By Victor Knowles
Forgiveness is the greatest need in the world today. We are living on a planet that is spinning madly out of control, a planet patrolled by the deadly drones of anger, hatred, rage, revenge, and “malice aforethought.”
If I had to choose a popular movie title to plaster on this present evil world, it would be Unforgiven, the 1992 Western directed by Clint Eastwood. The last line of leading character Will Munny is (edited): “You better bury Ned right or I’ll come back and kill every one of you.”
Speaking of proper burials, it has been suggested that every person should have a special cemetery in which to bury the faults of his friends. Call it “Forgiveness Field”—without a doubt the largest cemetery in the world.
From Joseph in Genesis to Jesus in Revelation, the Bible has much to say about the need of forgiveness. About 147 times the five words forgive (74), forgiven (45), forgiveness (14), forgiving (7), and forgave (7) are found in the New International Version. You cannot understand the Bible until you understand forgiveness. Charles Swindoll said, “Forgiveness is a required course.” No one can skip this class and be prepared for the final.
Forgiveness: the Nature and Character of God
In the second giving of the Ten Commandments we see the forgiving nature of God. He described himself to Moses as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6, 7). So much for the popular but false idea that the God of the Old Testament is unloving and unforgiving.
David gives us a beautiful picture of the forgiveness of God in Psalm 103: “Who forgives all your sins” (v. 3); “He does not treat us as our sins deserve” (v. 10); “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (v. 12).
God is holy and cannot stand sin, yet he stands ready to forgive us because that is who he is and what he is all about. David understood this about God. “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (130:3, 4, NIV, 1984).
Jesus: the Model and Meaning of Forgiveness
Jesus Christ provided the greatest example of forgiveness the world has ever known or will ever know. In the center of my office wall hangs an oil painting of Christ on the cross. Every time I look up from my keyboard I see it and I remember the words he spoke from the pulpit of his cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, King James Version).
Was there ever such a sermon? For there, at the foot of the cross, were men who needed forgiveness—a Roman centurion and armed soldiers who were callously gambling for his garments. The chief priests were mocking him, crucified thieves were railing on him, but godly women were weeping for him. Before the day was done, one of the thieves had a genuine change of heart (repentance) and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42, NIV, 1984). The Roman centurion cried out, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54, KJV). The cross of Christ is all about forgiveness. Ephesians 1:7, 8 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding” (NIV, 1984),
Before Jesus went to the cross, he instituted the Lord’s Supper. “Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28). On the Lord’s Day we remember the Lord’s offering of his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. That is why on many Communion tables you will find the engraved words: “This do in remembrance of me”—words that are taken from Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Christian baptism is also directly connected with the blood of Christ and the forgiveness of sins. On the Day of Pentecost the apostle Peter declared, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Paul queried the Christians in Rome, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). Paul himself was instructed, “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven
A little boy, praying the Lord’s Prayer one evening, prayed, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are dead against us.” We must learn to forgive those who are “dead against us.” Jesus certainly did when he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, emulated his Master when he was being stoned to death. He fell to his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001), founder of Voice of the Martyrs, was a Romanian minister who was imprisoned and persecuted for 14 years. He testified, “It was in prison that we found the hope of salvation for the Communists. It was there that we developed a sense of responsibility toward them. It was in being tortured by them that we learned to love them” (Tortured for Christ, Living Sacifice Book Company, 1998). He said, “I could see in our persecutors a future apostle Paul.”
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus dropped a bombshell. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14, 15). John MacArthur said, “Nothing in the Christian life is more important than forgiveness—our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us.” This is a hard saying for many, but it is the key component of being a genuine Christian. Laurence Sterne said, “Only the brave know how to forgive . . . a coward never forgave; it is not in his nature.”
God can, has, and will empower us to forgive. How could Joseph forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery? By the power of God he was able to say, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20, KJV). How could Paul forgive fellow believers in Rome who failed him in his hour of need? God empowered him to write, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them” (2 Timothy 4:16). Forgiving others is an important part of practicing what we often affirm: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV).
Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), who by the grace of God survived the horror of Nazi concentration camps, said, “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” That means that even when our heart is cold against someone who is “dead against us,” God can work on our wills until we warm to the idea of forgiveness.
Corrie discovered this amazing truth in 1947 when she came face to face with a man in a church in Munich. He was the cruel and sadistic guard at Ravensbruck! Terrible memories flooded her soul. But the man told her that he had since become a Christian. He offered his hand. “Will you forgive me?” Could she? Would she? She prayed silently, “Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” She took his outstretched hand and immediately healing warmth spread through her soul. “I forgive you,” she cried, “with all my heart.”
“Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13, NIV, 1984).
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri.
Do You Have a Gorilla?
Living with an unforgiving heart is like living with a gorilla. In Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive (Standard Publishing, 2008, Item 24335), Brian Jones writes about forgiveness based on his personal struggle to forgive. In his story you’ll find hope and strength to finally getting rid of the gorilla in your life. The Member Discussion Guide (Item 41184) can equip your small group to live lives of forgiveness together.