The All-Pervasiveness of the Subject
‘To err is human: to forgive divine’, ALEXANDER POPE. So runs the ancient maxim. Certainly, because we are members of a fallen race, we need constantly to be forgiven for numerous failures and sinful acts against others, and to forgive many who err against us. We all continually ‘fall short of the glory of God’, which is our ultimate standard of perfection, Rom. 3. 23. Therefore, much as we may sometimes wish to, we cannot avoid facing up to the issue of forgiveness. If we do attempt to evade it, our Christian lives and characters will be seriously damaged and rendered ineffective for God.
Forgiveness is a very sensitive subject with most people, because it touches the deepest feelings of personal pride within us. But this is the very essence of Satan’s original sin, which we have inherited from Adam. Only with God’s help can we deal with it in our lives. He alone can prevent us becoming, perhaps unwittingly, the tools of the enemy of our souls.
Its Vital Importance in Local Assembly Life
All true Christians in any New Testament local assembly have necessarily repented of their sins and received God’s forgiveness in Christ for salvation. But, although we delight to remember that God has forgiven us, so often we are too slow to forgive our fellow-brethren and sisters whenever they sin against us or our friends. This is a fatal inconsistency and one which leads to much damage both to our own spiritual lives and to the collective testimony of the assembly of which we are members. An unforgiving spirit within an assembly leads to smouldering resentments and underlying tensions, malicious gossip and criticism, strife and divisions, and perhaps the eventual closure of the testimony. Within us it causes callousness and guilt feelings because of unresolved and unconfessed sins, the grieving of the Holy Spirit, the quenching of His gracious and loving fruit in our lives, and even sometimes medical problems. Therefore, the matter of forgiveness demands our very careful consideration. After all, none of us has anything to be proud of before God, or even before our brethren and sisters. If it were not for the infinite grace of God in Christ we would be consigned to eternal punishment for our sins against Him, just like all the lost people around us.
The Inevitability of Offences occurring
In Luke chapter 17 verse 1, the Lord Jesus said, ‘It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!’. No doubt we have all experienced the feeling of being insulted, or slighted, if not badly wronged in some way. These things happen to us, and we cause them to happen to others, because of indwelling sin. Offences are caused by many kinds of wrong attitudes and actions. Probably our unruly tongues stir up most trouble. A bitter and unforgiving spirit can itself be a threat to assembly unity. Pride, taking the form of unwillingness to yield what we see as our rights, shows up the root of the problem, namely, putting ourselves first. Insensitivity to the feelings of others, or thoughtlessness, causes much distress. Sometimes we resent what we think are God’s unjust dealings with us, and this affects our attitude towards others. But we should realize that while it is wrong to give offence, it is equally wrong and immature to take offence. For many so-called ‘offences’ are probably unintentional, and should be dismissed from our minds at once.
The Basis of All Forgiveness
God’s own great love demonstrated to us at the cross of Christ is the only, and fully sufficient, basis of all forgiveness. There, the very God against whom we have sinned so grievously, bore, in the person of His incarnate Son the punishment for all our offences, and thus opened the way back to peace with Himself and with one another. Calvary is both a righteous and loving ground of forgiveness for time and eternity.
Prerequisites for Forgiveness
Because we are responsible creatures, God requires that those who desire to be forgiven should first confess and repent of their sins. This is a fundamental prerequisite of forgiveness. Equally important is a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation in those who have been wronged. Only God’s own love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit can enable this. Remember how much God has forgiven us quite undeservedly. Prerequisite also are right attitudes of mind in us. Have we accepted all God’s sovereign dealings with us as His right? Have we the selfless, humble mind of Christ which treats others as more important than ourselves and serves them? Have we a spirit of vigilant self-judgement that makes us aware of our own sinfulness? Have we a right view of our real nothingness before God and others? Are we willing to listen to another person’s point of view?
The Scriptural Way of Resolving Offences
Since offences will constantly occur, we need to know how to deal with them in a godly manner. Matthew chapter 18 verses 15-17 outlines the right way of resolving all those between Christians. There are to be three stages: first, a private and solitary approach by the offended party to the offender; secondly, if that fails to produce repentance, an approach with two or three Christian witnesses to the wrong done; thirdly, as a last resort, the reporting of the matter to the whole gathered local assembly with a view to disciplinary action thereafter. Note the reluctance to expose and spread the difficulty; also, the confinement of the problem within the local assembly, which can act as a court of law. According to 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Christians should never resort to lawsuits in the courts to resolve their disputes with their fellow-saints. However, if the cause of offence is a criminal matter, then we should not obstruct the due process of the law of the land. But most offences are of a less serious nature, such as insult or breach of trust.
God’s Pattern for Forgiveness
To forgive means, firstly, to remit the punishment due to sinful conduct and to deliver the sinner from the penalty rightly imposed; secondly, to remove completely the cause of offence. ‘Such remission is based upon the vicarious and propitiatory sacrifice of Christ’, W. E. VINE. Another word used for ‘forgiveness’ means ‘to bestow a favour unconditionally as an act of grace’. The latter word is used in Ephesians chapter 4 verse 32, where believers are exhorted to forgive one another, ‘even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you’. It is also used in Colossians, ‘Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye’, 3. 13. Often we are slower to forgive an offender than God is, although in His infinite grace He has forgiven us so much. Whenever there is repentance, God reciprocates with super-abundant mercy; and so should we – ungrudgingly.
Our Responsibility to Avoid Giving Offence
Paul’s constant aim was ‘to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and … men’, Acts 24. 16; ‘Giving no offence in anything, that the ministry be not blamed’, 2 Cor. 6. 3. Likewise, he exhorts fellowbelievers to be ‘without offence till the day of Christ’, Phil. 1. 10, and to ‘Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God’, 1 Cor. 10. 32. The main principle, he says, is, ‘If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men’, Rom. 12. 18. Whilst this may not always be possible, the fault should never be ours.
The Christian Reaction to Offences
Serious offences caused by our fellow-believers cannot just be ignored; they must be dealt with in a godly manner according to the scriptural procedure. Yet, even with offenders who are unrepentant, we should always keep the door open for restoration to fellowship again. But if we are wronged by unbelievers, we ought to be prepared to ‘turn the other cheek’ to them, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. If we are suffering because we are Christians, we are exhorted to bear the reproach of Christ, our still rejected Lord. He said that the world would hate us, because it hated Him; the servant is not above his Lord. We should accept persecution with joy and thanksgiving, and overcome evil with good, believing that vengeance belongs to God alone to execute in His own time and way. A forgiving attitude towards our persecutors will speak louder to them than retaliation, and can lead to their repentance and conversion. Remember how God forgave us and transformed our lives, and trust that He will do the same for them too. Finally, concerning many minor offences, 1 Peter chapter 4 verse 8 points us to ‘a more excellent way’, ‘And above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins’ NKJV. So, before reacting hastily, ask these three questions: ‘Is this matter true?’; ‘Am I being kind?’; and ‘Is this action really necessary?’