Until we have an accurate view of the forgiveness we have received from God, we will find it difficult to forgive others. As we grow in our understanding of our own sin and Christ’s salvation, however, forgiveness becomes second nature. In this sermon from Luke 11, Alistair Begg explains that forgiveness isn’t a feeling, but a promise to forget the wrongs we’ve experienced. While there are always consequences for sin, those who are loving and wise will seek reconciliation.
We’re studying in the Gospel of Luke, we’ve reached the eleventh chapter, we’ve reached the section which contains the prayer that Jesus gives as a form of words to his disciples to pray upon the request of one disciple who came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We have, since last Lord’s Day morning to this morning, been confronted, then, with this issue of forgiveness, and may I remind you that we have focused first of all on the fact of the offer of forgiveness, which is expressed in Acts 3:19, when Peter, preaching, says to the crowd, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” And we spent last Sunday morning dealing with this whole matter, or being dealt with on the issue as to whether it is we have ever as individuals come in repentance and in faith to trust God and to accept his offer of mercy and grace to us in the provision of forgiveness.
We then went on this morning to recognize that probably Augustine is right when he says that in this petition here in the Lord’s Prayer, the issue being dealt with is not the matter of what he refers to “the great forgiveness,” which he would refer to as being forgiven from the penalty of sin as we considered it this morning; but rather, I think Augustine is right when he says that what is being referred to here when we pray “Forgive us our sins” is the issue of “daily infirmity”—the fact that “God continues to forgive the sins of those who are justified,” which was one of our quotes this morning from the Westminster Confession of Faith. And we reminded ourselves this morning that the Christian life is to be a life of continual repentance—that the very deliberate and clear nature of our repentance in turning to Christ is also to mark the way in which we deal with sin as it emerges in our lives and we confront it on a daily basis. We then concluded this morning by beginning to recognize the fact that the forgiven life is to be the forgiving life. And we recognize that because the petition goes from “Forgive us our sins” to the statement “for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”
Now, turn for a moment to Ephesians chapter 4, and let’s just keep this phrase before us as we saw it again at the end of our time this morning. Ephesians 4:30: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” In other words, as we think of last Sunday evening and the need for each of us to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” rather than to be “drunk [with] wine, which leads to debauchery”—to “be filled with the Holy Spirit”—there is no way in the world in which the Holy Spirit rejoices in indwelling a life that is full of “bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and every form of malice.” To the extent that we are prepared to tolerate the incongruity of these features being present in our existence, we grieve the Spirit of God. Instead, by his enabling, verse 32 instructs us to “be kind and compassionate to one another.” And how will kindness and compassion manifest itself? As we “forgiv[e] each other, just as in Christ God [has forgiven us].”
Now, that little phrase there at the end of the final verse of Ephesians 4 is very important, because it tells us that we are to model our expressions of forgiveness after God’s forgiveness of us. And as we have seen in each of these studies, now, God promises not to remember our sins. God—the omniscient God, who cannot forget—may choose by his power not to remember. And so it is that God, in looking upon us—although our lives have been stained by all kinds of things, and although our daily pilgrimage is marred by the dirt that we get on our hands, both literally and spiritually—nevertheless, God has pledged not to remember our sins. And we read from Isaiah 43 this morning, and verse 25: “I will not remember your sins,” he says.
Now, this points us to a very important truth, and the best I can summarize it is in saying this: forgiveness is ultimately not a feeling, but a promise . Forgiveness, as it comes to us from God, comes to us not so much as an expression of the heart of God—although it is that—but it is ultimately a promise from the Word of God. And our experience of the forgiveness of God is based upon our willingness to take him at his word. If, then, that is to be the model of our forgiveness of others, then our forgiveness is not about a feeling, but it’s about a promise.
