We have come to the fourth and last peacemaking principle, “go and be reconciled,” as described in Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker. In the previous posts we focused on glorifying God, taking the log out, and gently restoring as a path to peacemaking. In this piece we will talk about a few prominent aspects of biblical forgiveness. I encourage you to seek a deeper understanding of this powerful act.
Thinking Biblically about forgiveness
I am convinced few Christians grasp a clear understanding of biblical forgiveness. I know I didn’t. Bad theology and simplistic worldly teaching only discouraged and confused me when I tried to “forgive and forget” those who hurt me deeply. Thankfully, the Bible—God’s own living Word—speaks powerful answers to what forgiveness looks like in day to day life.
First, what is forgiveness? Dr. Jay Adams says, “Forgiveness is a lifting of the charge of guilt from another, a formal declaration of that fact and a promise (made and kept) never to remember the wrong against the person in the future.” Forgiveness is releasing someone from a legal or moral obligation.
My biggest problem and your biggest problem is not the horrible things others have done to us. Our biggest problem is our own sin. God is holy and He must judge sin. Our sin offends a holy God, yet God sent His Son to die in our place to overcome the offense our sin created. Our forgiveness of one another is patterned after God’s forgiveness of us (Colossians 3:13).
When we confess our sin, God is merciful and releases us from our debt. We are forgiven because Jesus Christ paid our sin price. We did not earn our forgiveness from God. God commands us to forgive because we have been forgiven. All of God’s people have been forgiven of far more than we will ever forgive!
When we refuse to forgive we are forgetting the size of this massive sin debt for which God forgave us (Matthew 18:21; Ephesians 4:32). We are assuming God’s role as judge (Romans 12:19) and declaring that we do not need God’s mercy on the day of judgement (Matthew 5:7; James 2:13). We are forgetting the fact that we as sinners are capable of the same sin and that same root sin may already reside in us (Proverbs 16:18; Jeremiah 17:9; 1 Corinthians 10:12).
What forgiveness is not:
If there is one truth that has changed my life when it comes to forgiveness it is that forgiveness is an act of obedient faith, NOT a feeling. That is worth repeating...forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is an act of obedient faith which is motivated by understanding and remembering how much I have been forgiven by God. It is an act of the will which involves a series of decisions, the first being total dependence on God to change my heart.
Forgiveness is also not forgetting. Forgiving is an active process; involving a conscious choice not to think or talk about what another has done to hurt us. This usually requires a lot of effort but modeled after God, we choose to “remember the sin no more.”
Forgiveness is not excusing nor is it pretending that what happened to hurt us was somehow not really bad. The fact that forgiveness is needed and granted indicates that what someone did was wrong and inexcusable.
Forgiveness does not mean there are not painful consequences for those sins nor does it look the same when the offender has not repented (Luke 17:3-4).
What forgiveness looks like in practical terms
When we forgive as the Lord forgives us we make a decision to release someone from liability to suffer punishment or penalty. We follow four promises:
To the offender – I will not bring this incident up and use it against you (in an accusatory way).
To myself – I will not dwell on the offense in my mind.
To others – I will not talk to others about this incident.
I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.
Forgiveness is freely letting go of the offense and not expecting penance, payment, or even getting even. Forgiveness is both an event and a process. When we forgive, it is an event. In addition, every time we remember the offense, we must continue to forgive again and again and again. This awareness keeps you vigilant against the sin in your own heart and leads you to God’s strength.
A heart that forgives—two components of forgiveness
What if the person who hurt you never admits it and the offense is too serious to overlook? You may need to approach forgiveness as a two-staged process.
The first stage has a heart component or is to have an attitude of forgiveness (Mark 11:25-26; Ephesians 4:30-32; Matthew 18:23-35; Luke 6:28). The heart component means releasing the offense to God. This unconditional forgiveness is based on grace—not on how the offender has responded. It is a deliberate choice based on love for and obedience to God. We do not forgive a person because they deserve to be forgiven, we forgive because God commands us to forgive. This heart attitude will protect you from bitterness and resentment and by His grace, you can work to maintain a loving and merciful attitude.
Christ's example: When Christ died on the cross He maintained an attitude of love and mercy toward those who put him to death (Luke 23:34).
The second stage of granting forgiveness is transactional. This transaction is conditional on the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and that person (Luke 17:3-4; Acts 2:36-41). Remember, we are to have a heart of forgiveness toward our offender but like our forgiveness in Christ, we cannot know forgiveness until we confess and are forgiven by Jesus. So if the offender does not repent, then forgiveness is not explicitly expressed. Remember, an attitude of forgiveness is real; do not hang on to the offense, harbor ill feelings, anger or bitterness. Having this attitude rests on you, but reconciliation depends on both your willingness and the offender’s repentance.
There are many more aspects to forgiveness. Common questions and biblical answers to these can be found on our resource page.
Can you ever mention the sin again?
What about the consequences?
What if I just can’t overcome unforgiveness?
Do people need to forgive themselves?
How does the concept of showing “fruits of repentance” relate to forgiveness?
How often should I forgive? If I keep forgiving won’t they just keep on sinning?
If I forgive will they see how wrong they were when they hurt me?
If I forgive will I be vulnerable again?
If you are unable to forgive or you need extra help working through this, God provides counsel and encouragement through pastors, biblical counselors, and fellow believers. We encourage you to meditate on the Scriptures and seek help through leaders in your church.
About the author
Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her husband, their three children and their 12 year old yellow lab...and sushi too.