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How Does Forgiveness Work?

By Mel Lawrenz | Minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Psalm 32:1-5

After a young husband and father fatally shot five young girls, the news coming out of the Amish community of West Nickels Mines headlined a single word: forgiveness.

This word caught the attention of the media, but what does forgive mean? What did it mean for people from the Amish community to go to the wife of the killer and say they would forgive her and her family in this unbelievably traumatic incident? Did they mean they forgave the murderer? Does this make any sense? How does righteous indignation figure into the crimes of humanity? How can we have justice and forgiveness at the same time? How can we have accountability for violation of the laws of God along with application of the mercy of God?

Every one of us needs to understand and come to terms with the issue of forgiveness. Because forgiveness is part of God's plan, when properly understood it will not contradict God's justice.

Before we go any further, we need to define forgiveness, but let's start with what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not a compromise of morality. Don't think God would confuse moral clarity and moral responsibility with grace and forgiveness. God's justice ensures that the murderer will not get away with murder, and the sex offender will not get away with molestation.

Forgiveness is not a violation of justice. God never will compromise His justice.

Forgiveness is not merely the avoidance of conflict. There are a lot of us who do not like conflict. We don't want to share hard feelings or harsh words with someone else, so we skirt around issues of conflict. Sometimes forbearance is the right thing to do, but simple avoidance of conflict is not the same as forgiveness.

Forgiveness Is Release (Matthew 18:27-32)

So, what really is the meaning of forgiveness? For a moment, try to forget everything you have heard or assumed about forgiveness. Let a single word impress itself on your mind: the biblical word, the new covenant word, in Greek it is aphesis, in English, release.

Now for a moment, don't make it any more complicated than that—release. Forgive means to choose to take someone whom you have been holding in your debt, holding in resentment and bitterness, and release him or her.

Forgiveness is not calling something that someone else did that was immoral or destructive OK. It is not turning a blind eye toward injustice. Forgiveness simply means you choose to release somebody from personal obligation to you—even though that person will have to face the justice of God.

In Matthew 18, Jesus' disciple Peter asked Jesus: "How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

Jesus answered with a parable in which a man owed a king 10,000 talents (today's equivalent of millions of dollars) and was on the brink of having to sell his wife and children into slavery to pay the debt, but the pleas of the man to the king were heard and his debt was cancelled. Forgiveness. Release.

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