The conclusion of the last post was that we can know we have genuinely become a Christian if our life changes and we live differently, as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Jesus referred to this as producing fruit, where if the Holy Spirit is in us our life will produce good fruit, but if the Holy Spirit is not in us our life will produce bad fruit. Therefore we can know we are a Christian if our life is producing good fruit (Luke 6:43-45). The Bible tells us that this is our purpose as Christians – the very reason God has chosen us is to bear good fruit (John 15:16; Rom 7:4; Col 1:10) for this brings glory to God and demonstrates we are followers of Jesus Christ (John 15:8).
One of these ‘fruit’ that demonstrates we really are a Christian is forgiveness. If the Holy Spirit is in us then we will be people of forgiveness, who personally receive forgiveness from God, and then personally extend forgiveness to others. God’s intention is not just that we receive forgiveness, but that as a result of receiving we also extend it. When we are hurt by others (and we will be) or have a grievance against someone, we are commanded to be kind, compassionate, tolerant, and forgive them in the same way that God forgives us (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32). This of course is not only difficult, but unnatural, and near on impossible – unless the Holy Spirit is in us.
So many of the problems we have in church today result from the refusal to forgive. People choose to hold grudges and resentment instead, and it makes them a prisoner to bitterness, anger, recrimination, retribution, and guilt, robbing them of true joy (not to mention destroying the love, unity, and witness of the local church). It is not only good for the offender when we forgive; it is best for us as well, because forgiveness frees us from this bondage and releases a joy that is able to heal every hurt. Forgiveness opens our hearts to God and our lives to Him working in us.
It helps to also remember the incredible debt that God has first forgiven us. When we begin to comprehend the depth of our own depravity, weakness, and need, it is harder to be angry and judgemental of others who, like us are also weak. When we understand how deeply fallen we are, and the subsequent enormity of what we are forgiven, we should no longer respond to offenses with inflamed pride, but rather – empowered by the Holy Spirit – respond with love and forgiveness as God does. It was for our own transgressions that our Saviour suffered the agony of death nailed to a Roman cross. We have wronged Him far greater than anyone has wronged us (no one has tortured us to death on a cross), yet He forgave, and in His forgiveness also gave His Spirit so that in our gratitude, we would treat others the same as God treats us. To not forgive others is to actually be ungrateful to God (Matt 18:32-35).
While our culture promotes our natural inclination to selfishly focus on ourselves, the core ethic of following Jesus Christ is to put the interests of others ahead of our own (Phil 2:3-4; Matt 22:39-40), and forgiving other people is one of the practical ways we do this.
While we often make all sorts of excuses to justify unforgiveness, the reality is that Jesus and the Bible do not allow Christians any other option except forgiveness. When Jesus taught his followers how to pray, he teaches them to ask for forgiveness from God daily, along with the grace to forgive others at the same time. The two are wrapped together in the same sentence so that Christians ask God to forgive them, on the basis that they themselves are also forgiving others (Luke 11:4). Jesus then states it even more emphatically by saying that unless we forgive other people, God will not forgive us (Matt 6:14-15). This does not mean that God’s forgiveness is conditional, or that He cannot forgive people who have been unforgiving. It is rather that refusal to forgive is an indication that someone is probably not a Christian (has not received forgiveness from God) in the first place. An unforgiving disposition is an indication of: pride, lack of real repentance, not having received God’s forgiveness, not having the Holy Spirit, and therefore of not being a Christian. Until someone honestly repents, they will not be forgiven, they will not be a Christian, they will not receive the Holy Spirit, and so they will not be able to forgive. Forgiveness is a ‘fruit’ that indicates the Holy Spirit is in us, transforming us and enabling us to do what we could not otherwise do.
Given the consequences are so dire, it is worth repeating what some now refer to as the forgotten command. Jesus said that if we will not forgive others their sins, God will not forgive our sins (Matt 6:15). This should have us all asking one essential question, “Is there really any grievance, wrongdoing, or sin, so great that I am prepared to lose eternal life for, rather than forgive?”
We exist to elevate God above everything else, and while it is good for others and good for us when we forgive, ultimately God wants us to forgive because it brings Him glory. For when the world observes us forgiving and loving other people in a way that they are not able to, it points to the God who has forgiven us, and empowered us through His Spirit to do the same. When people see our forgiveness and understand that we do it because this is exactly what God does for us, then God is glorified. Forgiving others then, is a practical demonstration of the authenticity of the gospel, where people see this good fruit, recognise its supernatural source, and glorify God as a result (Matt 5:16).
In the next post we will look at what biblical forgiveness really is.