us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. . . . 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."
IS AN AXIOM about forgiveness that is both familiar and
profound. The axiom says, "To err is human; to forgive,
divine." This saying might lead one to the inaccurate
conclusion that a person would have to be divine in order to
forgive. This would mean that only God is capable of forgiving
an offender. But there is another way of interpreting this
saying. To forgive is divine because one cannot truly and
completely forgive another unless he is enabled by God to do so.
In the words of James Bjorge, "The one who forgives us
empowers us to forgive others." (1) In this light, all
forgiveness is divine.
we pray for the coming of Godís kingdom, we are asking that
God be born in us and reign in us. God living and reigning in us
gives us the power to forgive others in the same manner and
degree as He forgives us. Since the kingdom of God in us
empowers us to forgive, our forgiveness of others is aptly
called kingdom pardon.
this chapter, we will focus upon the petition of the Lordís
Prayer that concerns forgiveness and the verses immediately
following the Lordís Prayer which underscore and reinforce the
point of this petition. (See Matthew 6:11,14,15.) Using these
verses as the basis of our discussion, we will endeavor to learn
how to forgive others divinely through kingdom pardon. In doing
so, we will speak first about the meaning of
forgiveness and then about the measure of
Meaning of Forgiveness
letís examine the meaning of forgiveness. This
might seem unnecessary to some as the concept of forgiveness is
familiar to everyone. But people who claim to know what
forgiveness means often understand it in a way that is vague and
misleading. When people affirm their belief that God has
forgiven their sins and yet continue to feel guilty over
specific sins of the past, they demonstrate an inaccurate
concept of forgiveness. When people express forgiveness to
others for personal offenses but avow that they will never
forget the offenses, they demonstrate and inaccurate concept of
forgiveness. Because of the prevalence of these human tendencies
to condemn oneself and to bear grudges against others, it is
necessary that we re-examine our understanding of forgiveness.
does it mean to forgive? Webster defines the term as meaning
"to pardon; to cease to bear resentment against; to cancel
(as a debt).(2) From this definition, we conclude that
forgiveness has both a legal aspect and a personal aspect. The legal
aspect of forgiveness is communicated by the reference to
pardoning a person by canceling a debt. It is to release a
person from all obligations incurred by an offense that would
make him indebted to us. It is to give him, in legal terms, a
clear record. The personal aspect of forgiveness
is communicated by the reference to the cessation of resentment
against the offender. It is to release a person from the
ill-will that has resulted from an offense. Thus forgiveness
restores broken relationships.
seen what forgiveness means in modern English usage. But what
does it mean in biblical usage? What does it mean in the mouth
of our Lord in the Lordís Prayer? John Wesley points out that
Jesusí formulation of the petition concerning forgiveness
communicates two ideas: the cancellation of a debt and the
loosing of a chain.(3) This analysis makes Jesusí teaching on
forgiveness fully consonant with the meaning of forgiveness as
used in modern English. In speaking of forgiveness as the
cancellation of debt, Jesus emphasized the legal aspect of
forgiveness by which an offenderís record is cleared. As for
the image of the loosing of a chain, this speaks of the personal
aspect of forgiveness. It portrays the offender as being loosed
from the bondage of ill-will and restored to favor with those
whom he has offended.
should be clear by now that forgiveness not only pardons the
offender but removes the offense. In fact, the very word that
Jesus used that is rendered "forgive" literally means
"to send away."(4) The offense by which a person
becomes morally indebted to God or to others is cleared from his
record, lifted from his life and sent away. In practical terms,
this means the one who believes God has forgiven his sins must release
all guilt for past sins. It means that one who forgives another
who has offended him must forget the offense itself. True
forgiveness leaves no place for resentment on the part of the
offended or guilt on the part of the offender. The offense
itself has been sent away.
we pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven
our debtors" (Matthew 6:12), we speak of forgiveness on the
vertical plane of our relationship with God and on the
horizontal plane of our relationship with others. To truly grasp
the meaning of forgiveness, we must understand
how to receive
forgiveness from God and how to give it to others.
forgiveness from God is illustrated in a helpful way in the Old
Testament system of atonement for sin. We read about it in
Leviticus 16. On the day of atonement, the nation of Israel
offered two male goats for a sin offering. The officiating
priest slaughtered one of the goats and offered its blood to
atone for the sins of the people (vs. 9,15-19). The other goat
is referred to as "the scapegoat" or "the goat of
removal" (vs. 8 and NIV footnote). The priest laid his
hands upon the head of this live goat and confessed the sins of
the Israelite community upon it. This scapegoat was then taken
out of the Israelite community and sent away into the desert
(vs. 20-22). The offenses of the people were visibly sent away.
