Forgiveness

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. 

Abundant Pardon

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“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7)

The Lord doesn’t skimp when it comes to forgiveness. He isn’t stingy with his grace. When he is pouring out the blessing it leads to an overflowing cup not thirst. That seems like maybe it’s a no brainer. Maybe you think, “well of course that’s true, why are we going over this once again”, but do you really get it? Do you actually believe it? 

The Lord is rich in grace and it is out of those riches that he bestows on us true forgiveness. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” (Eph. 1:7). He’s so wealthy that he is constantly giving it away and just doesn’t stop. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to grace. He’s not afraid that his forgiveness might be misused by those he pours it out on, that is almost a guarantee. But his giving is both benevolent and efficacious. It actually does something to change the object of his grace. As his riches overflow his account into theirs it teaches them how to be rich and benevolent with grace. 

Isaiah 55 is full of imagery that shows his grace. The chapter begins with the prophet calling people to come to the gracious God of heaven saying, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1). Are you poor? Homeless? Hungry? Are you in spiritual need (helpful hint: you are)? Then come to the Father who gives good gifts. 

He calls the wicked back to himself, and what does he do when they come to him? He has compassion on them, and relevant to our topic it says, he will abundantly pardon. You might say within yourself, “You could just say he will pardon. Isn’t it a bit much to keep emphasizing this? You don’t want God to sound like he doesn’t have standards. He won’t pardon just anyone…” No, God is a God who will abundantly pardon any who come to him. Yes, there are qualifications that can be made, but not here. He doesn’t go light on forgiveness, he lays it on thick. He’s not your mom trying to stretch every dollar, pinching pennies. He isn’t your dad always turning down the thermostat to save on the electric bill. His pardon is abundant. It’s interesting that most of us have heard the verses directly following this one. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). You usually hear this text quoted in connection to in-depth theological debates when someone points out that we can’t know all the mysteries of God, but have you ever heard it in reference to how forgiving God is? It’s not that it doesn’t apply more broadly but it happens to come right after a statement about the extravagance and extremity of God’s forgiveness. He isn’t cheap. He pardons abundantly. 

Forgiveness and the New Covenant

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“For this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:28)

We’ve seen so far in this series that forgiveness is central to the character of God and how he has revealed himself. As with all other aspects of God’s character, forgiveness is most clearly shown through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God the son. It was at the fullness of time that Jesus was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, being born of the Virgin Mary, in order that he might establish a New Covenant. This covenant was promised and looked forward to throughout the Old Testament, and at the center of the promised covenant was forgiveness. 

Jeremiah 31:31-34 says this, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the LORD’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” 

The Mosaic covenant accomplished what it was intended to but not all that it pointed toward. Moses could lead the people to the border of the promised land, but he couldn’t actually take them in. Joshua had to lead them to take hold of what God had promised. In the same way the covenant given at Sinai pointed toward the new covenant in Christ. Like a guardian it led the people to the border (Gal. 3:24) but could not actually give them the fullness of what was promised. Christ was the greater Joshua, he was the one that had to lead the people into the fullness of the covenant promises. He accomplished this by means of the forgiveness of sins. 

Christ announced to his disciples on the night that he was betrayed that his shed blood was the means by which sins could be forgiven. There is no forgiveness of sins apart from the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). God’s justice needed to be satisfied, and so it was in Jesus’ death on the cross. All of the sacrifices of the old covenant were pointing toward something greater, a sacrifice that would actually accomplish the forgiveness of the sins of God’s people. Jesus’ death was that final sacrifice, a once for all sacrifice. That’s how Hebrews 10 speaks of the cross. “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:11-14). We’re told that the Holy Spirit bears witness to this through the words of Jeremiah quoted above, “I will remember their sin no more.” 

That’s an interesting phrase isn’t it? Before I close out this article, we should talk about what that means. God’s forgiveness means he won’t remember our sins any longer. So does that mean God doesn’t know everything? Does he forget as in he doesn’t even realize that it happened? Some kind of self-imposed short term memory loss? Of course not. When God says he won’t remember your sins any longer he is speaking covenantally. Covenantally speaking, God no longer remembers your sins if you are in Christ. They no longer come into play in your relationship. It is as if they never took place. In Christ, God doesn’t treat you as sinful because Christ was sacrificed once and for all in your place. On the basis of that offering, he perfected you in God’s sight and brought you into the full promises of the New Covenant. 

