“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 ESV).
All scriptures used in this blog article are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
You’ve probably read it or heard it or even said it: “I’ll forgive him, but I’m not going to trust him” or “I’ll forgive him, but I’m not going to forget what he did” or something to that effect. My question is: If you insert a caveat after your statement “I’ll forgive him,” (the universal him, referring to humans in general), then have you really forgiven?
Ephesians 4:32 makes it clear that we’re to forgive “as God in Christ forgave.” Does this mean simply that we’re to forgive because God forgave us or does it mean something more? Does it mean, perhaps, that we’re to forgive the same way that God forgives, that we’re to forgive like God?
I’d like to think that this is something easy to answer, but conversations I’ve had with others on the subject have shown me that it isn’t. My assertion is that we are required to forgive in the same way that God forgives us, to forgive like God. There are no caveats, no “I’ll forgive him, but.” Again, I’d like to think that this is something easy, but at the experiential level, maybe it isn’t.
To forgive like God. What does that really mean? How does God forgive? There are some scriptures that give us a general idea:
Psalm 103:12 – “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Psalm 130:3 – “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”
Isaiah 43:25 – “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
Micah 7:19 – “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
What can we glean from these scriptures? We can glean from these scriptures that God chooses to forget, chooses not to remember, our past sins. He doesn’t keep on holding them against us. He doesn’t say “I’ll forgive you, but…” When God forgives us, what He has forgiven is gone – it no longer exists; it’s as if it never happened. About Isaiah 43:25, the 18th century decidedly Calvinistic English Baptist pastor John Gill wrote in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, “God forgives and forgets; God will not remember the sins of his people against them; having forgiven them, he will never punish them for them, which is meant by remembering them.” That’s how God forgives us. He who knows (and has decreed) the end from the beginning, the almighty, omniscient, omnipotent God, chooses to forget our sins. What an amazing thought!
We so often come up with excuses, with reasons why we can’t forgive like God. “That man molested my child; I know the Bible tells me I have to forgive him, but that doesn’t mean I have to let him come anywhere near my child again.” “She stole things from my home; just because the Bible says to forgive doesn’t mean I have to let her back into my house.” “He committed adultery,” his wife says, “how can I ever trust him again?” We talk about exercising wisdom, of being practical, of trust being something that has to be earned, etc. (e.g. not leaving a child molester alone with a child, not leaving a thief alone with anything of value), and we use this to justify our wickedness, our rebellion and treason against God in our refusal to forgive the way that He forgave us.
Harsh language, perhaps; but when we don’t obey God, we are being wicked, we are committing rebellion and treason against God. Yet, at the experiential level, it isn’t so easy to, as the expression goes, “forgive and forget,” and we’re not so sure we can do it, or that we should.
We’re human. We’re fallen creatures. We’re not perfect. Are we really capable of forgiving like God forgives? Does it really matter if we’re not capable? After all, the scripture commands us to be holy as God is holy (see 1 Peter 1:16), perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Matthew 5:48), and otherwise to meet a standard that Adam’s sin and our resulting fallen nature have rendered impossible for us to meet. In and of ourselves, we are entirely incapable of doing anything that meets God’s standard of “good” (see Romans 3:10) and are entirely incapable of doing anything to please God (see Romans 8:8). Still, the command is there and we are to obey, even though we need God’s help to do it.
I’m concluding this article with what John Gill wrote in his Exposition of the Entire Bible about the Ephesians 4:32 command to forgive as God forgives, “this should be done in like manner as God forgives in Christ, and for his sake; that is, fully and freely, and from their hearts; and so as to forget the offences, and not to upbraid them with them hereafter; yea, they should forgive them before they repent, and without asking for it, and that for Christ’s sake.”