Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to our Father to “forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12). He reminds us that we need forgiveness and God is the one who grants it.
The word “debts” conveys one aspect of what the Bible calls sin, and what we owe God. We need forgiveness because we do not give God what we owe him: thanks, praise, love and obedience, and because, as the Anglican confession prayer says, “we have not done what we ought to have done”. Yet, amazingly and wonderfully, the God we offend is a God of mercy.
The Bible uses many images to describe God’s forgiveness. In Romans 4:8, God does not reckon sin against the one he has forgiven. Psalm 32:1 says the one whose transgressions are forgiven has their sins “covered”. In Isaiah 38:17, Hezekiah praises God because “you have put all my sins behind your back”. He doesn’t turn a blind eye but deals with sin. It no longer stands between us.
Psalm 103:12 famously records that God removes our transgression from us “as far as the east is from the west”. In Psalm 51, he is merciful to the undeserving. We are stained by sin, but God washes us clean. 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.
God is merciful to the undeserving
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “forgive us our debts” he reminds us that we need forgiveness and God will forgive. But the prayer doesn’t stop with “forgive us our debts”; it adds, “as we also have forgiven our debtors”. The Bible consistently connects the experience of God’s forgiveness with the command to forgive others.
Jesus expounds the request in the Lord’s Prayer this way: “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” (Matthew 6:14-15).
We are not only people who need forgiveness. If we are to be the children of our Father, we must also forgive.
It’s not that we earn our forgiveness by being forgiving. Rather, those who have received forgiveness must be people who offer forgiveness. We have been forgiven, therefore we must be forgivers of others.
Why should those who are forgiven, forgive others?
Sociologists and psychologists will tell you forgiveness is good for you. It is therapeutic, reduces the urge to violence and revenge, and has a liberating power – whether the person who has offended against you has repented or not. It’s no surprise to learn that what God commands is good for us, but that is not the primary reason why we forgive.
First, we forgive because forgiveness is the heart of our “compassionate and gracious” God (Exodus 34:6-7). As Jesus gathers his friends for a final meal, he places forgiveness at the centre of Christian life and faith: his blood is “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The heart of God, the heart of the cross, the heart of the Christian life is forgiveness.
Second, we must forgive to be the children of our Father. Forgiveness is God-like. On August 5, 2002, Murree Christian School – for the children of Christian workers in Pakistan – was attacked by gunmen, who killed six school workers. Students and teachers hid wherever they could.
One of the students recorded 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 [a student’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 prays for her attackers. Forgiveness is God-like.
Third, we must forgive others because we have been forgiven. The church must be a community of forgiveness, or it is not the church. Colossians 3:12 says to “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”.
The church must be a community of forgiveness
Churches must be communities of continual forgiveness. Someone didn’t listen, didn’t remember, didn’t care. An insensitive remark, an unwarranted criticism, a broken promise. Does that happen in church? Sadly, it does! We think we can separate from each other and be forgiven by God, but God says forgive or you will be separated from me.
The reality of my forgiveness must show itself in forgiveness of others. If I bear a grudge to the grave, it will keep me from heaven because, ultimately, it will show I have not truly repented towards God. But if this is true, we must be clear what we are aiming at when we aim at forgiveness.
What am I doing when I forgive?
The cross of Christ, where Jesus secures our forgiveness by his death in our place, confronts us with the depth and horror of our own sin. The self-sacrifice of the most beautiful human life in history, 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. Only his sacrificial death could atone for the sins of the world.
It follows, therefore, that forgiveness is not turning a blind eye to sin. Forgiveness does not deny the truth, harm and evil of sin – rather, it names and confronts it. As Christ on the cross pays our debt, so forgiveness bears the cost of the damage done by the offender’s sin. Forgiveness names and blames sin, but it withholds punishment from the one who deserves to be punished. Instead, it is the one who offers forgiveness who absorbs the pain and forgoes the right to punish. Instinctively, we know this. At least, we know it if we have ever forgiven someone. The forgiver bears the pain and absorbs the injury, and the forgiven goes free.
What about repentance?