And it is essentially a threefold promise, because when we express forgiveness to another person, this is what we should be saying: “I forgive you. And therefore, I will not bring the matter up to you again. Secondly, I will not bring the matter up to someone else. Thirdly, I will not bring the matter up to myself.” Now, let me say that to you again. In the genuine expression of forgiveness, what we’re saying to the person is this: “I want to do for you and with you as God in Christ has done for me. And if I read the book of Hebrews properly, as I’ve sought to do, then I discover that if I go back to God with issues that he has already dealt with—where he has pressed the Delete key on that file, where he has traveled with all of that into the Garbage icon, as it were, and trashed it, never to be remembered any more—if I go to him to say, ‘I’m so overwhelmed again, gracious Father, with x or y, or whatever else it is,’ I will discover him saying, ‘My dear boy, I have no recollection of that to which you’re referring.’” Now, why is that? Because God is not omniscient? No: because God has pledged himself not to remember to keep a record of our sins and to hold them against us.
Now, you see, that is something vastly different from what most of us think about when we’re prepared to say we forgive one another. I have not forgiven my brother or my sister from my heart if I’m prepared just in a moment or two to resurface the issue, either to them, or to talk about it over coffee with someone else, or to sit in my car brooding over the issue.
Now, forgiveness—and I just want to note this in passing—forgiveness does not mean that there won’t be consequences. This is one of the silly things that exists in many peoples’ minds. They think that forgiveness means “Oh, good, I’m off!” Not necessarily. As I said in a simple illustration this morning, I may grant forgiveness to my child for his reckless driving, but he’s going to pay the fine. The fact that there are consequences does not in any way mitigate my forgiveness. I may forgive him; he faces the consequences.
And the fact of the matter is that if we have made habitual patterns of sin in our lives, if you think about them as it was instructed to me as a small boy in Sunday school—that every time that the boy did something wrong, his father went out to the shed at the back of the house, he took a hammer and a large nail, and he hammered the nail into the back of the shed door. And the boy began to build up a huge nail bed on the back of the shed door. And finally, he came to his father and he said that he wanted all of that to be forgiven and to be cleansed and to be done away with. And his father said, “Fine.” And they went out together to the shed, and he took the hammer, and he began to remove the nails one by one, and took them all out, and hugged the boy, and went away. And a little later in the afternoon he came back, only to find the boy sitting outside the shed door bathed in tears. And the father said, “What is wrong?” He said, “Well, the nails are gone, but I can still see the marks in the door.”
And the fact of the matter is, loved ones, that is why it’s not a good idea to become an inveterate sinner. Because we still have to make our journey through our days. And God will forgive our sins and remove the nails, but many of us will still live with the marks in the door. There are consequences for our actions. We have to say that to our children, and we have to remind one another of it, too—that the fact of forgiveness does not mitigate consequence, nor does the existence of consequence eradicate the reality of forgiveness.
Now, what I really want to do is say a number of practical things just like this. If I were a better preacher, this would be the third point in a sermon where there had been the first point on the big forgiveness, then the second forgiveness, and then the application. But I’m not, and so it’s sort of all drawn out. This is the conclusion of the sermon. For those of you who come and say, “Well, it wasn’t very doctrinal, you know,” well, you missed part one and two. Part one lasted forty minutes, part two lasted forty minutes, and now I’m just doing part three. Sorry. But you can get the tapes.
It’s clearly possible to make a promise whether we feel like it or not, right? It’s clearly possible to make a promise whether we feel like it or not, and it is obviously possible to keep a promise whether we feel like it or not. So, for example, “I promise to run five miles with you on Tuesday.” I don’t feel like running five miles on Tuesday right now as I say that, but I’m prepared to make the promise, although I don’t feel remotely like running on Tuesday. But it is possible to make the promise. And when Tuesday comes around, irrespective of how I feel, I may run the five miles with you, having made the promise and kept the promise without any feelings being attached to it at all—except, perhaps, feelings of reluctance.
