A Lesson in Forgiveness
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A Lesson in Forgiveness

Genesis 45:1–7  (ID: 1884)

In Christ we have been forgiven an incalculable debt—but pride can interfere with our willingness to both seek and offer forgiveness. With Joseph and Jesus as illustrations, Alistair Begg investigates a series of biblical truths that are crucial to understanding the nature of genuine forgiveness. For God’s glory and out of gratitude for all that Jesus has done for us, we must continually strive to forgive others and seek reconciliation.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Hand of God, Volume 2

Genesis 41:41–50:26 Series ID: 21905

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let me invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me, if you would, to Genesis chapter 45, as we resume our studies there in the life of Joseph. Those who were present two weeks ago will perhaps recall that, in opening up the forty-fifth chapter of Genesis, we noted three things: one, that it was a demonstration of human emotion; secondly, that it was an illustration of divine providence; and thirdly, that it was an expression of human forgiveness. And since, as is common with my final point in a sermon, we really never did it justice at all, I concluded that it would be important for us to return today to this most important and crucial matter of forgiveness because it is in the life of Joseph, one of the most dramatic elements in all that unfolds for us. That this young lad—who, at the age of seventeen, was hustled off into a foreign country to live separated from his loved ones for the ensuing twenty-two years or so—should respond in the way that he did to these ugly brothers, is really quite incredible. And therefore, upon reflection, I determined that, since it was such an important point, we ought not to miss it, and so I want to think with you this morning particularly about this whole matter of forgiveness.

The unhappiness of countless numbers in our society today can be traced to this singular root—namely, that they have never experienced genuine forgiveness or, in turn, that they themselves remain unwilling to extend forgiveness to those who seek it from them, so that whether in the inability to receive it or to grant it, men and women’s lives are held trapped and they, in many cases, have never understood that at the root of it all is this issue. Indeed, many who are attempting to help such individuals at the level of psychological counseling find themselves totally unable to crack the code, and the reason is that the root situation is a matter of spiritual dimension. Years ago, in fact, in the sixties, one of my friends, John Daniels, wrote a song about the implications of this. Part of the lyrics went:

Broken up people with broken down lives,
Broken up homes, broken husbands and wives.
All the world around us is falling apart,
Broken up people with broken up hearts,

There are so many things that money can buy,
But you can’t buy peace of mind, no matter how hard you try.
And broken up people need brand-new lives.[1]

The lives which are grounded and founded in the experience of forgiveness.

Now, one of the ways to test this is to say to myself, “Well, if I had a blank sheet of paper”—as most of you do in your sermon outline this morning, which there is no outline, just a space for you to write, so the blankness of it is appealing—if you were to write down there, as per my suggestion, two phrases of three words each that in common conversation and as an expression of human interaction are phrases which are hard to express, we would get a variety of responses. Out of all of them, I have a sneaking suspicion that if we were to engage in this honestly and not flippantly, then we would discover that there would be two recurring phrases which would appear on these sheets—namely, “I am sorry” and “I forgive you.” Three plus three of the hardest words to get out of our mouths—and really mean—in all of the English language. And every honest soul listening to me says, “Gotcha,” because our pride is so severe within our lives that we are reluctant, first of all, to ever admit to being wrong, and at the same time—and perhaps even sadder—we are slow to grant forgiveness to those who seek it from us, choosing instead to hold, we feel, some mechanism, some leverage, over them whereby we may constantly be returning them to unforgiven indebtedness in our lives. Parents do it with their children. Siblings do it with one another. Employers do it with employees. And so the mechanism goes, and no matter what is verbalized, it is by the action and the attitude that this issue is most conveyed. “To return evil for good,” said Archbishop Temple, “is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine.”[2] And here, in this forty-fifth chapter of Genesis, we discover this expression of divinity. Here is Joseph, who justifiably should be conferred with a master’s degree in divinity, for here in this wonderful expression of divinity, he stands to the fore. He would have agreed, I’m sure, with John Stott’s simple and pithy expression: “Forgiveness,” says Stott, “is as indispensable to the life and health of the soul, as food is for the body.”[3] Forgiveness is not some little extra, is not some little special dimension of Christian experience; it is at the very heart of it.

