By Dr. Stephen Kim
There is an insidious lie being taught in certain Christian circles that Christ never commanded His followers to unilaterally and completely forgive and absolve all sinners who wrong them.
The teaching goes something like this: “Remember Ephesians 4:32, guys! ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ Did you read that? We are to forgive others as God in Christ forgave us. And just how exactly did God forgive us? Please keep in mind that God only forgives those who first repent and come to Him with a contrite heart. Likewise, we as Christians should not forgive others until they too, first repent of their wrongs against us.”
This false teaching ensnares countless souls in debilitating bitterness, for as Augustine (supposedly) once said, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Withholding forgiveness from a person only harms your own soul. It creates a darkness within the soul that begins to turn you into a person that no one wants to be around. In this sense, the offender wins twice—first through his offense, then through your lack of forgiveness, he turns you into a child of hell. A pessimistic, bitter, angry man/woman that snaps at anyone and anything around you.
At the heart of Christianity is the doctrine of forgiveness. The entire Bible could be summed up in these words: Jesus Christ died to pay for my sins so that God, through Christ, could forgive me. All the Old Testament sacrifices? Yes, they were about forgiveness. Noah’s Ark? Yes, that was about forgiveness. Jonah and Nineveh? Again, it was about forgiveness. It is an incalculable understatement, therefore, to say that this one doctrine has massive implications. We have to get this one right.
IMAGINE THE SCENARIO
Imagine an imaginary individual named, Sam. Sam was terribly physically and verbally abused by his father as a child. As the years passed, Sam yearned for the day when he could bolt for the abuse-less pastures called, “college.” As the day drew nigh, Sam (a devout Christian) was told by his pastor to forgive his dad if and only if his dad repents of his offenses. Sam musters enough courage to sit with his dad one day to confront him on the issue. Sadly (and not surprisingly), his dad does not repent. In fact, he becomes indignant and claims that Sam is a spoiled brat for dwelling on just the negatives of his past. Furthermore, to make things worse, Sam’s dad claims that Sam deserved all the abuse because Sam was a “bad kid” growing up. With no repentance, the dad storms out of the room and Sam goes off to college.
Years pass by. Sam now has his own family. He doesn’t beat his own kids, but there is a part of him that remains very bitter and angry towards his dad. He still hasn’t forgiven his dad because, like his pastor said, his dad has never repented. Slowly, but surely, the bitterness and anger within Sam becomes more evident in his everyday life. He can’t seem to compartmentalize the anger toward his dad anymore. That part of his life is now affecting every other part of his life.
Finally, one day, his dad dies of an aneurysm. His mom invites him to the funeral, but by that point he’s so bitter that not only does he not attend the funeral, but he is also inwardly glad that his old man is now dead. A few years later, Sam also dies suddenly of an aneurysm (it ran in the family). To an objective observer, by the end of his life, Sam had become eerily similar to the man he vowed to never become—his father.
When Sam stands before God, what will God say to him?
WHAT GOD EXPECTS
Let’s go back to the often misused and abused Ephesians 4:32 text: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Yes, God will not grant salvation to anyone who does not repent of sin and turn to Christ in faith (Luke 24:47). However, you are not God. I recall John Stott in his classic The Cross of Christ stating, “Forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems.” How a holy and just God can forgive sinners like me (without Himself becoming unjust in the process) is a cosmic problem that God wisely resolved through the cross of Christ. The command for humans to forgive one another, however, is nothing like what God had to overcome in order to forgive us. Yes, there are some similarities, but there are also vast differences in the way God forgives and the way we forgive. Simply stated, redeemed sinners are outright expected by God to forgive other sinners. The Ephesians verse is simply stating that you ought to forgive others and that the model or example for this ought to be God. In other words, just as God forgave you of your massive, eternal debt; in like manner, you ought to forgive men their sins against you. In view of what God has done for you on the cross, you (as a Christian) ought to be able to forgive anyone for anything.
