Everyone knows that the Christian faith revolves around the forgiveness of sins. But because there is a gospel logic involved in it that eludes every form of carnal reasoning, we have to be careful to understand what is actually involved. What is real forgiveness?
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31–32).
Summary of the Text
There are two ways of conducting life together. One of them is the enemy of life together, and the other is the true friend of life together. One drives us apart and the other knits us together.
The first is the way is the way of keeping score, with the intention of winning. It is the way of bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice (v. 31). This all sounds pretty bad, but we have to remember that all these plug-uglies travel under an alias. They call themselves righteous, and have a deep commitment to being right. This approach makes koinonia community impossible.
The alternative is kindness and tenderheartedness. And the way that kindness and tenderheartedness “live out” is by forgiving one another, and doing so in exactly the same way that God has forgiven us for the sake of Jesus Christ (v. 32).
What Forgiveness is Not
We often feel like we are asking God for His forgiveness when what we are really doing is asking Him to accept our excuses. And because we know that we are to forgive others as we were forgiven, as per our text, we often seek to forgive others by agreeing beforehand to accept their excuses, when possible. But (unlike ourselves) they had better have a good one.
Our problem is that, when living together with other sinners, we frequently run smack into what can only be called inexcusable. And because it is inexcusable, our scheme with the excuses cannot work.
Forgiveness deals with sin. And sin, by its very nature, is inexcusable. But what is inexcusable is not (thank the Lord) unforgiveable.
Pardon Me and Forgive Me
If you accidentally back into someone during fellowship hour, and make them spill their coffee, you naturally say pardon me, or please excuse me. By this you mean to say that you did what you did to them in a way that was entirely unintentional. They respond accordingly—don’t mention it. No problem. The accident was an accident, and it was therefore excusable. You were responsible for the accident, and you accept that responsibility, but you were not guilty of plotting it on purpose.
But suppose you looked across the fellowship hall, and there saw your enemy, as pleased with himself as a conceited Pharisee could be, and so you lowered your shoulder and ran straight into him, knocking him clean over. Under such circumstances, the only reason you would say something like “pardon me” would be if you had decided to taunt him after bowling him over. In this case, your behavior is inexcusable.
But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it. The inexcusable is not the same kind of thing as the unforgiveable.
A Mixed Bag
But there is another category. What if we don’t have something that is purely wicked or purely accidental? Suppose for a moment that it is a mixed bag.
Yes, you snapped at the kids, but it was at the end of two days of a roaring migraine headache. Yes, you said some things to your wife that were rude and thoughtless, but she was the one who started the argument, and would not let it go, not even after you had asked her to. You had asked her three times. Yes, you sent an email to your boss that you regret sending, but it was 2 in the morning, and the beer you had made you careless.
There are extenuating circumstances, in other words. But we should all remember two things about this. The first is that we will tend to stretch our legitimate excuse part to cover over our sin part. But the only thing that can actually cover sin is the blood of Jesus Christ. When apologizing, we lead with the excuse. “Bob, sorry about yesterday. I had a long day, and I didn’t really mean what I said.” And Bob often responds in kind (because he wants to play the same game when he needs to). “Oh, well, because you didn’t mean it, forget about it.” In other words, because the “you” who said those things was not the real you, he can let it go.
The second problem is that we want our excuses to be way stretchier than our neighbor’s excuses. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out one time, the chances are excellent that our neighbor’s excuses are way better than we tend to believe. And it is also true that our excuses are way lamer than we think they are. When we handicap the competition between us and our fellow Christians, we are not being nearly as objective as we think we are.
A Variation on the Golden Rule
The basic Christian response is to forgive as we have been forgiven. In our text, the apostle Paul is simply repeating what the Lord taught us when He taught us to pray. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask Him to forgive us as we forgive others. The way many Christians live, the room actually ought to become much quieter when we get to that part.
“Lord, please doubt the sincerity of my repentance the way I doubt his. Lord, dismiss my excuses with a wave of your hand the way I dismiss his excuses. Lord, keep a hidden tally so that if I sin in this area again, You can bring everything up again, and throw it in my face, the way I do with him. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Given the attitudes we often harbor toward fellow Christians, the words of the Lord’s Prayer are words to choke on.
The Golden Rule teaches us that we should do for others what we wish they would do for us. This is in the same spirit, but there is a higher level of danger in it. Here we are asking God to treat us the way we treat our brother. If I give my brother an orange, he might give me an apple. But if I give my brother a stone when he asked for bread, and then I ask God to treat me in the same way, I may find out the stone He gives is one that could crush me. God can give me a much bigger stone than my brother ever could. And why would I ask for that?
By Grace Alone
But how is this consistent with salvation by grace alone? “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). If you refuse to forgive your brother, you are not failing to earn your salvation. If you refuse to forgive your brother, you are revealing to the world that you have no understanding of what salvation by grace through faith actually is.
And this is where we must circle back to our text. We must remember that Christ is all. Recall the words— “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Every recipient of forgiveness needs to be eager to extend it. And if you cannot extend it to your brother, whom you have seen, how can you receive it from God, whom you have not seen? But we are convinced of better things concerning you. If you want to be a member of a joyful, cheerful Christian community—and you are here, are you not?—then you want to be a member of a community where these things are understood and routinely practiced.
Preached originally in 2017. Preached again for CCD in 2021.