Five Scriptural Steps to Total Forgiveness
I recently read a story about a well-known lover of dogs. He was very active in giving speeches to raise money for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If you could imagine a man who truly loved dogs, this was your man.
One day, his love was put to the test. He was pouring a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. He was just smoothing out the last square foot of cement when his neighbor’s beautiful Golden Retriever strayed from the yard and walked up to the man for a pet on the head. The Golden Retriever also walked right into the wet cement. This noted dog lover muttered something under his breath and waved off the dog.
Again, this SPCA superstar smoothed out the concrete; this time, another dog, a cute little Cocker Spaniel owned by the little girl down the street came by. This dog was also drawn to this king of canine kindness; so he ran to the man, plopping foot after little foot into the wet cement. The man got up and threw his trowel at the poor little beast. Cursing openly, he knelt again and for the second time smoothed out his concrete creation.
Then as he was finishing and standing to admire his work, his wife pulled up in her car and out bounded their little Schnauzer. The happy little critter went straight for its owner and sort of skated across the whole wet concrete. The man began to chase his own dog around and around in the yard with a shovel, swinging to kill! His wife, aghast, yelled: “But I thought you loved dogs!” You see, he loved dogs in the abstract, but not in the concrete!
Christianity is well-known for its emphasis on forgiveness. Today we want to get past forgiveness in the abstract to forgiveness in the concrete.
What are the benefits of forgiving someone? Harvard Women’s Health Watch recently discussed the following five positive health effects of forgiving that have been scientifically studied:
1. Reduced stress.
2. Better heart health.
3. Stronger relationships.
4. Reduced pain.
5. Greater happiness.
I don’t think anyone will argue with the positive effects of forgiveness. The problem is how to forgive.
I hear the voices from the walls of my pastoral study through the years of ministry. What does it mean to forgive?
• The middle schooler’s voice says: How do I erase from my mind the pain of your betrayal of me? You know I wasn’t cutting up in class; yet to save your own hide, you said I was. How can I forgive you?
• The jilted lawyer’s wife says: How do I forget the affair you had with your fellow student as I gave up my life for four years to put you through law school? How could I possibly forgive you?
• The traumatized adult says: How do I act as if nothing ever happened when you and I both know the truth about what you did to me when I was little? How could I forgive you for what you did to me?
• The pastor forced out of the ministry says: How do I get over the elder who forced me out of my pulpit? I am without a call now, and he is doing just fine. My reputation is ruined. My life is shattered. I don’t have enough money to pay the light bill on this apartment, and I am working the dog shift as a security guard at a warehouse. My ministry is over! I never have been so angry and hurt in my life. I have had it with the church and with God. I don’t know how to forgive those Christians.
What is your story? Who is it you can’t forgive?
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus touched the exposed nerve of every human being when He said we should pray, “Forgive us our debts, even as we have forgiven our debtors.” I like the first part about being forgiven, but I have difficulty with the other part. What was Jesus saying? First, He was not saying, “I will forgive, but I won’t like you.” Imagine God having that attitude with us! No, this is about total forgiveness: a canceling of a debt made through an offense that totally restores and renews a relationship.
Dag Hammarskjold wrote: “Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.”
Jesus was saying we should pray for miracles, for God to make whole what was broken, to make clean what was filthy in our relationship with God and with each other. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, said that as Christ forgave them, they must forgive one another. He was writing to Christians who needed to forgive other Christians.
Most of the people I have to forgive are not like Osama Bin Laden. It is with those I love, people with whom I work, brothers and sisters in the faith. Our families, workplace, and the church are all laboratories in which God works out our sanctification. The way He does it is through forgiveness.
William Blake said, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” How do we forgive our loved ones and friends who have hurt us? “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (
The Bible is filled with great sinners, who were forgiven. In fact, Paul was one of them. Another is the shepherd king of Israel, David. Look at Psalm 51 and the confession of David to come to terms with a radical forgiveness from God that allows us to forgive not only our enemies, but also our friends, to show them the kind of total forgiveness God has shown us.
