Matthew 6:14-15: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” A couple of years ago we were encouraged to make a study of the words of Jesus that could be called “essential doctrine,” verses that outline definite conditions for living in a relationship with God. Since that time I have found many scriptures that fit this description, words that must become our reality—not just a list to memorize—if we are to be God’s children in this world. It was suggested that when we are asked what we believe, we should refer to these teachings of Jesus instead of telling people about the outward structure of our fellowship; in a society where fewer people devote themselves to reading the Bible, most can no longer identify at all with the scriptural pattern of worship and ministry. These simple, basic teachings of our Lord, however, often strike a chord in the heart of needy individuals, giving them the desire to know more about the One we love and serve.
This teaching about forgiveness is certainly an essential one in our walk with the Lord. The whole topic of forgiveness is so vital to God’s people because Spirit-led people are so conscious of sin. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) and “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way,” (Isaiah 53:6) are teachings the Holy Spirit gives us early in our experience with Him. The Spirit is not the only one who convicts us of sin; Satan is also constantly accusing God’s people. The difference between the Spirit’s voice and Satan’s, however, is that Satan never tells the complete story: “…and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24) “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) The gospel assures us that there is a remedy for sin; we don’t have to continue living in guilt and defeat.
Understanding our own need of forgiveness for sins, the Lord’s teaching about forgiving others takes on a great deal of urgency. The conditions are clear: If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. As I’ve studied different scriptures about our responsibility to forgive, it’s become clear that there are different cases where forgiveness is called for, with different examples and instructions given according to the circumstances. At times we find ourselves in the place of needing to forgive unbelievers. In the example of our Lord Jesus in Luke 23:34—“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”—and that of Stephen in Acts 7:60—“Lord, do not hold this sin against them”—we see them forgiving people who showed no sign of repentance. While still acting with hatred and ugly self-righteousness, they were totally forgiven. Because of practicing this total forgiveness, both our Lord and Stephen could face death with perfect peace: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) After Stephen had spoken his words of forgiveness, he simply “fell asleep.”
If we think forgiveness is something easy to practice, we likely haven’t done it very much. Sometimes people ask how they can know without a doubt that they have indeed forgiven others, since the memory of past offenses comes back to mind, sometimes after many years. One indication that we have indeed forgiven others is when we desire that they would share in God’s richest blessings. If we can honestly pray for others—not about them—we can be assured that we have truly forgiven them.
Our relationship with fellow-believers is different than our relationship with unbelievers, and there are clear instructions for both. The familiar teaching of Matthew 5:39-44 is primarily regarding our relationship with unbelievers, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” We’ve learned these teachings well, and rightly so. However, there is a different prescription given when we find ourselves in difficulties with a brother in the faith: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) Hearing this teaching, the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” We can certainly enter into their feelings; it’s not an easy course to follow!
The relationship of Christian believers is a family relationship. Because of the closeness of the bonds we have with each other, there is great potential for blessing. However, close relationships also have great potential for abuse when one family member takes advantage of another, counting on automatic tolerance and forgiveness because of their status in the family. The Lord Jesus left His disciples empowered in their dealings with one another. Because of the deep care that exists between believers, we are commanded to bring a brother or sister’s sin against us to their attention. We do them a favor, we do the whole church a favor, when we go to our brother or sister in the Spirit of Christ and tell them, “You’re not allowed to treat me that way. You’re not allowed to talk to/about me that way.” Sometimes what we might think of as kindness in overlooking a brother or sister’s offenses is actually laziness or unwillingness to take responsibility for helping them correct something that is possibly hurting their own soul more than it’s hurting us. I recognize that at times I have been more inclined to rebuke unbelievers for their sins against me while being very tolerant with a believer, when actually the scripture teaches just the opposite!
There are some conditions attached to our approach to a brother or sister in error. First, we are empowered to rebuke them when the sin is against us personally. We are not authorized to investigate their entire life for evidence of wrongdoing about which we can confront them. Many things must be left between an individual and their conscience before God. Nor do we dare rebuke a brother or sister in anger, but in the spirit of meekness. It is not up to us to reveal the wrath of God, punish our brothers and sisters, or otherwise make life difficult for them. “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:20) Our human wrath is not a tool God would choose to use. In fact, it may be better to do nothing at all about a situation than to act in the human spirit of wrath. One brother told us that it’s likely safest to go to correct a situation with a brother or sister when we find it hard to do so. If we find it easy to speak our mind, we may be doing exactly that: telling them our own thoughts instead of God’s thoughts. When we have to pray for strength, wisdom, grace, and courage to go to a brother or sister, we are more likely to go in the Spirit of Christ that will help bring resolution to the situation.
Our forgiveness for our brother or sister is based on their word. “If he … says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” It is not up to us to set conditions for future behavior, nor to specify ways in which they must atone for past wrongs. I am so grateful for the words of a wise old sister one time when I found myself quite upset about the apparent wrong conduct of some who were quite close to me. “We simply have to believe our people,” she told me, and that’s been good advice in many situations. When we forgive others based on their word, we set them free from any bondage in the relationship between us, and we are ourselves free. They have no need to be looking over their shoulder and wondering if we are still scrutinizing their behavior, and we don’t need to continue gathering evidence for a possible future “case” against them.
One time after trying to speak on this subject, I was questioned about our alternatives if a brother or sister doesn’t repent when we speak to them about their sin. In another passage, the Lord Jesus gave instructions for such a case: “Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17) Whatever else that may involve, we cannot ignore the example of the Lord Himself in His outreach to pagans and tax collectors: He loved them and forgave them! So an unrepentant brother or sister receives our forgiveness also, though at the moment they may fail to get the benefit of the lesson we’ve tried to help them with. On rare occasions, there may also be a situation where the Spirit explicitly sends a messenger to warn another of dangers in the path they have chosen, as when Nathan was sent to David in 2 Samuel 12. Most of us will never find ourselves in such a setting, and this falls outside of the situations the Lord Jesus spoke of in Luke 17 and Matthew 18, where there may be no personal trespass involved against another individual. In such a case, the messenger of the Lord is not in a position to forgive, since there is no trespass against him or her in the first place. Their mission is only to deliver the message of the Lord with clarity, making sure it’s the Lord’s message and not their own. Nathan gives us a wonderful example of the spirit in which such a message should be delivered, without vindictiveness or anger, but in kindness and hope, holding out the Lord’s mercy in spite of wrong.
The account our Lord gave regarding forgiveness between servants in the same household is a powerful one. One servant had an enormous debt canceled by the king himself, a debt that amounted to sixty million days’ wages! Regardless of how I do the math, I come up with a figure of more than two thousand lifetimes, truly an impossible debt to ever repay. His fellow-servant owed him one hundred days’ wages, not a small sum, but neither an impossible one to eventually repay. However, the very man whose impossible debt had been canceled refused to be patient with his repentant fellow-servant. The consequences were drastic: “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35) Perhaps the servant never truly grasped just how great a sum he had owed in the first place. Unforgiveness toward a brother or sister may be evidence that we’ve never really understood our own status as sinners before God. We do not dare allow unforgiveness to rule in our heart even for a moment. As we follow the scripture’s guidelines in our affairs with both unbelievers and believers, we find great peace and liberty regarding our own guilty past, and we set each other free to serve in love and harmony.