The Illustration

Now, what I’d like to do is to trace a line through this by noticing, first of all, the illustration, then providing a word or two of explanation, and then, finally, making some points of application. The illustration is here before us in Genesis 45 and, in order to set it in context, just for those who may not have followed the story, we should turn for a moment to Genesis 37 because it is in Genesis 37 that we discover the jealousy of these brothers being unleashed against their teenage brother—seventeen-year-old boy with a fairly fertile imagination and also dreaming some pretty impressive dreams, wearing a pretty jazzy coat that his father had given to him and didn’t give to any of the others, and also reporting to his dad when his brothers were up to their tricks. These things, combined with others, created within these brothers such a spirit of jealousy and resentment and hatred that they determined amongst themselves that, on the first opportunity, they would seek to deal with this young upstart. And it is such an opportunity which emerges when Joseph is dispatched by his father to find his brothers and to greet them and then to return with the report of their well-being, or otherwise, to his dad, and in Genesis chapter 37, we’re told in verse 17b, that “Joseph went after his brothers and he found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” Just allow that phrase to sink in. You may not have had a very good family background. You may have found there was a little animosity amongst your siblings, but in all honesty, when you saw your brother or your sister coming towards you to meet you at the restaurant, or whatever it was, can you honestly say that you stooped to the depths to convene around the table the way in which you’re going to take this person out? That’s exactly what they were doing. “Here comes the dreamer,” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him. Throw him into one of those cisterns, and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”[4] Not very much will come of his dreams, clearly. Dead people don’t dream. Now, this is mitigated by the intervention and subsequent conversation amongst the brothers, and the result of their interaction reveals itself in verse 28, when, seeing a group of Ishmaelite Midianite traders come by, they decide on a compromise solution to be rid of him. They dig him up out of the cistern and for twenty shekels of silver—which wasn’t a particularly large amount of money—they sold him to the Ishmaelites, who took him into Egypt. And as a result of ending up in Egypt, he finds himself on the slave block, and there he is sold into slavery, and for the last twenty-plus years of his life, all that has happened to him—the good, the bad, and the ugly—can be traced, from a human perspective, to the fact of the jealousy of his brothers.

Now, if we had been on the receiving end of that, what do you think would have happened on the day that we saw them come into our eye gaze? It is this which is so striking about the events that are before us, because here in verse 21 and following of chapter 45, we have the actions on the part of Joseph in response to the actions on the part of his brothers. His brothers tore his clothes off, and he gave them clothes. His brothers sold him to make money, and he gave them money. His brothers drove them as far as they could from him; he says to his brothers, “Come close to me.” And in the section there in 21 through to 28, he gives them carts. He gives them provisions and clothes, and he gives them cash, and he gives them counsel, warning them against quarreling on their way back down to Egypt as he recognized how prone they were to get involved in all kinds of battles with one another. Now, what’s happening here? Well, it is simply an illustration of a forgiving heart—admittedly, a dramatic illustration of a forgiving heart, for it is not difficult for us to conceive of a situation where, if we had found ourselves there, we might have been prone to say to these guys, “Listen, you stuck it to me for the last twenty-two years. I haven’t seen my dad in all this time. I haven’t been able to speak my own language. I haven’t been able to see some of those girls that I remember in my mind’s eye from my teenage years. I haven’t known any of this, and so you will pay. Now you’re gonna find out what it’s like, and so some of you will die in prison. Indeed, I haven’t made up my mind, but some of you may even die before you get to prison. After all, you deserve it, in relationship to the way in which you treated me.” But there is none of that—none of that. In fact, if you look at verse 4, you have this dramatic phrase which we considered a few weeks ago at our evening communion service—most of you were not present—in verse 4, Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me”—“Come close to me.” Can you imagine when he said that? Do you think they all stepped up? “Yeah, okay, Joe. Here we are, man.” I don’t think so. I think they’re going, “Okay. You go first, Reuben. You got us into this. Simeon, get up there, you’re the … Come on. Get up. I’ll just wait at the back. Go on.” ’Cause they didn’t know what he was going to do when he said, “Come close to me.” He might have just gave one of them each, on the nose, just when they came up. “Take that!” “Come close to me.” They could never have anticipated that he who had been reviled by them would ever want to be close to them again, and yet he says, “I want you to come up here,” and when they get up close, he says, “I don’t want you to be distressed.” Can you imagine them looking at one another, not only mystified by the fact that this guy in the Egyptian outfit—all dressed up as it were for Halloween, this guy all dressed up like this—is actually their brother, and as he takes off his robes and as he reveals himself to them, they are mystified by this, but even more, they are mystified that he would speak to them with such tenderness. Indeed, not only did he speak with tenderness, but he embraced them, and in verse 15 it says that “he kissed all his brothers, and he wept over all his brothers, and he talked with all his brothers.” This is dramatic.

He revolutionizes lives with his forgiveness in order that forgiven lives might by revolutionary in their impact.

