[Note: This lesson is adapted from Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004). For more information, see Peacemaker® Ministries (https://pm.training).]
Last week, we began talking about the definition of forgiveness, and we are going to continue that discussion this week.
By the way, this is a very important topic. Consider the following quote from John MacArthur. He said, “Early in my pastoral ministry I noticed an interesting fact: nearly all the personal problems that drive people to seek pastoral counsel are related in some way to the issue of forgiveness. The typical counselee’s most troublesome problems would be significantly diminished (and in some cases solved completely) by a right understanding of what Scripture says about forgiveness.”
So I’m going to be very careful in how I word things this morning, and I want you to ask any questions you might have, because this topic is vital. I have a lot of notes today, but if we need to come back to this next week, that’s fine. Because I really want you to understand these concepts.
So last week, we said that forgiveness is a decision, an act of the will. Forgiveness is a decision to release someone from a debt and give him a gift. Today, I’d like to start by talking about an even deeper reality, and that is that forgiveness is a transaction.
- Forgiveness is a Transaction.
One thing that I hope shined through very clearly last week is that our forgiveness of others is based on God’s forgiveness of us. Ephesians 4:32. If you know it, say it with me: “But be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Forgive… as God forgave you.
Let me ask you a questions: does God’s forgiveness extend to the whole world? Well, there’s a universal offer of salvation, but not everyone is saved. That would be universalism, which is heresy. So who is it who receives God’s forgiveness? Well, it’s the ones who ask for it–the ones who confess their sins. We see this pattern over and over again in the Bible. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If there is no repentance, then there is no forgiveness.
Now, we already discussed that that statement breaks down to some degree when it comes to God’s relationship with His children. Because as David said, no one can understand the error of his way. When we get down to the motivation level, we are all sinning all the time, and we don’t always even know it. If I was responsible to confess every single sin in order to maintain a right relationship with God, I would be doomed!
But at the same time, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear [me].” In other words, if God reveals sin in my life, and I stubbornly refuse to confess or even (in some cases) acknowledge it, there is no forgiveness.
The same principle holds true when it comes to our relationships with other human beings. Technically speaking, without confession, there can be no forgiveness. You can overlook a sin that has not been confessed, but you cannot technically forgive it, because forgiveness is a transaction.
Think of forgiveness like a handshake. Let’s say I sin against Fred. Fred says, “You sinned against me.” I agree. I say, “You’re right, please forgive me.” I make that request. And Fred answers that request by saying, “Yes, I forgive you.” In other words, “I promise not to hold this against you.”
But there’s also a promise I make to Fred. By asking, “Will you forgive me,” I’m also promising (whether I actually say this or not) that I will try not to do it again. So my half of the bargain is confession and repentance. Fred’s half of the bargain is forgiveness. Are there any questions about that?
So, based upon that definition of forgiveness, can you forgive someone who has not confessed and/or repented? Let me give you an example. A husband is unfaithful to his wife. She finds out about it and confronts him. He says, “I’m so sorry; will you forgive me.” She says, “Are you going to break up with the other woman?” He says, “Well, no, I didn’t really plan to do that… but… I’m sorry; will you forgive me?” Should she forgive him? Absolutely not! We’re going to see later on that forgiveness involves a promise not to let that sin stand between us. She can’t make that promise! Because the sin is still ongoing!
It would be different if he broke up with his girlfriend. At that point, his wife needs to forgive him. She can’t withhold forgiveness until he proves himself, otherwise, “seventy times seven” has no meaning! Sande would say, “Forgiveness is based on repentance, not on guarantees.” So you cannot require a guarantee that the other person won’t sin again before you forgive him. But on the other hand, you cannot forgive him before he is genuinely repentant.” Are there any questions about that? Does the difference between requiring a guarantee and forgiveness that is based upon repentance make sense to you?
Now, does all of this mean that the wife in our previous example has the right to hate her husband? No! Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” And Jesus exemplified this attitude from the cross when He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” So I’m not suggesting that you can hate your enemies. You must always love your enemies, whether or not they have repented. But you cannot technically forgive them until they confess.
In other words, I’m arguing for a specific definition of forgiveness. We should use the word the same way the Bible does, and when the Bible uses the word “forgiveness,” it is usually talking about transactional forgiveness.
Now, as soon as I say that, I am going to give you an exception. In Mark 11:25, Jesus says, “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses.”
In this passage, Jesus clearly uses the word “forgive,” but He doesn’t seem to be talking about transactional forgiveness. Why is that? (because whatever Jesus is talking about, you can do in your heart in the middle of a prayer) So is it wrong to use the word “forgive” when we are talking about overlooking sin? No. That’s why sometimes you’ll hear me distinguish between technical forgiveness and forgiving someone in your heart. However, for the sake of clarity, I would say that most of the time, we should reserve the word “forgiveness” for the transactional forgiveness. Also, that is the way that the Bible usually uses the word. Are there any questions about that?
