Monday, March 10, 2008

Essay: "Reasons for Forgiving Other Christians"

October-November, 2007

It doesn’t take but a cursory read of one of the gospels to realize that holding a grudge against a fellow Christian is sinful. It takes a little more mental work to realize how silly not forgiving a fellow Christian is. Here I present six reasons—some of which you may be familiar with, and some you probably haven’t thought of—for forgiving Christian brothers, in the hope that you will be impressed with how unreasonable it is not to forgive another Christian.

  1. You must forgive your brother because you do not get to choose whom you will love.1

To be saved by Christ is to be conquered. When Jesus breaks in, everything one hitherto called “mine” is forfeit. “You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.”2 The New Testament places strenuous emphasis upon the truth of Christ’s ownership of his people,3 ownership that is, as John Piper notes, double: “You now belong doubly to God: He made you, and he bought you. That means your life is not your own. It is God’s.”4 A man who is in possession of himself can decide whom he will love, but a man who belongs to someone else is subject to the will of his owner. Someone who has surrendered to Christ doesn’t even have the leeway to be nice to everybody while only genuinely liking a few people. Christ and his apostles make this clear:

I command you to love each other.”5 —Jesus Christ

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love.”6 —The Apostle John

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”7 —The Apostle Paul

Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. You must make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. And the most important piece of clothing you must wear is love. Love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.”8 —The Apostle Paul

Somehow we ignore these clear and sweeping commands to love and forgive our brethren. Even people who hold to Reformed theology—a teaching that says, “a person’s life is not his own; no one is able to plan his own course”9—deep inside think of themselves as autonomous. Our attitude is that King Jesus may tell us what to do, but generally not what to think, and especially not what to feel. But Christ has no scruples about commanding his disciples to love each other—an order that extends over the totality of their beings, encompassing their actions, thoughts, and emotions. He doesn’t ask his people for their opinions before he commands them to forgive. He pays no attention to the autonomy we think we have or to all our careful, reasonable excuses. We simply have to forgive. He leaves us no room to wiggle.

  1. You must forgive your brother because he has claim to you and your love.

If you are Christ’s, you are your brother’s, for your brother is in Christ. The Bible is clear about this. “Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you.”10 Likewise, you belong to him, so you belong to his children. In trying to quell an argument in the Corinthian church in which people were laying special claim to individual leaders, Paul admonished, “Don’t take pride in following a particular leader. Everything belongs to you: Paul and Apollos and Peter; the whole world and life and death; the present and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”11 To paraphrase, “Don’t bother to say, ‘I follow Apollos’ as if that gives you special claim on Apollos, because you already have claim to Apollos, and to me, and Peter, and in fact everything.” This claim we have on each other is due to our unity with Christ. “Since we are all one body in Christ, we belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others.”12 Moreover, our treatment of each other should be based on our mutual ownership: “Put away all falsehood and ‘tell your neighbor the truth’ because we belong to each other.”13

Sinful humans’ ideas about being autonomous are resilient, so the previous point about belonging to Christ, which should have been a one-hit K.O. to your ideas of autonomy, may not have completed the job. This point should finish it. If thinking that the King of the universe can tell us what to do offends our sensibilities, this assertion will be downright insulting: You are not independent; you are a slave to all Christians. Every Christian owns you.

What’s the connection between being owned by someone and forgiving them? When my Dad told me about a guy who pitched his tent right where grizzlies often passed, I was not surprised to hear that he had been eaten. However, when he told me about a lady in France whose dog ate her face after she overdosed on drugs, I was not only grossed out but shocked. How could someone’s own dog attack them so viciously? When a man owns something, he has claim to its fealty and affection. Another example of this is the story of Micah’s idol.14 How strange and unnatural that Micah should steal from his own mother, the one who has claim to him as her son! Similarly, how strange it is to not forgive someone to whom you belong. You owe your owner your loyalty and love. You cannot detach yourself from other Christians by holding a grudge against them, for they have claim to you and to your forgiveness.

  1. You must forgive your brother because God has forgiven you.

When we comprehend even a small part of God’s infinite forgiveness, it is absurd not to follow his example in forgiving. While praying for all of his people shortly before his death, Jesus showed the connection between hearing the truth and becoming righteous when he said, “Make them pure and holy by teaching them your words of truth.”15 If we had “the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is,”16 the knowledge of his love would have a powerful sanctifying influence on us—his truth would make us pure and holy. Therefore, it makes sense to take a quick look at the forgiveness of God.

