I have a miniature hand computer on which I figure my finances and store personal data for ready reference. Even though it is only six inches long and an inch and a half high, it’s amazing how much information can be typed into the memory factors of this mechanical brain.
On the left side of the tiny keyboard is a magnificent and powerful button. It is called the CLEAR button. When I make a mistake in typing an entry, a touch on the clear button eliminates it immediately. Also, any information I have stored which is incorrect or no longer useful, can be brought up out of the little computer’s trusty memory and wiped out forever. It is as if it had never been entered.
Each time I use this handy computer, I am reminded of how much it’s like the thinking brain. It has the capacity to store up good and bad memories. How often I wish I had a clear button to press to immediately correct my mistakes, or that I had the capacity to bring up old memories that disturb me, and have them taken away, never to be thought about again.
Then, as I contemplate how wonderful that would be, I am reminded that the Lord has built into us a clear button. It’s called forgiveness. When we accept His forgiveness, we can forgive ourselves, and then out of the assurance of that grace, forgive others.
The question I want to grapple with is, why we use the clear button of forgiveness so little? Why is it so difficult for us to accept the Lord’s forgiveness? So hard to forgive ourselves and others?
Many of us are haunted by the memories of our sins, failures, and mistakes. Even though we know about God’s forgiveness, we are hard on ourselves and the people whose actions and words have hurt us.
The computer of the cerebral cortex is jammed full of memory factors of the wrongs we’ve done and wrongs others have done to us. We constantly press the recall button, bringing up the stored memories to be displayed on the video screen of our conscious thinking, but seldom press the clear button of forgiveness.
The result is that we are not free. The thinking brain triggers the emotions of discouraging self-incrimination over past failures. When memories of what people have done or said to us are stirred, we have all the same feelings as if the events had happened in the present moment. Why don’t we love ourselves enough to press the forgiveness button and get rid of it all? What Archbishop R. C. Trench asked about prayer in general, we ask about specific prayers for forgiveness.
Why, therefore, should we do ourselves this wrong,
Or others, that we are not always strong.
That we are ever overborne with care,
That we should ever weak or heartless be,
Anxious or troubled, when with us is prayer,
And joy and strength and courage are with Thee!
And I’d add grace, mercy, and forgiveness. What is it about us that these blessings are so difficult for us to claim for ourselves and communicate to others?
Right and Wrong
The reason is that, although we are made in the image of God, we have not been transformed by a liberating knowledge and experience of the nature of God. We have His integrity, His uprightness imprinted upon us, but have not fully accepted His forgiveness for our failures to live that integrity faithfully and obediently.
Think of it this way. God created us with the capacity of learning right and wrong. In the thinking brain there is a potential repository which can be filled with instructions of how the Lord wants us to live. This God-given conscience is developed on the basis of what we are taught by parents and value-determining teachers in our formative years.
The Lord, utilizing the capacity He gave us to discern right from wrong, also gave us the Ten Commandments as the essential law He wanted us to obey in living with Him and others. These commandments became the God-implanted fiber of the conscience of the people of God. The “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” became the basis of a right relationship with Him.
Sin is breaking the law of God. The problem is: what to do when we or others fail to obey His law? Our sense of integrity leads us to judgment on ourselves and condemnation of others. Blame and punishment follow irrevocably. We have done wrong or have been wronged. Our inherited sense of justice cannot easily be set aside.
The punishment of ourselves is expressed in self-negation which produces the feeling of guilt. Likewise, the punishment of others who have harmed or hurt us is expressed in rejection, anger, and withheld approval. Someone has to pay!
Our problem with the wrong we and others do is the same as God’s problem with us. How can He overlook our blatant or subtle sins? Added to the actual or attitudinal breaking of the Commandments are the deeper sins of refusing His guidance, living on our own cleverness, and the pride of running our own lives. The Lord cannot contradict His righteous justice and wink at our rebellion which hurts us and breaks His heart.
And yet, He knows what our guilt over our failures does to us. It makes us either aggressive in our efforts to justify ourselves or weakened by self-condemnation. His justice makes it impossible to say, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.” Think of the moral chaos we’d have if He did. And imprinted with His righteousness, we cannot easily forgive ourselves or others. Our problem is really the same as God’s problem.
How can God reconcile the sinner without approving of the sin? And how can we get free of the memories of our failures without denying our developed sense of right and wrong? Or how can we relate to people who have hurt us when what they did or said was a contradiction of truth and a malicious evil deed?