Why do I mention that? Because it addresses the mistaken notion that the promise to forgive minus feeling equals hypocrisy—the promise to forgive minus feeling equals hypocrisy. That’s what people say to me all the time: “Well, I can’t forgive her, because I don’t feel like forgiving her.” Listen: Forgiveness is a promise. Forgiveness is a commitment. It is not hypocrisy to forgive, to say to somebody, “I will not bring this up to you again, I will not bring it up to another again, and as God enables me I will not rehearse it in my mind again,” even though everything in us feels 180 degrees opposed to that. And until we understand that, then we will find ourselves in all kinds of trouble in relationship to understanding what it might mean to forgive one another.
Now, that is not to say that forgiveness is merely cerebral; it’s not simply something that engages our minds. For at the end of the story of the unmerciful servant, you remember Jesus says, “And this is how God will treat you if you do not forgive your brother from the heart.” Well, what then does Jesus mean, that we would forgive “from the heart”? Simply this: that our expressions of forgiveness must be genuine; in other words, that we are not simply mouthing words, but that we are conveying to one another, out of a sense of obedience to God because he has commanded us to forgive, and out of a sense of gratitude to God because of the immensity of the debt that we owed him and have now been forgiven, that we are doing this wholeheartedly, out of a sense of genuine desire—words that are backed by this kind of commitment. In other words, the desire must first of all be a desire to please God by obeying his commandment to forgive—and that can be as genuine as it needs to be. Because it is in seeking to please God that you forgive each other. It may not be immediately pleasing to me, but that’s not the issue.
And my journey through life tells me that the notion of saying “If I can’t forget, I won’t forgive” is just futility. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t forgive, you’ll never forget. I can guarantee it. But if you’re prepared to forgive in the way that God in Christ has forgiven you, time will work in your heart and mind in a way that may even surprise you . In the course of almost twenty-five years, now, in pastoral ministry, one of the most amazing things to me is how much I have forgotten: things that I never thought I would forget; issues which, when they confronted me, seemed so painful, so striking, so demanding, so unforgettable.
And I remember I was on a golf course with one of my friends back in Scotland, and the name of a man came up. And then he said, “Of course, you remember the situation with his wife.” And I said, “No. I remember his wife, but I don’t remember the situation with his wife.” And he said, “Oh, yes, you counseled with them for a long time.” And then I said, “Oh, I remember counseling with them now, but I don’t remember the nature of the offense.” I hope that others, in their forgiveness of me, have discovered that with the passage of time they’ve been learning to forget as well.
So we forgive in obedience to the command of God, we make the promise as God has made, and it is more than possible that eventually the feelings will follow.
Let me say a word or two about seeking forgiveness, asking for forgiveness. Surely, we’re dealing with the hardest words in the English language, the two hardest phrases of our lives: either “Please forgive me” or, in some cases harder than that, “I forgive you.” Two of the hardest phrases to get out of our mouths. Asking for forgiveness is actually as important as granting it. And there are times—more times than we wish—that we need to seek forgiveness, and often from those closest to us: from our spouses, even from our children. I was reading of a father who sat down and wrote a letter to his daughter, a daughter who acknowledged that she had inherited the same inflammable and unreasonable temper as her dad. And he wrote to her, “I’m sorry that I upset you. Please accept my apology. Your always loving (but too often rude and irritable) Daddy.” And years later, after his death, the girl recalled the significance and impact of that letter with gratitude.
You say, “Well, in that case, I probably have to go and ask forgiveness to a whole bunch of people.” Well, I want to exercise some caution here and give you a word of guidance in relationship to this matter. When we consider the need to ask for forgiveness for wrong against a brother or a sister, we must always keep in mind that the circle of confession need be no larger than the circle of offense. The circle of confession need be no larger than the circle of offense. Now, what that means is this: that we do not have to—indeed, we shouldn’t—go around confessing to people every wrong thought that we’ve ever had about them.
