Deconstructing Destruction in the Church: Forgiveness

From one angle regarding forgiveness we can say: “The difficulty is not in understanding; it’s in accepting and doing.” From another we can say: “The accepting and the doing results from a growth in understanding.”

The parable of the unmerciful servant recorded in Matthew 18:23-34 clarifies that the one who professes to be a Christian must forgive his fellow Christian (his or her “brother”) on the basis of God’s forgiveness of the Christian’s sin. This is not complicated, although it is a miracle that it can and does occur. It all revolves around and is rooted in the Christian’s relationship to their Triune Lord.

While the parable addresses most directly and specifically the relationship of the Christian to his or her fellow Christian, it also has implications for how the Christian should think about and respond to forgiving non-Christians. The latter is true because forgiveness of another Christian is presented by Jesus as a matter of our relationship to God, who is in a living and loving relationship with the non-Christian too. After all, in Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus clarifies that our heavenly Father causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. This is expressed in a slightly different way in the Old Testament in that God did have a blessing for Ishmael, even though Ishmael was not going to receive God’s covenant blessing of salvation (Gen. 17:20). While the relationship that Christians have with one another differs from the relationships that Christians have with non-Christians, it is also true that none of us are to think that our relationships to anyone, Christian or not, are an identical replica of God’s relationship with them. Similar, but not identical. That may seem slight; it’s not.

What is inescapable is that all people are to be understood and responded to by us based on everyone’s relationship to our common Creator Lord. While there are some who think that we cannot extend forgiveness to those whom God has chosen not to redeem from sin, or whose sin he has chosen not to forgive, this confuses God’s relationship to the unregenerate with the Christian’s relationship to them. Our relationships to everyone are first and foremost the expression of who God is and what he has done, is doing and will do, as Creator Redeemer Lord. To be sure, there are many circumstances within all our relationships both with Christians and non-Christians that complicate those relationships, and do not allow us to reduce our conduct in them to pithy, superficial slogans. Still, there is a fundamental simplicity to them created and defined by God.

The matter of how we are able to forgive can be stated as follows: In light of the eternal sin that God the Father has forgiven us on the basis of his Son’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, true Christians must and will forgive others. Forgiveness is both a command and a certainty, because God gives what he commands to those whom he redeems from sin. I am enabled to forgive my brother and sister in Christ, first and foremost, because of my growing awareness of the enormity of what God has forgiven me. God gives this growing awareness. The forgiveness I am enabled to give is not primarily generated by my knowing something about the person I am forgiving, or something about their sin, or by precisely what I think God is or is not doing with them. Instead, it is generated by my knowledge of who I am in relation to God. It’s not that knowledge about the person I am forgiving is irrelevant to my forgiveness; it’s that such knowledge can only be rightly understood in relationship to God. It is my accurate (not complete) knowledge of the depth and breadth of my sin in relation to the infinite and eternal Triune God and his forgiveness of me that causes me to forgive others. Nothing anyone could ever do to me comes even remotely close to what I have done against the Lord.

The same principle holds with respects to my forgiving the non-Christian, who in point of fact, by the very nature of the case, I cannot know for certain won’t later come to be my fellow Christian! I am enabled to forgive those who are not even asking for my forgiveness or for God’s, because I know that there was nothing that I did to deserve God’s forgiveness. Did I seek or earn God’s forgiveness because of some moral virtue inherent to me? No. I sought God’s forgiveness only because of God’s sovereign mercy and grace raising me from the spiritual dead. Does the non-Christian deserve to be forgiven? Of course not. Neither did I. And I only have such forgiveness from God because of what God has done for me.

From this we can perhaps begin to see that only by exploring the profound depths of who God is and what he does do we begin to experience the weight of our sin against him. This is why only preaching and teaching that nurtures and matures sinners in the intricacies and glories of the Triune God will produce large-hearted forgiving sinners. Shallow, superficial, sentimental sermons cannot produce forgiving people. How can we forgive others? Only when we know the Triune God as he has revealed himself in and through his Word by His Spirit.      

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.