There are five scriptural truths we must come to know in order to forgive:
1. Personal responsibility in sin
2. Horrible consequences of sin
3. The unsearchable depths of God’s grace
4. Delightful blessings of God’s forgiveness
5. Unimaginable love of Jesus Christ
First, in order to forgive, we must know the personal responsibility of our sin!
Psalm 51 is a deep, personal response of David to his own sin:
• Have mercy on me O God (v. 1).
• Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…and cleanse me from my sin (v. 2).
• For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me (v. 3).
• Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight (v. 4).
The way he learned of his sin was from a story. In
By this time in the story, David grew angry. He interrupted Nathan’s story and said, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had not pity” (vv. 5-6). Then those words from Nathan to the king: “Thou art the man” (v. 7).
David said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (v. 13). He accepted personal responsibility. So David began his penitential psalm. “Have mercy on me, O God…” David also confessed he sinned because of what Augustine called “original sin,” for he confessed not only that he had sinned, but that he was a sinner: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
The Reformers called it “total depravity.” It means there is an innate brokenness in our humanity that produces brokenness and rebellion against God. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.
To quote Richard John Neuhaus, in his Death on a Friday Afternoon:
“Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit…Most of us did not, as some do, stand on a mountain peak and shake a clenched fist against the storming skies, cursing God…The something very bad that has happened takes the form of the long dreary list of history’s horribles, from concentration camps to the tortured death of innocent children…the indubitable truth is illustrated in ways beyond number, from Auschwitz to the shattered cookie jar on the kitchen floor.”
My beloved, we cannot begin to forgive others until we know forgiveness from God. To know forgiveness, we must know and admit there is a shattered cookie jar in our lives. More than that, there is something within us that is desperately in need of a divine remedy, or we will keep breaking cookie jars.
We are all in this shape. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Our God is in the business not only of picking up the pieces of the cookie jar, of working strength out of our weakness, but He causes us to be born again to a living hope; the original sin is rooted out, exposed and forgiven; when you know you can forgive another, for they are sinners as are you.
Second, we must know the horrible consequences of sin.
David chronicled them:
• When he says, “cleanse me from my sin,” we recognize the dehumanizing shame of sin that stains our lives. He needed cleansing as a person.
• When David said, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” we understand how guilt paralyses our lives. If we are honest, we can relate to pagan societies that offer animal sacrifices today; something must be done!
• When he said, “Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight…” we sense the isolation that came to Cain as he ran from all humans, for sin separates us from our loved ones and mars the image of God in our lives.
“Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that You have broken rejoice…cast me not away from Your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:8-12).
What pain there is in the believer who falls into sin. “The way of a sinner is hard,” says the Bible.
In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, a professor journeys to see the distant future and is stunned by what mankind has done to itself and the world. I sometimes wish those who believe they can continue in sin with no consequences would dare get inside the time machine to take them into the future. They would see the consequences of sin and what their unconfessed sin does to them and to their world.
David’s sin brought sadness to his house, strife in his family, abuse and murder, as well as rebellion against David by his son Absalom. It led to the division of a great kingdom. If we learn anything from David’s sin, it is that the fall of the Kingdom of David began with sin in David’s heart and a second look at a woman who was not his wife.
There is passing pleasure, but it sours quickly and it is utterly bitter in the soul. It stinks, rots and infects the rest of our lives. Our relationships, hopes, dreams, talents, our entire lives are infected with it. When we see we are saved from such consequences, we desire to stop it in others.
Here’s a third scriptural truth: In order to forgive, we must know the unsearchable depths of God’s grace!
David prayed to the God of steadfast love. This is a wonderful Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is the covenant love of God. It is the covenant of grace, whereby God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s love, God’s mercy.
There is a wonderful allusion David uses here: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Hyssop was a plant with long little stems that grew similar to ivy, for it is said to grow out of the walls in
To cancel the debts you owe, you need to see yourself as a vile offender, made unclean by your sin, yet being washed by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who was slain for your sins. Then you can forgive. The grace of Jesus leaves no unforgiving place in your life.
A fourth truth: In order to forgive, we must know the delightful blessings of God’s forgiveness!
David was not driven to God only by his sin, but by his holy desire to know God’s forgiveness. What are the blessings of forgiveness?
