It’s easy to forgive others until you have something to forgive.
One of the most central aspects of the Christian faith which is one of the most beautiful and wonderful parts of the work of the Gospel is forgiveness. As people put their trust and faith in Jesus, not simply believing that Jesus exists, but believing Jesus is who the Bible says He is and believing in what the Bible says Jesus came to do, has done, and will do; the prior work of justification is then applied to the believer as the Holy Spirit changes their heart giving them a desire to know Jesus, to love and worship Him, while simultaneously a desire to mortify/kill sin in their life. Aside from all that theology which is true, there is another aspect which characterizes those who believe in Jesus, and that is that those who have genuine faith, who believe in Jesus, their sins are forgiven.
There are many ways to illustrate the beauty of this event, this awakening from a life of sin and death, to a life of grace and peace in Christ. The contemporary Christian band DC Talk made a music video for a song on one of their later albums, the song was called ‘Consume Me’ (dc Talk, “Consume Me”). In the video, everyone is wearing what appear to be old-fashioned gas masks and everyone seems to be following one another and doing the same thing. Everything looks the same and you get the idea that nothing out of the ordinary ever happens in this sort of modern, routine world. However, suddenly, one guy breaks out of the line people are in and runs down the stairs. People try to stop him, but most are continuing their routine walking in the video. You also get the impression that the people are being held captive and that they are forced to wear the masks on their face. Anyway, as one breaks out of line he pulls the mask off and he starts to stumble and fall down the stairs and you get the impression that he feels like the air is acidic or something as he starts behaving as if he is choking. However, he is on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, suddenly everyone walking up the stairs in the video stops what they’re doing and lean over to look toward him. Then, the man stands up without the mask and confidently breathes. Then, others seeing him start removing their masks to take their first breath. This is a beautiful visual representation of what takes place when someone believes in Jesus. Not only do they awake in regards to their comatose state concerning sin, but it is like they are breathing air for the first time, they are new creations, the old is passing away and the new has come. The invisible weight of sin and guilt and shame is removed and they are free, and free in a way they never knew previously possible. They have been forgiven.
Another example of this is from a video Francis Chan made for his DVD series called BASIC (Francis Chan, BASIC, “Fear God”). I think the series itself, to be honest, is just okay. However, there is one powerful visual example he provides which is similar to the DC Talk example. Chan provides an example of someone on a bed sleeping and water begins to flow under the bed and eventually everything in the room is floating, except the bed and the girl, and the room is full of water. Then, suddenly, the girl wakes up and realizes she is drowning and floats/swims to the top and when she gets to the top she is able to take a huge breath of fresh air. Instead of drowning in a world of sin, she is raised to new life in Christ and she becomes conscious of the world around her, her surroundings for the first time, and is able to know she needs saving. Then, she makes her way up and out of the depths of the watery room to find a bright new world where she is able to breath and live. Of course, no analogy is perfect for if it were it would not be an analogy and would simply be the thing itself.
Both of these examples illustrate the beauty of what happens to someone who turns to Jesus, turns from their sin, and experiences new life in Him. Part of that new life is the forgiveness of sins. We acknowledge our sin and turn to Jesus who is our Savior, capable and willing to save us from the sin in which we are drowning.
As Christians, we have been forgiven of our sins. This is one of the defining characteristics of the Christian life, and yet, often it is difficult for us to show forgiveness to others. Why is that?
Tim Keller, author and former founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has an interesting concept in response to why we have such a difficult time forgiving others. He says the key to understanding forgiveness is understanding the Gospel which is central to the Christian understanding of forgiveness. At the heart of the Gospel is Jesus, and the understanding that all humanity are sinful and God has a just right to punish humanity because of sin, however, instead of giving humanity what they deserve God provides a means of salvation, the only means, in sending His Son Jesus Christ to live perfectly obedient to the law of God, to die as a substitution for sinners, and to be raised from the dead defeating the power of sin and the chains of death in Himself so that all who believe in Him may have eternal life.
The cross of Jesus showcased the bill, namely, the cost of sin, while the resurrection of Jesus from the dead showcases that that bill had been paid in full. For indeed, while the cross of Jesus and His death are important to understand as Christians, a devaluing of His resurrection from the dead is to devalue the victory of God over sin and the grave and to invalidate our own faith. If we believe that Jesus suffered and died alone, we don’t believe any differently from what many may believe about Jesus if they believe in the existence of the historical Jesus. It is believing in not only that Christ suffered and died for our sin, and that He was buried, but also that He was raised from the dead, appeared to many, and ascended into Heaven until He comes again at the appointed time that separates believers from unbelievers. If Jesus died, than Christianity matters little. If Jesus died and arose from the dead, than everything in the Bible, everything Jesus did and said, Christianity itself truly matters.
Now, Tim Keller believes that the key to understanding forgiveness is in understanding the Gospel because in understanding the Gospel there is an understanding that God has every right to punish, justly, humanity for sin, however, that beautiful and great injustice is that God gives humanity what humanity doesn’t deserve. God shows humanity grace in the Gospel. However, God still has to deal with the injustice of sin, so what does God do? How can a just God simply let people off the hook per se with sin or does He?
The answer is God decided to step into history, into time and space Himself to take the punishment that humanity deserves because of sin. God became man in Jesus, the Word of God which took on flesh, in order to willingly suffer and die for the sins of humanity out of love and to arise from the dead, defeating sin and death, and providing a means of reconciliation for humanity separate from God because of sin, back into the loving arms of the Creator God. God dealt with the cosmic injustice of sin by sacrificing His right to get even, to give humanity what they deserve. And therein lies the key to forgiveness that Tim Keller says is at the heart of the Gospel.