The last forty-four years of my life, I’ve seen some family feuds—mercifully, not in my own family—but I’ve seen some family feuds, and I’ve listened to tales that would make your ears curl. “She did this, and she said that, and he wrote there, and he didn’t return this, and he never paid that, and I gave him that, and this and that and so on,” and you’re dealing with some of the most embittered, sad, lonely people that you ever met in your life, and they are hanging on to these circumstances, and they flat out refuse to forgive. And they are chained, enslaved. Not Joseph. In fact, Joseph—all these years before Jesus ever spoke the words—is a living illustration of what Jesus says in the beatitudes and what Paul quotes in Romans chapter 12: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[5] This is a revolution. It’s a major revolution. This is the Jesus revolution. “So you wanna have a revolution …”[6] That was Lennon, not the Marxist one—or the real Marxist one—John Lennon, but if you listen to the song, he’s trying his best to say, “If we’re gonna pull this thing around, it’s going to have to do with love. I don’t know where love is found. It’s gonna have to do with peace. I don’t know where peace is found, but I’m dead sure the way we’re gonna win this battle is not by hate and spleen and venom and retribution and spite and hand grenades and bombs and the drums of war. It’s gonna be a revolution that takes place inside.” He didn’t know how to get it inside. He hadn’t a clue how to put it together, but he understood the great need; and the revolution that Jesus came to bring is this kind of revolution. He revolutionizes lives with his forgiveness in order that forgiven lives might by revolutionary in their impact.

This is the great impact that the church is to make in the world. We’re not supposed to be shouters and bawlers and sign writers and marchers and shooters and protesters and aggravational people. We’re supposed to be the forgiving gang! Do you honestly think that conservative evangelicalism in America is conceived of by the rank and file of the American culture in terms of this kind of forgiveness? Not a chance. Not even close to it. They have us pegged as a special interest group. They have us set in a little economic and political box, and we have largely done it to ourselves because, irrespective of our economic prowess, irrespective of our political convictions, Jesus did not come to set up a political, economic kingdom. He did not come to reclaim America for Jesus Christ. Do you understand that? These people on the radio keep telling us, “We’re going to reclaim America for Jesus Christ.” America never was Jesus Christ’s at any point in its history. How can you have any nation full of sinners that belongs to Jesus Christ? Oh, I understand we would like it to be more like this, and more like that, and those are justifiable concerns; and we would like these people to stop doing these heinous abortions, and definitely we would; and we want everybody to know, and so we should. But have you ever considered what would happen if we tried to “overcome evil with good”?[7] If we took all the time and personnel and money and resources in opening our hearts and opening our homes to drug addicts and to AIDS victims and to girls that are pregnant without wanting it? If we started on an individual basis, to transform our streets and our cultures, when people went down the road, they said, “You know, in there, they’ve got three girls live in that room above the garage, and all three of them are pregnant, and you know what? They are ministering to them. It’s amazing what’s happened there. Did you see that thing there? They’ve got two guys that have got AIDS. They live in their house. In their house! Can you believe that? Would you put those people in your house?”

See, that’s what Jesus was doing with the lepers. That’s why everybody was going, “Oh, don’t do that, Jesus. Goodness gracious. That’s why the guy’s got a bell. Don’t you understand?” We’re the guys with the bells now. We’re ringing them to keep these people away from us. “Overcome evil with good.” “Let your light so shine before men, that they will”—what? “See your good deeds.”[8] Deeds. Not that they will hear your erudite doctrine. Not that they will embrace your systematic theology. Not that they will immediately understand your worldview. Not that they will come on board with your view of the nation. But that they will see your good deeds and so come to glorify your Father who is in heaven. And that is exactly what is happening in Genesis 45. The brothers see the carts. They see the clothes. They see the cash. They hear the counsel, and they are mystified that they—who have offended so greatly against this boy—should be on the receiving end of such a dramatic illustration, tangible illustration, of genuine forgiveness.

The Explanation

That’s the illustration. Now let me go to a word of explanation concerning it. There is a great danger in speaking in this way. There are multiple dangers in speaking in this way, but one of them is that it can easily be responded to on the part of some as a form of moralism. In other words, as you listen to me speak, you think that you understand me to this point, and what you hear goes something like this: “I’ve been a generally irreligious kind of sort. I haven’t really done the sort of things that would have been best to do, but I have recently plugged back into religion, and I’m trying to find out what it is you’re supposed to do. And what I hear you telling me to do is one of the things I need to do, is to be a forgiving person, and I want to thank you for that, and I’m going to try very hard to do that, starting right now, and I’ll let you know next Sunday how I’m getting on.” Absolutely flat-out misunderstanding of everything. That is moralism. That is externalism. That is not the gospel. That is what people are listening to every Sunday in churches, and it drives them absolutely nuts. They don’t want to come to church and be told again to do something that they know flat out they can’t do. Pull your socks up. Be a nice person. Stop being resentful. Try and be a little kinder. Be good fellows and girls, and have a great week, and out the door they go and say, “How in the world am I supposed to do that?”

