On Sunday, I delivered a message on forgiveness taken from Matthew 18:21-35. As we discovered through our exposition of this text, the point of Christ’s parable is that unforgiveness is incompatible with true Christianity. A person who has been forgiven of God is obligated to demonstrate that same forgiveness towards others. One who claims to be a Christian and yet manifests a life pattern of unforgiveness is not truly saved and is thus in danger of being condemned to the eternal torment of hell. That is what Jesus drives home with verse 35: “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
There are many biblical reasons we are to forgive those who have wronged us, but here are three of the most significant ones:
(1) Forgiveness is the clear command of Scripture. In Matthew 18:21-22, Christ taught Peter that there was no limit to how many times he should forgive the brother who sinned against him. To withhold forgiveness is to directly disobey God’s Word and to quench His Holy Spirit.
(2) We must forgive because our God is a forgiving God. As God’s children through faith in Christ, we are called to reflect God’s character, and He is a forgiving God. Every one of us has blasphemed His name, spit on His grace, and trampled His holiness innumerable times. Though we do not deserve it, He has forgiven us, so we must likewise extend this same grace to others.
(3) Unforgiveness does more harm to us and the ones we love than it does to the offender. Some people hurt us without knowing it. A few people hurt us intentionally and maliciously, and often don’t care. Some people hurt us, apologize to us, yet we still refuse to forgive. In all these situations, we can end up harboring a bitterness that literally rots our souls and that even spills over to those closest to us. “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” (Heb 12:15)
That is why we must forgive “from the heart.” These are Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:35. In practical terms, this means that we don’t just say the words “I forgive you” while still inwardly holding the offense against the person. Forgiving someone from the heart requires releasing the anger and resentment you have felt toward them in your heart and absolving them of blame and responsibility in your eyes. Forgiving does not necessarily mean forgetting, for some memories can be hard to erase. But it does mean that you no longer dwell on the hurt, you no longer hold it against the person, and you make every effort to view the person just as they were before they sinned against you.
Forgiving from the heart is an act of Christ-like love, which Scripture requires us to embody: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.” (1 Pet 1:22) Using the Bible’s own definition, this kind of love includes “Keeping no record of wrongs suffered.” (1 Cor 13:5) If we throw a previously forgiven sin up in the face of one who has sinned against us again, then we never truly forgave them from our heart for that previous sin. Remember, God’s example toward us is what we are seeking to emulate in our relationships with others, and He removes our transgression from us “As far as the east is from the west.” (Psalm 103:12) He also tells us in Jeremiah 31:34 that in the New Covenant, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” We must strive to embody these same truths.
As I noted on Sunday morning, forgiveness in every situation is mandated by Scripture, but you may not always be able to be reconciled to them. The person who harmed you may be dead, or they may still be walking in sin and would do more serious harm to you if you allowed them back into your life. In such situations, rest in God and demonstrate the love and forgiveness of Christ as far as you are able, yet without inviting more harm or abuse. Also know that this principle does not apply to marriage. Unless there is biblical justification for divorce, you must forgive from the heart and be reconciled to your spouse. Marriage is a life-long blessing given by God for your joy and your sanctification. Marriage provides us with daily opportunities to grow and mature in Christ as we learn to die to ourselves, to forgive as He forgives us, and to love unconditionally. You are to love your spouse first and foremost for Christ’s sake (not for your sake or their sake), so don’t squander the beauty of what He has given you by being unloving and unforgiving.