Old Testament practice teaches us much about how to receive from
God the forgiveness of our sins. Two thousand years ago, God
took all of our sins -- past, present, and future -- and laid
them upon Christ at the
cross. (See 1 Peter 2:24.) Through His
substitutionary death, Jesus bore our sins away. Thus Jesus
became our scapegoat. When Jesus died for our sins, our sins
died with Him. Furthermore, through His resurrection, Jesus
conquered the effects of sin on our behalf. Now, through
personal faith in the atoning work of Christís death on our
behalf, we can rejoice in the promise of Scripture, " . . .
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our
transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12).
do we receive from God the forgiveness of our sins? We simply
embrace by faith in Christ the twofold blessing of pardon and
remission. When we do, both he guilt of our sin and the sin
itself are removed from us. We are restored in our relationship
receive from God the forgiveness of our sins by faith in the
atoning sacrifice of Christ alone. If thoughts of past sins come
back to our minds and our hearts begin to be troubled, we can
set ourselves at ease by the assurance that our forgiveness is
not conditioned upon our thoughts and feelings -- it is
conditioned only upon our faith in Godís grace freely given to
us through Christ.
Bjorge relates a hypothetical story that suggests how to hold
fast to our forgiveness when voices from the past attempt to
trouble the waters of our hearts.(5) Image a man who is renting
a house from a harsh and greedy landlord. The landlord charges
him an unreasonably high rent and penalizes him when his
payments are late. Yet, when repairs need to be made, the
landlord keeps putting him off.
day, a stranger knocks on the door and presents legal documents
indicating that he has bought the house. The new landlord
informs the occupant that he may now live in the house free of
rent. The occupant can scarcely believe it. But he has seen the
evidence and knows that it is so. He graciously thanks the
stranger and gratefully accepts the offer.
couple of weeks later, the old landlord knocks at the door and
demands his rent. What will the occupant do? Will he allow the
old landlord to talk him into paying a debt he doesnít owe? Of
course not! Will he argue with the old landlord? No! Heíll
simply say, "Take up your problem with the new
we affirm in faith that our sins are forgiven for Christís
sake, voices from the past will try to haunt us. Whether those
voices come through our own recollection of past offenses or whether
they come from others who will not forgive us, they are all
inspired by our old master, the devil. When we recognize him as
the culprit, we wonít need to bow to his reason and continue
to pay on our sin debt through guilt. Nor will there be any
reason to argue with him in an effort to see who will win the
debate. We can simply shrug him off by saying, "Take up
your problem with my new master, Jesus!" This is a sure and
effective way to stand fast in our assurance of Godís grace
have discussed the manner in which we receive forgiveness of
sins from God. We acknowledge that our sins were laid upon
Christ at the cross, borne away through His death, and forever
conquered through His resurrection. Through faith in His blood
atonement, we receive both pardon and remission with the result
that we can now live free from guilt and condemnation. Now we
turn to consider the flip side of the coin of forgiveness. Just
as it is important that we understand how to receive
forgiveness of our sins from God, it is important also that we
know how to give forgiveness to our offenders.
my teens, I heard noted Bible teacher Marilyn Hickey speak on
the subject of forgiveness. As she talked about the need to
forgive others, she employed an interesting teaching tool to aid
the listeners in understanding how offenses develop and how we
can release offenses and truly forgive those who have hurt us.
Letís consider first the growth of an offense and then the way
do offenses grow? When someone says or does something to us to
hurt us, we can either respond graciously or we can turn it into
an offense. We turn it into an offense in three stages. First,
we curse it. We express our anger against the
person who has attacked us and speak vengeful words against him.
Then we nurse it. By constantly thinking about it,
we coddle it and feed it so that it grows bigger than life. Then
we rehearse it. We re-enact the event in our minds
in technicolor and edit it so that we come out looking better
each time. Thus we have taken a hurt and made it into an
is how offenses grow. But how do we find the grace to forgive
the offender so that the offense is, as weíve seen, lifted
from our lives and sent away? We have a part to play in
forgiveness, and God has a part to play. Our part is in giving
the offense to God and totally releasing it into His hands. We
must disperse it. We must truly humble ourselves,
repent, let go of the offense and trust God to handle the
situation in His wisdom. When we do, God will reverse
it. As we release God to deal with the personís heart directly
about the offense, we will experience spiritual growth through
Hickeyís scheme is very beneficial in helping us to understand
how to give forgiveness to others in that it emphasizes a
God-centered approach to forgiveness. Forgiveness is not simply
letting go of an offense. It is, rather, giving the offense to
God. It expresses implicit trust in God to deal with the
situation so as to bring the offender around while enabling us
to grow in our trust in Godís wisdom and goodness. Thus we
come to understand that to forgive another is an act of
love toward that person and an expression of trust in God.
It is kingdom pardon.