There can be forgiveness whether or not there is repentance. Without repentance there will not be reconciliation between the parties, but the absence of repentance must not be a cloak for nursing unforgiveness.
In Luke 17:3 Jesus says: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (cf. Matthew 18:21-22). The point of these sayings is not that repentance is essential, but forgiveness is essential. It is arguable that when Jesus says you must forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22), he means even if repentance is shallow and short-lived, forgive. We must not justify resentment and unforgiveness on the basis that there has been no repentance. It is possible to cancel the debt and give up the claim for vengeance even without 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 their judge. We forgive as forgiven sinners.
Can a wrongdoer demand forgiveness? Certainly not. That would be an exercise in avoiding responsibility for what they have done. Real repentance that holds out the possibility of reconciliation involves full acknowledgement of wrongdoing, redress for the loss suffered if possible, and a commitment to real and lasting change.
Without repentance there can be no reconciliation. But it needs to be said that, in some cases, even if there is genuine repentance, restoration of relationship cannot be assumed. Sometimes the damaging consequences of a sin or pattern of sinning endures, and will be healed only in the new creation. Sexual abuse, domestic abuse and adultery are some circumstances where I have observed this to be the case.
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. Though God forgives our sins and remembers them no more, that is not typical of us. Over time, sins we have forgiven may fade from our memories, and hundreds of minor hurts and disappointments caused by our spouses or family do get forgiven and forgotten. But just because you remember some sin against you does not mean it is not forgiven.
What about punishment?
We need to understand that the Bible permits some punishment for wrongdoing without forgiveness. The role of the State is to punish wrongdoing. Victims of crime who are believers must seek God’s help to finally come to forgiveness of those who have wronged them.
And we need to bear in mind that when we forgive someone their sin against us, we do not forgive their sin against God, who will bring every sin to light. The person who does not repent towards us when we forgive them will still face God’s judgment if they remain unrepentant – as will we.
We do not need to think we failed to forgive because the wrongdoer has been punished by the State, or because we have not yet forgotten, or because we have not been reconciled. None of those things necessarily mean we have not forgiven.
How shall we forgive?
In 2 Corinthians 5 the apostle Paul says that, through Christ, God reconciled us to himself, not counting our sins against us – so anyone in Christ is a new creation, and he gives to us the ministry of reconciliation. We live no longer for ourselves but for him who died for us and was raised.
We cannot forgive out of our own strength. That would be foolish, proud and fruitless. We dare to forgive only because of the grace we have known in the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ, through which he lives in us.
I can’t swim like Ian Thorpe no matter how much anyone tells me to. But if Christ tells me to forgive, and then promises to come and make his home within me, I can forgive by the power of Christ in me by his Spirit. Failure to forgive can disclose that we have not ourselves repented and welcomed God’s forgiveness into our own lives.
We must stand at the cross to forgive others, because we are to forgive as have been forgiven. 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 are indwelled by his Spirit.
It’s hard if you’ve been hurt. It’s hard and slow. 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. We must pray and ask God to teach us to forgive. Ask him, gather a mature Christian with you, ask the Lord to work.
In 1944, Dutch woman Corrie ten Boom was released from Ravensbruck concentration camp where her beloved sister Betsie had died. She spoke often after the end of World War II about the reconciliation and forgiveness that can only be found in Christ.
At one such meeting, a man came toward her – one of the camp guards. He had since become Christian and extended his hand towards her saying, “Fraulein, will you forgive me?” She felt incapable of forgiveness but, mechanically, put out her hand praying, “Jesus, help me”.
She wrote afterwards that a healing warmth then flooded her being, and with tears in her eyes she grasped his hand and said: “I forgive you, brother! With all my heart”.
This is an edited version of Archbishop Raffel’s speech from the Centre for Christian Living’s Learning to Forgive event in August. Dr Philip Kern also spoke, and a link to the complete video, (with options for audio and transcript), is at [url=https://ccl.moore.edu.au/resources/watch-learning-to-forgive/]https://ccl.moore.edu.au/resources/watch-learning-to-forgive/[/url]