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Forgiveness

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At Growth Group Wednesday night, we got into an interesting discussion on what it means to forgive. One of the things we talked about is whether forgiving means forgetting, and if so, in what sense? I later remembered that I had considered this issue when preaching on 1Cor 13.5, where Paul says, “Love thinks no evil,” or more literally, “Love does not count up wrongs suffered.” The Greek verb means to reckon up, as an accountant does with debts. But the verb also carries the idea of resentfulness. So the idea is that of a person who rehearses wrongs against them (real or imagined). This leads to woundedness and resentfulness. Paul uses the same verb in 2Cor 5.19 to tell us what God did not do: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” That makes God, the Great Judge himself, the greatest example of what of what it means to forgive. I spent some time meditating on this theme. Here is what I came up with.

God, the greatest example.

What love does not do (rehearse wrongs), God did not do, and that is how he saved us. And when we remember that “God is love” (1John 4.16), we realize that what God did for us in Christ is an outworking of who God is. God is not a God who keeps adding up and rehearsing our offenses against him. And this gives us insight into what it means, and what it does not mean, for us to love and to forgive.

— It does not mean failing to recognize sin as sin.

God knows all our sins. He has a complete, accurate accounting. But God did not rehearse our offenses again and again. With an eternal being, when would that process stop? It wouldn’t. Had God repeatedly rehearsed our sins, he would never have looked beyond our sins to salvation. Our sins were great, but there was a greater reality – the grace of God: “[W]here sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 5.20-21.)

Notice the connection between rehearsing and accuracy. God’s assessment of our offenses is 100% accurate, and he does not rehearse them. We rehearse others’ offenses, and we have a very inaccurate assessment of them. As rehearsing goes up, accuracy goes down. As rehearsing goes down, accuracy goes up. So not rehearsing offenses is part of having an accurate assessment of offenses. And, paradoxically, having an accurate assessment of offenses is part of not rehearsing them. You either have both, or you have neither.

— It does not mean thinking sin is no big deal.

Sin is a big deal to God. It required the death of his Son. So we have another paradox: taking sin seriously goes along with not rehearsing it. That means, as strange as it may sound, that rehearsing others’ offenses goes along with not taking sin seriously. How can one who rehearses sins be said to not take sin seriously? Because they don’t take it seriously as sin. Rehearsing sins means we take the offense against us more seriously than we do the offense against God. In other words, rehearsing offenses means we take ourselves seriously.

It is shocking to realize that we take ourselves seriously in a way that God does not take himself seriously. There is a sense – and I say this reverently – in which God takes himself less seriously than we take ourselves. Is this not the root of all our sin? Is it not the very face of pride? Stated with utmost reverence and awe – God took our sin seriously but he did not take himself seriously, at least not in the way we do. And in this way God loved us and sent his Son to die for our sin. Isn’t that what Paul is getting at in Philippians?

Christ Jesus . . . although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be clutched, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond servant. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (Phil 2.5-8.)

— It means doing what God did and refusing to do what he didn’t.

We worry about saving face, but God didn’t. We worry about our rights and our dignity, but God didn’t. The very thing in us that makes us so easily offended and so easily preoccupied with past offenses is the very thing that makes us sinners to start with. When the Bible tells us not to be that way (Phil 2.5), it is not telling us to suck it up; it is telling us to turn from that which is killing us.

The stop-offenses-by-being-offended approach – the stop-wounds-by-being-wounded approach –  is doomed to failure. Rather, we should say it is doomed to more failure, for it has been tried for time immemorial without success. The only thing that has succeeded has been Christ on the cross, and there God took the opposite approach. So must we.

“Woe to the world because of offenses!,” said Jesus. “For offenses must come, [and yet] woe to the one by whom the offense comes!”  (Mat 18.7.) It is not possible in this world to guard ourselves from offenses. The more we try, the more we become self-absorbed people who multiply the taking and giving of offense. For our concern for others is inversely proportional to our concern for ourselves. The only way forward is to emulate Christ. He gave no offense (no true offense). And that went hand in glove with the fact that he was not concerned to protect himself. He did not rehearse the offenses against him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23.34.) “He was wounded for our transgressions” (Isa 53.5), and yet he was not wounded. He was a victim (Isa 53.7), but he was not a victim. Had he been a victim, he would not have been a victim for us. (Isa 53.5.)

Let me close with a quote from my recent sermon on Mat 6.12, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”:

Jesus is not talking about forgiving others as a means of earning or qualifying for our own forgiveness. He is talking about being like the Father into whose family we have been adopted. (Mat 5.45, 48; Gal 4.4-6; 2Pet 1.4.) The head of this family is one who has gone to great lengths to forgive, even though he has never needed forgiveness. Thus while this is the family of those who have been forgiven (for all the children, save one, have been forgiven), it is even more fundamentally the family of those who forgive. Being forgiven does not make us like God; forgiving does. When we do not forgive others, we are saying we do not want to be like the Father, which is another way of saying we do not want to be part of his family.

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  1. Mark Filicetti says:

    Very helpful. Thank you.

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