John Stott once wrote, “Forgiveness is as indispensable to the life and health of the soul as food is for the body.”1 Many people suffer from misery of the soul because they have withheld forgiveness or because it has been withheld from them. The words “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are painfully difficult to utter with sincerity. But this shouldn’t be true of God’s people! Indeed, a readiness to forgive is one of the markers that Jesus has given His church to show that it is set apart as His.
But Scripture doesn’t simply say, “Forgive, or else!” Instead, it grounds forgiveness in Gospel reality, and it demonstrates it in life’s practicalities. God’s Word is also replete with examples of true forgiveness—examples that ultimately point us to the Lord Jesus Himself.
From Joseph to Jesus
Few examples of forgiveness in the Old Testament are more striking than that of Joseph and his brothers in the final quarter of Genesis.
Joseph, we’re told, was the favorite son of Jacob—and his brothers let their jealousy and resentment fester to the point that they were ready to kill him. They settled on the idea of selling him as a slave and profiting from their wickedness. They didn’t expect to ever see him again, nor did they want to. God, however, had other plans. Through a series of ups and downs, He established Joseph as a key ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. And when famine struck the whole known world, His brothers came to him for food, not realizing who he was.
In such a position of power, Joseph could easily have imprisoned his brothers, enslaved them, or even killed them. Instead, he revealed himself to them and extended an invitation: “Come near to me, please” (Gen. 45:4). He saw the purposes of God unfolding even in their treachery, and He responded with supernatural grace. After such a reconciliation, can you imagine Joseph’s brothers holding on to small grievances, whether toward him or one other?
Given all that we’ve received in Christ, how could we possibly withhold forgiveness from those who seek it?
Yet Joseph’s mercy is a mere shadow of the forgiveness the Lord Jesus offers. Every sin we have ever committed is an offense against Him. When we come before Him, the only thing we can reasonably expect to receive is judgment. And yet He shed His precious blood to pay the debt of our sin. Instead of immediately passing a guilty sentence, Jesus has cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). His forgiveness is the reason we can listen to those words and draw near to Him.
Given all that we’ve received in Christ, how could we possibly withhold forgiveness from those who seek it? In gratitude, forgiven sinners must do all that God enables us to do to forgive whoever has offended against them and to seek reconciliation. When we do this, we are following the example of our Lord, who did the same for us. This is why Paul exhorts us, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
The church should be filled with people who are quick to forgive because they understand how deeply they’ve been forgiven. What fuels this supernatural forgiveness? It begins with an understanding of these six truths:
- We are all God’s debtors. As Paul put it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We have all failed to meet God’s requirement of righteousness, and we have all overstepped the boundaries of His moral law.
- None of us can pay our own debt. No amount of good works will change our status as sinners before God. That’s why Paul says in Romans 3:20, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (NIV). The lie of external religion is that we can be be made right with God by doing good. But we can’t.
- By means of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the debt has been paid for all who believe in Him. This is the Gospel! You don’t do anything to earn God’s forgiveness. You can’t! You simply have to accept it. You have to come to God and say, “I am in debt to You on account of my moral rebellion. My mouth, my hands, my feet—I am filthy before Your holiness. But I know that You died to pay my debt and make me clean. I accept Your gift.”
- We can experience assurance of forgiveness if we are eager to forgive the sins committed against us. That doesn’t mean that when we forgive, we earn forgiveness. Rather, when we are eager to forgive people who have sinned against us, that is the evidence that we have a firm grasp on the profound forgiveness we have received.
- We can forgive others because what we once owed to God is infinitely more than what others owe to us. If we know ourselves to be sinners saved by grace, then there is no offense, no crime another can commit against us about which we can say, “This it too much. I will not forgive.” Such a disposition—no matter the prospects of reconciliation—comes from nothing but the power of God’s forgiveness.
- The unforgiving person is thus destined for everlasting punishment. Those who consistently are unwilling to grant forgiveness to others make it clear that they have never embraced the forgiveness offered to them in Christ. The unforgiving reveal themselves as unforgiven.
In the light of all this, we all have two questions to face.
The first is whether you have ever come to God in response to His invitation to receive forgiveness. Have you confessed the enormity of your debt to God and cried out for His mercy? Have you confessed that Jesus is Lord and believed that God raised Him from the dead for your salvation (Rom. 10:9)? You don’t need to say some eloquent prayer. You don’t need to donate any money or sign up for any mailing list. You only need to trust Him and in your heart say something like this: “God I have sinned against You, but I know that Jesus has died and risen again so that You can forgive me. I accept Your forgiveness, and I want to live in the light of that forgiveness.”
The second question is for those who have already sought God’s forgiveness: Are you taking seriously the necessity of forgiving others? Our love for God and others is proven in our willingness to forgive. If you are withholding forgiveness from someone in your life, consider what Jesus has done for you, and consider whether you have really believed it. Offering forgiveness is not easy, and it is not quick or simple. But it is necessary, and it is possible. Dwell deeply on the mercy God has shown you, and let go of whatever grievances remain in you. Forgiveness like this, given freely and abundantly in the power of God’s Spirit, is the way of obedience, the path to joy, and the narrow road of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This article was adapted from the sermon “A Lesson in Forgiveness” by Alistair Begg.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 149. ↩︎