You see, that’s the issue. Now, that’s why we read from Matthew chapter 18, and I’d like you to turn there, because this is a wonderful explanation as to the nature of forgiveness, both in receiving and in bestowing forgiveness. The question in verse 21 that is asked by Peter is a good question, and you can imagine that Peter thought it was a good question and was really quite proud of it. He usually was, and I can only assume that he thought this was a good one. “Then Peter came to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to 7 times?’” You just imagine Peter wanting a pat on the back for being able to make it known to Jesus that he knew that he should forgive his brother. “Hey, good.” “And also I know that in forgiving my brother, I’m not just supposed to do it once. I’m supposed to do it multiple times, and Jesus, I was wondering if 7 would be okay, so that I could kind of write the people’s names at the top of a page. I could put check marks down the side, forgive them 7 times, and then just take care of them from there. Would 7 be all right?” Jesus says, “Listen, forgiveness is not a matter of calculation. It is a matter of the heart.” You don’t forgive your wife or forgive your children on the basis of how many forgivenesses you’re giving out on any given day, do you, I hope? We don’t love on that basis. “Now, let me see. The battery here is running down. I’ve only got a small capacity left for the day.” We don’t do that. It’s not a matter of calculation. It is a matter of heart attitude, and so Jesus responds, and he says, “I tell you. It’s not 7 times, but it’s 77 times,” or in the variant translation, it is “7 times 70.” “Ah!” says somebody. “490 times. That’s good. I like that. I’ll start from now, ’cause I got a few people that are up in the high 300s already, and I’ve only got about another 127 to go with most of them, and then I can be done with that as well.” That’s not the point. It’s not an issue of “is it 488 or 491 or 497?” Jesus takes 7—which is a perfect number in biblical terms—takes another perfect number, which is 10, multiplies them together, which gives them 70, (you tracking with me?) and then he multiplies 70 by 7, which gives him 490, and it’s simply a picture of forgiveness on an unlimited level.

He’s saying this: “Hey, Peter. If you really understood forgiveness, you wouldn’t even be asking the question. You wouldn’t be asking if you could limit it to seven times.” He says, “Let me tell you what it’s like. The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “is like a king who wanted to settle accounts,” and then you have the story right there before you. It’s a wonderful story: a guy who owes an incalculable debt is set free, and then he goes out and finds a friend of his who owes him a few dollars, and he says, “Hey, give me the money.” The chap says, “I can’t repay you.” So he starts to choke him, and then, deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea to choke him—presumably because he’d never get the money—he has him thrown in the jail until he can wait for his money. Despite the fact that he had been forgiven an incalculable debt, he’s going to choke somebody to death for a few bucks. Oh, I can’t imagine that, can you? Now, forget the money for a minute. In Christ we have been forgiven an incalculable debt, right? You gonna choke your brother or your sister? For a few offenses?

Prompted by gratitude, the forgiven sinner must always do everything in their power to forgive whoever has offended against them.

The lesson here, the primary lesson, is simply this—that is in Matthew 18, as an explanatory statement on Genesis 45. Let me give it to you in as few words as I can. Prompted by gratitude, the forgiven sinner must always do everything in their power to forgive whoever has offended against them. This is the primary statement: the forgiven sinner, prompted by gratitude, must always and in every case, do everything in their power to forgive whoever has offended against them, and must do all in their power to bring about complete reconciliation. Now, your minds will immediately go to all kinds of points of application. Just try and bring them back for a moment. That is the principle stated. Now, in seeking to unpack that principle, or that lesson, there are, if you like, subsidiary lessons which are part and parcel of it. There are seven of them, and I want to give them to you. This would be a good time to take notes. If you don’t usually take notes, you want these seven things because they are absolutely crucial in understanding the nature of forgiveness. Indeed, we will never know what it is to either be forgiven or to forgive without we understand these truths, and I’m going to give them to you without major exposition because the lunch cometh, and no man can wait.