So, let’s change gears here a bit. If someone sins against me… and it’s a serious sin that I either can’t or shouldn’t overlook… and I confront them about it… but they either deny that they’ve done anything wrong or indicate that they have no intention of changing… what are my options? Transactional forgiveness is not an option–they haven’t repented. But I’ve also got to guard my heart from bitterness. So what can I do? Turn to Romans 12:19 (Rom 12:19).
What’s the alternative to human vengeance, according to this verse? The alternative to human vengeance is God’s vengeance. So when someone has wronged me, and they will not repent, the only thing I can do is give that to God. He becomes the collections officer, if we want to go back to the debt metaphor. He has promised that one day, He will make everything right, and that every sin will be accounted for. So I just leave it to Him. I transfer the debt.
Some of you are in this very situation. I know because I’ve talked to you. Someone has sinned against you very deeply, and you’re convinced it would be inappropriate to overlook that offense. However, you tried confronting them several times, but they will not repent. First, you must be sure that you have done everything God requires of you in terms of restoring the relationship. Have you confessed your own sins? Have you carefully, humbly confronted? Have you tried multiple times? If you’ve done everything you can to resolve the issue and the person is still unresponsive, it’s time to transfer the debt. You’ve got to give it to God, and let Him take care of it, and then focus on loving your enemies and praying for their good. Don’t let bitterness destroy you. Are there any questions or comments about that idea?
- Forgiveness is a promise.
When you say, “I forgive you,” you are making a promise not to hold my sin against me. That much is clear from the example of God’s forgiveness. But what exactly does it mean to hold someone’s sin against him? Let me give you some generalizations.
You’re probably holding the other person’s sins against him if… you choose to dwell on the incident.
When God forgives a person, He makes us a promise: “their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Not that God actually forgets. That’s impossible, because He’s omniscient. But He chooses not to dwell on our past offenses.
I got the privilege to meet Elise’s grandma when we were in Iowa a couple of weeks. She’s eighty-six years-old and just a sweet, godly lady. Spending time with her was one of the highlights of our trip. But at age eighty-six, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t remember! Maybe some of you can relate, even if you’re not eighty-six. But at the same time, there are certain details, certain stories from decades ago, that she can tell you word-for-word. Now why is that? It’s because those stories are precious to her, and she’s rehearsed them over and over again in her mind. Not only that, but she’s recited them lots and lots of times!
When we do this kind of thing with our minds and with our mouths–I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this before–but we’re basically studying that information just like you would if you were trying to retain formulas for a geometry test!
Have you ever met someone who can tell you every little detail about a past offense committed against them? I’ve met people with a remarkable ability to retain every detail. It’s been fifteen years since you had that scuffle with Betty at church in which she made that unkind remark and then gossiped about you to others! And yet you can tell that story word-for-word, listing each of Betty’s infractions along the way and building a case against her as if you were her prosecuting attorney. Wives, some of you could rattle off stories against your husbands; and sadly, some of you husbands keep a mental list against your wives. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 (1 Cor 13:4-5). The last phrase in v. 5, “thinks no evil,” uses an accounting term that pictures someone using a ledger. In other words, love keeps no record of wrongs.
When a person can rattle off every detail of past offenses, there’s a very high likelihood that he or she is struggling with lack of forgiveness. Why? Because forgiveness is a promise not to meditate on the incident. And when you choose not to dwell on something, memories fade over time.
Listen to me, the narrative you preach to yourself most often will shape your thinking and your life. Let me say that again. The narrative you preach to yourself most often will shape your thinking and your life. That’s why it’s so important to preach the gospel to yourself every day! Because when you begin to view your story within the broader context of God’s greater story, you are building mental ruts for your thinking. You’re learning to view yourself the way God views you. You start to deeply internalize the fact that you’re only a sinner saved by grace. And all of a sudden, your story becomes a fairy-tale with a “happily-ever-after” ending! And joy and gratitude gush from your soul!
Now, what’s the alternative? When you refuse to let go of your bitterness, you lose touch with God’s story, and you redefine yourself as a victim rather than a recipient of the greatest gift the world has ever known! You view yourself in terms of the sins that were committed against you. That becomes your new identity, so to speak. And ironically, you enslave yourself to those who sinned against you. They wield more power over you now than they ever did before! They control your life, so to speak! They may not even be living any more, but they control you! You have given the devil an opportunity, as Ephesians 4:27 says. That’s why genuine, gospel-centered, heart-felt, Spirit-empowered forgiveness is so vital!
Let me ask you a question: if you were to write your autobiography, who would be the hero? Who would be the villain? Who would be the victim? Who would the beneficiaries of grace? And does your story line up with God’s?
If you often find yourself dwelling on past sins against you, you are probably struggling with lack of forgiveness. So what should you do about that? Do you need to ask for forgiveness all over again? Not necessarily. As we said earlier in this study, if your sin has not affected the other person, you don’t need to confess it. But you should confess to God, ask for His help, and recommit to keeping your promise. Are there any questions about that?
You’re probably holding the other person’s sins against him if… you bring up the incident and use it as ammunition against the other person.
