Pastor Michael Bowman

Seventy-Seven Times: An Introduction to Forgiveness

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“Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:21-22)

Jesus had just spoken about the process of church discipline and what that should look like. Having brought up the idea of forgiving a brother who sins against us, Peter may have been looking for an out. Most of us would be doing the same thing. “Sure, we should forgive but only seven times, I mean not if someone keeps on being sinful right?” “I get the whole forgiveness of sins thing, but that’s for people who have sinned in much more minor ways, you don’t understand what my Dad did to me…” “I can’t forgive my husband, he needs to get what he deserves.” The excuses could go on.

Jesus wasn’t unaware of our hearts and our natural inclination toward revenge. In fact, that’s why he answered the way he did. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” This isn’t the number of sins you have to tally in your journal before you can stop forgiving someone. In fact if you are keeping track enough to count up to seventy-seven, then you actually haven’t forgiven even once. Forgiveness won’t be keeping a record of wrongs. So what is the Lord saying? It’s much more profound than you might initially think.

In Genesis 4 we get the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain kills his brother we get a list of his descendants. In vs. 19 we learn of Lamech, seemingly the first person to take more than one wife, and in vs. 23-24 it says, “Lamech said to his wives: Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Does that help you understand what Jesus is saying?

Left to ourselves we are all like Lamech. We have revenge in our hearts. It shouldn’t take you long to think of an occasion where you desired (or tried to carry out) revenge when someone sinned against you. Your spouse said something cruel so you punish them by not speaking with them. Someone slanders you and says false things about you to other people in the church so you make sure to tell everyone the dirt you’ve been gathering on them. You lash out in anger when someone let you down at work. Much like the excuses, we could just keep going.

Christ brought forgiveness into the world. If you are a Christian, then you have been forgiven, your sins are no longer remembered and you have been reconciled to God. You are now called to forgive in kind, to forgive as you have been forgiven, to bear the sin of others. Calling for forgiveness seventy-seven times was not Jesus’ way of setting a higher standard. What is being called for is a totally different outlook on the world. It’s the evidence of a transformed heart, something that comes as a result of God’s forgiveness toward us. This is really the starting place of the Christian life, yet how often do we get it wrong? Sin is a guarantee in our families and in the church; how we deal with it shows whether or not we understand forgiveness. How do you live out this new heart of forgiveness? What would it look like for us as a church if we lived out Christ’s call to forgive seventy-seven times? 

As Far as the East is from the West

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“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:8-14)

In order to understand forgiveness we have to define it, and in order to define it we have to start with the character and work of God. In order to do that, let’s begin by looking at what God has revealed about his character that informs our definition of forgiveness. We will start in Psalm 103. This Psalm begins and ends with the phrase, “Bless the LORD O my soul.” The whole goal of the Psalm is to draw the reader into worship, blessing the LORD. Toward that end, vs. 2 says, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” What is the first benefit mentioned? “Who forgives all your iniquities.” Praise the Lord because he forgives! This Psalm expands on the forgiving character of God, and I want to bring your attention to a few of the things that are mentioned. 

First, God’s forgiveness flows out of his character. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.” This is echoing the way in which God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 34. In this passage, before proclaiming these things, it says that literally God was proclaiming his name. This is God’s name. In other words, these words define the very nature of who he is. God is not defined primarily by his anger, wrath, displeasure or disappointment. He has defined himself primarily by his mercy, grace and love. In that way, his forgiveness flows out of his love. Love here is not the sentimental, nice feelings that we often think of, rather it is the beneficial action done on behalf of it’s object. 

Second, his forgiveness means he doesn’t treat us as we deserve. “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Our nature leads us to want to get people back when they have wronged us, to give them what they deserve. This isn’t how God has treated us. He doesn’t treat us as we deserve, and what a glorious truth that is. God does not love us because we have earned it, he doesn’t forgive us because we are entitled to that forgiveness. It flows out of his character, not ours, out of his grace and mercy, not our goodness. 

Third, in his loving forgiveness, he has removed our transgressions from us. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” For those who fear the LORD and are the object of his redeeming love, sin is not the defining feature of who they are. He has done away with it. Though they have transgressed his Law, he has removed the sins from them. It’s not that your transgressions have been taken down the road a short way and are bound to find their way back to you.  No, they have been removed “as far as the east is from the west.” As far as far is, as distant as it is possible to move them, so has he done for those he loves. You don’t have to live in fear thinking your sins might find you out and dominate you once again. They are never coming back. 

