Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. This is reasonable we might think—isn’t forgiveness of sin the entire point? “Their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Yes, it is the entire point, but it is also part of the point that this forgiveness is entirely grace, and must never be considered an entitlement. It is not something we deserve. We are given forgiveness, but we do not get to demand forgiveness. And remembering this is tougher than it looks.
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
Summary of the Text:
So forgiveness proceeds from a certain disposition. It flows out of a particular kind of character, a certain kind of heart. That disposition is one of kindness. The one who would forgive must be tenderhearted, and the word that is translated as tenderhearted here is actually telling us that our forgiveness must be visceral—from the viscera, from the gut. The requirement is then given, which is that we must forgive one another, going back and forth. He doesn’t say anything like “the good guys in church must forgive the bad guys.” We are all involved in it—forgiving one another, as the occasion demands. The assumption is that life in covenant community will require this kind of thing, which further means that pride of face is out. Not only so, but a constant critical spirit is also out. By pride of face, I mean those who want to be aloof and above it all. Those with a critical eye are down in it, and tangled up. These attitudes are inconsistent with being tenderhearted.
Paul then requires us to be imitative in our forgiveness. We are to imitate God’s forgiveness of us through Christ in how we forgive one another. And this in its turn provides a key to help us understand one of the difficulties that arises with those who want to take forgiveness seriously.
The Forgiveness Transaction
When someone has wronged someone else, they have not just transgressed or broken a rule. They have also incurred an obligation, a debt (Matt. 6:12). And, as we all know, debts must be paid. Now when a sin is committed, the sin by itself may be the thing that has to be paid off, or it might be the “sin + damages” that has to be dealt with.
Suppose you get in a quarrel with someone, and in the heat of your temper you call them an insulting name. When you go to them to put this right, the debt that you owe is the obligation that you carry to seek that person’s forgiveness. “Will you please forgive me for calling you that name?”
But if you called them that name, and then deliberately broke something of theirs in your anger, you now have two things to do. The first is to seek forgiveness for the comment, as in the first scenario, and the second is to make restitution (Ex. 22:12). And when you make restitution, you should add at least 20% to the value of whatever it was (Num. 5:7). Restitution includes restoring the loss that time introduces, which is why sometimes you add twenty percent and other times you restore four-fold. What is the interest rate, in other words?
The Transaction Part:
In order for forgiveness proper to have occurred, it is necessary for the offender to seek forgiveness, and for the one who was wronged to extend it. If someone steals your car, you can’t really run down the road after them yelling that you forgive them. The transaction of forgiveness is not happening there. And if the offender truly repents, but the other person refuses to forgive, then reconciliation between them is impossible under those conditions also. It takes two for the transaction to happen.
But when everything is running smoothly, here is the nature of the transaction. The one seeking forgiveness acknowledges his wrong, and does so without pointing to all the extenuating circumstances. In doing this, he is asking the wronged party to make a promise, and the promise being sought is that he will not, on a personal level, hold the offense against the one who committed it. When the one extending forgiveness does so, when he says I forgive you, he is in fact making that promise.
I italicized the word personal above because the one forgiving may have other responsibilities that must take the misbehavior into account (as a boss, spouse, elder, witness in a trial, etc.)
Now if someone makes that promise, and then, in a subsequent quarrel, resurrects the old offense, what he is doing is breaking his promise. And that is a new sin being added to the tangle, requiring him to seek forgiveness. “I promised you that I wouldn’t throw that episode in your teeth, and here I just did it. I broke my word to you. Please forgive me.”
And Not a Patch Job Either
There is a stark difference between seeking forgiveness, and trying to round up acceptance of your excuses. In the same way, it is often easier for us to accept an offender’s excuses than it is to forgive him. Forgiveness presupposes genuine, deliberate wrong. And we want to say, “I can’t forgive that. He did it on purpose.” But actually, that is the only time you can forgive. There is a stark difference between an inexcusable sin and an unforgiveable one. All of them are inexcusable.
And because we live in such a tumblesome world, it is often the case that our actions and our motives are mixed. In other words, perhaps a portion of it was excusable, while the rest of it was not. And as C.S. Lewis points out, when dealing with others, we tend to amplify the excusable parts of our own behavior and minimize the inexcusable parts. And when it comes to the faults of the other person, we do the reverse.
But in this Christ requires of us absolutely honest weights and measures. We are required to have the same standard for ourselves that we have for others (Matt. 7:1-2).
The Three C’s
There are three options when it comes to these situations, and two of them are legitimate. When someone has wronged you (or irritated you, which is not necessarily the same thing), you may either confront it or cover it. What you may not do is complain about it to everybody else.
When you confront it, you are doing what Jesus said to do (Matt. 18:15). But also remember whether this scenario might end up and do it sparingly. The other legitimate option is to cover it. Forget about it. “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8, KJV 1900) “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8, ESV).
Sweep the sins of others, sweep the sins of those you live closely with, under the carpet. But this is a magic carpet. It does not matter that there is a multitude of sins under there—it never gets lumpy. And the word for multitude is the word we get plethora from—it means large number, crowd, or throng. It is a massive army, bigger than 70 times 7 (Matt. 18:22). This carpet—the carpet of an earnest and fervent love—dissolves everything that gets swept there. How do you know that you are doing this? The answer is that three days later you can’t remember what it was.
And remember that the passage about 70 times 7 is just a few verses below the passage about confronting your brother. Keep your ratios in balance—covering is far to be preferred over confronting. Covering it should be your default—but only as you love fervently—and confronting happens when it is obviously necessary. And remember the lesson Paul gives in it. If a brother sins, those who are spiritual should restore him, being mindful of themselves, in a spirit of gentleness, lest they also be tempted (Gal. 6:1). When you are mad about it, you are not qualified to correct the other. When you are not mad about it, you are not motivated to correct the other (Gal. 6:1).
But How . . .?
The dilemma I referred to earlier is caused by an offender who refuses to acknowledge what he or she did—or even worse, does in an ongoing fashion. How can you forgive when someone has not asked for it?
We have to break this into two portions. According to our text, what is the basis of our own forgiveness before God? God forgives us, it says, “for Christ’s sake.” But what Christ did was accomplished two thousand years before you acknowledged your sin, two thousand years before you committed it, and on top of it all, two thousand years before you were born. Everything about your forgiveness was settled, with the exception of your experience of it.
That leads to the second part. We experience the forgiveness of God when the subjective burden of our guilt is removed, and removed forever. This is when the transaction proper happens.
So we are to imitate that. Say that someone has wronged you, and has not repented of it (yet). Can you forgive them? Yes. Can they experience that forgiveness? No. Think of it this way. You take the forgiveness that you have determined to give to them the moment they ask for it, make sure it is packed well, put it in a box, and wrap it up in the gaudiest gift wrap you have. You have special place for it, near the door, and you watch the driveway the way the father in the parable of the prodigal son watched the road.
The transaction has not happened, but you are on tiptoe, wanting it to happen.
As God in Christ forgave us. And because Christ has forgiven us, we are enabled by the Spirit to have fervent love for one another. And in that love, we can cover a multitude of offenses, and we can confront what we need to.