Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and
beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness,
longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving
You and I live in a brutal world.
The other day Jennifer and I were watching a television show that documented a husband’s atrocious murder of his wife. The murder was wretched enough; but the closing statement the victim’s mother made to the murderer was also devastating.
“You deserve life in prison,” she said (and I paraphrase), “so that you can end up like my daughter – lying dead in a humiliating position. I can never forgive you.”
Those of us who never have experienced that type of loss cannot imagine the mother’s anguish.
But regardless of her or our experiences, you and I as God’s redeemed children in Christ cannot join with the world in being unforgiving. We cannot continue the cycle of brutality, because the Savior will not allow it.
This morning we’re going to explore what must be the toughest duty that you and I face as followers of Jesus: the call to forgive those who sin against us. At some point in your life, perhaps even today, you will hurt someone, and someone will hurt you. Because we are sinners, we violate and harm one another with our sin – and forgiving those who sin against us might seem as if it would inflict more loss on us than did the actual offense!
But forgiving others isn’t an option. It’s Jesus’ commandment to you.
To do this otherwise-impossible duty, which this spiritually dead world cannot, requires that you have a biblical perspective on forgiveness and that you persistently practice forgiveness. As you and I forgive – because we have been forgiven by God for Christ’s sake – we will have a transforming witness to this brutal world.
Forgiving those who offend you is a challenging calling, but it begins with having a thoroughly biblical perspective on the matter.
Peter, as only Peter could do, asked Jesus how often he should forgive those who sinned against him. We’ll examine the particulars of Peter’s question in a moment, but for now note that Jesus told a parable about forgiveness that dealt primarily with perspective.
Forgiving other people, Jesus teaches in this parable, requires that you understand your place in regard to God and to others. Clearly there are three primary figures in this story – the master, who represents God, and the two “fellow-servants,” who represent you and me, equal under the Lord. It is the master alone who issues ultimate judgments of punishment and leniency, and it is the master alone who sets the pattern that his servants must follow. This means you and I have no right to condemn those who hurt us, and we who claim to have experienced God’s mercy in Christ have no right to refuse mercy to those who offend us.
Joseph, in our first lesson (from Genesis 50), well understood the biblical perspective on who he was compared to God and to man. You recall the history: Joseph’s jealous brothers had sold him into slavery, only to learn years later that he was alive and well – and was a high-ranking advisor in Egypt. They depended on him for mercy, yet they feared his retribution for their sin against him years before.
But what did Joseph say to them? “Don’t be afraid! Am I in God’s place? You meant this act for evil, but God used it for good.”
You and I need to remember that God is sovereign over the events in our lives – the good, and those that appear to be bad – and that He can use even the offenses we endure to shape us. And we need to remember that Christ alone is Judge of the living and the dead. You and I are not free to withhold forgiveness or to condemn others, because we are not the Lord!
To forgive, you and I also need a biblical perspective on the debt we owe God (as we pray, “Forgive us our debts”). Frankly, you and I tend to have a loftier view of ourselves than we should, and we greatly exaggerate others’ offenses against us while soft-pedaling our sin against God. Do you think it the greatest crime in the world for someone to speak negatively of you for no reason, yet think nothing yourself of using God’s Name in vain?
Jesus set the bar for entry into Heaven in St. Matthew 5:48: perfection. What you often fail to recall is that one “little” sin – a foul word, an insult, a lustful glance – renders you imperfect in God’s sight and destined for Hell. And when you offend against God, it’s not a one-time sin that washes away with time; your offense is against the infinite God, and you must pay an infinite price. In the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18, the unmerciful servant owed the master some $12 million. Try paying back that amount!
If you’re going to learn to forgive others, you first need to understand how massive is your sin against God.
Forgiveness also requires that you have a biblical perspective on the debt that other people owe you when they (for instance) disrespect you or steal from you. In the parable, the second servant owed the first servant about one hundred days’ wages. That is no trifling amount! In the same way, when others rob you of your good name or of the respect you deserve as one created in the image of God, their sin is not minor. The Lord never expects you and me to pretend as though others’ offenses against us don’t matter. A hundred days’ wages is a hundred days’ wages!
But if you compared denarii to talents, you would see Jesus’ point: the amount the second servant owed the first servant was one-six hundred thousandth of what the first servant owed the master. How much the man had been forgiven! And how little he appreciated the master’s mercy.
In more-concrete terms, suppose someone owed you one of those nice camping tents from the outdoors store. They’re not cheap, are they? You would be right in acknowledging the seriousness of the debt that person owed you.
