Forgiveness: What It Is & Isn’t

In the previous post we concluded that all forgiveness requires death.  We are to forgive as we’ve been forgiven by God.  While we experience forgiveness as a gift from God in Christ, it is not without cost – the death of Christ on the cross.  To forgive others, we must put to death our pride and inclination to seek vengeance by the power of the Spirit. Refusing to forgive puts us at odds with God’s work and results in our own sin not being forgiven.  As those who have been forgiven, forgiveness is not an option.

How does this apply to us individually?  You’ve been hurt, offended, gossiped about, slandered, abused, rejected, betrayed, and on and on.  So how do you practically forgive those who offend you as Jesus commands – “as the Lord has forgiven you”?

First, so there is not confusion, look at three things forgiveness is NOT:

1. Forgiveness is NOT a Feeling – We are not commanded to wait until we feel like forgiving someone to forgive them, just as we are not command to wait until we feel like we love someone to love them.  Forgiveness, like love, is an active choice.  If our forgiveness of others was dependent upon our feeling like forgiving them then we would possibly never be able to do it. God’s forgiveness is not seen in a feeling but in His active choosing to send Christ to die on our behalf, call us to Himself, redeem us, cleanse us of our sin, and keep us until the end.

2. Forgiveness is NOT Forgetting – In forgiving another, we are not called to forget.  You may object, saying that “God remembers our sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; Isaiah 43:25) isn’t that God forgetting?  Being perfect in knowledge God cannot forget.  He does not get a case of divine amnesia when He forgives. Rather than passively forgetting, God’s forgiveness (“remembering our sin no more”) comes from His active choosing not to remember them, not to bring them back up or hold them against us in the future.  While time and reconciliation may bring you to forget even the greatest offenses, forgiveness does not necessitate forgetting but is completed by love in that it does not keep record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).  We must not burden ourselves thinking forgiving entails forgetting but rather focus on loving them through forgiveness by relating to them as God does to those in Christ – as though they have not sinned.

3. Forgiveness is NOT Excusing Sin – When you have been hurt by someone, it does neither you or your offender any good to act as though what they did was not wrong/sinful.  This happens often when the offender comes to apologize for the offense or we try to suppress the hurt they haven’t acknowledged and we say something like, “It’s okay, it was no big deal.”, “Don’t worry about, you didn’t really do anything wrong.”, “Don’t feel bad, I’m ok, really.”, or anything of the like.  Forgiveness does not entail ignoring or denying wrongdoing and when we do so we miss an opportunity to be blessed through forgiving our offender and we can hinder the work of the Spirit in our offender.  God does not ignore our sins against Him or others but shines the light of His truth that we would experience the blessedness that comes from confession and forgiveness (Psalm 32:1,2).

So then, what is forgiveness?  There are three aspects involved in forgiving someone that reflect God’s forgiveness by which we can discern whether or not we have truly forgiven.

1. The Mind of Forgiveness – One way that we forgive and know that we have forgiven is the way we think about those who have offended us.  Are you harboring thoughts of revenge, anger, bitterness, or murder (wishing they did not even exist)?  Or are you imitating God and choosing not to remember their wrong and desiring good for them?  Philippians 4:8 commands, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  When you forgive you are choosing to release your offender from their debt not to dwell on it or use it against them (1 Corinthians 13:5).  You seek to begin the reconciliation process in your mind, thinking of ways that you could bless them rather than curse them.  You turn your mind from complaining about them to God to finding ways to thank God for them.  This is not easy but it is possible with a mind being renewed by the Word of God and a heart made new through the gospel of the glory of Christ.

2. The Mouth of Forgiveness – Another way that you know you have forgiven is by the way you speak about and to your offender.  Are you gossiping about an offense, slandering your offender, or gathering up sympathetic ears to your cause?  Are you constantly reminding your offender of their offense, trying to evoke repentance from them, or seeking to bring the conviction of the Holy Spirit by your words? Or are you imitating God’s words of forgiveness to us, seeking to comfort, encourage, and restore your offender?  Ephesians 4:29 demands of believers, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  A heart that has been forgiven spills out forgiveness and grace.  A heart that does not know the forgiveness of God and the freedom that comes from it will be hard pressed to speak grace to its offender. True forgiveness comes with affirmation of that forgiveness.  Though the feelings of hurt may remain for some time, one way you begin the restoration process in your own heart is by speaking grace to your offender and about your offender, for in this you are reminded of the grace you have been freely given in Christ.  Think of the many times in Scripture that we are reminded of what God in Christ has done on our behalf to make reconciliation.

3. The Motions of Forgiveness – The third aspect of forgiveness by which you can discern whether or not you have forgiven is by the way you act towards your offender.  Are you ignoring, avoiding, excluding, or withholding reconciliation?  Or are you imitating God’s action towards us in forgiveness, seeking peace in relationship, working towards restoration, and serving your offender?  Romans 12:9-21 describes the actions of grace and peace by a people who have been given grace and peace:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (cf. Luke 6:27-36)

Forgiveness is not passive but requires action.  God’s forgiveness is seen in His gracious acts towards us, therefore your forgiveness of others will be genuine insomuch as your actions match your words, heart, and mind.

So ask yourself: do I have a mind of forgiveness, loving my offenders with my thoughts?  Do I have a mouth of forgiveness, speaking grace to and about my offenders?  And, do I have motions of forgiveness, loving, serving, and pursuing peace with others?  If you, in honesty before God, had to answer “no” to any of these questions God calls you to repent and to forgive.  Do not withhold forgiveness for in doing so you are asking God to withhold His forgiveness from you (Matthew 6:14-15).



Filed under Applied Theology, Bible, Character, Christian Living, Christian Thinking, Christology, Forgiveness, God, Gospel, Grace, Sanctification, Sin, Theology

3 responses to “Forgiveness: What It Is & Isn’t

  1. Mark of Faith

    Good words and very true.

    I find, however, that sometimes my thoughts and words and actions are loving, gracious and kind – yet at other times (such as when distressed) the old hurts resurface. Any advice in this situation?

    • Thank you for your comments. I believe the tension that you mention is common to everyone. Forgiveness does not entail calling what wrong has happened to us something good or even neutral. What happened is truly bad (at times an understatement). God does not look at our sin after forgiveness and call it good – sin is still sin. A wrong done will always be wrong even though we know that God is at work in that wrong for our good. Hurts will resurface, especially if your offender has not sought reconciliation with you or the offense is severe. All it can take at times is a streamer thought of the wrong done or seeing that person or the place it occurred to bring back the pain but this is not without hope. I think we begin by remembering what God has done with our sin. In a similar way that our hurts haunt us, our past and present sin can as well. When I sin it is easy for me to forget that I’ve been forgiven through the work of Christ, made righteous through union with Him, and are now under no condemnation. I usually think I deserve to be punished or am guilty and must atone for the sin, but it is in that moment that I have forgotten the gospel and I am believing a lie about my self and about God. If I am not saturated with the gospel, being the truth of what Christ has done in His life, death and resurrection and its implications for me then it will not only be difficult for me to deal with my daily sin but it wil be a great struggle to truly forgive others as well. This is the whole problem with the wicked servant in Matthew 18:21-35 – he had not understood the forgiveness that he had been given and therefore could not extend it to another. This does not negate a struggle or difficulty for all obedience unto godliness is a struggle but in that fight we know that we’ve been forgiven an incomparable debt and we have been given the Spirt of God to enable us to do all that He has redeemed us for. The key is looking unto Christ as revealed in the gospel. The more we behold Christ the more we will become like Him and all the trouble of this world will pale in comparison to the weight of glory that awaits all who are in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18-4:18).

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