How and Who to Forgive

Skipping a flashy introduction…

We should forgive as God forgives (Eph. 4:32) and so knowing how God forgives is essential. Jeremiah 31:34 says “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Hebrew uses parallel lines as a regular literary feature. Here, these two lines mean basically the same thing. Forgiving iniquity is the same thing as not remembering sin. This makes me ask the question, “what does it mean to ‘remember [sin] no more’?”

To answer that question, the concept of not remembering sin must be defined. To no longer remember sin is an active thing; it’s not a passive thing. That is, it’s not that God erases the memory of sins from his mind (being God, and all-knowing that would be awkward!). Rather he doesn’t actively remember sins. Thus, this implies three things:

1. That God doesn’t bring up our sin to use it against us in the future.
2. That God doesn’t speak to others about our sin.
3. That God doesn’t internalize the memory our sin and actively become bitter toward us.

Something to consider is that if we have verbally said, “I forgive you,” to someone and yet bring up the sin again with that person, speak to a friend, parent or spouse about this persons sin (its not spiritual to pray for this persons sin, when you are really just gossiping!), or think over, chew and become embittered about how “wronged” you were, then you have not truly forgiven this person.

One of my professors said the other day that forgiveness is a promise. It’s a promise to not bring up the sin to the offender, others and to self. I think that this is a pretty good definition of forgiveness – a promise not to actively remember sin.

Okay, so that’s forgiveness. Next question, who should we forgive? The basic answer is that we should forgive anyone who seeks it from us (Luke 17:3-4; Mark 11:25). What about those who do not seek forgiveness from us? Remember we are to forgive like God does (cf. Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Another question (to answer that last question), does God forgive all people whatsoever, and so all people are in heaven, receiving absolute forgiveness? Nope. Only those who come to God in faith are saved. For us, then, we should forgive only those who come us for forgiveness. We don’t need to forgive everyone.

Of course, on the one hand we need to have an attitude of forgiveness (Ps. 86:5; Mt. 6:12-15; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:27-35;11:4; Rom. 12:17-21), but on the other hand all the passages that speak of forgiveness (listed above) are in the contexts of prayers. So this may be more of an attitude of forgiveness, an attitude that is ready to forgive (Ps. 86:5).

We also have the concept of promised forgiveness, or a promise of pardon based on repentance. God forgives us when we repent in faith and draw near to him (luke 3:3; acts 2:38). When we are wronged, we can also forgive in this way. However, the bible clearly instructs us not to forgive, or not to be fully reconciled with a person who does repent of his or her sin (Mt. 18:15-17; Luke 17:3).

So here is the conclusion. Forgiveness means you actively don’t bring up one’s sin to that person, to others and to self. Furthermore, forgiveness should only be granted to those who seek forgiveness, although we should be ready to forgive always. In this way, we forgive in the way God does.


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