What Is “Forgiveness?”

by Jefferson David Tant

We are all familiar with the New Testament’s teaching on “forgiveness.” The book has many exhortations, examples, and commandments concerning this practice.

I’m sure we would all agree that the greatest example of forgiveness would be the words uttered on the cross as Christ is about to die a most horrible death: “But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.” (Luke 23:34)

Now, if that is an example for us, some might counter, “Well, he was divine, he was God. I’m not strong enough to do that.” But consider what God has told us about this matter of forgiveness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we find these words Christ spoke, as he was teaching us how to pray, and then continued with an admonition: “'And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ … For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

Note that we are to ask God for forgiveness as we have forgiven others. In other words, our petition for forgiveness comes after we have forgiven others who may have sinned against us. That’s pretty serious.

Then we have the familiar story of the question impetuous Peter asked the Lord.

Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.' And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and [began] to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?' And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:21-35).

So Peter asked, “Is seven times enough?” Christ answered, “No, 490 times.” I really don’t think Christ expected anyone to keep notes, and when he got to 491, he could say, “Aha! I don’t have to forgive you anymore!”

How much better our world would be if we didn’t hold grudges -- if we didn’t have ill will towards those who may have wronged us.

Consider the fact that an unforgiving spirit is a work of Satan. Paul refers to this in his letter to the church at Corinth: “But whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, [I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (II Corinthians 2:10).

Who is being hurt when we have an unforgiving spirit? Ourselves! I may have some grudge against Jake, and it bothers me day after day. Jake lives 200 miles away and goes about his daily activities unburdened by my hard feelings.

A vivid example of forgiveness in a difficult circumstance took place in a Dallas, Texas courtroom on October 3, 2019, as a policewoman, Amber Guyger was convicted of killing Botham Jean in a mistaken identity matter. After the guilty verdict and the sentencing to ten years were ordered, Bothan’s 18-year-old brother Brandt used his victim-impact statement to tell the court that despite what Guyger took from his family, if she is truly sorry for what she did, then he forgives her and wants the best for her.

That story brings tears to this old man’s eyes. What a great and kind heart Brandt has. May God help us all to be kind, loving, merciful, and forgiving as our Savior was, and as this 18-year-old young man has shown us how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

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