Ken Sande tells a story about a woman he met once. She said, “I don’t know what to do with my husband. Every time we have an argument, he gets historical. Sande corrected the woman and said, “I think you mean ‘hysterical.’” She said, “I mean what I said– “historical! He’s constantly giving me history lessons about everything I’ve done wrong!”
Do know how you can tell if you’re struggling with forgiveness? If every time you have an argument, you get “historical.” If you do that, and you have already promised to forgive the person, you ought to confess that as sin and seek forgiveness.
Now, I want to be clear, not holding someone’s sins against him does not mean that you can never talk about it again. God has forgiven all of our sins, and yet He has recorded many of the sins of His people in Scripture, for us to learn from! So at times, it’s appropriate to bring up a past offense for the purpose of instruction. There may also be times in which you are required by law to talk about a forgiven offense, for instance, if you are called upon to testify in court. Or, it may be appropriate to raise a forgiven offense to the other person in order to expose a pattern of sin in his life. However, in the vast majority of cases, you should not talk about a forgiven sin. Are there any questions about that?
You’re probably holding the other person’s sins against him if… you talk about the incident to others.
Most of the time, talking about a forgiven offense equals gossip.
I’d like to take a survey and also get your blood moving, so everyone who can, please stand up. If you can’t stand up, raise your hand. Remain standing if someone has tried to gossip to you in the last month. So if you’re still standing, that means someone has at least attempted to gossip to you in the past four weeks. Remain standing if it’s been in the past three weeks. Stay standing if it’s been in the past two weeks. One week.
Gossip destroys community. Proverbs 16:28 says a whisperer destroys the best of friends. When we gossip, we often do so in order to make a connection with someone. But what we don’t realize is that when you gossip about someone in this church, you are sacrificing the health and unity of the entire community for the sake of that one individual connection.
We need to get better at cutting off gossip. If someone tries to gossip to you, just cut him off. Say, “Listen, unless I’m going to be part of the solution, I don’t want to hear about your issue with so-and-so. Because otherwise, it’s just gossip, and that’s not good for you, it’s not good for me, and it’s not good for the church. Either go talk to him, or forgive him in your heart, or if you’re not sure what to do, go see one of the pastors–or if you’re just looking for counsel, we can talk about it, but I’m just going to tell you what the Bible says. We’re not going to sit here and talk about every salacious detail.” That kind of firmness could have tremendous impact in strengthening our body.
If you are willing to gossip about someone else, that’s a clear sign that you are struggling with forgiveness.
You’re probably holding the other person’s sins against him if… you let the incident stand between the two of you or hinder your personal relationship.
What would you say is the worst consequence of sin? The worst consequence of sin is being separated from God. Of course, the most extreme form of separation is hell, but even Christians can have that relationship broken. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” Sin hinders my prayer life because it drives a wedge between me and God. And sin has the same effect on our relationships with others, as well. As we already saw in Proverbs 16, it separates the best of friends!
But when God forgives us, all of a sudden, we who were far off are brought near by the blood of Christ. We are told to draw near to God–to come boldly to His throne of grace. Never again will God hold those sins against us. Micah 7:19 says, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Psalm 103:12 says “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
Could you imagine if God allowed your past sins to affect your relationship with Him? You’d have no relationship with Him! And in the same way that God forgives you, you must learn to forgive others. That means that when you forgive someone, the wall between the two of you must come down. It’s like Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
You say, “Does that mean that the man who embezzled $10,000 gets to be the church treasurer, as was mentioned a couple of weeks ago.” No, certainly it does not! The restoration of a personal relationship does not mean the removal of all consequences. Now sometimes it means the removal of some consequences! After all, when we get saved, there are a whole lot of consequences that God removes from us! But even though David was forgiven of his sin with Bathsheba, the child still had to die. Even though Moses was forgiven for striking the rock, he still couldn’t enter the Promised Land. Just because a pastor has been forgiven doesn’t mean he is immediately requalified for ministry. So no, forgiveness does not mean the automatic removal of all consequences.
Here's another question: does forgiveness mean that we have to be best friends? Again, the answer is no. However, in most cases, you should be at least as good of friends as you were before the offense took place, and you should be willing for your friendship to grow. In other words, the idea that I can forgive him but we can’t be friends anymore is often unbiblical.
You say, “But forgiveness isn’t the same thing as trust!” That’s true. And lack of trust is one of those consequences of sin that we talked about. But if you’ve truly forgiven someone, you should not put him in a situation in which it is impossible to regain your trust. That process may take time, and there may be certain roles or positions that they are permanently disqualified from, but you cannot block them out of your life without redefining forgiveness in terms that contradict God’s forgiveness of you.
That’s hard, isn’t it? Because we can become comfortable with certain people not being in our lives. We may say to ourselves, “It’s just easier this way.” Besides, if we allow them to rebuild trust, they might hurt us again! You may think, “I can’t handle that!” so you block them out. Again, I would simply ask, “Is that how God treats you?” Does He block you out at a certain point so that He doesn’t get hurt? No, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” every single time!