Fourth and finally, his forgiveness flows out of his Fatherhood. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” A good father doesn’t allow sin to define his relationship to his child. It’s not that he is passive in the presence of sin. He does deal with it, but he does so always out of compassion. That is how God deals with you who are in Christ. He knows your weaknesses, he knows your brokenness, he knows your finitude. As a good Father, he does not let your sin destroy you or your relationship with him. He deals with it, removing it from you, forgiving you for all of it. These glorious truths lead to one response, “Bless the LORD, O my soul!”

Ready To Forgive

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“…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

How do you think of God? What do you think he is like? Do you think that he is watching every move you make just hoping that you trip up so he can punish you? Do you think he is looking for any opportunity to cast you out? Perhaps it’s because of the failure of our own fathers, or maybe it’s a misunderstanding of Scripture, but there is a common sentiment among believers that, if they are honest, they think God is generally disappointed and angry with them. Now, of course, this may be true in a limited way if you are living in unrepentant sin and rebelling against him. Still, as we’ve seen in the last article, God’s anger and displeasure are not the defining features of his character. God has revealed himself to be a loving Father, and that is shown in part by his readiness to forgive. 

Here is a question: Would you be more likely to confess your sins to someone if you knew they were ready and willing to forgive you, or if you knew the only response you would receive is of displeasure, disappointment and maybe an end to the relationship? It’s a no brainer. We would all rather confess sins to someone if we knew rejection wasn’t the guaranteed response. Well, God is the kind of God who is ready and willing to forgive your sins when you will confess them to Him.  

God wants his people to bring their sins to him to be dealt with. It’s not as though he is unaware of them. Our reaction to sin is often to try to cover our own shame and run away. Just like our first parents, we try to hide from God. This happens when we are focused more on the shamefulness of the sin than the graciousness of our Father. Sure, the sin is shameful; it’s supposed to be. It’s not a problem to be ashamed of sin. The problem is when we stop there. Shame is supposed to drive us to humble ourselves, pray to our Father and seek his face, not hide from it. When we respond in this way God says, “then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” 

God is a God who wants to forgive; it overflows from his heart. “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (Ps. 86:5). Because of his goodness, his mercy, his grace, and his love, he is not waiting around to hold your sin against you. He isn’t hoping for you to fail so he can throw it in your face. He doesn’t want shame and guilt to be a weight that crushes you but a leash or tether that draws you back to him. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

Don’t hide from the face of God. Don’t allow the lies of the devil to keep you from bringing your sin and shame and guilt to the heavenly Father. He is faithful, he is just. No, he will not by any means pardon the guilty, he will not deal lightly with sin, but in Christ he has made an end to all of it for you. Come, confess your sins to him, he is quick and ready to forgive.

Tread Our Iniquities Underfoot

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“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob  and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” (Micah 7:18-20)

Is there any God like the Lord? The obvious answer is no, but what sets him apart? In large part what sets the Lord apart from false gods is his forgiveness. In this passage, Micah draws on themes from many ideas in Scripture, and it would do us well to think through some of these ideas again even if we have covered them already. 

First the Lord is a God who pardons iniquity and passes over transgressions. He does this for his people, “the remnant of his inheritance.” How does he do this? There is a hint in the phrase that he “passes over transgressions.” What does that remind you of? Hopefully it will remind you of the night of passover. Passover began after the final plague in Egypt, the Angel of death which claimed the firstborn of all the Egyptians. The only way the Israelites were kept from the same judgement as those around them was because, trusting in the Lord, their homes were covered by the blood of a lamb which was put on their doorposts. This was symbolic of something that God actually continued to do until the coming of Christ. The propitiatory work of Christ on the Cross was done in part, “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:25) He passed over the sins of his people because they were covered in the blood of the lamb of God, the one who would come and make an end to their sin. That is why God could pardon them. 

Second, the sins of the people would be cast into the depths of the sea. The idea here is one that we’ve already looked at. The sins will be taken far away. They will no longer define the people, they will no longer be central to their identity, they will no longer be held over their head. They will be done away with completely. To cast something into the depths of the sea was to cast it somewhere from which it could never return. There is no sin coming back to haunt you if it has been forgiven by the Lord. 

Third and finally is this phrase, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot.” His compassion will be made known through treading underfoot our iniquities. I would propose that this phrase is also meant to remind us of something that God has promised earlier in Scripture. In Genesis 3:15 while God is cursing the serpent he includes a promise, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Someday a child born of the woman would come and crush the head of the serpent under his foot, though in doing so he would be wounded. 

I think Micah is drawing on this image. Our iniquity, our sinful nature, God was going to crush it under his foot. He would make an end to it out of his compassion for us. This is exactly what forgiveness in Christ is. Christ was wounded on the cross, his heel was bruised, but he also dealt the finishing blow to our sin. The sin that once defined us was tread under the feet of God, his wrath was poured out, and it was done that you might be forgiven.