Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. This is reasonable we might think—isn’t forgiveness of sin the entire point? Yes, it is the entire point, but it is also part of the point that this forgiveness is entirely grace, and must never be considered an entitlement. It is not something we deserve. And remembering this is tougher than it looks.
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
Summary of the Text
Forgiveness proceeds from a certain disposition. It flows out of a particular kind of character, a certain kind of heart. That disposition is one of kindness. The one who would forgive must be tenderhearted, and the word that is translated as tenderhearted here is actually telling us that our forgiveness must be visceral—from the viscera, from the gut. The requirement is then given, which is that we must forgive one another, going back and forth. The assumption is that life in covenant community will require this kind of thing, which further means that pride of face is out. Not only so, but a constant critical spirit is also out. Paul then requires us to be imitative in our forgiveness. We are to imitate God’s forgiveness of us through Christ in how we forgive one another. And this in its turn provides a key to help us understand one of the difficulties that arises with those who take forgiveness seriously.
The Forgiveness Transaction
When someone has wronged someone else, they have not just transgressed or broken a rule. They have also incurred an obligation, a debt (Matt. 6:12). And, as we all know, debts must be paid. Now when a sin is committed, the sin by itself may be the thing that has to be paid off, or it might be the “sin + damages” that has to be dealt with.
Suppose you get in a quarrel with someone, and in the heat of your temper you call them an insulting name. When you go to put this right, the debt that you owe is the obligation you carry to seek that person’s forgiveness. “Will you please forgive me for calling you that name?”
But if you called them that name, and then deliberately broke something of theirs in your anger, you now have two things to do. The first is to seek forgiveness, as in the first scenario, and the second is to make restitution (Ex. 22:12). And when you make restitution, you should add at least 20% to the value of whatever it was (Num. 5:7).
The Transaction Part
In order for forgiveness proper to have occurred, it is necessary for the offender to seek forgiveness, and for the one who was wronged to extend it. If someone steals your car, you can’t really run down the road after them yelling that you forgive them. The transaction is not happening. And if the offender truly repents, but the other person refuses to forgive, then reconciliation between them is impossible. It takes two for the transaction to happen.
When everything is running smoothly, here is the nature of the transaction. The one seeking forgiveness acknowledges his wrong, and does so without pointing to all the extenuating circumstances. In doing this, he is asking the wronged party to make a promise, and the promise sought is that he will not, on a personal level, hold the offense against the one who committed it. When the one extending forgiveness does so, when he says I forgive you, he is in fact making that promise. I italicized the word personal above because the one forgiving may have other responsibilities that must take the misbehavior into account (as a boss, spouse, elder, etc.)
Now if someone makes that promise, and then, in a subsequent quarrel, resurrects the old offense, what he is doing is breaking his promise. And that is a new sin, requiring him to seek forgiveness. “I promised you that I wouldn’t throw that episode in your teeth, and here I just did. I broke my word. Please forgive me.”
And Not a Patch Job Either
There is a stark difference between seeking forgiveness, and trying to round up acceptance of your excuses. In the same way, it is often easier for us to accept an offender’s excuses than it is to forgive him. Forgiveness presupposes genuine, deliberate wrong. And we want to say, “I can’t forgive that. He did it on purpose.” But actually, that is the only time you can forgive. There is a stark difference between an inexcusable sin and an unforgiveable one. All of them are inexcusable.
And because we live in a tumblesome world, it is often the case that our actions and our motives are mixed. In other words, perhaps a portion of it was excusable, while the rest of it was not. As C.S. Lewis points out, when dealing with others, we tend to amplify the excusable parts of our own behavior and minimize the inexcusable parts. And when it comes to the faults of the other person, we do the reverse.
But in this Christ requires of us absolutely honest weights and measures. We are required to have the same standard for ourselves that we have for others (Matt. 7:1-2).
But How . . .?
The dilemma I referred to earlier is caused by an offender who refuses to acknowledge what he or she did—or worse, does in an ongoing fashion. How can you give when someone has not asked for it?
We have to break this into two portions. According to our text, what is the basis of our own forgiveness before God? God forgives us, it says, “for Christ’s sake.” But what Christ did was accomplished two thousand years before you acknowledged your sin, two thousand years before you committed it, and on top of it all, two thousand years before you were born. Everything about your forgiveness was settled, with the exception of your experience of it.
That leads to the second part. We experience the forgiveness of God when the subjective burden of our guilt is removed, and removed forever. This is when the transaction happens.
So we are to imitate that. Say that someone has wronged you, and has not repented of it. Can you forgive them? Yes. Can they experience that forgiveness? No. Think of it this way. You take the forgiveness that you have determined to give to them the moment they ask for it, make sure it is packed well, put it in a box, and wrap it up in gift wrap. You have special place for it, near the door, and you watch the driveway the way the father in the parable of the prodigal son watched the road.
The transaction has not happened, but you are on tiptoe, wanting it to happen.
As God in Christ forgave us.