We Are Forgiven
Do you realize what this questioning has done for us? It has brought us into the very heart of God. Now we feel with Him the dilemma of judgment and forgiveness.
In our thinking, all too often judgment and forgiveness are separated. In God’s heart, they are two sides of the same reality: His grace. The Lord had to find a way of judging sin and justifying the sinner.
Justification is the expression of God’s grace. The sin must be atoned for and the sinner set free of the deserved punishment.
That’s what justification is: the complete and unconditional exoneration of the sinner. The only way for God to accomplish that was to provide a just recompense for sin and an effective reconciliation of the sinner. Humankind could not do that for itself. God did it!
God came in the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God. His message was grace and forgiveness, His death an atonement for sin, and His resurrection a triumphant validation of His eternal power to reconcile. Through Calvary, sin was judged and paid for. Christ is our justification. And because of the cross and the shedding of Christ’s blood, we are forgiven.
More than that, we are forgiven even before we sin. The cross did not change the heart of God toward us; it exposed His justice and mercy. And now we look back at Calvary and realize that the justifying exoneration that was revealed there pulsates in God’s heart for you and me right now.
This is the liberating truth Paul tried to communicate in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch when he concluded his preaching of the gospel with a succinct, bold promise. He had told the Jews who listened to him what God had done in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Messiah.
Then he concluded with this mind-reorienting truth: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). This is the apostle’s first statement of justification by faith revealed in Scripture.
The long years between Paul’s conversion and the beginning of his active ministry had been spent prayerfully grappling with the awesome atonement of the cross and his own need to be forgiven and forgiving. He selected a dynamic word to express what had happened. He had been justified: declared not guilty, exonerated, and set free.
The law had not done that for Saul of Tarsus. He had sought to fulfill the law’s demands with impeccability. Where the law had failed him was in dealing with his own vigilant sense of justice and his failure. The guilt had made him a judgmental, severe Pharisee. His angry persecution of the church had been an expression of his own self-condemnation.
And in spite of it all, the Lord had intervened, appeared to him, forgiven him, and set him free. Marcus Dodds put it vividly, “You can hear Paul’s heart dancing and exalting at the thought of it; and, still more, in the experience of it. The Son had made him free.”
Paul’s message came burning and flaming out of the heart of a Christ-justified man. His word to the Jews at Antioch declared what he had experienced in his own life — through Christ is forgiveness of sins. Those who accepted that forgiveness by faith alone were ushered into the eternal status of the justified. The things from which the law of Moses could not free them, Christ could. What are these things? What we talked about earlier: a condemning conscience for all the infractions of the law.
The Jews’ inbred sense of integrity which demanded faithfulness had not been able to deal with their own or others’ sins. Christ had done that for them. Just as God could not forgive without both judgment and atonement, so too they could not deal with their sins without some tangible punishment and exoneration. And in Christ, God had done both. He had taken the penalty and suffered for them. And then He declared them not guilty!
Only By Faith
No wonder Paul’s preaching caused a stir in the synagogue there in Antioch. It was a radical truth he proclaimed. The impacted implication was that the Jews’ relationship with God was not dependent on their own keeping of the law or self-incrimination when they failed. Only by faith in Christ, the justifier, could they claim their status as emancipated, totally exonerated sons and daughters of a gracious, forgiving God.
The reason many of them rejected the wondrous offer was that it threatened their whole orientation of self-generated righteousness and their self-determined judgment. Their condemnation of others had become the basis of their false superiority and exclusiveness.
Self-righteousness is a demanding false god. Breaking of the first commandment to have no other gods before Yahweh makes efforts at keeping all the other commandments a brash contradiction. And where do we turn when we’ve broken the other nine because we have not kept the first?
Paul gives us the answer in his more complete development of the theme of justification by faith in Romans. In Romans 3:23-26, we meet God as both just and the justifier. How He maintained both positions is the exciting news Paul has to share.
“… All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Note the progression: righteousness, the just, the justifier, and faith. Righteousness is essentially the quality of being right. God’s righteousness is the consistent expression of His nature. As the author of truth, He is truthful; as the source of love, He is unchangeably faithful. God is love and cannot deny His lovingkindness.
