Forgiveness is a big topic in Jesus’ teaching. Some of the things he says about it make it very important for us to understand and apply his teaching about forgiveness. God takes forgiveness very seriously, as we will see.
Many times as a pastor people tell me that they can’t forgive a person for what they did because it was so egregious. I don’t say the next couple of sentences to try to smooth it over to make it all better. I understand how difficult it is to forgive someone who has wronged you.
Ponder this for just a moment. Before we talk about what Jesus taught about forgiveness, the most profound thing Jesus taught us was not from his words but from his actions. It was on the cross that Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23). He didn’t just teach it. He practiced it.
These are the people that wronged him and hurt him the most. He was alone in his death. Not even his disciples understood him. Peter denied him to save his own skin. And we know he forgave Peter (John 21:15-19). He forgave all of the religious leaders who put him on that cross out of envy and jealousy.
If Jesus can forgive people who put him on a cross and murdered him, he pretty much owns the trump card on being able to teach it to his disciples. I wager that nothing we have done, no matter how deep the betrayal could ever measure up to what Jesus suffered.
He not only forgave those who wronged him, but he did it because he loved them and us. Nothing we ever do is unforgivable to Jesus. The moment that we confess and ask him for forgiveness, he is more than willing to forgive us.
I know it’s a hard issue, and whatever was done to each of us hurts, but our Master, our Lord, teaches us to forgive those who wrong us. Your question comes out of the place of feeling guilty or afraid of the consequences of not forgiving others.
But that’s the wrong motivation to forgive others. We don’t do it because we get punished if we don’t forgive. We do it because Jesus forgave us and loves us. We do it because our Lord teaches us to forgive. We do it because Jesus commands it.
Much of the teaching of the church on unforgiveness involves a self-centered forgiveness. They talk about how much better you’ll feel when you forgive others. They tell you how much it benefits you to forgive others. Regardless of whether or not you feel better, the point is that Jesus lays down the example.
Jesus’ disciples and followers do what Jesus did. We follow his teachings. Sometimes forgiving others makes you feel better and gives you a feeling of freedom. Other times it doesn’t. But because Jesus taught, commanded, and demonstrated it, we as his disciples forgive.
Everything we do in the Christian life should be because of our love and gratitude to the Lord. We don’t operate out of guilt or fear of punishment. So don’t think of forgiving others as something you have to do so you don’t get in trouble or lose your salvation or anything like that. Forgive because Jesus is your example and he forgave you.
Just because we forgive someone doesn’t mean we need to empathize with them. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to understand what they did. It doesn’t require us to put ourselves in their place. It also doesn’t require us to welcome them back into our circle of trust. That may happen, but it’s not required.
Christians operate out of unconditional love for others. Whether it’s another believer or nonbeliever who violates your sense of justice for yourself or wrongs you, Jesus calls us to forgive.
Jesus lays down some pretty heavy teaching on the subject of unforgiveness. But let’s look at the basics of what he has taught us. First of all, Jesus includes forgiveness when he teaches the disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
Halfway through the Lord’s prayer Jesus teaches us to pray first to be forgiven for our own transgressions, and then the next line of the prayer is “as we also forgive those who transgress against us” (Matthew 6:12).
It’s expected that we forgive others. I don’t know if you can read into the lines of the prayer that our forgiveness is contingent on forgiving others, but as we seek forgiveness from the Lord, we are expected to forgive others for their trespasses against us.
What’s very interesting, and part of the answer to your question, is that after the prayer, Jesus makes a comment about forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15). He makes it clear that if we don’t forgive others, our heavenly Father will not forgive us.
This is an astounding approach to forgiveness! God expects us to forgive others. But if we don’t, the forgiveness we seek from him will not be given to us. Jesus puts it in black and white. When we don’t honor God by forgiving others as he has forgiven us, we shouldn’t expect that he forgives us.
As much as we have sinned against God, it’s understandable that he would make our learning to forgive others part of the deal. He has been the example of forgiving us of the most terrible sins against him. And it would honor him when we forgive others.
God has this thing about loving his creation, including every human being who bears God’s image. He expects us as part of our worship to him and honoring him to treat all other human beings with dignity and respect.
It makes sense that the God who pours out his forgiveness upon us expects us to then pass on his example to others in forgiving them. We must apply this teaching to our lives. We honor God and receive his forgiveness when we forgive others.
Another important teaching of Jesus on forgiveness is when he is asked by Peter how often we must forgive others (Matthew 18:21-22). Right after Jesus has talked about the three-tier disciplinary approach of the church on how to deal with offenses between believers, Peter then asks Jesus if seven times of forgiveness is enough.
Jesus answers that seventy-seven times is what he expects. We will give Peter the benefit of the doubt that seven is the number of perfection or completion and he only meant to say that he wanted to completely forgive his offender.
But when Jesus says 77, the two sevens represent a doubling of the commitment Peter made. Jesus expects us to go the extra mile in our forgiveness of others. Even if they are repeat offenders, we never have an excuse to not forgive them.
Jesus then follows up his proclamation with a parable that shows how the Father reacts to those who receive his forgiveness and mercy but will not give it to others (Matthew 18:23-35). The master of the house out of compassion forgives the debt of one of his servants. But then the servant goes out and refuses to forgive the much lesser debt of someone who owes him.
These are not easy teachings for us to fulfill, but the Lord expects us who follow and are his disciples to obey him in this matter as well as every other matter he teaches. Forgiveness is not easy to do, but Jesus did it for us. And when we forgive others, we show them, as good representatives of Christ, the image of Jesus.
Beyond this teaching of forgiveness, Jesus also teaches us to not retaliate against those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:38-42). Even further than not retaliating, he calls his disciples to love their enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:43-48).