Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christians said that if you believe Jesus died for your sins, is the son of God and if you believe in him, your sins are forgiven. However, Jesus said on the mount sermon that if you do not forgive men their sins, God will not forgive your sins. Based on this verse, is it a two-step system?
Of course, you are referring to Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
Simply stated your question is: "If I don't forgive others, does that mean my sins are not forgiven?
We need to do a little work here to decipher the meaning of these two verses.
On the one hand, this teaching from Jesus implies that our eternal destiny is tied to whether or not we forgive everyone who has wronged us. On the other hand, the Bible makes it quite clear that our salvation has nothing to do with our works; but instead, God’s forgiveness of our sins is based totally on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10).
Perhaps Ephesians 2:8-9 sums up the answer succinctly: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Reading these verses limits us to the conclusion that Jesus will still forgive our sins even if we have yet to forgive another’s. So, we must look for an explanation somewhere else.
Perhaps Jesus is teaching us that someone who refuses to forgive is demonstrating that they have yet to receive the forgiveness of Christ in their own lives. Perhaps not.
I think that the key to unraveling this seeming dilemma is found in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
We’re talking here about our daily fellowship with Christ and not our eternal relationship with Christ. When we receive Christ into our lives God immediately becomes our father. For example, my physical relationship with my earthly father can never be broken. Genetically, no matter what I do we can never become unrelated.
However, my fellowship with God can be hampered just like my fellowship with my dad can be hampered when I do things that hurt him or estrange him.
In 1 John, the apostle is describing our fellowship with God and not our relationship. Daily lives involve daily sins and daily sins dirty up our fellowship with God. So how do we get clean? We ask God for forgiveness and he promises to clean away our sins and so our fellowship with him can once again be sweet and intimate.
Unfortunately, most of us sin every day and sin dirties up our fellowship with Jesus. 1 John 1:9 is the prescription for cleaning up a dirty spirit and restoring close fellowship with our Lord.
Our sin transaction with Jesus is a one-step affair. On the other hand, struggling to forgive one who has wrong us is usually a multistep affair and often takes a significant amount of time.
Jesus provides the model of forgiveness. As his final three days on earth unfolded he received comfort from the angels. Like Jesus, in the process of forgiving, it’s important that we receive comfort for our hurts
Next, Jesus understood that the soldiers, and even the Sanhedrin, did the not know what they were doing.
Finally, only after completing the first two steps, He forgave those who are hurting him.
Receiving comfort, understanding the truth and reaching the freedom of forgiveness are seldom simple, one-moment endeavors. A long time may be needed to completely follow and experience Jesus’ model of forgiveness.
Once upon a time, some parishioners in our church did not like the spiritual warfare ministry that was coordinated out of our counseling center. I had no idea that there was trouble until one of the Sunday school small groups asked me to teach them about spiritual warfare. About halfway through my talk the leader of the group got up and said, “He’s hung himself on his own words.” The group demanded that the ministry be stopped because, “Southern Baptists don’t do ministries like that.”
They made it abundantly clear that if I continued supporting this ministry they would do everything in their power to get me fired. The leader told me that he would ruin my ministry and reputation so that I would never be able to preach again. Among other things, He promised to get me on the front page of the Sunday paper and expose our spiritual warfare ministry while he branded me misguided, spiritually-dangerous, and a fool.
That afternoon he told one of our elders, “We’ve got him now; he’ll never be able to preach again. People will be lined up outside his door tomorrow demanding his resignation.”
His plan backfired. The next day I got phone calls from numerous pastoral friends thanking me for taking a stand on this issue. It was now much easier for them to follow in our footsteps and help many people who were struggling under Satanic attack.
Eighteen people left the church. I never wanted to see any of them again. When one of the eighteen died, I avoided doing his funeral. Would you think less of me if I told you that I was glad he was dead? After all he did to me, it seemed only right. Please don’t misunderstand; these were my emotions talking. I really didn’t want him to die, it’s just that I was still struggling with so much hurt and pain that he and the others had inflicted.
