Forgiveness is not only an important topic in the Bible, but also in our daily lives. If you are married, you probably have discovered that one must constantly forgive, and receive forgiveness, for the marriage to remain healthy and strong. It is a well-known fact that unforgiveness often hurts the person that refuses to forgive more than the person who has not received forgiveness, because bitterness leads to destructive consequences and steals our joy.
Jesus was asked by one of His disciples: “How many times do I have to forgive someone who repeatedly sins against me – up to seven times?” Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times” (Mt. 18:21-22). If we read the Bible in a legalistic manner, we will multiply 70 by 7, which equals 490, and start keeping track of how many times more we are obligated to forgive until we have reached the upper limit of 490. I believe we agree that this was not what Jesus meant(!). What He tried to say was that our attitude, when it comes to forgiveness, should be to forgive generously and limitlessly.
Before the cross, Jesus said the following regarding forgiveness:
14If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mt. 6:14-15)
These are tough words from Jesus. He basically says, “Forgive others, or you will not be forgiven by God.” Is this how we are to give counsel to a lady who was just raped? “Forgive the rapist or else you will not be forgiven by God!” Is this really the good news we are called to proclaim to the world?
Remember that Jesus said this statement before He had died and reconciled the world to God. Jesus was placed under the law to fulfill it, and He had not fulfilled it until the moment when He cried out “it is finished”, right before He took His last breath.
You might think, “how dare you suggest that what Jesus said about forgiveness (before the cross) is no longer applicable for us today? Let me answer by saying the following: Jesus called a foreign woman who asked Him to heal her daughter a “dog”. (You can read about it yourself in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 15.) Why did Jesus call her “dog”? Because they were still living under the old covenant. Before the cross, only the Jewish people had access to God. But after the cross, it no longer a question whether we are Jews or Greeks, men or women.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
We are all “one in Christ”, i.e. equal before God. Would Jesus still consider non-Jews as dogs? If so, I assume that both you and I would (unless you are born a Jew) have to be classified as dogs as well!
“You dog!” Is this what we are to go about and call people today? Is this the Gospel? Of course not! My point is: some things that Jesus said before the cross has changed because we now live after the cross. We need to filter everything we read in the Bible through the revelation of the new covenant and the finished work of Jesus. In the new covenant, after the cross, forgiveness works differently.
In his letters to other believers, the Apostle Paul repeatedly said, “you are holy”, “you are forgiven”, “you are accepted in the Beloved”. Never did Paul say this with the precondition that they first had to forgive others! In Ephesians, He said the following regarding forgiveness:
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32)
Do you see the difference in the new covenant, versus in the old? In the old covenant, we must forgive others before we can receive forgiveness ourselves. In the new covenant, we receive forgiveness first, and because of that we have the strength to forgive others.
God has not only forgiven us. He reconciled the whole world to Himself and no longer holds peoples’ sins against them.
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19)
If this scripture is correct (which it is), that God because of the reconciliation does not hold people’s sins against them, that must also include the sin of unforgiveness!
Maybe you regard yourself as a very good person. You haven’t committed any crime. You pay your taxes on time. You are kind to your family and fellow man, and therefore think that you are not in need of forgiveness from God. The truth is, when we see sin for what it really is, and see ourselves in the light of a totally holy God, and understand that He has forgiven us everything, all thoughts, words, actions, we begin to understand how much we have been forgiven by God and how deeply loved by Him we are. As we truly realize how unworthy we are of His forgiveness, and that He despite this fact has forgiven us completely of all past, present, and future sins, it makes it hard for us not to forgive others!
This is the way forgiveness works in the new covenant! We forgive others – not because we have someone pointing a gun at our head saying “forgive, or else” – but because we are so grateful to God who has already forgiven us, because of Jesus. If God so completely has forgiven us – how can we not forgive others?
In the new covenant, forgiveness does not depend on how good we have been at forgiving others. It totally depends on what Jesus has done for us. Now, since we have been completely forgiven by God, let us forgive others as God has already forgiven us.