The Freedom of Forgiveness

by John David Hicks

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

These words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount must be taken seriously. The “gift at the altar,” or sacrifice, restored a relationship with God as provided for in the covenant. Jesus is saying a rift between you and another person causes a rift between you and God that can’t be settled with an offering, because “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Before you come to the Lord in prayer, worship, or the Lord’s Supper, you must deal with any unresolved conflict between you and a brother or sister. God requires that you forgive.

Christians who have difficulty forgiving often have a problem accepting God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key to God’s redemption and eternal life. When I realize the seri-ousness of my sin before God and receive His redemption in Christ, God’s forgiveness penetrates my very nature, clean-sing me and freeing me from sin’s bondage (Romans 8:1).
God’s forgiveness is a miracle of His grace and mercy. Because God is holy, the only way to forgive sin is through the painful, shameful cross of Jesus Christ.
Oswald Chambers says, “There is no such thing as God overlooking sin. That is where people make a great mistake with regard to God’s love; they say ‘God is love and of course He will forgive sin’: God is holy love and of course He cannot forgive sin. Therefore if God does forgive, there must be a reason that justifies Him in doing it…. The only ground on which God can forgive sin and reinstate us in His favor, is through the Cross of Christ, and in no other way.”
Pardon from sin can come only from God because all sin is against God. To be forgiven for an offense or sin is an act that frees and absolves a person from guilt and blame. The person who has done wrong is pardoned, released from the penalty of an offense. The person who pardons is the one who was wronged. Thus, God alone can absolve and cleanse your record (1 John 1:9).
Breaking God’s laws shows us our need for forgiveness. The Bible says that the law brings us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The consequences of sin are feelings of guilt, condem-nation, and the judgment and disapproval of God.
To experience God’s grace and forgiveness, God must first humble you. We are blind to our need. “Through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). The law shocks us into our responsibility for sin. We see our utter helpless-ness to forgive and change. We can receive the grace of God only when we despair of our own ability. This despair awak-ens humility. At this point of hopelessness, we finally bottom out and die to our performance. God’s liberating grace comes to those who have no claim upon it. In this humility grace is acquired and we experience the power of the resurrection. Grace is attained by humility. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). God’s way of mak-ing you righteous is to let the law humble you in your sin and failure, so that grace can save you and give you mercy and forgiveness. This humility is saving faith.
From personal need, I see my need for God’s forgiveness and redemption. I begin to understand why I must turn to God. Forgiveness means more than being saved from judg-ment and God’s wrath; it means that I am forgiven and re-created into relationship with God (1 Corinthians 1:9).
The kingdom of God is founded on forgiveness. God says He has already forgiven you if you will receive His forgive-ness (2 Corinthians 5:19). Now Jesus says God’s acceptance of your worship and sacrifice depends on your forgiveness of those who have wronged you. If you refuse to forgive, then you are in rebellion against God and in agreement with the realm of hell. Satan has founded his kingdom on hate, unfor-giveness, and getting even. If God has forgiven us every-thing, why should someone have to deserve our forgiveness?

Sooner or later you are going to be mistreated, hurt, or wounded (John 16:33). The pain may come from your family, a friend, or someone at church. You will be required to for-give and cancel what this person has done to you. For we cannot have God’s forgiveness without extending forgiveness to others (Mark 11:25). It’s the way the kingdom of God works. There is no forgiveness apart from the grace of God. When we are forgiven, we will exhibit that same forgiveness to others (Ephesians 4:32). When you refuse to forgive, you keep God from forgiving you and give Satan an advantage over you. Nothing will poison your body, soul, or spirit like unforgiveness.

This forgiveness is personal and involves reconciliation, two hostile persons becoming friendly or peaceable again. You can wrong me and I can forgive you, but there is no reconciliation until you acknowledge my forgiveness. As you acknowledge and receive it, we are reconciled. It was one-sided until you acknowledged it. It is the same with God. Christ has already redeemed you, but you must acknowledge it (John 3:16-18).

When we have been healed by forgiveness, we let go of the hate—no longer letting our past resentment be the judge of the trespasser. Oswald Chambers says, “The point about Christian forgiveness is not that God puts snow over a dung-heap, but that He turns a man into the standard of the For-giver.”

But why is it so hard and painful to forgive others? Be-cause we feel we have been attacked, and resentment or hate is the result. The pain goes deep into our emotions. But to have fullness of joy, you must be willing to face the depths of sorrow. The hurts from others, when overcome, lead to a greater love.
When you take God’s word seriously, you have Jesus’ promise that if you are willing to forgive, you will be for-given. But also you have His warning that if you do not for-give, you will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:15). But what if you are the person you won’t forgive. There may be some shameful sin in your past for which you won’t forgive yourself. This brings as much destruction as though it were directed toward another person (Matthew 18:32-35). When God forgives you, He gives you the power to forgive yourself (Romans 8:1).
Nevertheless, unless Jesus lives in you, all your efforts will be in vain (John 15:5; 1 John 4:4). Forgiveness of the hurts of others is only possible through Jesus Christ, who loves you and can forgive you with His atoning blood. But the sin of unforgiveness must be seen, acknowledged, and confessed. We must ask God to shine His light into our hearts. For light is capable of “showing up everything for what it really is” (Ephesians 5:13 Phillips). To have victory, you must call unforgiveness sin. Do not try to cover up your bitterness. This is just another name for unforgiveness and anger held within. In prayer one day, John Wimber said he asked God to forgive him for his “personality hang-ups.” The Lord said to him, “I don’t forgive personality hang-ups. Call it sin, and I will forgive you.”

