Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:32d “. . .forgiving. . .”
With one word, Paul brings us face to face with the ultimate test of kindness and tender-heartedness. Most people are congenial and soft as long as they are properly treated. Even the Scribes and Pharisees were kind and tender-hearted when all went well for them. Friendliness and congeniality are often too much like an echo, returning exactly what they receive, and nothing more. We find it much harder to be kind and tender in the aggravating experiences of life. When crossed or offended by someone, when we need to be “forgiving,” Christian living tests its own mettle.
This is the sticking point for many a believer. Kindness has often tripped, and soft hearts have hardened, over a wrong done to us by others which led to a grievance being long nursed within us. This is tragic. The depth of our commitment should not be determined by the actions of others. Do not let the ingratitude and harshness of others defile our spirituality.
As Christians, we represent our Lord and thus have to forgive, for forgiveness personifies the essence of all we know about the Divine. The Father showed it in sending His Son to die for our sins. The Spirit shows it by applying Christ’s blood to our individual lives. The Son showed it in His earthly life, even to the end. Soldiers beat Him, mocked Him, jeered Him, and gambled over His garment, but in His dying hour, He prayed with failing breath, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
No trait is more essential among Christians than forgiveness. It is useless to give an offering unless we remember first to forgive others. “Unless you have forgiven others you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s Prayer” (Spurgeon). Christians must be “forgiving.”
Eph. 4:32e “. . .one another,. . .”
“One another” denotes activity which goes back and forth–I forgive you, you forgive me, we forgive them, they forgive us. What we give today we may need tomorrow. Be not harsh toward the imperfections of others. We have our own faults aplenty. A forgiving spirit is easier to cultivate when we remain mindful of our own shortcomings. The more we focus on our own weaknesses, the less time we have to stew over the flaws of others.
Each believer has many opportunities to obey the command to forgive. A church consists of sinners saved by grace, not angels. Many Christians need to accept this fact and become less sensitive about their own feelings. We need to take the chip off our shoulder, and be as backward to take offense as to give it. Remember, people are creatures of emotion, beset by temper and infirmities. We all have a pride-filled old man within.
Grievances are going to be committed, offenses will be given. Each of us will be affronted from time to time. Be sensible. Expect to have interpersonal conflicts. John, the beloved disciple himself, had trouble with Demetrius (3 JN 9). Paul was opposed by Alexander the coppersmith (2 TM 4:14). Jesus met opposition everywhere.
Christians, of all peoples, should be realistic about this matter. Our own Scriptures teach us not to glibly think there is nothing wrong with people. Our faith is not naive. Our theology should make it easier for us to forgive people because we understand human nature. We realize people are sinners, weak and frail, with a sin nature inside.
Eph. 4:32f “. . .even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
We are not at liberty to delineate how far we will go in our forgiveness of others. The criterion is predetermined, measured by the actions of God. The divine example sets the standard for human imitation. To forgive properly, one must rightly understand forgiveness as defined and demonstrated in the behavior of God. We are to forgive “as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” The words “for Christ’s sake” are literally “in Christ,” denoting the sphere in which God has forgiven us. We are to forgive others “as God” has forgiven us in Christ. Forgiven ones should forgive. The only reason Christians exist is because they are the people whom God has forgiven. We who live due to forgiveness must surely be willing to forgive.
Christians are by definition a people forgiven and forgiving: forgiven by God, forgiving “as God.” Be ever mindful of how God forgave us.
God forgave us without retaining a grudge. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (PS 103:12). God casts all His people’s sins “into the depths of the sea” (MC 7:19). Hezekiah confessed, “Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back” (IS 38:17). God said, “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins” (IS 44:22). “Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (HB 8:12). Our sins are gone. God shows no vestige of displeasure. Consequences abide, and we must someday give an account at the Judgment Seat of Christ, but our ongoing relationship with God here on earth can be as absolutely flawless as if the sin were never committed.