Measure of Forgiveness
have discussed the meaning of forgiveness and seen how a proper
understanding of forgiveness bears upon our receiving
forgiveness from God and our giving forgiveness to others. While
our text does effectively lead us into a more accurate
understanding of forgiveness, it further emphasizes the
importance of the measure to which forgiveness is
either given or received. In order to tap into this more central
point of the text, we turn now to talk about the measure of
commissioned us to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also
have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). To make sure we
understand the connection between the forgiveness we receive and
the forgiveness we give, Jesus returns to this matter in the
verses immediately following the Lordís Prayer. He says,
"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your
heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive
their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
verses teach us that forgiveness works according to a principle
of reciprocity. Only as we give forgiveness to others who have
offended us will we receive forgiveness of our sins from God.
This principle of reciprocity is effectively communicated by
paraphrases of the petition concerning forgiveness as provided
by William Barclay and Everett Fullam. Barclay paraphrases the
petition to read, "Forgive us our sins in proportion
as we forgive those who have sinned against us."(6) Fullamís
paraphrase makes the point even more pungently: "Father,
forgive my sins only to the extent I am willing
to forgive those who have sinned against me."(7) Clearly,
Godís forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiveness of
principle of reciprocity in forgiveness can be used for our good
or for our harm. First, it can be used for our good. All of us
want Godís mercy in the forgiveness of our sins. But how do we
receive Godís mercy? The answer comes to us through the
beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be
shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7). As we are merciful to others,
we open the door for God to be merciful to us. In the words of
James, "Mercy triumphs over judgment!" (2:3). Second,
the principle of reciprocity in forgiveness can be used for our
harm. John Wesley pointed out that to pray the petition of the
Lordís Prayer concerning forgiveness without having forgiven
those who have wronged us is "to come before God in open
defiance. We are daring Him to do His worst."(8) In the
words of James, " . . . judgment without mercy will be
shown to anyone who has not been merciful." (2:13) To
refuse to forgive those who have wronged us is to choose to live
under Godís wrath rather than in His favor.
what the Bible teaches us about the measure of forgiveness
enables us to learn a valuable lesson about human nature. To
begrudge another person is to put oneself in bondage. To forgive
another person is to set oneself at liberty. Letís consider
each of these assertions.
of all, to hold a grudge against another person is to put
oneself in bondage. Jesus said, "Do not judge, or you too
will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will
be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to
you" (Matthew 7:1,2). I believe this passage gives us
insight into the working principle of the human conscience. To
pass judgment upon others is to invite our conscience to pass
the very same judgment upon us.
Yonggi Cho relates a helpful illustration here.(9) During the
administration of President Andrew Jackson, a man named George
Wilson witnessed a thief stealing something of value from a U.S.
post office. In vengeance, Wilson shot the man to death. The
authorities arrested Wilson, and he was brought to trial and
sentenced with capital punishment. President Jackson reviewed the
case, however, and issued a pardon that officially acquitted Mr.
Wilson and discharged him from his incarceration.
Wilson was a free man! Or was he? His conscience would not allow
him to accept the pardon. Because of the uncertainties attached
to the unprecedented instance of a capital offender rejecting a
presidential pardon, the case was eventually appealed to the
Supreme Court. Justice John Marshall gave this statement:
letter of pardon is merely a piece of paper, but is has the
power to pardon as long as the person who is the object of
pardon accepts it. If the person who is the object of pardon
refused to accept it, he cannot be acquitted. Therefore, the
death penalty sentenced to George Wilson should be carried
case of George Wilson is a warning to us. If we are not merciful
to others but condemn them, our consciences will in turn condemn
us. But when we are merciful toward others regardless of their
offense against us, we will have a clear conscience toward God.
holding a grudge against another person is to put oneself in
bondage, then to forgive an offender is to set oneself at
liberty. It is living in love that breaks the power of sin in
our own lives.
live in love is to forgive unconditionally. It is to forgive
abundantly. It is not to ask with Peter, "Lord, how many
times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to
seven times?" (Matthew 18:21). Rather, it is to submit to
Jesus command, "I tell you, not seven times, but
seventy-seven times" (vs. 22). That is, we are to forgive
every offense against us. And we are to forgive abundantly. We
are to forgive like God forgives.
forgives us abundantly. This communicated to us through the
parable of the prodigal son. (See Luke 15:11-32.) When the
prodigal had wasted all of his share of his fatherís estate in
extravagant living, he devised a plan to press himself back into
his fatherís service as a hired hand. He wasnít sure his
father would receive him even in this capacity after he had so
ruined the family name and wasted his fatherís hard-earned
living. But as he made his way back home with an empty stomach,
a heavy heart and a trembling form, his father saw him in the
distance. Would his father forgive him? He forgave him
abundantly! He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. In
his joy to have his son back home again, he ordered the servants
to adorn him with the best robe in the house, with a ring for
his finder and sandals for his feet. Would his father forgive
him? He forgave him abundantly! He ordered, "Bring the
fattened calf and kill it. Letís have a feast and celebrate.