Number one: we are all God’s debtors—number one: we are all God’s debtors. You want a verse beside that? Put Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now, you want a unifying truth about everyone in this building this morning? Here it is: we are all debtors to God. We have all failed to make the pass mark; we have all missed the mark, in terms of the target of his righteousness; and we have all overstepped the boundaries of his moral law. If you doubt that, take the Ten Commandments and read them through, and see if you can get past number one without having to acknowledge that you fouled it up. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, none of us is able to pay either our own or our brother’s debt. We are unable to pay the debt. That’s what Paul is saying in Romans 3:20: “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather, through the law, we become conscious of sin.” That’s why, you see, moralism doesn’t work. That’s where the idea of external religion absolutely kills people because they think that, by doing these things, we will be justified in God’s sight: “If I do enough of this, I will then be able to repay the debt I owe to God. Somehow or another, if I crawl on my knees, or if I do these good deeds, or whatever it might be, then I will be able to repay the debt.” And the fact of the matter is, there is nothing that any of us can do to pay the debt.

Thirdly, by means of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the debt has been paid for all who believe in him. See how you have the bad news first and then the good news? Bad news: we’re all in debt to God. Worse news: there is no way we can get ourselves out of it. Good news: someone has done something on our behalf so as to make possible a radical transformation in our circumstances. Romans 3:24: “We are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus.” What was happening when Jesus, a sinless man, died upon the cross? Why would a sinless man die upon the cross? You see, people sentimentalize the Gospel in the Easter story. They watch films—Zeffirelli’s film[9]—of Jesus, and it even makes them weep. They weep in their family room, but they’re no closer to repentance and faith than ever they were before they watched the movie because it goes something like this: “Oh, look at what those horrible people did to that nice Jesus. Oh, I feel so sorry for Jesus. He was such a nice person. And then, since I feel so sorry for Jesus, maybe I should do something for Jesus, and since he has a church, maybe I should go to church, and then maybe if I go to his church, Jesus will see me, and then he’ll be happy that I’m at church, and then he’ll take me finally to His eternal church.”

So, driven by sentimentalism, we respond in moralism, and we hope to end up in eternity, and it’s never going to happen because the message of what Jesus was doing upon the cross was not in order to make us feel sorry for him, but he was bearing my debt! See? That’s when the lights go on. I am so in debt to God. “Every day I live my life, it gets worse,” says the sinner. “I can’t pay a dime back for drawing down another ten bucks. Every time I pay something on it, I draw down on it immediately again, and I am being buried under the weight of it. Oh, how am I going to get out of this?” “He himself who had no sin, was made sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[10] See, this is the gospel. So what do you have to do? You have to accept it. You have to believe it. You have to trust unreservedly in it. You have to come to God and say, “I’m a bankrupt. I am in debt to you on account of my casual indifference and my moral rebellion, and my pride, and my mouth, and my hands, and my feet are frankly filthy before your holiness.” And, like Lady McBeth, “all the perfumes of Arabia” cannot get out these damned spots.[11] So I, foul, to the fountain fly. Wash me, Jesus, or I am a dead man.[12] I’m a dead woman. ’Cause I can’t go into eternity with all of this burden of debt on my back. You see, that’s what we need to be telling our friends.

Fourthly, only then can we be certain that our debts are canceled, if we ourselves cancel the debts of those who are indebted to us. Now, I’m not talking money here, you understand that. Only can we experience assurance of forgiveness if we are eager to forgive the sins committed against us. Now, don’t get this the wrong way around. We recited together the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”[13] If you took an average group of people and interviewed them concerning this, most would say that what this means is if we forgive other people’s debts, God will forgive our debt. Totally the wrong way ’round. It is in our forgiveness of other people’s sins against us that we reveal the fact that we have been forgiven, and that’s the message of Matthew 18. This guy had never understood forgiveness. Otherwise, he would have never tried to choke the life out of the young chap who owed him the cash. And when you and I go out of church and into life and with our wives or our brothers or our sisters or our employees or the person who didn’t return our car to us on time, or whatever the offense might be, and we begin to hold that as a grumbling source of resentment, in direct contrast to the illustration of Joseph, we call in question whether we have ever understood the doctrine of the forgiveness of our sins by the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

What we owe God is infinitely more than what men owe us.