God’s forgiveness is like a wild elephant—something extremely large and muscular that cannot be impeded or stopped, something that is huge and passionate and ferocious and apparently insane. Our primary trouble with understanding the forgiveness of God lies in its immensity and intensity. God Almighty’s forgiveness crashes through the jungle, and no sin forms an impasse for it. He forgives sin regardless of its seriousness. “‘Come now, let us argue this out,’ says the LORD. ‘No matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it. I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you as white as wool.’”17 When God decides to forgive someone, he cannot be stopped. His bleach—his own son’s blood—can turn jet black to snow white. Gorilla Glue may be the strongest glue on planet earth, but it has its limitations. But not one sin can even be conceived of that is too strong for the forgiveness of the infinite and gracious God. He has no limits.

Not only is the LORD unstoppable, he is thorough. When he forgives, he does so completely. In Isaiah he says, “I have swept away your sins like the morning mists. I have scattered your offenses like the clouds. Oh, return to me, for I have paid the price to set you free.”18 I went elk hunting this fall with some friends, and one morning when we woke up and walked out into the air, a heavy fog covered the landscape. But by noon, the sun’s rays had swept it all away. The morning mists, which had seemed so durable, were gone without a trace. God’s forgiveness is that complete.

And his forgiveness is eternal; it never reverts to anger. “Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come fearlessly into God’s presence, assured of his glad welcome,”19 because we know for sure that he has blotted out our sins completely. “I—yes, I alone—am the one who blots out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again.”20 Our sins have permanently been banished from his view.

After all this amazing forgiving, you won’t find God’s “forgiveness elephant” panting. He doesn’t have the “But, Mom!” attitude we often have about forgiving people. Forgiving is a joy to God, not a drag. In the words of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.”21 Or as Paul wrote, “His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure.”22 He does not begrudge prodigals; he throws a feast for his wayward sons when they return.

God’s forgiveness means love, not neutrality: “But now, O Israel, the LORD who created you says: ‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I gave Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba as a ransom for your freedom. Others died that you might live. I traded their lives for yours because you are precious to me. You are honored, and I love you.’”23 God’s forgiveness is not a movement from anger to ambivalence. He loves those whom he forgives, and works everything together wonderfully for them. He is passionate about his children.

Sanctification is a result of meditating on justification, as Pastor Mike Shea belabors in his Romans sermons.24 Imperatives flow from indicatives. If we understood that God’s forgiveness of us is irresistible, complete, permanent, joyful, and implies that he loves us, Jesus’ “I command you to love each other,” would be reasonable and natural. Like God, we would be eager and glad to forgive others. And like him, we would forgive our brethren completely, unconditionally, forever, and would replace our grudges with love.25

  1. You must forgive your brother because legally he has no faults.

You must forgive your brother because God has forgiven him. All Christians are righteous before God: “For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty.”26 Not guilty is the verdict a judge gives when he finds that someone did not commit a crime. Imagine trying to explain to God that you are mad at your brother for a sin for which your brother has been found, in Christ, not guilty. As it doesn’t make sense to be mad at someone when God isn’t mad at you, so it doesn’t make sense to be mad at someone whom God isn’t mad at.

Moreover, “not guilty” is God’s verdict on every sin a Christian ever committed. John says of “those 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth”27 that “no falsehood can be charged against them; they are blameless.”28 Elsewhere John tells us, “If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.”29 You will not find a sin that you can hold against your brother, because God has forgiven every sin your brother has ever committed. You will not be able to count to seven or to seventy-seven or to seven hundred and seventy-seven and then stop forgiving, because God forgives an unlimited number of sins.

  1. You must forgive your brother because his faults are rapidly perishing.

Not only has God forgiven all your brother’s sins, he is continually working to stop your brother from sinning at all. And he will accomplish this completely—soon.30 All Christians will soon be sinless. We get a promise of this in the book of Joel. “You will know that I, the LORD your God, live in Zion, my holy mountain. Jerusalem will be holy forever, and foreign armies will never conquer her again.”31 God isn’t promising to make some buildings holy. A promise like that would do us little good. He is saying he will make the people who live in the city—the true descendants of Abraham—holy. After all, the holiness of a city does not depend on whether flowers grow in people’s gardens or rain splatters the buildings with mud, but on whether the residents honor God’s name or defile it.

John gives us a similar promise: “Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, and we can’t even imagine what we will be like when Christ returns. But we do know that when he comes we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.”32 And he is holy. An unrighteous person is not like Christ!

One common excuse for not forgiving is that the offender has not repented and turned from his offensive ways. This excuse is invalid when applied to unbelievers, but even more so when applied to the ransomed of the Lord. Every believer’s faults are rapidly being destroyed: it will not be long until he will no longer commit a sin like the one you are mad at him for. If you knew that in fifteen minutes, your brother would in deepest sincerity repent of what he had done and never do it again, would you not be much more hasty to forgive? Now, fifteen minutes is hardly fifty years, but seen in the light of eternity, they are both insignificant. True, one is much longer than the other, but both are small in comparison to what matters.