The heart of Ephesians 4:32 is found in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-35. In the story, a king forgives a servant who owed him 10,000 talents (1 talent was worth about 20 years of laborer’s wages). The text literally says that the king “forgave him the debt” (Matt 18:27). (This, by the way, is one way of viewing sin—as an accountant’s ledger. Every time someone wrongs you, he owes you a debt. Every time you forgive him, you wipe his debt clean from your heart.) The forgiven servant, however, goes out and meets a man who owed him a 100 denarii (1 denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer). Instead of forgiving the man and showing him the same grace that was once shown him, the servant who was forgiven 10,000 talents throws his debtor into prison. The king hears about this and is enraged! Bringing the servant before him, he excoriates him by saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:32-33). The king then throws him to the torturers until his debt is paid. Jesus then ends the lesson with an imperative for us all: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:35). The points of Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 18:35 are one: forgive everyone of all their sins, just as God has extravagantly forgiven you of your heinous sins committed against him. They’ve wronged you (a mere mortal), but you’ve wronged God (Supreme Creator). Which is worse? Haven’t you (through Christ) been forgiven much? If you know you have, then go out and lavishly forgive others–just as you’ve been forgiven.
FORGIVE: NO EXCEPTIONS
The only thing that will condemn anyone to eternal hell is unforgiven sin. That’s what makes Matthew 18:35 so scary. If we don’t forgive others, then God will not forgive us. If we are not forgiven of our sins by God, then we end up in hell. There’s no question about it. But it’s not fear that drives us to forgive others—it’s love, the love of God. Because God has loved and forgiven us, we too can forgive others. It’s not the fact that we forgave someone that “secures” our spot in heaven, for only faith in Jesus Christ can do that. It’s the fact that because God, through Christ’s death, richly forgave us, so we also ought to forgive others their sins. In other words, instead it earning our salvation, the act of forgiving others demonstrates our salvation. The point of Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 18:35 is that through a person’s inability to forgive someone, he demonstrates his own unbelief in the gospel. It’s no wonder that the writer of Hebrews wrote: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb 12:15). It’s interesting that the “root of bitterness” is linked with one’s failure to obtain the grace of God. One cannot impugn the damning nature of our inability to forgive men their trespasses. Indeed, heaven and hell hinge on this doctrine. Only someone who’s truly saved could forgive everyone and anyone of their sins. Such lavish forgiveness could only stem from a heart that has already received extraordinary forgiveness from God.
- What exactly does God expect? God expects you to forgive everyone all their trespasses that they’ve trespassed against you.
- What if I don’t see that person anymore? Forgive him from your heart (Matt 18:35). That’s the key. God knows.
- What if the person committed a crime? You forgive that person of the wrong he’s committed against you, but he goes to jail and rightfully bears his punishment. Forgiveness and civil justice can, and should, co-exist. Allow the legal system to take its course and serve justice. Remember, good law enforcers are actually God’s own ministers and avengers for vengeance: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4). So you forgive the rapist for raping your daughter, but you also call law enforcement and turn him in so that he can be punished for his crime–both are right things to do.
- What if the person never repented? It doesn’t matter. Your job is to forgive him “from your heart.” Genuinely forgive and love the person. Let’s be frank. Most people who wrong you in life will never come back to apologize to you (e.g., the guy who curses you out while driving away in traffic). Does that mean you hold back from forgiving them? Certainly not! For if you only forgive those who first apologize, what’s your reward? Do not unbelievers do the same? Rather, be like Jesus, who—while the Romans were driving the nails through His hands—cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Love your enemies. Forgive them. Your duty is to forgive men their sins. Let God worry about the offender’s repentance. Don’t wait for the offender’s apology. Rather, do as Jesus commanded: as you daily stand praying, if you recall that someone has wronged you, forgive him on the spot! Jesus said, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
- Did Jesus ever command us to forgive “everyone?” Yes, he did, in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). The Greek word used there is the word panti (παντὶ) and it literally means “everyone”—including those who have not yet repented. As a Christian, your job is to clear that person’s offense and guilt from your heart. If he ever returns to you, may he find that your heart is clear of any ill towards him.