Now think of a 40-story high-rise luxury condominium in Orange Beach. That’s what you owe God for all your lusts, gripes, meanness and sin.
Preach the Gospel to yourself every day. View your sin for what it is: an infinite offense against the infinitely holy Lord, which sent Jesus to Hell for you. Regain the true – biblical – perspective God wants you to have concerning forgiveness. Then you will be equipped to do the tough job of forgiving others.
Forgiving others not only requires a biblical perspective; it secondly requires persistent practice on your part.
When Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive an offending party “up to seven times,” I can’t help but wonder if Peter weren’t asking with a bit of fear, trepidation and skepticism. Scholars contend it was common in Jesus’ day for Jews to forgive others three times, but forgiveness ended at that point. When Peter asked, “Seven times?” he was using Hebrew terminology for “completely?” or “always?”
“Come on, Lord – enough is enough!”
Then Jesus blew Peter out of the water: “Not seven times, Peter – seventy times seven!” In other words, forgive others limitlessly.
Forgiving others is an aspect of your progressive sanctification: the process in this life in which you die to sin and look more and more like Christ. Observe where St. Paul speaks in his epistles about forgiving others – after he talks about your salvation in Christ. As with every other aspect of your Christian life, such as using pure language and engaging in prayer, forgiving others is a virtue in which Christ calls you to grow.
Forgiveness requires work: the work of Christ in you, and work on your part to forgive. Seventy times seven? Jesus was saying, as we do in Greene County, “Keep on keeping on.” In Colossians, the Apostle Paul exhorted believers to “bear with” other Christians, and that’s precisely what you and I must do. We are in this walk with Jesus for the long haul, and as with every other part of our lives, we continually must grow in submission to the Lord when it comes to forgiving our debtors.
Forgiveness demands love – the sort of self-sacrificial love that Jesus had for you and me when he went to Hell for us. Love desires the very best for everyone around you in Christ, and forgiveness is central to love. It is impossible without the blood of Christ covering you, but if you are in Christ by faith, you have no choice but to follow his example and to rely on his strength to forgive your debtors and to teach them God’s way.
Again, forgiving someone who has hurt you doesn’t mean you overlook his or her sin or pretend to downplay the pain. But it also doesn’t mean you sit and brood over the hurt, which is what you and I love to do. Note earlier in Matthew 18 what the Lord teaches you about confronting your debtors: you are actively to go to the other person and explain his sin against you. If he won’t hear you, take another brother or sister in the Lord. If he still won’t hear you, tell it before the church. By all means, however, do not let the offense fester inside of you and go on unchecked.
The blood of Jesus is powerful enough to cover any and all of your sins. And it is powerful enough to cover the sins of those who have hurt you, and even to bring reconciliation, healing and growth.
But forgiveness requires love – and sweat – from you and me.
Forgiveness is extremely demanding work. But if you and I forgive as the Lord has commanded in His Word, we will produce world-changing fruit in Christ.
For one, as theologian Douglas Kelly has observed in his studies on prayer, forgiveness is necessary for prayer to be effective. The Lord God of the universe hears your prayers offered according to His will in the Name of our great High Priest, Jesus Christ – but those prayers will bear no fruit if they come from a bitter and unforgiving heart. Do you want to see the Lord do great things in Leakesville and in the world, and even in your life? Begin by leaving your gift at the altar and first reconciling with your brother.
Another glorious consequence of forgiving others in Christ as you have been forgiven is that you and I will have a lustrous witness for Jesus to this otherwise-hopeless world. You see, non-Christians have no true hope for this life (or for the life to come) because they have not been forgiven of their sins by the Lord. They are trapped in a brutal cycle of cruelty: “If you hurt me, I’ll hurt you back – even worse!”
Jesus said the world would know that you and I are his disciples by our love for one another. Remember, Christ-centered love is motivated by the Incarnation and by the Cross and involves more than kind words now and then or a bowl of soup when a brother is hungry. Christ-centered love requires actively forgiving and seeking reconciliation with those who have offended against you.
The world doesn’t need another bowl of soup. The world doesn’t need another feel-good program.
The world needs hope – the hope of life, brought about by forgiveness that is found only in Jesus Christ. If the unbelievers in Leakesville look at us at LPC and only see bitterness and strife, why would they want to know Jesus?
You and I sing all the time about “Amazing Grace.”
If it’s so amazing, let’s show it to one another – and to the world.