Now fifthly, ’cause I didn’t mean to take so long in this, it therefore follows that it shouldn’t be too difficult for those who have been forgiven to forgive in turn, for what we owe God is infinitely more than what men owe us. It’s a fundamental principle. See, if I live my life thinking I’m really quite a good guy, or I’m really quite a nice lady, and that God, frankly, should be gratified at the prospect of having me in his group, and that there really is nothing very offensive about me—after all, my fingernails are clean, my cuffs are pressed, I keep my office tidy, I give to the United Way, and I’m a generally straight-up member of the community—if that’s my perception of myself, and I’ve never understood myself to be a bankrupt, then I will be very able to hold all kinds of grudges against everybody. But if I know myself to be a wretched sinner before God … You see, that’s why this whole self-esteem thing is working against the message of the gospel because the whole prevailing emphasis of our culture is to tell people that the thing that’s wrong with them is that they feel bad about themselves, and if they would feel better about themselves, then they would be cured of everything from adultery to prejuvenile delinquency, anything, if you would just feel good about yourselves—when, in point of fact, what the Bible says is, you’ll never feel good about yourself until you learn first to feel bad about yourself. When you realize how bad things really are, then you learn how to feel really good, and it won’t be so much about yourself, but it will be about the one who forgave you that great debt, so that you, in turn, can be a debt‑forgiver to others all around you. Any time I harbor an animosity against you, you as an individual, against my brother or my sister, it is because I have diminished the sense of debt that I owe to the living God.

That’s why, number six: the unforgiving person is destined for everlasting punishment. The unforgiving person is destined for everlasting punishment—think that out—because it is only the forgiving person who gives evidence of having been forgiven, and since it is only those who have been forgiven who will live in heaven with Jesus, then if I am unforgiving, I reveal myself as unforgiven, and therefore, I am destined to dwell in a Christless eternity. And, seventhly, when someone asks, “Who should take the step in reconciliation, should it be the offender or the offended?” The answer is both.

Now let me go to my last point, with about four minutes. Our forgiveness of others doesn’t earn us the right to be forgiven. What it means is that God forgives the truly penitent, and one of the chief evidences of the fact that I am truly penitent, is that I have a forgiving spirit towards others. Right.

The Application

One or two words of application for those of you who are still with me. One question, to be answered by you alone, as if there were no one else in this building right now: Have I ever come to God in response to the wonder of his invitation, “Come close to me,” and acknowledged the enormity of my sin? Have I ever come to God, in response to the wonder of His invitation like Joseph’s, “Come close to me,” and acknowledged the enormity of my sin? Or am I like the rich young ruler, [Matthew] 19, ran up to Jesus, “Good Master, what must I do to have eternal life?”[14] Zealous, interested, asking all the right questions. Read the story for yourself when you go home, and it says, “And the man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions.”[15] What’s the problem? It’s what Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of [heaven].”[16] Why? Because rich men tend to buy their way into everywhere, tend to rely upon what they have and what they’ve been able to amass, and they flat out aren’t going to take it from some Galilean carpenter, that the only way they can get where they want to go is to get down on their knees and acknowledge that there is no way to get where they want to go, and as it was in the first century, so it is in the twentieth century. That’s why it’s a hard group to preach to, a group like this. This is all white-collar sin in here, you see. The masters of deception, even at the level of religious hypocrisy, but God and you know your hearts. I ask you again: Have you ever come to God in response to His acknowledgment, “Come close to me,” and said, “Lord, God, I am a bankrupt before you. I may have a very good job. I may have a very nice home. I may rub my dog under the chin when I come home. I may be kind to my kids and generous to my grandchildren; I may have trust funds for them. But I’ve got to acknowledge the fact—I never faced it before—I am totally in your debt, and I cannot get out, and I ask you—on the basis of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ—to forgive my indebtedness and to credit my account with all of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Have you? If you haven’t, we’d sure love to help you, but you don’t need to go anywhere. You don’t need to say any special prayer. You don’t need to stand up, walk up, wave your hands, do—all you need to do is where you are seated, in your heart, say, “God Almighty, this guy knows me! But more than that, you know me. Save me.” And then you just tell somebody afterwards, for in your heart you believe, and with your mouth you confess, and you’re saved. That’s Romans 10:9. What, you mean you don’t have to sign up, join up, show up? No, none of that. You just believe. You just trust. What do you think the thief on the cross did? What did he sign up for? He’d sign up for anything he wanted, he wasn’t going to it, you know. He wasn’t getting signed up for potlucks or any kind of lucks. It was, “Hey, Lord, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” Jesus said, “You flat out got it, buddy. Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.” And there he was. I love it, and so should you.

