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The Practical Christian Life

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 7

Forgiveness of sins

“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (Isa.59:1,2). The fact is that every single one of us has sinned in many ways in our thoughts, words and deeds, in doing what we should not have done and not doing what we ought to have done. The result is that there is no way we can go near God on our own merit. The righteousness and justice of God demand that sin must be punished with death – eternal separation from God. Yet the love of God for the people whom He has created compels Him to seek us out. Both these sides of God – His righteousness and love – met on the cross of Calvary where the Son of God was sacrificed to bear the punishment for our sins. God’s love has triumphed over His justice by meeting its demands Himself, thereby making it possible for Him to extend His love to us.

The Cost Of Forgiveness
When we experience forgiveness from God freely when we go to Him humbly acknowledging our sins and sinfulness, we need to recognise that it cost God the most precious thing He had – His only Son – in order to become able to grant us forgiveness. Jesus had to suffer, shed His blood and die on the cross in order to bear our sins. That is how much God loves us. This knowledge is what should prevent us from taking His forgiveness for granted, as if it was something cheap. Otherwise we might tend to use grace as an excuse for sin (Gal.5:13). We may choose to give in to sin without fear if we presume on forgiveness being freely available to us just for the cost of confessing our sin afterwards! But God who sees our heart cannot be fooled (6:7).

Under the Law in the old covenant, there was provision of forgiveness only when someone committed a sin unintentionally (e.g., Lev.4:2). When someone disobeyed God’s law knowingly, he could not escape the punishment. For example, after the law of the Sabbath was given, a man who went out picking firewood on a Sabbath day was stoned to death (Num.15:32–36). We have another example in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 where these two people died when they chose to tell lies to the apostles. If we think this was harsh, let us remember that God is always just. Let us also understand that it is possible that God used these instances in the beginning of the old and the new covenants respectively to teach people through examples how He viewed sin. What we see in general, however, is that He mixes His righteousness and grace together in that He does not usually punish people immediately but gives them time to repent.

God is willing to forgive us even our deliberate sins if we truly repent afterwards. But we must remember that we cannot fool God with merely an external pretence of repentance.

One of the remarkable aspects of God’s unmerited favour towards us in the new covenant is that He would be merciful towards our sins (Heb.8:12). He says He will not ‘remember them anymore’. The omniscient God who knows our past, present and future cannot actually forget anything. What He promises is that He will not recall our sins from His memory and hold them against us. He has completely cleared up every accusation that His laws had against us. Once we see this clearly, we do not have to feel guilty every time we remember our past.

When we first go to God as a sinner and receive His forgiveness, He not only forgives our sins but He also forgives us as a person! We are forgiven and justified. He accepts us as we are, with all our present shortcomings and weaknesses too. He takes away our guilt and our shame. We can walk with our heads lifted high with humble boldness. When we fall, we confess our sins and receive forgiveness. But there will be many sins we fall into even without being aware of what we are doing wrong. The blood of Jesus keeps washing all our sins as long as we are walking in the light – open with God, not trying to hide or justifying ourselves (1Jn.1:7). Our forgiveness is not based on our confessing every sin but confessing we are sinners who need His mercy. It is practically impossible to confess every single sin, because we can’t even remember many of them and we aren’t even aware of many others. We don’t have to worry if we would be denied heaven if we died before confessing some sin! Think what happened to the thief on the cross who went with Jesus to Paradise.

Some people point out that Jesus has died only once and so He has paid even for our future sins. Therefore they say that if we fall into any sin after we have been forgiven we do not have to confess them because we are already forgiven! Some of them even say that if we now confess our sins it would be insulting God by implying that He has not forgiven us those sins. Even if this appears to be reasonable, it is an error. The Bible tells us that what He wants us to do is to stop sinning but that if we fall into sin we can go to Jesus who is our Advocate and who has made the sacrifice for our sins (1Jn.1:1,2). We also know that God asks us to confess our sins and receive forgiveness and cleansing (1Jn.1:9). We ask for forgiveness because we realise we have sinned against God who loved us and gave His Son for us. It is an acknowledgement of our sin and also a thankful receiving of His forgiveness. It causes us to feel sorrow for grieving our Father and helps us to renew our repentance. It also helps us ask God earnestly for wisdom and grace to handle the next temptation rightly. What a lot we will miss if we do not acknowledge or confess our sins! We may even begin to take sin lightly and forgiveness for granted.

Two Sides Of Forgiveness
We receive forgiveness from God for our sins as an unmerited favour He shows upon us. When we ask for forgiveness we must remember how we have violated God’s holy laws and what we really deserve for that. Our confession of sins must come from a broken heart that sorrows over our sin (1Jn.1:9;2Cor.7:10,11;Psa.51:17). If our forgiveness is on this basis, then it must be that our forgiving others who have sinned against us must be also on the same basis – as an unmerited favour towards them. If we hold back anyone’s forgiveness saying he does not deserve it, we are actually negating the grounds for our own forgiveness. That is why Jesus said that if we do not forgive others their sins, then our Heavenly Father will not also forgive us (Matt.6:14,15).

