The challenge of forgiveness is perhaps one of the hardest things for believers in Christ and non-believers alike to come to terms with. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the offence has been great or small, real or perceived; all of us throughout many occasions in our lives will come face-to-face with the choice as to whether or not we will forgive.
Forgiveness is an Issue of the Heart
Forgiveness is something which flows from the heart. When we experience difficulty in forgiving others, that difficulty is there because of something deep within our hearts. We need to ask God about these areas and to allow Him to minister healing, because Jesus said we must forgive from our hearts!
Jesus said, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45).
Forgiveness is a good thing!
When Jesus was teaching His disciples about forgiveness, He told them a parable about an unmerciful servant (see Matthew 18:23–35). In this parable a king was settling his accounts with those who owed him money. A man owing him 10,000 talents (today’s equivalent of millions of dollars) was unable to pay back his debt and so he begged the king for mercy. The king had compassion on him, cancelled his debt and let him go. Later that same servant found a fellow servant who owed him only 100 denarii (today’s equivalent of a few dollars) and demanded him to pay back what he owed. This servant too begged for mercy, but instead of receiving mercy from his fellow servant, the unmerciful servant threw him into prison until he was able to pay back the debt. On hearing about this, the king called for the servant for whom he had forgiven a great debt; “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
Jesus then told His disciples, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:32–35).
The Double Standard of Legalism
When people have not dealt with the issues in their hearts regarding the forgiveness of others, the hurt can be so deep or the act of forgiving seem so hard, that they will look for a way out. Instead of extending grace to those who have hurt them, they can begin to attach conditions to their forgiveness, effectively placing them under some kind of law. In this way, some have taken this parable of the unmerciful servant, and seeing that the unmerciful servant and his fellow servant both begged for mercy because they could not pay, have wrongly made a law or rule out of this Scripture. These people say “I only need to forgive someone if they ask or beg me to, and therefore I can withhold my forgiveness if they don’t.”
But is this really what Jesus is saying when using this parable?
I believe what Jesus is doing with this passage of Scripture, is not making a rule or law on forgiveness, but that He is addressing a heart issue.
Forgiveness flows from the heart and therefore it is a heart issue
I believe the heart issue Jesus is addressing, is that we are not to have a double-standard. We have been forgiven much and have received mercy from God for our many sins, and God does not want us to have a double-standard and do any less for others by refusing to forgive their wrongs.
The book of James says; “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17).
Elsewhere Jesus also told His disciples: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10: 8).
When Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Or seventy times seven) (Matthew 18:21). Jesus is effectively saying; There is no upper limit on the number of times we are to forgive!
In the book of Luke Jesus said; “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).
Even when the same person sins against us over and over again, as many times as they sin against us, we are to continue to forgive.
Again, some have looked at this passage of Scripture in Luke and wrongly made a rule or a law out of it saying, “I only need to forgive someone if they repent for what they’ve done.” I believe what Jesus is actually addressing in this passage is the offender’s need for healing and restoration when they realize they have done wrong. For this reason we are not to refuse forgiveness when someone asks for it, as Christ does not refuse us when we repent, no matter how many times we fail. Again I believe this is a heart issue that Jesus is addressing. He is not making a law or rule about the person’s need to be repentant before we forgive.
Paul addressed this same need for the offenders healing in his letter to the Corinthians: “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent – not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to re-affirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
Christ’s Compassion for Those Who Offend
When Christ hung dying on the cross He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross, though He knew it was God’s plan, Christ expressed His compassion for those who had crucified Him. He understood that they were spiritually blind and He had compassion for their blind state. We should likewise pray that God forgives others, and that their eyes may be opened so that they may be healed and freed from the consequences of their sin. Many instead want the other person’s eyes to be opened, so that the other person will admit their fault, or so they can justify their right to be hurt. But the true heart of God is not to justify our sin (for all unforgiveness is sin), but to bring restoration and healing to all.
In the book of Revelation, Christ expresses His heart for those who are spiritually blind: “You say, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:17 – 20).
- Christ’s heart is that He longs for right relationship.
- Christ’s heart and ministry are one of reconciliation.
- Christ’s ways will never contradict His heart or His nature.
- Christ did not create rules or laws on forgiveness that contradict His Word elsewhere.
Elsewhere in the Bible Jesus taught His disciples to pray: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4).
Jesus taught His disciples to forgive everyone!
The Greek word used for ‘everyone’ in this Scripture is ‘pas’ – meaning ‘each; every; whoever; the whole; any’. There is no condition here for a need for repentance, or a request for forgiveness on the part of the offender, or even an acknowledgement that they realize that what they have done was wrong. Jesus simply states that We are to forgive everyone! Jesus even taught His disciples to ask Christ to forgive them, in exactly the same way that they forgave others.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”.(Matthew 6: 12)
Christ showed this same heart attitude when He spoke to His disciples about judging, condemning and forgiving. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37 & 38).
The same measure we use for others will be measured back to us.
Judgment Without Mercy for Those Who Refuse to Forgive
The book of James says: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:12 & 13).
Jesus said that if we do not forgive, then neither will we be forgiven.
Our forgiveness of others is directly linked to the forgiveness of our own sins.
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against ANYONE, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”.(Mark 11: 25)
“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”.(Matthew 6:14 & 15)
This is what happened to the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. He was turned over to the jailers to be tortured because he did not forgive the debt from his heart.
- Harbouring unforgiveness will affect our own salvation!
- Harbouring unforgiveness places in jeopardy our own eternity with Christ!