But He must judge the denial of His love, untruth in any form, and all distortions of His plan and purpose for humankind set forth in the Commandments. He cannot abdicate being just, that is, the judge of all sin. The reason is that sin is contrary to His righteousness and results in separating us from the relationship of love, dependence, and trust for which He created us.
What can God do? The just must also be the justifier. We cannot help ourselves with efforts to be good enough or self-justification through self-punishment. Without denying His nature as the just, God must become the justifier.
The words righteousness, the just, the justifier, and justification all come from the same Greek root. Out of unqualified grace, our righteous God makes us right with Himself by both demanding atonement and providing it. He is both just and the justifier in the sacrifice of Calvary.
Faith is the only qualification for accepting and enjoying the free gift of forgiveness and freedom. But even that cannot be deserved or earned. It too is a gift. The same Lord who is just and justifier is also the giver of the ability to respond. God enables us to accept our justification, and claim our righteousness in Him.
The primary gift of His Spirit at work in us is faith. By faith alone, we claim that we are forgiven and reconciled with God. Our deepest problem, however, is living by faith and not our goodness. We continually try to earn what is a free gift.
Faith and Forgiveness
What does all this mean to us in our difficulty in accepting and imparting forgiveness? Everything! Even though we believe in Christ and know that He died for our sins, many of us have more of the justice of God ingrained into us than we have of His merciful grace. We know and emulate Him as the just but not the justifier.
On a daily, experiential level, often we deal with ourselves and others as if Christ had not suffered to justify us. Because we have not allowed Him to love us sufficiently, we cannot forgive ourselves and others profoundly. Our righteous indignation makes us very hard on ourselves and stingy in our forgiveness of others.
One part of us sings, “In the cross of Christ I glory,” and the other demands the quid pro quo of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in dealing with our failures as well as others’. And so our memories of what we and others have done are pressed down into the post-conscious reservoir. We play an “out of sight, out of mind” game that does not work.
All we need is for some circumstance or situation to fumble with the recall button and it’s all there to be felt with remorse or indignation all over again. The unknown poet was right:
In our earthly temple there’s a crowd
One that’s humble and one that’s proud.
One that’s brokenhearted over sin;
One that unrepentant sits and grins.
One that loves his neighbor as himself;
One that cares for naught but fame and self.
From such perplexing care I could be free
if I could determine which is me.
And how shall we determine? We come again to the cognitive basis of our freedom. It happens when we think freedom and then can forgive freely. That thinking demands the surrender of a half-truth for a whole truth. The half-truth summarizes the Lord’s righteous judgment on what we’ve done or been. The whole truth is that we were judged and forgiven even before we sinned.
To refuse to accept that awesome truth and forgive ourselves is the blasphemous attempt to play God over our own lives. We determine how much forgiveness we will accept. That is tantamount to saying that God’s forgiveness is applicable to us only to the extent that we deem ourselves worthy of it.
Shocking? I think so. I’ve played that kind of false god over myself too many times.
A vital way to get hold of this truth of God’s forgiveness is to ask ourselves some questions. Do you still harbor memories of past sins and failures? Does the recall of them make you feel fresh guilt or fresh grace? Do you ever think you have no right to give yourself permission to feel freed and released? Is there anything you have done or said that is too big for God to justify? Are you nursing any feelings of guilt right now for unconfessed or unrelinquished sins? Then think about this:
Down beneath the shame or loss
Sinks the plummet of the cross
Never yet abyss was found
Deeper than His love can sound.
Repeat that over and over again until you know it’s true for those past sins or hidden sins which you’ve kept guarded from the love of the Savior. His judgment has already dealt with those festering memories. And His forgiveness, bought at so high a price, has taken them from His memory.
We are not free, cannot feel free, until the conviction of forgiveness is the controlling condition of our minds. Jesus’ words give us the content of our own words to ourselves. “Neither do I condemn you, go in peace and sin no more.”
List out any unrelinquished failures, mistakes or sins. Hear the Savior pronounce you, “Not guilty!” And then using your own name, say to yourself the assurance of pardon: “_______________ neither do I condemn you!” We are called to be priests to our own souls, mediating the pardon of Calvary. A priest is the one who goes to the Lord on behalf of another and brings the Lord’s love and forgiveness to another. Do that for yourself!
As We Forgive
Why is that so important? Simply because we cannot be free until we set others free by forgiving them. And no one who is in the syndrome of self-incrimination and self-justification is able to be forgiving to others. Jesus put it flatly, “… To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). The more we receive Christ’s loving forgiveness, the more forgiving we will be of others.
