The Power of Forgiveness

Christ in Us

 

A couple of years ago, in a piece about love, I wrote: "Perhaps no word is more associated with Christianity by believers and more disconnected from it by detractors than love. From either perspective it is a loaded' word, full of meanings, connotations, and expectations that reside as much in the word as in those who use it. As with every other aspect of life and ministry, we should allow the Spirit, through Scripture, to define the terms here."

In considering forgiveness, I think the same introduction applies. Forgiveness is to be a hallmark of true Christianity-believers in the forgiveness of Christ for their sins living in forgiveness toward their fellow sinners. Often however, the world looks to the Church ready to judge, defining forgiveness as unconditional acceptance, sin and all. When Christians lovingly accept sinners and urge repentance from sins and trusting in Christ, some eyes will be opened, but much of the world scoffs and decries us as hypocrites for attaching qualifiers. Worse still, we often give that argument ammunition by a) failing to practice Christ-like forgiveness toward genuinely repentant fellow-sinners, or b) by stepping outside Scriptural boundaries to promise the hollow and unredemptive forgiveness the world claims to seek.

Biblical forgiveness is always full of grace and always involves repentance and contrition. When we look at forgiveness in the Word, there are four main verbs to consider. In the Hebrew, the two primary verbs are ns' and lach; in the Greek, aphiēmi and charizomai are most often translated "forgive".

Ns' has many meanings, from "forgive" to "bear", "carry", "cast away", and "hold up (honor)". It literally means "to lift", so in the context of forgiveness it carries the idea of carrying away or casting off an offense. This word is used most often to describe human or conditional forgiveness, as in Genesis 50:17, "Thus you shall say to Joseph, "Please forgive, I beg you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they did you wrong." And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.' And Joseph wept when they spoke to him." This is also the case in Exodus 10:17, when Pharaoh "repents" and asks Moses and Aaron to forgive him and pray for him, in 1 Samuel 25:28, when Abigail beseeches David, and in Joshua 24:19, when Joshua states that the Lord will not forgive Israel's desertion of Him.

lach is more of an authoritative, definite forgiveness, and is almost always applied to God's forgiveness. It carries the meaning of pardoning or sparing punishment-actions that, in the ultimate sense, only God can accomplish. We see this, for example, in Solomon's prayer of dedication for the Temple: "Listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear in heaven Your dwelling place; hear and forgive" (1 Kings 8:30). Whereas ns' is more of an overlooking or forgetting of an offense, lach touches God's sole authority to put sins to death and remove them fully from the slate.

In the New Testament, aphiēmi is most often translated "forgive", but it also has many other usages. Literally "to send forth" or "to send away from", it can mean also "forsake", "remit", "give permission", or "dismiss". It typically refers to the forgiveness of God, as in Mark 2:7: "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Charizomaiappears several times in Paul's epistles, typically in the context of personal forgiveness of a brother's offense, as in 2 Corinthians 2:7: "So that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow." From the root of charis, "grace", charizomai is literally "to give grace."

Through each verb's usages, the common theme of forgiveness following acknowledgement of sin and repentance emerges. We also see that all the verbs are often used in requests-repentant sinners asking forgiveness before the God whom all sin is ultimately against or seeking grace from the person affected by their offense.

In seeking how we as Christians are to understand and exercise forgiveness, we must look to Christ.

The Authority of Forgiveness
In Matthew's parallel passage to the story of Jesus' healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 (referenced above), Christ tells the man to "Take courage, your sins are forgiven" (Matt. 9:2), and the scribes accused Him of blasphemy in their hearts. He then rebukes the scoffers saying, "Which is easier to say, Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, Get up, and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins'-then He said to the paralytic, Get up, pick up your bed and go home'" (Matt. 9:5-6).

From this we see that the authority to forgive rests with God alone, exercised on earth by God the Son, Christ Jesus. As Christians, the only meaningful forgiveness we can extend to those who sin against us (c.f. Matt. 6:12) is empowered by Christ's authority. We can only truly forgive because we have been forgiven. We do not have the authority to absolve others of their trespasses, but we can "pass the buck", so to speak, to Christ. Through confidence in His forgiveness of our sins, we can give grace (c.f. 2 Cor. 2:7) to others, trusting in Christ to forgive them (if they believe) and acting as witnesses of His power (if they do not yet know Him).

The History of Forgiveness
Though Christ came in one particular time and place, God's forgiveness throughout the ages is centered upon His atoning death on the cross. God's holiness demands that the debt of sin be paid before He can grant forgiveness-He could not simply grant grace without restitution being made without violating His character (Heb. 9:22). Therefore, the forgiveness of God in the Old and New Testaments is presaged on the completed work of Christ; as Revelation 13:8 describes those who trust Christ, those whose names are "written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain."

It is this completed forgiveness that enabled the Spirit of the Lord to say through Jeremiah, "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the Lord, I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, "know the Lord," for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,' declares the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more'" (Jer. 31"33-34). It is this forgiveness that is prefigured in the story of Hosea, who married an adulterous wife to show the love and grace that God would give to His people when they repented from their idolatry. Through Hosea, God states that in response to Israel's repentance, "I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned from them" (Hos. 14:4).

As believers, our forgiveness is sure. The grace of God given to men today is the same grace bestowed by Him throughout the ages-the God of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New Testament are of one being and one character. The work of Christ is shone forth in the forgiveness we as Christians exercise toward one another and the proclamation of His Gospel to a sinful world.

The Magnitude of Forgiveness
In Luke 7, when the sinful woman came to the house of Simon the Pharisee to anoint Jesus' feet, he told a parable of two debtors to expose the hypocrisy of his host. He concludes by saying, "For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little loves little" (Luke 7:47). In this, we see the greatness of God's forgiveness of sin. Because He cancelled by His blood the debt we could never pay, His forgiveness motivates our love of Him. When we recognize the magnitude of our sin, we begin to appreciate the extent of His forgiveness.

We are able forgive others through the Spirit of God within us strengthening us to trust the Father with any offense against us and generating within us a Spirit of love for one another. God must forgive by absorbing all offense into Himself; there is no one to whom He can appeal or cast that burden upon. All our iniquity-past, present, and future-was nailed to the cross with Christ. The forgiveness of God was accomplished there by the unimaginable suffering of the Son of man.

If we base our forgiveness of others anywhere but the cross of Christ, we attempt to absorb their sin into ourselves rather than casting it on Him by faith. Such actions do not constitute forgiveness because we overreach our authority and ability. We cannot contain sin, and we will inevitably regurgitate those offenses of our brothers back to them at a later time, causing great harm to ourselves, our brothers, and our witness.

As Jesus taught in Matthew 18:22-35, the forgiving spirit of our own hearts directly relates to God's forgiveness toward us. If we, being forgiven by God, do not extend His forgiveness to those who sin against us, we do not understand what we have been given. Just as the unforgiving slave of that parable was forced to pay back His debt in full, so with us if we do not live in forgiveness toward our brothers (c.f. v. 35). This is not to say that God revokes His forgiveness if we do not live in it, but rather that if we do not live in it, we never accepted it in the first place. We must recognize how much we have been forgiven, and then trust Him to fill us with that same spirit. That forgiveness in its fullness is absolutely crucial to our Faith.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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