For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost
and is found" (Luke 15:23,24).
have all been prodigal sons and daughters. But God has forgiven
us abundantly through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because He has, we are to forgive others abundantly. We are not
simply to relieve a person who has offended us from any sense of
indebtedness to us. Nor are we to stop at letting go of any
feelings of resentment that we have had toward the person. We
are to aim at a restored relationship with the person concerned
so that we celebrate the reconciliation. This is what it means
to forgive abundantly.
Bjorge relates a wonderful illustration of abundant
forgiveness.(10) The story is told by a prison warden from the
Old West of an elderly man who was sitting next to a tense young
man on a train. As they were talking, the young man told of how
he had gotten in trouble with the law and wound up in prison.
His family was disgraced by the news to the point that all
communication between the family and him had ceased. Now that
his prison sentence was up, he was returning home in the hopes
that his family would forgive him and receive him. Before
leaving the prison, he had written a letter to his family
telling them that he would be coming home by train. In the
letter, he asked them to hang a white ribbon on the apple tree
by the railroad track if they forgave him and would welcome him
home. If he didnít see a white ribbon on the tree, he would go
on his way and never bother them again.
train began to pass familiar landmarks approaching his familyís
farm, the young man became so emotionally distraught that he
couldnít bear to watch. He asked the older man to watch for
him. As the apple tree came into view, the man put his hand on
the boyís shoulder and said happily, "Itís all
right!" The whole tree is white with ribbons!" Bjorge
closes the story with the assuring affirmation, "The apple
tree spoke the language of heaven."
key to genuine forgiveness is abundant love. For abundant love
produces abundant forgiveness. When we love as God loves, we
will forgive as God forgives. Our forgiving of others who have
offended us is none other than kingdom pardon.
we have been born into Godís family through faith in Jesus
Christ, we have become citizens of Godís kingdom. The result
is that we have been abundantly pardoned by Godís grace and
received freely into Godís favor. It is now incumbent upon us
to witness to the presence of Godís kingdom among men by
abundantly pardoning those who would offend us through kingdom
pardon. We witness to the presence of the kingdom of God when we
show the world that to forgive is divine.
forgive others through kingdom pardon, we must be clear on the
meaning of forgiveness. It entails both releasing others from
any indebtedness to us and releasing all ill feelings against
them. We must also understand the measure of forgiveness that is
truly reflective of kingdom pardon. We must forgive abundantly
and welcome the offender back into harmonious relationship. We
must celebrate every reconciliation with sincere joy.
Word empowers us to forgive by reminding us that the key to
forgiveness is abundant love -- the love God gives to us through
Christ that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
(See Romans 5:5.) As we live in submission to Godís kingdom
reign in us, we will find that Godís forgiveness of us
empowers us to forgive others wholeheartedly. Our feeble human
efforts at forgiveness will be transformed into the joyous
celebration characteristic of kingdom pardon.
Reprinted from Living in the Forgiveness of God by
James R. Bjorge, Copyright 1990 Augsburg Fortress. Used by
permission, p. 66.
John Gage Allee, ed., Websterís Encyclopedia of
Dictionaries (U.S.A.: Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc.,
1958) p. 152.
John Wesley, The Nature of the Kingdom, Edited and
updated by Clare George Weakley, Jr. (Minneapolis: Bethany House
Publishers, 1979), p. 161.
W.E. Vine, "An Expository Dictionary of New Testament
Words," in Vineís Expository Dictionary of Biblical
Words, by W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), p. 250.
Bjorge, pp. 52-53.
From The Gospel of Matthew, (Volume I: The Daily
Study Bible Series) (Revised Edition), by William Barclay.
Copyright 1975 William Barclay. Used by permission of
Westminster/John Knox Press and Saint Andrew Press, p. 222.
Everett Fullam with Bob Slosser, Living the Lordís
Prayer (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell
Company, 1980), p. 109.
Wesley, p. 162.
Used by permission of Creation House, Altamonte Springs,
Florida, from Praying With Jesus by Paul Yonggi
Cho, Copyright 1987, p. 79.
Bjorge, p. 77.
John Gage, ed. Websterís Encyclopedia of Dictionaries. U.S.A.: Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc., 1958.
William. The Gospel of Matthew, Revised edition,
The Daily Bible Study Series, Vol. 2. Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press; Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975.
James R. Living in the Forgiveness of God.
Minneapolis: Augsburg, Fortress, 1990.
Paul Yonggi. Praying With Jesus. Altamonte
Springs, Florida: Creation House, 1987.
W. E. "An Expository Dictionary of New Testament
Words." Vineís Expository Dictionary of Biblical
Words. W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White.
Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.
John. The Nature of the Kingdom. Ed. Clare George
Weakley, Jr. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1979.