The only aspect of the Lord’s prayer Christ found it necessary to explain for emphasis was the petition, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” He said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Isn’t that a contradiction to the point I’ve been stating, that we are already forgiven and that confession of sin and justification by faith is accepting what is already an established fact? Not so! Forgiving others is a vital part of experiencing our own forgiveness.
What Jesus is saying is that we cannot appropriate the Lord’s forgiveness until, and as, we forgive others.
Those who say they forgive but cannot forget are simply saying in another way that they can’t really forgive. A woman, who had been deeply hurt by a friend and forgave, was asked, “Don’t you remember the terrible things she did to you?” Her reply was, “No, all I remember is the day I decided to forgive and forget.”
When the Lord justifies us, He relates to us as if we had never sinned. Nothing less is required of us. We have not forgiven a person if we keep alive the memory of what he or she has done by repeated rehearsal of the details. So often we tell people we forgive them and then continue to punish them by withholding our affirmation, assurance, and approval. We parcel out our warm affection on the basis of how much we think a person has changed or improved.
The truth is that people are able to deal with their failures when we believe in them and treat them as if they had not sinned against us. Paul challenged the Ephesians to “… be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Until we do we will not be free.
I overheard a conversation between two of my friends. One had forgiven the other. The man who had deeply hurt the other said, “How can you forgive me after what I’ve done to you?” The other said an astounding thing: “I cherish my freedom and treasure my experience of God’s forgiveness too much not to!”
What he meant was that unforgiven memories would hurt him more than the offender. He had come to love himself as loved by the Lord. He did not want to harbor resentment and anger because of what it would do to him. Further, he valued so much the Lord’s forgiveness of him for his own sins and mistakes, that he did not want a refusal to give forgiveness to block the free flow of the Lord’s forgiveness of him.
Forgive is an active and initiative verb. We do not wait for people to measure up or even ask for the forgiveness. Our challenge is to forgive, and then relate to the person as totally forgiven. Often that creates the desire in the other person to ask for forgiveness. But remember, God’s forgiveness is not given because we ask, but given so that we can ask.
Our unqualified love for a person will usually bring a request for our forgiveness. But our forgiveness is not to be measured by the other person’s contrition. We can share our perception of what happened and how we felt without an “almighty” attitude. What’s important is removing the barrier by expressing our forgiveness to the person.
Equally important is being receptive to people who come to us with a burden of how we may have hurt them. It doesn’t help to justify ourselves with defensive explanations of why we did or said something. The point is how the other person feels about it. Often after we’ve asked forgiveness for what is perceived and the pain that was caused, there is a relaxed atmosphere in which the details can be talked out. Our calling is to be people who set others free.
That’s costly business at times. It means forgiving, asking to be forgiven, and working tirelessly to establish reconciliation. But we are not alone in the challenge. The Lord is with us. He will guide us in what we say in expressing forgiveness and how we respond in accepting forgiveness when we are at fault.
Every day I meet Christians who are not free because of unclaimed forgiveness of sin — their own and other people’s against them. It shrivels their joy and makes them negative people. G. K. Chesterton admonished, “Let your faith be less a theory and more a love affair!” When it is, we grow more in love with the Savior each day. That love frees us to tell Him about our failures, with the assurance that nothing can ever separate us from Him.
Lori, a sincere young Christian, took these forgiveness principles seriously and wanted to be completely free of any impediment in the way of her experience of the Savior’s love. She did an inventory of people in her life whose forgiveness she needed to ask and those to whom she needed to express forgiveness. It was a liberating experience.
We all need to do that. Freedom in the Spirit is living in the flow of Christ into us, and through us to others. When we think freedom, rooted in our justification through faith in Christ’s atonement, we will feel freely His forgiveness, and communicate it to others with accepting love.
Charles Wesley gave us a song to sing to express the unfettered delight of our hearts:
Jesus the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ear,
‘Tis life and health and peace.
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.
Press the recall button. Is there anything in the deepest recesses of memory that needs to be brought before the Lord, the just and the justifier? Then by faith, press the clear button. What we’ve held against ourselves and others was never entered in the Lord’s computer because of Calvary. So why keep it in yours?
Freedom in the Spirit by Lloyd John Ogilvie. (c) 1984, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR 97402. Used by permission.

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