"To err is human, to forgive is divine" [wrote Alexander Pope, 1699-1744]. What does the Bible teach?
The model prayer that Jesus Christ gave to His disciples tells us to seek forgiveness from God our Father for our debts (Matthew 6:9-13). "Debts" refer to our sins (Luke 11:4). According to scripture we have all sinned (Romans 3:23) and if we say we haven't then we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8).
Sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4) and the result of our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Having sinned we are all under the penalty of the law, which is eternal death. What can we do? Do we have to die? Our merciful God wants us to have eternal life, to live and reign with Him forever (Revelation 22:5). God gave His son that we might be forgiven. He paid the death penalty for us that we might have eternal life (Romans 5:8, John 3:16). If we turn to God and sincerely and genuinely repent of our sins He will forgive us (Acts 3:19, Colossians 1:13, 14).
When someone transgresses the law of God they are answerable to God and only He can forgive them. We cannot forgive a person for their sins against God. We can forgive them for transgressions against us personally, but they are still ultimately answerable to God. Only God the lawgiver has the power to forgive (see the last part of Mark 2:7 and Luke 5:21). When we confess our sins to God, He will forgive (Psalm 32:5).
In the process of forgiving us, He wants us to learn to be forgiving toward others. Notice in the model prayer (Matthew 6:12), Christ said to pray to the Father to forgive our debts (sins) as we forgive our debtors, i.e., as we forgive those who have sinned against us. The lesson of forgiveness is so important for us to comprehend that He elaborates: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6: 1415). Unless we have a forgiving attitude toward others, we will not be forgiven. If we are not forgiven then we are not saved from the penalty of death that we have earned as wages of sin.
God wants us to repent of our sins (Acts 3:19). He is willing to forgive and forget, to blot out all record of our sins (see also Psalm 103:3, 4, 12 and Isaiah 43:25). Are we in turn willing to forgive and put aside the things others do to us (Ephesians 4:32), or do we use every opportunity to remind them of their transgressions? If someone who has offended us is sorry and repentant, we are to forgive them as commanded (Luke 17:3-4). But will we forgive and forget the anger, the affront, the desire for revenge, or will we continue to feel ill-will toward them?. Of course, we must not forget the lessons that experience teaches us, for "those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them".
The scripture we have just looked at talks about forgiving a brother who has repented. Does this mean that we only need to forgive those who repent of what they have done to us? We do well to look toward the example of Jesus Christ, God's own son. Even when people were reviling, abusing and hitting him, he prayed "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). He did not wait for them to repent.
Notice that in the model prayer we mentioned earlier (Matthew 6:12, 14-15), in giving this instruction Christ did not give any indication about being selective as to who we forgive. He talked about forgiving men, generically implying all people, for the sins they have committed against us, which also implies all sins against us. He even tells us to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44).
The disciple Peter asked Christ if he really meant we must forgive seven times, as if that was pushing the limits. Christ replied that we need to forgive "until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22), showing that we are to continue to have an attitude of forgiveness regardless of the number of times someone offends against us. God will wipe all our sins from remembrance (Hebrews 10:17), and He expects us to do the same for others. If we bring up past grievances to throw in the face of someone who has offended us, it shows we have not really forgiven them for those past grievances. If we allow our minds to dwell on offenses that have been committed against us we become vulnerable to Satan's devices (2 Corinthians 2:10-11).
When our attitude is not right we harm not only the relationship with the other person, but our relationship with God as well (Isaiah 59:2). The result is that our attitude deteriorates into one of unforgiving bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). The more bitter and revengeful we become, the harder it is to forgive, and if we have not forgiven, then we cannot expect to be forgiven. A bitter and unforgiving attitude can cause us to fall from God's grace.
When we finally come face to face with God, will He be have forgiven us for our sins? Or will we have fallen from grace because we have been unforgiving toward others? It's not too late to change (Ephesians 5:15-16 and 4:32) - but change we must if we want to escape the penalty of death.
The choice to forgive - or not to forgive - is ours to make. The reward for making the right choice is membership in God's family
The writer is John Morton, a member of the Church of God who works and writes in New Zealand.
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For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Issue 10, July/August 1998. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.
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