Question number two: If we have come and acknowledged our debt towards God, are we then taking seriously the challenge of this instruction? Are we prepared to be involved in this kind of revolution, even though our contemporary culture is totally obsessed with revenge? I’m quoting from a newspaper article here, quickly:

Sweet, blissful, deeply satisfying revenge. Of all the devices of spiteful human behavior, it must be quite the most fulfilling. To forgive, forget, and turn the other cheek may be very noble, but not half as rewarding. Now the art of precision retaliation has reached new heights with one man’s crusade against simple forgiveness being translated into master class form. Ever since mild-mannered New Yorker Philip Seldon suffered at the hands of bullying classmates, he has learned to exercise his rage with a startling array of retribution. Now he is running classes which offer innumerable tactics to exact revenge, and he even provides a special one-off $75 service for individual advice. Seldon wants the world to know why revenge is healthy and how you, too, can be cruelly vindictive.[17]

Now what does 2 Timothy 3 say? It says, “In the end times, men will be lovers of themselves, and they will be devoid of natural affection,”[18] and people will sign up for this kind of stuff—but not the Christians. We’re the revolutionary party, supposed to be. We’re not supposed to be known by a way of dressing. We’re not supposed to be known by a kind of singing. We’re not supposed to be known by a structure of seating. We’re not supposed to be known by a kind of building. We’re not supposed to be known by a way of talking. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another,”[19] and when we love one another, we must forgive one another, and forgiveness is the classic illustration of genuine love. That is what breaks the heart of a teenager. It is not the beating that comes from a father. It is the compassion, it is the tears, it is the tenderness that breaks a child’s heart. I’ve been there. I’ve had my heart broken. I had my bottom whacked when I was younger—“Spare the rod and spoil the child,”[20] —but I had my heart broken in my teens by the tenderness of a father’s forgiveness.

So what are we going to do about it? Well, we’re going to do what’s necessary. We’re not going to become hypocritical pretenders. We’re not gonna do all this kissing, hugging stuff, you know, that is superficial. All that stuff. Forget that bologna. I am so tired of that jazz. I’ll take a genuine kiss anytime from my kids and stuff and old ladies, but this—old being anything over a hundred—this is, this stuff, you know, pleasant words and skin‑deep smiles are not the same as forgiveness. Pleasant words and skin‑deep smiles are not forgiveness. Genuine smiles and real words accompany genuine forgiveness, but conservative evangelicalism is fantastic at using all the right phraseology, smiling at the right time, and doing all the buzzwords, and it’s not the same, and I can tell from here to kingdom come when someone’s giving me that line, and I know you can, too. It needs to be from our hearts—genuine, soul-searching, gut-wrenching, experiential forgiveness that doesn’t keep dragging up the record of wrongs done against us. “If you, O Lord,” Psalm 130, “kept a record of our sins, who would stand?”[21] None of us. So then would we keep a record against our wives, our husbands, our brothers, sisters, employers, and employees?

I had a letter last year from a lady who wrote to tell me that she had to forgive me. I just want to read a bit of it for you. I won’t bore you with all of it or interest you with all of it, I should say, but she was out somewhere in upstate New York, and she met a little man who had his radio on. He was a carpenter, and when he was listening to the radio, she realized that he was listening to Christian radio, and she got in a conversation and the guy said, “Where do you come from?” She said, “Ohio,” and as a result of that, he said, “Do you know Parkside Church?” and she said, “Oh, yes, I used to go there,” and then he started to speak in very glowing terms—he obviously has never been here—and he began to speak in very glowing terms about the ministry that was coming from the pulpit at Parkside Church, and says the lady, “In light of this I was convicted. For nine years, I have justified my sin and my judgments against you,” and she then says that she felt when she came here that she was rejected and so on—and I grieve over that—but she says:

I am apologizing to you now and asking you for forgiveness. I was wrong to believe I had the right to harbor bitterness. Our rights were nailed to the cross with Jesus, and that’s where I’ve taken this sin. I thank God that he gently and lovingly brought me to the end of myself, and I could see you as God sees you, his committed servant, telling the truth. God’s truth prevails in spite of our failings. Isn’t it quite interesting, all of these years of seeing you at peoples’ homes, at the AIA golf tournaments, at church, that I thought I could go without confronting the sin of unforgiveness in my life? I thought that it would go away if I moved away. God saw differently. He brought a carpenter across my path to remind me of you and how God uses all of us for his glory.