There is a very important parable Jesus said concerning this subject (Matt.18:21-35). A king forgave one of his servants who owed him a lot of money. But this servant would not forgive a fellow servant who owed him comparatively very little. When the king heard about it, he took back the forgiveness he had already given and put him in prison. Jesus concluded the story saying that the Heavenly Father would deal in the same way with anyone who would not forgive others.

I think we must also remember at this point that God understands our struggle with trying to forgive someone who has done us severe harm, especially if we are still suffering from the consequences. But the ones He is going to be severe towards will be only those who refuse to forgive others while wanting free forgiveness for themselves.

We must realise that when we go to God for getting forgiveness from Him based on His grace, we are at the same time declaring that we do not have any right to sit in judgment over anyone else because we are all on the same side of God, with none of us deserving forgiveness from Him.

Practical Forgiveness
One difficulty with regards to receiving or giving forgiveness can be the state of our feelings. It may be that even after we have repented and confessed our sins we do not feel forgiven. We may be still troubled with feelings of guilt or doubt. On the other side, even after we have decided to forgive someone we may find that feelings of anger may come up when we remember the one we have forgiven. Then we may wonder if we have really forgiven him.

Remember that our feelings have been corrupted because of the Fall. They are not directly under our control. Also, the Devil may stir up our feelings in order to cast doubts into our mind. But the secret of victory is to recognise that forgiveness is a decision that we deliberately make, and not something that is dependent on feelings. God forgives us when we confess our sins, and that is a fact, irrespective of how we feel afterwards. When we forgive someone, that is what we decide to do, and that also does not depend on how much time it takes for our feelings to follow. What we need to do after we have confessed our sins to God is to remind ourselves that if we have done our part, God can be trusted to have done His part (1Jn.1:9). Then every time feelings of doubt or guilt come up in our mind we can tell ourselves God has already forgiven us, and then refuse to entertain any further discussion about it! Similarly, after we have forgiven someone and feelings of anger rise up, we can remind ourselves that we have already forgiven them! When we do this reminders a few times we will find that our feelings stop troubling us.

There are some more practical aspects regarding forgiveness we need to know. Since God is at once the Lawgiver and the Forgiver, He demands that we should first repent and confess our sins before He forgives us. However, since we are only recipients of grace we have no right to demand repentance or apology from others before we forgive them. We must learn to forgive them as soon as we realise they have done us wrong. That is how we have to forgive even those who remain our enemies. Jesus identified Himself with man in such a way that even when people were crucifying Him He forgave them from His heart (Lk.23:34). What did He mean when He said they did not know what they were doing? They certainly knew they were crucifying Him. What they did not know were important things such as that He was their Messiah who had come to save them, that He had done them no harm but only good, and that they would heap upon themselves severe judgment from God for this heinous act. For us too, it is this attitude of Jesus that will help us in forgiving everyone who does harm to us.

When we forgive someone their sins against us, we are only declaring that we have no right to judge them, and cleansing our heart towards them. Also we recognise the fact that as sinful people, even if we were to judge, our judgment can never be fully righteous or merciful. Even after we have ‘forgiven’ them, their sins will remain before God till they repent. Only He has the authority to make that final decision. When we forgive them we pass them to God who, we can be sure, will give a perfectly righteous and merciful judgment (Rom.12:19).

It is very common to hear well-meaning people suggest that we should not only forgive the sins of others, we must also forget them – ‘forgive and forget’. It sounds nice, but it is not something God asks us to do because it is unrealistic! What we will find is that the more we try to forget, the more it comes up to our mind! That is the way our mind works. What God wants is for us to ‘let go’ and stop holding sins against the others, just as He does towards us (Heb.8:12). After we have forgiven, every time the memory comes up in our mind we can remind ourselves that the matter has already been settled and refuse to think about it anymore. We can immediately divert our attention to some other subject! After we have done this a few times we will notice that this particular subject is coming up less and less times to our mind.

If we have done wrong to others, it is only right that we apologise to them and set things right with them as far as possible. Remember that once we have hurt them whatever we may do afterwards cannot retract that hurt fully. It is only right that we clear our heart in humility and acknowledge our sin. Also, it is only righteous for us to make retribution and restoration to the extent possible from our side.

We must realise from a practical point of view that whenever we sin against someone we lose their trust to some extent. It may take time, sometime a long time, depending on how badly we broken their trust, to restore that trust. It will not be right for us to demand that after we have apologised the others should restore their relationship as before.

Some are confused about Jesus saying that, if we are about to make an offering to God and then we remember that ‘a brother has something against us’, we should leave the offering and go immediately and settle the matter with him and then come back to make the offering (Matt.5:23,24). In a practical sense, this refers to situations where we have done wrong to someone and then we remember that it has not been settled. We are not under any bondage by which we have to go around appeasing everyone who is offended with us because of some misunderstanding on their part!

Lastly, forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same, as many assume. Someone may forgive us, or we may forgive someone else. This forgiveness may happen entirely from one side. But it is not practical to expect that there would be a restoration of relationship until things have been sorted out from both sides. God is very practical about this, and tells us to be at peace with others as far as it lies with us (Rom.12:18). Some people may not accept our apology or forgive us even after we have genuinely repented. But that is something we cannot control, and so we do only what we can from our side. On the other hand, we may forgive someone but recognise that since the other person has not repented and changed towards us, we may decide that it would be in our interest to keep a distance in order to avoid getting hurt again.

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