Forgiveness is one of God’s chief character traits so it is vital to embrace and live out forgiveness in our lives if we are to experience release from the penalty of sin and emotional freedom. For justice to be achieved an offender must bear their own guilt, and punishment for wrongdoing or the one sinned against may choose to release the offender from the penalty through forgiveness, offering the undeserved privilege of pardon by which they are declared ‘Not guilty’, and the record of sin is cleared (Ps 32:1,2; Rom 4:6-8). For any sin there are always consequences.
Forgiving brings emotional freedom
forward in emotional and spiritual health.
By knowing we are forgiven and God has taken responsibility for all our offences a right relationship with God and others can be restored (Mt 6:14,15; Lk 6:37). Reconciliation with God is the heart of the gospel.
Our conscience is our inner alarm system designed to lead us to repentance and forgiveness. True conviction comes from the Holy Spirit prompting our conscience of specific sins, as opposed to false guilt that is the result of human judgments and suggestions (2 Cor 7:9,10). Forgiveness also deals with Satan’s condemnation for we are ‘in Christ’ and the law of God’s Kingdom (confession, then forgiveness because He took our penalty) sets us free (Rom 8:1,2). Thus forgiveness is not a negative subject but rather a truly positive one with restored fellowship bringing ongoing joy and freedom as it is lived out. Forgiveness is an attitude and lifestyle leading to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18,19).
When an offence has been committed against God or a fellow human, there should be repentance, not a glib ‘I’m sorry’ that has no effect, rather a genuine attitude of sorrow that results in a noticeable change of direction (Ps 51:17; Mt 3:8). Be proactive in addressing any hindrance as we can’t worship acceptably if we know there is a problem between us and someone else. We need to resolve that issue so we can meet God with a cleansed heart because the blood of Jesus can’t cleanse unconfessed sin (Mt 5:23,24; Mk 11:25,26).
Our need to ask forgiveness of God
If we confess, He will forgive
each time we meet the condition of confession and repentance for He “forgives us our sins and purifies us from all unrighteousness” remembering our sin against Him no more (Act 13:38; Eph 1:7; Heb 10:15-17; 1 Jn 1:6-9).
Regardless of your past sin and failures God promises to forgive (if the sin is confessed) and to make you useful and effective in His Kingdom; Peter failed numerous times, yet Christ restored him and used him mightily as recorded in Acts (Jn 18:15-18,25-27). The extent of God’s forgiveness is graphically portrayed as removing our sin ‘as far as the East is from the West’, putting our sins behind His back and casting them into the depth of the sea (Ps 103:12; Isa 38:17; Mic 7:19).
As we comprehend the magnitude of our debt to God for cancelling the penalty for our sin we will live purer lives, not continuing to sin so God can show us more forgiveness (Rom 6:1,2; Gal 5:1)! Repentance is turning from our wicked ways to walk in newness of life (2 Chr 7:14; Rom 6:4). Praise God, “With you is forgiveness…He forgives all my sins”; the only sin that won’t be is the continual rejection of the offer of salvation which in effect is blasphemy directed at the Holy Spirit (Ps 103:3, 130:3; Mt 12:31,32). Those who don’t receive forgiveness from God exclude themselves from His Kingdom by their own unrepentance and unforgiveness.
“Blessed is the person who is forgiven, whose sin the Lord does not hold against them”. David acknowledged his inner turmoil until “I acknowledged my sin…and you [God] forgave” (Ps 32:1,3-5). The same sense of release is possible for all who make regular confession to God.
While God’s forgiveness is undeserved, it certainly isn’t unconditional. Although not based on our efforts (His forgiveness and salvation are solely because of Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross) it is dependent on our actions that demonstrate our faith and the extent to which we understand God’s grace (Lk 13:3; Jn 1:12; Eph 2:8,9; Jas 2:14-26; 1 Jn 1:8,9). It is only by our acknowledging our wrong, repenting and accepting His forgiveness we are saved and forgiven, both at conversion and in our ongoing Christian walk. Without repentance true biblical forgiveness is impossible.
Our need to ask forgiveness of others
Do I have anyone on my conscience whom I should be forgiving? If so, what action am I taking?