Okay? Now, I’m glad I got the letter because it’s a reminder to me of my own frailty, how I can come across, and so on and so on, but I don’t think she needed to write the letter. Let me tell you why. Let me tell you why, in the words of this final quote from John Stott. In seeking to decide whether confession of sin is to be public or private, there are certain biblical principles to be understood and applied. “Some zealous believers, in their anxiety to be open and honest, go too far in this matter. To say, ‘I’m sorry I was rude to you,’ or ‘I’m sorry I showed off in front of you,’ is right. But not, ‘I’m afraid I’ve had jealous thoughts about you all day.’”[22]

Now have you had this? People come up to you and say, “I just want to confess to you that I’ve had jealous thoughts about you for six months.” Uh-huh. Now, what are you trying to do in saying that? Or, “I want you to know that I have been lusting after you.” Uh-huh. Now, what is taking place here? You see, this kind of tommyrot is not helpful. It is embarrassing and may even lead to the very sins that the person is apparently confessing. “Such a confession doesn’t help; it only embarrasses. If the sin remains secret in the mind, and does not erupt into words or deeds, it must be confessed to God alone.”[23] The rule is always that secret sins must be confessed secretly to God, and private sins must be confessed privately to the injured party, but we need to remember that men do not share the omniscience of God. They hear our words and see our works. They cannot read our hidden thoughts. It is, therefore, social sins of word and deed which we must confess to our fellow men and women, not the sinful thoughts we may have harbored about them.[24] You see, the sinful thoughts that I have in my heart towards somebody else, they’re my problem. They’re not the other person’s problem, and that’s a problem between me and God. It’s not a problem between they and me. Now if I’d said something rude and abusive and unkind in a public forum, then that is between the two of us. That becomes social. That is something that was done publicly and needs to be responded to properly, but goodness, gracious, folks. If we’re gonna start taking everything that went through our minds, in the last seven days about anybody and going to go and find them to confess all this stuff that we’ve been thinking about them, we’re gonna have to start the services about three in the morning with confessions. We’ll run that through till about nine, stop for a little bit of worship, and then start it up again around 10:30 so that we can deal with Wednesday through Saturday.

Forgiveness is not skin deep. It is a heart-changing experience, first, of God in Christ, and then of us to one another.

The issue is essentially this: Forgiveness is not skin deep. It is a heart-changing experience, first, of God in Christ, and then of us to one another. We are a community, not of the perfect, but of the imperfect. We’re a community of sinner saints, simultaneously. Therefore, there is need for forgiveness. Let us not fail to do what we should. Let us not be superficial, but let us not do what we shouldn’t, because I have a sneaking suspicion that some confessions of sins are not actually confessions of sins. They are simply a way to let the person know, so that we might harm them by our words, having ourselves been harmed by our thoughts.

Let us pray together. I want to use just a little poem as a concluding statement of our hearts before God, as we commit one another to God’s care.

Father, forgive our sins, as we forgive,
You taught us Lord to pray.
But You alone can grant us grace
To live the words we say.
How can Your pardon reach and bless
The unforgiving heart
That broods on wrong and will not let
Old bitterness depart.
In blazing light, Your cross reveals
The truth we dimly knew.
How small the debts men owe to us,
How great our debt to You.
Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls
And bid resentment cease
Then, reconciled to God and man,
Our lives will spread Your peace.[25]

Father, grant to us a genuine spirit of forgiveness towards others, on account of the immensity of the debt which you have forgiven us in the Lord Jesus Christ. And may grace and mercy and peace, from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore.[26] Amen—amen.

[1] John Daniels, “Broken Up People” (1976). Lyrics lightly altered.

[2] See Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 371–372.

[3] John R. W. Stott, A Deeper Look at the Sermon on the Mount: Living Out the Way of Jesus (Downers Grove: IVP Connect, 2013), 120.

[4] Genesis 37:19 (NIV 1984).

[5] Romans 12:20–21 (NIV 1984).

[6] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Revolution” (1968) (paraphrased).

[7] Romans 12:21 (NIV 1984).

[8] Matthew 5:16 (paraphrased).

[9] Franco Zeffirelli, dir. Jesus of Nazareth. London: ITC Entertainment, 1977.

[10] 2 Corinthians 5:21 (paraphrased).

[11] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1.

[12] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (1776).

[13] Matthew 6:12 (paraphrased).

[14] Matthew 19:16 (paraphrased).

[15] Matthew 19:22 (paraphrased).

[16] Matthew 19:24 (ESV).

[17] Source unknown.

[18] 2 Timothy 3:1–4 (paraphrased).

[19] John 13:35 (paraphrased).

[20] Proverbs 13:24 (paraphrased).

[21] Psalm 130:3 (paraphrased).

[22] John R. W. Stott, Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1964), 20.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. (paraphrased).

[25] Rosamund Herklots, “Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” (1969).

[26] 2 Corinthians 13:14 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.