One of the least comprehended realities of the Christian worldview is bound up within the doctrine of forgiveness. When I make this statement, I do not have in mind the overlooking of small or insignificant offenses. Anyone can do this. Anyone can overlook the sins of their child if they love them. Any person can find it within themselves to forgive someone of something hurtful if they like the individual enough. What I speak towards is the reality bound up within the gospel of Jesus Christ wherein the person forgives an enemy. Or perhaps not so much an enemy—perhaps a loved one—but a loved one who committed some gross immoralities and sins against them that any normal person might see and find to be “toxic” behavior. In reality, I’m speaking of the type of forgiveness that produces a person who is willing to be defrauded, wronged, injured, at a loss, etc., all for the sake of exemplifying the love of Christ shown to us. I’m speaking of a forgiveness born out of the forgiveness God granted us through the death of His Son.
The reason I say this type of forgiveness is one of the least comprehended realities of the Christian worldview is simply because the gospel is foolishness to a world that is perishing. They cannot comprehend the gospel, therefore, they cannot comprehend the incredible nature of grace and mercy bound up in the act of forgiveness, especially when the world can easily find every reason why someone shouldn’t be forgiven. The two are so intimately wed that they are inseparable, so inseparable in fact that we are told directly from Scripture that we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive others (Matt. 6:14-15; Mk. 11:26). For many a professing Christian, this presents a conundrum in their minds. They rightly say that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from any works, so that no man may boast (Eph. 2:8-9). One might even correctly draw attention to the fact that we are justified, likewise, freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ alone (Rom. 3:24). Yet if they fail to take in account these warnings provided for us—they just might find themselves to have a wonderfully robust understanding of the doctrines of grace, all the while neglecting to understand the very nature of grace itself.
The painful, convicting, and hard words of Christ must not be diminished in our minds simply because we correctly affirm the inspired truths expressed by the hand of Paul. The reality is that these two ends of what seem to be a disparate spectrum find harmony in the very essence and substance of grace itself. The reason Christ can make such absolute statements on the nature of forgiveness is that if you are a person who refuses to forgive, you show you have not truly understood forgiveness. You may have the facts right; you might even agree with those facts—yet they have not penetrated your heart in such a manner that it reorients your life into a joyful submission to those facts. In other words, you might “know” all of the right doctrinal talking points about the grace and love of God without actually comprehending them. You might be able to regurgitate a series of truths, yet not love them, cherish them, nor trust in them, and therefore, you demonstrate that you do not truly know the grace of God in your own life.
That’s at the heart of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35). Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Christ answers, “No, seventy times seven.” Then He begins to recount the well-known parable: a master went to settle his accounts with his slaves and found one who owed him an amount he could never repay. The master commanded the slave be sold, along with his wife, children, and everything he possessed. While the master would never get what his servant owed him, he would at least get what he could out of it.
The slave fell to his face and asked his master to have patience so that he might repay him all that he owed him. Of course, the slave didn’t have the means to do so and the master knew it. He felt pity for the man though and forgave the entire debt. What did the slave do? He went and found a man who owed him a meager sum, and seized him by the neck and began to choke him, demanding he repay his debt. His fellow slave fell to his face and begged for mercy, but the forgiven slave threw him into prison until he could repay his debt in full.
Now what did the master do when he found out? He seized the man, saying, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” He then took the slave and handed him over to the torturers, until he could repay all that was owed him, which is in essence to say that his torture would never end. Christ then draws out the heart of the parable in saying, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
We must understand that in this parable—the reader (or hearer) takes the place of the unmerciful slave and not the Master. The Master, of course, is God Himself. The debt we owe, which is our sin before the thrice holy Lord, is likewise one that we can never repay. There is no amount of goodness one can muster, no internal righteousness that can wipe the slate clean, nor even the ability to remain that way if we were to somehow manage to clean ourselves up. Our good deeds, at best, are as filthy menstrual rags (Is. 64:6). Perhaps the clearest description of our sinful condition is brought before us in Rom. 3:10-18:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
If this is our true condition, which it undoubtedly is, we stand equally as incapable of repaying the debt we owe before our Master. Yet thanks be to God that He created a way for us to be forgiven through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and cleansed us from all unrighteousness. It was in His power to turn us over to be tortured, yet He forgave our debt in full and indeed, has done an even greater thing than this, because He has given us the very righteousness of Christ, and immeasurable blessings simply by being counted in Him. This is the world-tilting reality of the gospel. We had no means of hope in and of ourselves to be forgiven; God had every right to punish us to the fullest extent—yet He gave Christ to be the substitute for us, that we might then become the righteousness of God as we partake in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). If one truly understands the reality of what has taken place in this cosmic exchange, there is no possible way they can harbor unforgiveness toward anyone, let alone the people of God.