We do not find it hard to make excuses for bad behavior from someone who is sick. Imagine that someone goes to talk with his friend who is in the hospital. His friend, who is on pain-killers and is barely coherent, insults him. The visitor is saddened, but he is not mad at his friend, because he knows that under normal circumstances, his friend doesn’t act that way. He knows that there is another force active in his friend besides his friend’s own personality. The way the sick man acted did not display who he really was.

This situation is analogous to being insulted by another Christian, even if he insults you deliberately and maliciously. You still must tell yourself that his actions do not display who he really is. Another force is active in him that makes him act differently from who he is. After being converted, a man cannot be looked at in the same light. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come!”33 His sins should be seen as a perishing part of him, not as a part of the “real him.” He is going to spend all but a few years of his existence in perfect holiness. Why do you have to pick on him now during his time of weakness?

  1. You must forgive your brother because it will bring you the most joy in the end.

Hating a brother will not make a man happy. It will give him only a weak illusion of pleasure, and let the pain fester in the meantime. Frankly, we humans are not good judges of what is pleasurable. We choose instant gratification even when it gets in the way of the delayed pleasure which would be much more intense. We shortchange ourselves by spending our money instantly, rather than investing it so it will grow and buy us more in the end. It is shortsighted to not forgive is shortsighted, for though forgiving is initially painful, you can take it to the bank.

When we think of forgiving someone, we tend to think of the initial pain it will bring us. Yes, the pain of forgiving is severe: it was all-surpassingly painful for Christ to do what was necessary to justly forgive us—but the Lord knew that the joy that would ensue would outweigh even the infinitely intense pain of being hated by God. “He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward.”34 Forgiveness is initially painful, but much joy results, for “how wonderful it is, how pleasant, when brothers live together in harmony!”35 Yes, “A bowl of soup with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”36 Or again, “A dry crust eaten in peace is better than a great feast with strife.”37 Forgiveness ushers in harmony, love and peace—things far more important than monetary wealth.

Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41, reversed—switched around so the fat cows eat the skinny ones and the full heads of grain, the withered ones—illustrates this well. The joy of forgiving will consume the pain. The pain will be forgotten, because God’s commands are sweeter than honey. God always commands you to do what will ultimately make you the most happy. Hating your brother will wither your soul, but forgiveness is delightful.

We make up a lot of complicated excuses for not forgiving, but when viewed in light of what the Bible tells us about forgiving, all that complex logic is nothing but irrationality. It is strange that we follow the path of foolish misery when we could have wise joy.

1And love implies forgiveness. “Love...keeps no record of when it has been wronged.” (1 Corinthians 13:5) (All Scripture quotations are taken from the New Living Translation, first edition.)

21 Corinthians 6:19.

3John 13:8; 15:19, 21; 17:9, 14; Acts 18:10; 27:23; Rom 1:6-7; 8:1; 14:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 3:3, 9; 6:15; 2 Corinthians 10:7; Galatians 3:29; 5:24; 6:17; Ephesians 1:3, 6; 2:13; 6:1; Philippians 2:1; 4:2; Colossians 3:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 3:13; 5:18; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:19; Hebrews 3:1; 1 Peter 3:16; 1 John 2:3-4; 3:10; 4:4-6; Revelations 12:17.

4Piper, John. (2003.) Don’t Waste Your Life. Wheaten, Illinois: Crossway Books. Preface, p. 9.

5John 15:17.

61 John 4:7-8.

7Ephesians 4:31-32.

8Colossians 3:12-14.

9Jeremiah 10:23.

10Galatians 4:7.

111 Corinthians 3:21-23.

12Romans 12:5.

13Ephesians 4:25.

14Judges 17:1-6.

15John 17:17.

16Ephesians 3:18.

17Isaiah 1:18.

18Isaiah 44:21.

19Ephesians 3:12.

20Isaiah 43:25.

21Luke 12:32.

22Ephesians 1:5.

23Isaiah 43:1-4.

24Pastor Shea’s sermons can be found in MP3 format online at

25See also Jesus’ story of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18, which is the prime illustration of how ludicrous it is for a forgiven man not to forgive.

26Romans 3:23-24.

27Revelation 14:3.

28Revelation 14:5.

291 John 1:9.

30I say soon deliberately; see Psalm 90 on the shortness of time.

31 Joel 3:17.

321 John 3:2.

332 Corinthians 5:17, NIV.

34Hebrews 12:2.

35Psalm 133:1.

36Proverbs 15:17.

37Proverbs 17:1.

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