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Forgiveness--What it Is, What It Isn't.
Rick Sutcliffe

Forgiveness is about cancelling the debts, obligations or penalties of a person who is without the means to pay what is owed.

There are two ways a debt can be remitted or cancelled. One is for the one to whom the debt is owed to issue a "quit claim", having simply decided that the debt has become a dead letter and there is no longer any point in trying to collect it. Banks occasionally do this when they write off "bad debts"

The other is to arrange for some third party to pay the debt on behalf of the debtor, thus fully satisfying the terms of the obligation without incurring a new one.

In the absence of forgiveness, the charge of the debt of course remains in place, and must eventually be satisfied by the debtor.

Forgiveness for sin relates to offences against God, His holiness, and His standards. It is therefore something only God can give, as the Pharisees commented, (Mark 2:7) "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

But there is a problem with this, for God's holiness is infinite and his demands that we live up to His standards are absolute. In Leviticus 20:7, God says "Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God." and in Matthew 22:37 Jesus phrases the requirements as: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."

Clearly none of us can do this. We cannot and do not accomplish absolute holiness, no matter how hard we try, no matter our partial successes in our eyes or those of others. (Otherwise, we could become God.) In particular, we fallen sinners cannot obey the command to fully love God as we ought, and we have plenty of experience at failing to love one another. We are sinners by nature and by choice, rebelling against God's standards at every turn, and when we look into the moral law of God given to Israel, we find it increases our offence.

Proverbs 20:9 asks "Who can say, 'I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin'?" Good question. Paul answers in Romans 3:23 "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." 1John 1:8, puts it this way: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." That's it. To fall short of God's own perfection is to sin.

The real difficulty comes with the penalty for sin, for as Paul notes in Romans 6:23 "...the wages of sin is death..." This is not simply an ending, for once created we remain in existence eternally, rather it is a continuation of the state of separation from God that sin implies and causes. That is, the penalty for an infinite infraction is itself infinite. We own an infinite debt for each and every sin.

We can't pay the penalty for sin. No one can. No number of good deeds, even heroic ones, even the giving of one's very life, pays the penalty for a single sin. The common idea that God will someday weigh our good deeds against our bad ones and admit to heaven on the balance of good over bad is a dangerous heresy, for it will keep us condemned to hell forever if we act upon it. Rather, God's perfect holiness demands that no sinner may enter his presence, and God's perfect justice demands that sin be fully paid for, not just cancelled. No "quit claim" is available without the death penalty. Hebrews 9:22 "...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."

Thus, the cross. Jesus died there, under the full force of the wrath of God to take the punishment for sin. Subsequently, anyone who puts their trust in Jesus' death can have that payment applied to their sin account, remitting it fully. As 2Corinthians 5:21 says "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Lest we think we can "roll our own" salvation from sin, Acts 4:12 tells us of Christ, "Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." In the same vein, Jesus declares, in John 14:6 "I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me." Paul says in Ephesians 1:7 "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace." Yes, indeed, as that last word implies, this salvation is available without further cost on our part, as a gratis gift of God for believing in and trusting in his Son for redemption already secured. Ephesians 2:8 tells us "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no-one can boast."

The bottom line: Despite our owning an infinite debt we cannot begin to remit, God arranged for the debt to be paid by Christ at the cross. This payment can be applied to our account, cancelling our death debt for sin permanently, and restoring us to fellowship with the Living God. Romans 4:7 comments, "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered."

God's Forgiveness is comprehensive and unconditional or none of us would have any chance whatsoever. Were there loopholes, hoops through which we had to jump, or subsequent conditions on God's forgiveness, every one of us would come to the end of life in such a state that our heavenly files could bear only the conclusion: "Not good enough. Falls short of the glory of God." Moreover, as indicated above, even the faith by which we come to forgiveness is the gift of God, for he will have no one boasting of righteousness before him.

We learn from this that true forgiveness has no strings attached. We also learn that God offers it to those who are incapable of even asking for it without the prompting of the Holy Spirit to do so.

These comments merely reiterate the familiar gospel, focusing on the forgiveness aspects. However, we also know that the Holy Spirit's subsequent role in the believer's life is to define and initiate an instance of the character of Christ in each one of us. We are supposed to learn to love as he did, speak as he did, act as he did.

Christ reviews God's requirements of us in Luke 10:27 "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" That is, the first great command to love God comes with a collateral injunction to demonstrate the reality of our love for Him through our behaviour toward one another. As John saw the inevitability of the one following from the other, (1John 4:20) "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother."

In particular, we deduce that God's forgiving nature must become ingrained in our character if we are to exhibit a credible claim to be his. In Matthew 6:12 (part of the disciples' prayer), Christ puts this quite pointedly: "'Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' For 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."

Jesus' parable recorded in Matthew 18:21ff is instructive in this regard. There, He tells of a servant who is forgiven a great debt, but subsequently refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owes him a pittance. The master negates his forgiveness and has the unforgiving man turned over to the torturers. This is for us. If we do not forgive, we give evidence that we do not understand God's forgiveness, perhaps because we have never experienced it. If the latter is so, there remains nothing for us but eternal punishment, our just payment of the debt.