When we see sin as it really is, in its deceitfulness and filth, and confess it to the Lord, then as the sun’s light over-comes the darkness of night, so Christ’s light of forgiveness overcomes sin’s darkness (1 John 1:7).
You must face your anger and root it out, before it grows into bitterness and hate. At the judgment you will not have to answer for what others have done to you—but you will an-swer for your responses to what they have done. Instead of trying to justify yourself, ask God to forgive you. Your wounded pride will try to hold you back. Refusing to forgive is saying that others are not worthy of our forgiveness, that they are subhuman, objects of our hate and mistrust (1 John 3:15). We “kill” them by depersonalizing them.
We all know bitter people who are full of resentment and self-pity. They remember the smallest detail of their hurt, real or imagined, and live to get even. Holding a grudge opens the door to Satan and closes the door to God (Matthew 6:15). George MacDonald says: “It may be infinitely worse to re-fuse to forgive than to murder, because the latter may be an impulse of a moment of heat, whereas the former is a cold and deliberate choice of the heart.”
Bitterness is more than a bad outlook on life. God calls it sin. Why? Because bitterness takes God’s place in control of your life. Vengeance belongs to God, not you (Romans 12:19). A Chinese proverb says the man who opts for revenge should dig two graves.
Few disputes are one-sided. Our pride sees only the sins of others and is blind to our own (Luke 6:42). That is why only the humble can be forgiven. Humility allows you to move beyond the hurt, to turn it over to God, and forgive. When you have been deeply hurt, you will never be healed until you forgive. Forgiveness breaks the curse of sin, setting you free from your past and giving you God’s power to love.

When we forgive someone, we excuse their mistakes and do not punish them for it. By God’s grace we not only pardon the person who has wronged us, but also accept the sinner and want to restore him.

The power to forgive comes from God. The decision to forgive must come from you when you turn to God in prayer, recognizing your weakness. Then God gives you the power to “love your enemy” (Matthew 5:44). Your heart may feel nothing but coldness toward that person, but now you choose to want what is best for him or her. That is when God’s love will flow through you, warming your heart (Romans 12:20-21).

Your conscience cannot live without forgiveness, and no one can enter the kingdom of God without forgiveness. The only way to have inner peace in Christ is to be reconciled to others. Unforgiving thoughts lead to division and divorce in your relationships. The only thing that matters in life is rela-tionships. They are eternal, because people are eternal.

Paul told the Colossians to live in peace as members of Christ’s body (3:15). The most pressing need in any church is love and forgiveness (John 13:34-35). Your forgiveness and peace will cause you to offer forgiveness to others, which brings unity in the church.

Thomas Merton said, “We do not really know how to forgive until we know what it is to be forgiven. Therefore we should be glad that we can be forgiven by our brothers. It is our forgiveness of one another that makes the love of Jesus manifest in our lives, for in forgiving we act towards one another as God has acted towards us.”

If you have been hurt by another, or if you have taken sides in an offense and been hurt, you need God’s healing touch. For healing to take place you must:

First, own up to your part. (Did you sin by taking sides, or by sitting on the fence and doing nothing?)

Second, quit blaming and making excuses for not being a loving person.

Third, repent and confess your sin to God. (You are not to follow a person or a church, but the Lord.)

Fourth, make restitution. (Practice Matthew 18.)

How do you know when you have forgiven? When the symptoms go away. When you can pray for the person who hurt you. When it is no longer important to get a confession. It does not matter anymore. You have released the offender—you have forgiven him. Now you are free! When I was a teenager, a mature Christian gave me the key to forgiveness. He said, “Forgive as soon as it happens and don’t demand an apology.”

As soon as resentment and anger comes to your mind, you should stop and say two things to the Lord. First, “Lord, forgive me for my resentment and anger. I forgive the person who put it there.” Then, “I turn them over to you and ask you to bless them.”

Will you let God help you to forgive? If you want to serve Jesus, you must have a forgiving heart. “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). When you get hurt, you get angry, but don’t sin. Before the sun goes down, forgive. Don’t sleep on it. If you do, there are consequences. You will give Satan a foothold—a place where he may stand or walk securely in your life. You will be in bondage, driven, with no control.

Ultimately, the wrongs people do to you cannot separate you from God; only your unforgiveness can. Those hurts, resentments, and bitterness must be given to God. Let God heal your wounded spirit (Psalm 147:3). Christ’s redemption brings forgiveness and frees you from the bondage of sin. Your part is to release the person from the debt you feel he owes you. Say in your heart to him, “You are forgiven and freed from what you did to me because I am forgiven and accepted by God unconditionally. I have released you; you are no longer accountable to me for those actions.” Thank the Lord for using these people as a tool in your life to give you greater grace and conform you into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:28-29).

After you have finished praying through the hurts you have suffered, pray this prayer of faith:

“Lord, by faith I receive your unconditional love and ac-ceptance. I take authority over Satan and take back the lost ground and strongholds I have allowed him to have because of my attitude. I give this lost ground to you, Lord. Help me to live for you. Amen.”

© Copyright 1998 Faith Encounter, Inc.

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