God forgave us eagerly and spontaneously. With absolute cheer, He enjoys forgiving us. He gladly puts the ring and best robe on the returning prodigal. If affronted, spontaneously pray, “How can I initiate reconciliation?” And when the chance comes, “do not dwarf the opportunity, but enlarge it, and when thou dost forgive, have so much forgiveness left that thou couldst do it seven times again, and then seventy times seven; for thou drawest thy forgiveness from the fountain of the cross” (Parker).
God forgave us freely. We did not earn forgiveness by sacrifice or good works. It came by grace. The one who wronged us may not deserve our forgiveness. We did not deserve God’s. The forgiveness we enjoy was unmerited, and since we cannot forgive God in return, we express our appreciation to Him by forgiving others who do not deserve our forgiveness.
God forgave us at great cost to Himself. Look at the cross. Has our forgiveness of others ever cost us that much. Have we ever been out any money or time or pain to forgive another? True forgiveness is often very painful. We do not play make believe, fantasize, nor dream the offense was not as painful as it really was. We deal with reality, face pain head on, and choose to absorb the hurt into our hearts, even as Christ absorbed into His own body the pain of our sins. “Forgiveness is realizing to the full the wrong they have done, and then forgiving them” (Lloyd-Jones).
God forgave us fully and generously. His Son died to cover all sins, the worst without exception. He did not pick and choose, forgiving us for some sins, while leaving others uncovered. The blood of Christ does not wash away one sin at a time. Jesus forgives a repentant sinner completely. Have we decided some offenses done against us were extra heinous? Have we determined we will forgive certain wrongs, but not others?
The one who begins to grasp the huge amount of mercy which was needed to pay his own huge debt, says, “I cannot refuse to forgive, whatever the offense.” When a person comes to understand the enormity of his own cancelled sin debt, the ability to forgive others becomes as natural as opening a hand. Any Christian who cannot forgive fully and generously has not begun to grasp the amount of forgiveness he or she received from God. No one could ever wrong us as much as we wronged God. All the abuses we endure are nothing compared to what we have done against God.
God forgave us before He was asked. Technically, our sins are forgiven when we repent and ask for forgiveness, but we are fully aware His forgiveness was seeking us before we sought it. New believers think we find God, but mature saints know God finds us. God’s forgiveness of us took wing before we were born, and began to fly our way long before we turned to receive it. Has someone hurt us, and not yet apologized? Have we forgiven them already, even before they ask our forgiveness? When they speak to us, can we honestly say the incident is already a thing of the past?
In interpersonal relationships, the believer should always have all accounts up to date. Others may hold a grudge against us, but we must refuse to sink to their level. With people, we should be bold as a lion, no hesitation in our handshake, no fear of looking anyone in the eye, no need to avoid a certain hallway or store for fear of seeing a particular person.
We are to forgive others “as God” forgave us in Christ. My immediate reaction to this challenge is desperation and hopelessness. I cannot do this. We all stand condemned before this challenge. Granted, some people by temperament and personality tend to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving, but to forgive “as God” forgives in Christ is another matter all together. Everything is thereby lifted to a higher plane. Adherence to this standard requires an absolute miracle, which is exactly what God provides. Every command of Scripture is a promise by God to supply the power needed to obey it. He has commanded us to do this, and will empower us to do it.
We must follow God’s example. By the power of His Spirit, we can. Others have done it. Archbishop Cranmer was of such a forgiving spirit that it became a common proverb, be unkind to Cranmer and he will be your friend as long as he lives. A ruthless tyrant, having a Christian beaten almost to death, taunted his victim, “What great matter did Christ ever do for you?” The Christian cried in pain, “Even this, that I can forgive you, though you use me so cruelly.” There is a beauty in such behavior that the world cannot resist, and that the Church cannot thrive without.
“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (JN 13:35). By this shall all men know ye love one another, if ye forgive “one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”