by Dave Hintz
When the Lord instructed his disciples to pray, he includes the following line “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Reception of God’s forgiveness necessarily leads to our extension of forgiveness. Paul picks up this theme in Ephesians 4:32:
”Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
According to this passage, all believers who have experienced Christ’s forgiveness will in turn forgive those who have wronged them. But this brings up some interesting questions: What exactly does this kind of forgiveness look like? And at what point have we truly forgiven the transgressor? In his great work Body of Divinity, the puritan divine Thomas Watson answers these questions this way:
When we strive against all thought of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.
This exceptional definition highlights seven elements of true biblical forgiveness.
- “Strive against all thought of revenge” This is lifted from Romans 12:19, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.” Just as God’s forgiveness through the death of Christ shields us from His wrath, Christian forgiveness sets aside any future right to exact a pound of flesh. The death of Christ delivers us from the burden of vigilante justice as we trust that God will deal justly with the sins of others, freeing us to simply forgive.
- We will not do our enemies mischief. Taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:15 which states: “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” When someone wrongs us, our natural inclination is to seek retribution, whether by withholding warmth, humiliating them with words, shaming them publicly, etc. Yet true forgiveness will not exercise any form of revenge.
- But wish well to them: Jesus commands in Luke 6:28, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Sometimes we resolve not to exact vengeance ourselves, but secretly hope that somehow calamity will befall the offender. However, when we truly forgive, we no longer wish misfortune upon the forgiven.
- Grieve at their calamites. Proverbs 24:17 “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Not only do we not wish misfortune, but we grieve when the forgiven feel the impact of their choices. When we truly forgive, we do not smugly state, “It serves them right.”
- Pray for them. Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Forgiveness consists not only in the absence of all forms of revenge, but also in the pursuit—through prayer—of the offender’s well-being.
- Seek reconciliation with them. Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” I don’t know about you, but I am glad that our God is actively pursuing total reconciliation with me. In the same way, true forgiveness is not content with a forgiven-but-strained-relationship. It does not accept such deceptions as “I will never be able to trust you again,” or “We can never be close,” or “I still love you but I can’t like you.” Granted, there is a transition period, but true forgiveness will actively pursue total reconciliation.
- Show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. Exodus 23:4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.” If you truly forgive someone, you will actively seek their best interests. When they need some help, you actively meet their needs.
No one ever claims that total forgiveness is easy; in fact it is entirely unnatural for men and women to extend grace to those who deserve wrath. This is why Christian forgiveness is such a powerful apologetic to an unforgiven world. When we forgive, we shine light on the gracious God who has forgiven our sin through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. By forgiving others we are imparting to others the grace which we ourselves have received. Do not allow your own desire for vengeance to deprive you of this glorious opportunity to magnify God by forgiving your fellow man.