Five years later I was performing a graveside service for the wife of one of our pastors. She was well beloved and hundreds had come to the funeral. I usually wait until most of the mourners are gone before leaving. Suddenly, Jack and Jill were walking right towards me. It was obvious that we were going to have a conversation. Frankly, I never wanted to see them again as long as I lived. Jill was one of the ringleaders. Jack was just along for the ride.
She shocked my core when she held out her hand and said: “I’m sorry for what I did to you 15 years ago. Would you please forgive me?”
My heart rose into my throat and I stammered and stuttered and couldn’t say yes. At that moment all the hurt and pain and fear and anger and bitterness rose up into my throat and blocked any words. She repeated her request. My mouth was so filled with “pain stuff” that there was room for no words.
Jack said, “She’s asking for forgiveness. You’re a pastor. You’re supposed to forgive her.”
I turned to Jill, “Don’t ask me that now. I’d have to say, ‘No.” How about you and Jack and Julie and I meet for lunch tomorrow and talk through this?” They agreed.
At Macayos Jill again told me told me that she was sorry and asked for forgiveness. The problem was that she had hurt me 10 gallons worth of hurt but was only asking for a pints’ worth of forgiveness. It’s hard to forgive 10 gallons worth of hurt with her only asking for pints worth of forgiveness.
So I said, “Jill, you have no idea how much you hurt me. Would you mind if I told you? For the next 15 minutes I told her just how much her threats, behind the back maneuvering, recruiting, gossip and demanding had hurt me so deeply. While I was speaking she began crying; then she was weeping. When I finished, she said, “I had no idea how much I hurt you. I’m so sorry. Could you ever forgive me?”
“Of course I can.” It’s easy to forgive 10 gallons worth of hurt when they’re asking for 10 gallons worth of forgiveness.
So I said to Jill, “I can imagine that I too hurt you deeply. After all I was a pastor. You honestly believed that I was off on a spiritual tangent and just wanted to help. I imagine how much you felt betrayed by me. I am so sorry. It must’ve been hard on you to leave all your friends at church. I know you were hurt deeply because many were glad to see you go. That was a peculiar hurt, wasn’t it? I’m so sorry that I caused you much pain.” I continued sharing the ways I had hurt her and then I started crying.
When I finally asked for forgiveness she looked up through her tears and said, “Oh yes…. I do”
We’ve been friends ever since.
Many Christians have difficulty with forgiveness because they struggle to understand what forgiveness is and isn’t.
Let’s examine forgiveness a little more closely.
First, forgiving does not mean that we let those who hurt us “off the hook.” They need to pay for what they did. This is what justice is all about. When we forgive we may let them off our “hook,” but they are still on God’s “hook”! Remember the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine.” So, let Him do His work. He dispenses justice in His own time.
Second, forgiving is not a sign that we’re weak. Forgiveness is a courageous act that integrates the grace, kindness, and compassion of Christ.
Third, forgiving does not mean that we forget what they did to us. Whoever told us that we can “forgive and forget” was quite misguided. The pain of some things is so intense that we will never forget them. Nevertheless, by God’s grace we can forgive them even though we may never forget what they did to us.
Fourth, forgiving doesn’t mean that we restore the relationship with the one, or ones, who hurt us — as if nothing ever happened. Something did happen. Trust was broken. Circumstances have changed. Abuse occurred. If the one who hurt us is repentant, we may choose to establish boundaries, giving the offender — over a period of time — the opportunity to regain our trust. We have the freedom to expand the boundary fence if we want to, or to leave it exactly where it is. We can restore the relationship someday if we want — or not restore it at all.
Fifth, you really do want to forgive before deep bitterness and resentment become ingrained. The desire for vengeance is like using your hand to point a gun at your adversary. Your pointer finger is pointed like a gun barrel at your adversary. Your thumb is the hammer, cocked and ready to fire. However, the other three fingers are pointed right back at you.
Sixth, it’s not possible to be at peace with all people (Romans 12:7). As Christians we feel that we are required to fix every broken relationship and live in harmony with all of our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, some relationships just will not work out. It is OK to leave them behind and go on with others.
Finally, you know that you have forgiven them when you don't want to hurt them anymore.
Well, Jim, I really appreciate your question. I hope that you and others find it helpful in your relationships in the days ahead.