(Jas 5:16). In the vulnerability of honest confession and bringing sin into the open, we can be freed from guilt and released from the penalty of the wrongdoing. This will be in direct proportion to our willingness to face our sin, confess our sinfulness and accept forgiveness. The focus is to be on our actions, ‘I was wrong. Will you please forgive me for my…’ stating only what you did wrong, with no excuses and no mentioning of any action by the other person, trying to shame them into guilt and to own up to any possible wrong doing on their part. After confessing and seeking forgiveness attending to the physical restitution of property and a changed lifestyle indicates the genuineness of our words (Mt 7:16-20; Lk 19:2-10). Instead of our attention being on what’s been done against us, we are to focus on our sub-standard behavior against others (Mt 7:1-5). When confessed, the sin will be forgiven yet the consequences of that sin may remain as a painful reminder of the seriousness of sin and serve as a deterrent for the future.
Our responsibility to forgive others
We cannot love without forgiving
forgive others from the heart. This is not always easy as we must deal with our emotional response to the person who offended us. However granting forgiveness is not an emotion but a conscious choice to obey God and forgo any retribution by not allowing someone else’s actions or attitudes to dictate mine. While there may be lingering memories, it seeks reconciliation and prays for God’s blessing on them. This frees our spirits by clearing their record with us and transfers the responsibility for any consequences to God. The Bible’s message is, “Be ready to forgive others…Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you” for if I love God how can I not love and forgive my brother? (Mt 18:35; Col 3:13,14; 1 Jn 4:20). A believer who does not forgive others will be severely chastened by God who loves him, until the believer is ready and willing to forgive others.
As both forgiveness and unforgiveness affect our attitudes, words and actions, do not allow the wrong of others to determine your behaviour, instead respond in the opposite spirit of love and the fruits of the Spirit which reflect the nature of God; this approach overpowers evil with good (Rom 12:19-21; Gal 5:22,23).
Confronting wrongdoing should always be done with caution as we do not know the motives of others or all the contributing factors. Where possible we are encouraged to be proactive, by going to the other person and lovingly getting them to face up to what they did wrong so they can experience emotional freedom. However, as Scripture suggests, it may be wise to take witnesses. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” but the onus still lies with you to forgive and keep on forgiving – 77 times and more (Mt 18:16, 21,22; Lk 17:3,4)! After all we have received unlimited forgiveness from Him (Lk 7:47).
We should honestly choose to forgive those who sin against us, whether intentional or unintentional, even when they are not aware of the offence or have died before the situation could be addressed. This does not mean pretending we were not hurt or saying the people who hurt us were not wrong, nor does it remove responsibility from them because everyone must answer to God for their unconfessed sin (Mt 12:36; Rom 14:12). Rather it is walking in the footsteps of our God who although in humiliation and excruciating pain could have become bitter towards those who beat and nailed Him to the cross as He carried out the purposes of God for His life yet He cried out, “Father forgive them...” (Lk 23:34; 1 Pet 2:21). God’s forgiveness is immediate, complete and final – ours should be the same (Eph 4:32). Forgiving others does not mean we must remain in abusive and exploitive situations, nor does it deny the civil authorities the right to punish offenders (Mt 22:15-22; Rom 13:1-7). If moral and ethical boundaries have been crossed, the restoration of trust is a process that must also be put in place. Maintaining a right relationship with our parents is very important, forgiving them for real or perceived hurts and rejection.
I forgive so I can be forgiven – Matthew 6:15
God. A test of true forgiveness is can I pray for, love and bless the person who has offended me (Mt 5:44; 1 Pet 3:9). Repentance by the offender doesn’t make them deserving of our forgiveness, it makes them eligible. We must maintain the attitude of forgiveness towards others that is outworked when they ask it of us, and are prepared to change their behaviour.
An issue of interpretation
The Bible states, “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (Jn 20:23). This verse is (erroneously) considered by some to imply a third party is able to pardon the sins of another against God. However, the recognized meaning is that we can honestly tell people who in repentance come to Jesus for salvation that their sins are forgiven, while those who do not accept the salvation offer of Jesus stand condemned in God’s eyes as “Whoever believes in the Son has life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (Jn 3:36). Thus, this teaching of absolution is not Scriptural, as we receive forgiveness directly only from God through faith, not through a human intermediary.