Forgiveness means sacrificing your right to get even, to give someone what they deserve.
In the Gospel, God sacrificed His just right to punish humanity, literally sacrificing His Son giving Him what humanity deserves and giving humanity what His Son deserves. God sacrificed His wrath against sin and humanity at the cross of Jesus. When somebody has wronged you or committed some offense and often there are feelings of anger, and if for a prolonged time it becomes a grudge. However, unless that anger and wrath is sacrificed, it destroys you.
We hold grudges and feel that we are justified in our self-righteous states in holding people to a perfect standard. Once someone falls shorts of our expectations, we immediately feel justified in mistreating them and throwing them under the bus. Look at celebrity athletes for example. How many athletes have been praised as mini-gods for what seems countless hours in the media, only to find perhaps that very day of the offense the athlete (guilty or not) has become lower than life itself? It is an easy thing to point our fingers at the media and jest about how their opinions are as fickle as the wind, constantly changing direction, however, the hard thing is to look the other direction of the pointed finger at ourselves and to notice how quickly our opinion about someone can change.
Maybe someone has said something we didn’t like and took personally. Maybe someone has done something that we didn’t like or agree with. Because we have a reason, we believe in our heart of hearts that we are justified in holding our anger over that person and to let go of that anger would be to permit a great injustice. However, when we look at the Gospel, is that not what has happened for us as Christians? Did God not permit a great injustice in sending His Son to the cross, let alone giving humanity by grace through faith what Jesus deserves?
We may push back against this notion saying, “Well, that isn’t easy. It’s not easy as you say to sacrifice your right to be angry about someone who has wronged you.” However, I never said it was easy.
Do you think it was easy for God to send Jesus to cross to suffer, be spat upon, tortured, crucified, and killed? Was that EASY for Jesus do you think?It’s incredibly difficult. However, living as a Christian is to live in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to live a life that is rooted and centered in the Gospel in such a way that not only does our life flow from it but all that we do is then shaped by it. How we relate to others, as we grow as Christians, is shaped by our relationship to God in Jesus, as we reflect the love that God has shown us to others. That means we forgive because we have been forgiven. Someone may not deserve forgiveness, but we remember that we never deserved to be forgiven, yet, God forgave us in Christ. We remember that God sacrificed His wrath against sin and humanity by transferring it to His Son Jesus at the cross. In order to forgive someone, we must personally sacrifice our right to get even, our right to give them what they deserve.
We feel that it makes sense to carry grudges and to be angry with people who have committed offenses, but in reality the ones who suffer are not merely the ones who are victims of the offense, but to carry that anger and grudge is to allow it to reign over you, to enslave you, to hold you captive, and within you it devours you from the inside out. You may feel that you are making someone pay for their offense by not giving them the opportunity to be forgiven and holding onto that anger, but the truth is you are perpetuating your own suffering and it only grows with time.
What is forgiveness, specifically? When someone has wronged you, it means they owe you, they have a debt with you. Forgiveness is to absorb the cost of the debt yourself. You pay the price yourself, and you refuse to exact the price out of the person in any way. Forgiveness is to
a) free the person from penalty for a sin by
b) paying the price yourself.
The ultimate example. We are told that our forgiveness must imitate God’s forgiveness in Christ. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph.4:32).
a) How did God forgive? We are told that he does not ‘remember’ them. That cannot mean that God literally forgets what has happened–it means he ‘sends away’ the penalty for them. He does not bring the incidents to mind, and does not let them affect the way he deals with us.
b) How did God forgive ‘in Christ’? We are told that Jesus pays the price for the sins. ‘It is finished’ means ‘It has been paid in full’ (John 19:30). The Father gave up his Son, and the Son gave up his life. God absorbed the cost in himself.
At the heart of forgiveness is sacrificing one’s right to give them what they deserve, sacrificing one’s right to get even, and in this is freedom from the consuming fire of anger and wrath that come with being offended and wronged. The only way to find genuine forgiveness is to look to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the only way to be able to genuinely forgive others is to look to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God paid the price for our sins, so why do we have such a problem with the sins of others when we ourselves are sinful and never paid the price for our own sins?
It is a tough medicine to swallow, but if we are to live as the redeemed people of God in the world, we must learn to practice living the Gospel, not simply talking about it.
When the world sees someone respond and retaliate after having been offended or wronged, they say, “Well, that’s just as well. They had every right to do that.” When the world sees someone respond by giving an offender what they don’t deserve, it has no category to understand it and is left to only wonder, “What in the world could cause this incredible generosity and love? I could never do that. What is different with you to make you do differently? Why would you do that?”
You may have a friend, a loved one, a relative, or some acquaintance who has wronged or offended you. I don’t know your story. I don’t know what they have done. However, if you have been harboring anger, pain, and grudges, I would challenge you to sacrifice that and to forgive that person not on the basis of trying to “be a better person” but rather on the basis of the Gospel and in that you will find freedom from the anger, pain, and suffering that you have experienced contra what the world has told you about justly being angry and holding grudges (how is that working for you?).
Perhaps those examples I mentioned at the beginning of the drowning and suffocating used in the Francis Chan and dc Talk videos related to the Christian life will be even more real when you forgive someone and you are finally able to be free from the anger you had been drowning in, free from the anger that had been suffocating your life and your joy in Christ.
… and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors… For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 6:12, 14-15