To know wisdom (v. 6b): David, repentant and forgiven, would enjoy a heart open to receive God’s Word. Where sin blocks the application of the Word, forgiveness creates a secret space in the deep places of the heart that is open to teaching, which brings life.
To know joy and gladness (v. 8): Where sin brings sadness, a new life brings joy. I was never as joyful as when I prayed to receive the grace of God and asked forgiveness of my sins and cast my supposed righteous works on the ash heap of confessed sins, looking to God alone for my salvation. Then I was joyful and glad and it has never left me!
To know a right spirit: that is, a clean conscience (v. 10).
To know the supernatural presence of God that leads, guides, (not a plea that doubts God’s power, but a plea to recover a relationship), directs and comforts (v. 11): To be forgiven is to be restored. If you, a sinning saint, know the comforting presence of God in your life, you are no longer a vagabond running from the Lord in your heart, but a child brought home to the arms of your Father.
To know the joy of salvation (v. 12): Repenting and coming back to the Lord is the same as throwing away cigarettes and beginning to taste apple pie or a banana split again after a long diet of bland food. It is to taste the goodness of God in our own lives as if it were the first time.
To be used of God to preach the gospel, from personal experience of God’s grace to others: For we read, “Then, I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You” (v. 13). Praise God that He uses those who come to Him in repentance and faith in His finished work on the cross. I once heard a preacher say he had sinned greatly. He had lost his pulpit. He had lost it all. He said he ran from God, but God hounded him until he confessed his sins. He said that after that, he wanted to preach more than ever. He became a preacher on the streets known only to God and street people. He was centered and happy. A fifth truth: In order to forgive, we must personally know the unimaginable love of Jesus Christ!
David went to the God of the covenant. He prayed for God to deliver him, and he called Him “O God of my salvation.” We know this God is Jesus Christ. For David to know His Savior was to know total forgiveness. The One who calls us to pray for forgiveness, even as we forgive others, is the One on the cross who prayed the first of His seven words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
To hear this from Jesus deep in your heart today is to hear Jesus personally. It is to know He has forgiven you personally for sins known and for sins you do not know. To hear such forgiveness is to be forgiven, to forgive yourself and to forgive others. The relationship of our forgiveness from a personal encounter with this Jesus and our forgiveness of a person such as one’s self is essential. We forgive because Christ has forgiven us.
Some of us remember the dramatic testimony of Corrie Ten Boon, the famous Dutch Christian woman whose life as a prisoner of war at a Nazi prison camp was made famous in The Hiding Place. One of the most amazing things that ever happened between Corrie Ten Boon and Nazi concentration camp guards happened in Munich years after World War II:
“At a church in Germany, she spoke about how God forgives people whatever their sin when they confess and turn to Him. After the service, she stood face-to-face with a man who obviously had been touched by her message. He asked, ‘Fraulein Ten Boon, do you remember me?’ Remember him! She had spent years trying to forget him! He was one of her prison guards! ‘Yes, I remember you.’ She said coldly. With emotion choking him, the former Nazi asked, ‘Is it true that God can forgive me of all the horrible things I have done?’ ‘Yes, God will forgive you as you give your life to Him.’ ‘Oh, this is such good news!’ he said with tear-filled eyes. ‘Fraulein Ten Boon, will you forgive me?’
“Corrie stared at him and thought, ‘The question is not will I forgive you, but can I forgive you?’ The answer was clear: NO! ‘No, I cannot forgive you; I don’t have that much love.’ Yet, she knew, for the sake of both of them, she must forgive him. So she prayed silently. ‘Lord, I cannot love this man. I cannot forgive him. Give me Your love so that through You I can begin to forgive him so he and I can find the healing we both need.'”
That is not only forgiveness. It is total forgiveness. It is the forgiveness Jesus Christ gives to sinners, who are able then to forgive other sinners. Forgiveness sets you free to set others free.
Do you know Jesus’ forgiveness in your life like this? I don’t ask you to see you forgiving someone else this way. I ask you to receive Jesus forgiving you this way. Then and only then can you imagine such forgiveness for others. Do you know His forgiveness? Then you are free to forgive your enemies…and your friends.