Redemption and Forgiveness

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“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)

There is a sense in which spiritual slavery is inevitable. You have two options: You can be a slave to sin or you can be a slave to Christ. There is no middle ground, and there is no neutrality. In our father Adam and in following after his ways, we have sold ourselves down river to the cruel taskmaster called sin. He is harsh and malevolent. Even more than that, being enslaved to sin allows for mistreatment in the spiritual realm. It puts us in the domain of darkness, the kingdom of the prince of the power of the air, where rulers and authorities (think demonic spirits) can ravage our souls, discourage faith, and deceive us in all manner of ways. 

When Christ came to establish his kingdom, the domain of darkness lost its grip. He set us free from slavery to sin, making us instead slaves of righteousness, and in doing so he was transferring us into his kingdom. We are still subjects but to a different King, and this one is worthy of our allegiance. He also, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). Literally he led them around in a victory parade. By rising from the dead, Christ put to shame all the spiritual powers that stood against him and his people. As a foretaste of this work in his earthly ministry, Jesus would cast out demons wherever he went freeing people from spiritual bondage (Mk. 1:39). 

All of this was part of his redemption of his people. To redeem means to buy back something, and it was a term regularly used of slaves. If someone had to sell themselves into slaverly due to their debts, someone else could buy them back or redeem them. Christ redeemed us in order that we might be his slaves, and this is true freedom. 

How did he accomplish this? The text printed above answers the question. It was through the forgiveness of our sins that redemption took place. In other words it was through Christ’s payment on the cross, the satisfaction of our debt, that we can be forgiven. So God’s forgiveness actually brings us into a new kingdom where we are given a new master, and in doing so, gives us true and lasting freedom. I said there is a sense in which we are still slaves, and that is true. But the reality of our position in the kingdom of God’s beloved Son is much more than that. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:34-35). Later to his disciples he added, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:14-15). You may have once been slaves to sin under the domain of darkness but through forgiveness you are now slaves of Christ which means you have been set free and are made friends of the Son.

The Cost of Forgiveness

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“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” (Eph. 2:8)

It’s always important to remember that forgiveness comes as a gift. It’s not something that you earn. It’s not something that you worked really hard for and now receive because you deserve it. It’s a free gift for us, but that doesn’t mean there was no cost. Every gift costs something. The gift of salvation, and hence the gift of forgiveness was something that the Lord has given us by giving of himself. 

When you think about forgiveness, you need to realize that there is always going to be a cost. Justice requires that debts be paid and that sins be punished. The Lord could not have forgiven sins by simply saying, “no worries”, and moving on. No, he had to actually pay the penalty, covering the debt himself. 

Let’s try to illustrate this idea: Justice requires that when you steal something, you return it or pay for it. Let’s say a business owner finds out that you’ve stolen $100 of merchandise from them. That $100 has to be dealt with. It would be just for the owner to take you to court to make you repay what you have stolen. Let’s say the business owner decides to forgive what you have done and not make you repay it. Does that mean the -$100 on the books disappears? No, of course not. It simply means that the business owner is going to have to pay the price instead of you. Forgiveness is free for the one receiving it, not for the one giving it. 

When the Lord forgives sins, it didn’t come without cost. Christ didn’t die as an example alone, or just to make a show of his love. Those might be aspects of his atoning death, but he died primarily because it was necessary. It was the only way for redemption to actually be accomplished and God’s justice satisfied. The debt had to be paid, the question was would it be paid by us or would the Lord cover it himself. 

Isaiah 53 illustrates this well. Let’s focus on verse 5. “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” He was wounded for our transgressions. He paid the penalty that we owed. We transgressed the Law, we were not obedient, and yet he bore what was coming to us. He had to be crushed if we were going to be spared. That is what justice required. Notice that we receive peace and we receive healing, but that wasn’t free. It wasn’t cheap. It was very costly. In order for us to receive, he had to pay. He received the chastisement and he received the stripes. 

Don’t forget that forgiveness isn’t free and it isn’t cheap. We sometimes think in those terms simply because we didn’t have to pay anything for the forgiveness we have received. When we start to give forgiveness to others we start to understand it is very costly. The glorious reality is that Christ paid our debt, he bore the penalty we deserved, he fulfilled all justice so that we might be forgiven. That reality is all the more powerful when you see what it costs. It was a gift that cost his very life. He gave of himself for your forgiveness.