It is the gospel that enables you to live in such a way that you won’t hold it to someone’s account when they have wronged you. The gospel is the only thing in existence that can change your heart from a disposition of hatred or bitterness to love. It is the only thing we can look at and see the magnitude of what was done for us, and then look to the offenses that happen against us and say, “No. That sin? How could I possibly hold that against you? How could I possibly say you’ve wronged me so much that I can’t get past it, knowing how much I wronged the Lord, yet He forgave me in Christ?” The reason for this is simply in recognizing that while you may have someone who owes you a debt, it is a paltry sum compared to the debt you owed in your sin. That is a shocking statement when we consider the reality of what sinful men can do to us—but I believe it is shocking only because we don’t truly comprehend the full measure of God’s holiness, especially as it stands against the backdrop of our own sinfulness.
It is incredibly easy to explain away the harshness of Christ’s words to us if we minimize the holiness of God and the extent of our sinfulness, yet if we love God, we will not do so. If you truly understand and cherish the extent of mercy God has so lavishly poured out when He forgave you, you won’t reduce this truth to nothing. You will see that Christ says with no qualifications that the one who does not forgive will not be forgiven by the Father—and so you will embrace that you must forgive. You will see that you must be reconciled, that in fact, reconciliation will be your top priority. In no uncertain terms, if you cherish your forgiveness, you will grasp the magnitude of His statements, yet simultaneously, the impossibility of withholding forgiveness because of the extravagant grace given to you.
In the same breath, you will see the practice of forgiveness is a wondrous display of the grace of God in your life. There will never be a time you are more like God than when you forgive those who simply do not deserve it. There will never be a greater point where you vindicate the reality of Christ’s work in your life to a watching world, then when you forgive what the world deems to be unforgivable. The practice of forgiveness is what takes a master and his slave and puts them on equal footing before God, and then mandates that reality is actually lived out (see the book of Philemon). The practice of forgiveness is what enables those in Christ to be able to extend grace to offenders where the world would not dare.
This is one of the reasons I have gone on record by saying that you cannot truly love Christ if you hate the church. The reason being is that there is ample opportunity to forgive within the church—in fact, if you believe there isn’t, you’re not spending enough time with your fellow Christians. I have no illusions that I wouldn’t sin against you at some point if you were part of my local church. I also believe that you would sin against me. Whether intentional or not, it would happen. Yet we would be duly bound in extending forgiveness, because we share in the common bond of love, and love is the currency of the church. We are to owe no man anything but love (Rom. 13:8-10). There are two sides to that coin—there is the repentance of the one who wrongs us, and there is the one who extends forgiveness in spite of being wronged. Just as love covers a multitude of sins it seeks the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Pt. 4:8; 1 Cor. 13). Just as love enables us to overlook sin, it safeguards the church through the proper disciplinary process for the unrepentant (Pro. 19:11; Matt. 18:15-20).
In actuality then, love is going to be what frees us from the bondage of trying to explain away passages like this. It will be first the love of God upon us, as He brings us from darkness to light and from an impossible debt to a costly freedom through the sacrifice of Christ. Yet it will simultaneously become a love of the brethren because of that same love of God upon other sinners, which was given to us. There is no possible way we can harbor an unforgiving attitude against someone God has poured out His love on, if we truly understand His love poured out on us through Christ. You show me a man who claims Christ, yet will not forgive, and I say to you that same man is no Christian at all. One who is a Christian will be driven by mercy, because they have an incredibly merciful God. They will seek reconciliation and unity within the body because they know the bond of love they share in Christ surpasses both the serious and the superficial sins. They will recall the debt they owed and the fact that this debt was entirely forgiven, and they will give their debtors that which they don’t deserve: mercy. They will give it to them because they also received that which they did not deserve: mercy.