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Chapter Six

"Kingdom Pardon"


"Forgive 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."

-- Matthew 6:11,14,15


THERE 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.

When 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.

In 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 forgiveness.

The Meaning of Forgiveness

First, 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.

What 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.

Weíve 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.

It 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.

When 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.

Receiving 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.

This 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).

How 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 with God.

We 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.

James 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.

One 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.

A 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 landlord."

When 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 and forgiveness.

We 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.

During 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 of forgiveness.

How 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 offense.

This 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 the situation.

Marilyn 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.

The Measure of Forgiveness

We 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 forgiveness.

Jesus 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." (Matthew 6:14,15)

These 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 others.

The 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.

Understanding 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.

First 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.

Paul 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.

Mr. 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:

The 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 out.

The 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.

If 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.

To 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.

God 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).

We 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.

James 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.

As the 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."

The 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.

Summing It Up

As 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.

To 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.

Godís 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.

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Notes

1. Reprinted from Living in the Forgiveness of God by James R. Bjorge, Copyright 1990 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission, p. 66.

2. John Gage Allee, ed., Websterís Encyclopedia of Dictionaries (U.S.A.: Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc., 1958) p. 152.

3. John Wesley, The Nature of the Kingdom, Edited and updated by Clare George Weakley, Jr. (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1979), p. 161.

4. 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.

5. Bjorge, pp. 52-53.

6. 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.

7. Everett Fullam with Bob Slosser, Living the Lordís Prayer (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1980), p. 109.

8. Wesley, p. 162.

9. Used by permission of Creation House, Altamonte Springs, Florida, from Praying With Jesus by Paul Yonggi Cho, Copyright 1987, p. 79.

10. Bjorge, p. 77.

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Bibliography

Allee, John Gage, ed. Websterís Encyclopedia of Dictionaries. U.S.A.: Ottenheimer Publishers, Inc., 1958.

Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew, Revised edition, The Daily Bible Study Series, Vol. 2. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press; Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975.

Bjorge, James R. Living in the Forgiveness of God. Minneapolis: Augsburg, Fortress, 1990.

Cho, Paul Yonggi. Praying With Jesus. Altamonte Springs, Florida: Creation House, 1987.

Vine, 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.

Wesley, John. The Nature of the Kingdom. Ed. Clare George Weakley, Jr. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1979.

 

 

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