It is of critical importance, therefore that we forgive, and that we do so God's way (for anything else is not forgiveness at all).

This has several aspects.

First, the object of our forgiveness need not be worthy or it, nor particularly motivated to ask for it. If forgiveness God's way demanded such, we would remain lost before him. Now while we cannot predestine someone to accept an offer of forgiveness, or even know if an ostensible acceptance is real, we can make the offer, not merely because it is our duty, but from a heart becoming more Christlike. What the other person does with that offer becomes their issue.

Second, we cannot forgive with conditions, forgive with demands, or forgive but remember. The correct pattern is found in Psalm 103:12 "as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." and Hebrews 8:12 "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." As there are no boundary conditions on God's forgiveness, so there can be none on ours if we are true to him.

Third, true forgiveness never reneges. God's forgiveness isn't "here today, gone tomorrow." Romans 8:29 says "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." That is, the whole chain of God's actions that lead to salvation's fulfilment in glory starts with His knowledge. And, it is impossible that the God could infallibly know someone is saved forever one day, and equally infallibly know the same person to be lost forever the next. Again, the scriptures say about this: (Romans 11:29) "God's gifts and his call are irrevocable." Likewise, James says: (James 1:17) "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

Were God to be capricious like the Oriental idols, he might condemn on a whim, negating His Son's perfect and complete work on the cross. But he does not change, and His knowledge is perfect, therefore His forgiveness unto salvation is permanent.

So, our forgiveness, to be like his, must likewise be permanent. Once we offer it, our word must be good. We commit a grave sin if we reconsider, renege, and withdraw it afterwards (even in our minds), for then we have violated the Biblical pattern. Moreover, if our own sin of breaking our word is public, we cast disrepute on the whole idea of forgiveness, and give the people of God a bad reputation. Christ says in Matthew 5:37 "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No', 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

This applies to all three aspects of forgiveness. If we fail to offer forgiveness, to make it absolute and to make it permanent, we do not merely muddy the name and actions of His people, we defame God Himself, and this He will not tolerate. Leviticus 19:12 "Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD." is a verse that applies to all actions undertaken in the name of God (i.e. as his representatives).

Of course, when another has sinned and broken fellowship with us, even when we forgive absolutely, restoring the person to fellowship, the effects of sin do continue (just as they do on a broader scale; sin cannot be undone). For instance, while forgiveness may be given and received, trust must be earned. That is why a church leader who sins, repents, and is then forgiven can be restored to church fellowship but cannot immediately (and perhaps not ever, depending on the offence) be put back into a position of leadership.

The very bottom line is that God's people are defined by being the unilaterally, unconditionally, and eternally forgiven ones, and because of the indwelling Holy Spirit they will necessarily learn to act as such, so showing His character accurately to others. They are a people who readily forgive, and who do so unconditionally, without reneging. Those who repeatedly, persistently, consistently act otherwise are not His, whatever they may claim.

The same Lord of heaven who said from the cross, Luke 23:34 "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." also said in Luke 17:3 "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." Such is the command of the Lord, who also observes, John 10:27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me."

Friends, in the instances when I have sinned against you or another by acting hastily, presumptuously, or otherwise inappropriately, by name calling, being disparaging, whether out of temper or some other failing of the fallen, I ask your forgiveness.

But I ask of us all a still higher way. I ask that we, individually and collectively forgive those who we have felt injured us, whether they ask for it or not. There are those with whom we've crossed swords in one way or another over the years. Perhaps we regard them as pompous, as manipulative, as patronizing, as arbitrary decision makers, even concluded they were deliberately sinning.

I think I have partially learned that Christ's own people rarely act out of deliberate malice, whatever their other failings.

I think I have also partially learned that the commendable desire Christians have to be right about core doctrines all too often spills over into our other Biblical study, our work, our academic pursuits, and our interpersonal relationships. We want to be right and in the right all the time. We like thinking the other person is wrong. We can become offensive, patronizing, and full of ourselves and our own learning in the process, if we do not guard our thoughts and words. Besides, it will certainly be revealed in eternity that we were NOT right about everything. A little forbearance, even humility now could go a long way.

Le 19:18 "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.

1Co 6:7 Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?

So my friends, who are those difficult people whom you disagree? I know you have good sound Biblical and/or academic reasons for doing so, for being sure you are in the right and they are in the wrong. But surely in Christ you have more in common than you have differences. Can you not at the very least politely agree to disagree (even if the other does not)?

And, who are those you think you have cause to regard as nemeses? I ask you to forgive any real, rumoured, or imagined wrongs absolutely and irrevocably, resolve to speak and think kindly to and of them, and wish them God's blessings and peace with clean hands and a pure heart.

Forgiveness is the higher way--God's way.

--Rick Sutcliffe


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