, keeps you bound in a prison. To forgive someone of wrongdoings committed is to free you of the chains to which YOU ARE ATTACHED in your relationship to them. You are not God; you do not know who is to be forgiven or not. You do not know the hearts of the people who’ve wronged you, but God does, and He may desire to use you as He used Stephen! In Acts 7:60, Stephen prays for the very people who would murder him. During the act, no less!
What did Christ tell Peter when Peter asked him how often to forgive his brother?
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 times seven.
So does this mean that each time you forgive someone you should add it to a tally sheet? I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and when the language is clearly figurative based on the context or scripture’s own interpretation of itself, it is safe to understand symbolism.
Read the entire rest of Matthew 18. What do you see in Matthew 18:23? “Therefore” or “for this reason” is the transitional phrase between the thoughts in Matthew 18:21-22 and Matthew 18:23-35. The Greek literally can be translated, “because of this” in verse 23. Only a few versions, (including the Message), get it wrong. The following account is an analogy, comparing the forgiveness we are to provide each other to the servant in the story. The servant in the story, having been forgiven MUCH, is REQUIRED by his master to also forgive much. In fact, the implication is that we must be willing to forgive as much as we’ve been forgiven. I’m sorry for those of you who really like resentment, but this is an unending debt of which you’ve been forgiven. You’ve been forgiven for an infinite debt to God, you were undeserving and He forgave you anyway, all of it. Biblical love requires you to be forgiving, See 1 Corinthians 13:4-9.
So forgive everyone who offends you. For all of it. Don’t begin condoning sin; and you certainly do not have to put yourself in a position that is unwise, but forgive all that offend you. Allow God to take vengeance on those who persecute you or to have poured out the wrath He has for that person on Christ! What joy it would be in your life to find out that someone came to Christ and part of the reason was your exemplification of His character in your desire to take abuse and forgive the offense! What joy it will be to stand before your eternal Forgiver and be praised for your obedience to His command. Forgive 77 times, 7 times, 490 times? No, dear brother or sister. Forgive without counting. Forgive like your eternity depends upon it. Forgive like you could never forgive as much as you’ve been forgiven already. Forgive as if it were the only way to point people to Christ, as if the very perception of Godliness you’d like to have requires it!
Free yourself from the prison of self-righteousness, resentment and hatred that the servant in Matthew 18 was chained in. Allow yourself to be free of the wickedness associated with YOUR lack of grace and mercy. Yes, I believe we are called to forgive all offenses against us as we pray in the disciple’s prayer. Our trust in God above as a perfect judge would be false if we do not. If you believe God is a perfect judge, then let him handle others’ sin! He will do a better job with it than you ever would.
So pray like Jesus prayed. Pray to your Father to forgive them as well.
As this was a long post, I added three bonus thoughts for you to investigate yourself if you are interested in digging deeper.
Bonus #1: It’s always interesting to know that it was prophesied hundreds of years prior that they would cast lots for his clothing. Had it not been one piece, this wouldn’t have been necessary. God is so good to provide so much evidence to aid our little weak hearts to believe. (Ps 22:18, Mt 27:35, John 19:23-24)
Bonus #2: For whom did Jesus pray? Think about this: did Jesus pray for all those who were crucifying him? If so, can you explain why the Father did not answer that prayer? Assuming you are not a Universalist, God certainly doesn’t forgive everyone. How could Jesus have possibly NOT prayed according to His father’s will? If He did pray according to His Father’s will, and the prayer was answered…for whom did Jesus pray?
Bonus #3: Do not mistake forgiveness for approval of sin. Forgiveness is a desire to no longer hold someone indebted for their sin. True love: out of which forgiveness flows, will have a desire to see the person mended. I’ll maintain it could be the forgiveness offered by a perceived enemy that could be the seed which grows into the desire to change that people really need. What I am saying is you forgiving an undeserving, unrepentant enemy could be the catalyst God uses to change their heart!