There’s a perverse element in this that creeps up from time to time, and we’re not immune to it in pastoral ministry. And I’m not trying to safeguard my own existence here by couching this in this way—if you feel that, that’s fine—but the fact is that there are individuals who take a perverse delight in coming up to let us know that for a certain number of months, weeks, or years, they have thought that we were whatever it was, you know: “I just want you to know that I’m over it, but for seventeen months I thought you were a complete pain in the neck. Indeed, I have resented you, I’ve been jealous of you, and I have been lusting after you,” or something along those lines, you see? And what they think they’re doing is applying the Bible. What they’re actually doing is just being a royal pain in the neck themselves—but having said that, I need to confess that, ask for forgiveness of that, and so the circle goes around.
But listen carefully and understand it properly: When the sin remains in our hearts and is known only to God and to ourselves, then it should be confessed to God alone. When it is “heart sin”—confessions of lust, of anger, of envy—to persons who are going through their lives totally unaware of what you might be thinking, to go to those individuals and confess anger, or envy, or lust, or whatever else it is, probably will only lead to additional sin and to unnecessary hurt. Heart sins, these issues of our hearts, will only cause embarrassment to ourselves and to others and may actually aggravate circumstances that we’re trying to resolve. Secret sins of the mind should be confessed secretly to God. Private sins should be confessed privately to the injured party. Otherwise you can imagine the total chaos that would then ensue if we were to reach further than the clear guidance of Scripture on this matter.
Now, that in no way makes the desire for forgiveness or the granting of forgiveness any easier. Forgiveness is a costly business, is it not? It takes everything in our humanity to honestly say to somebody, “Please forgive me.” And it is just as demanding to be able to utter the phrase “I forgive you.” Especially if what we are saying in that is a threefold promise: “I promise not to bring it up to you, I promise not to bring it up to others, and I promise not to rehearse it in my own mind when I am driving in the car, God being my helper.” It’s costly because it means that we cannot go out and babble as many of us would like to, and it’s costly because it means we cannot sit and have parties of one, brooding, as many of us would care to. But it will never be as costly to us as it was costly to God to give his only Son as a propitiation for our sins.
David Livingstone, who was the great missionary explorer from Blantyre in Scotland, along with his family, suffered a tremendous amount through malicious gossip and idle talk. When he went into the heart of Africa, he left his wife behind in Britain for months on end. And people began to say that the reason he’d left his wife behind and traveled without her was because there were problems in his marriage, and they made up all kinds of ridiculous and scandalous statements, none of which had any basis at all. And twenty years after all of that was in the past, Livingstone in one of his biographies recalls how it still rose up and pained him. And writing to a friend, this is what he said: “I often think I have forgiven, as I hope to be forgiven; but the remembrance of the slander often comes boiling up, although I hate to think of it. You must remember me in your [prayer] that more of the spirit of Christ may be imparted to me.” I’m sure many of us can identify with that sentiment in Livingstone: “It comes boiling up, although I hate to think of it. Please pray for me, that more of the spirit of Christ may be imparted to me.”
Now, this granting of forgiveness is not, as we said this morning, some kind of shallow response, the approach which seeks to sweep aside offense: “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s okay, just forget it.” That is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is never granted, in the New Testament, in the Bible, without repentance.
“Oh, well,” say people, “didn’t Jesus from the cross pray, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’? Surely he was granting there a blanket forgiveness to everybody who happened to be within earshot.” I was thinking about that this week, and I concluded this: that on the cross Jesus was not forgiving; Jesus was praying, wasn’t he? He prayed to his Father, and he asked that his Father would forgive them. On the basis of what? Do you think for a moment that these people were to be forgiven absent the sacrifice which he in those moments was making on the cross? For it was by his very hanging upon the cross that he was the propitiation for the sins of those who would believe. So did everyone who heard him say, “Father, forgive them,” discover forgiveness? Doubtless not! Who did? At least the three thousand on the day of Pentecost, when Peter preaches the gospel to them and they say—men and brethren “cut to their hearts”—“What shall we do?” What does he say? “Repent. Turn from your sin and be baptized, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and you will receive forgiveness of your sins.”
Jesus on the cross is not hanging there saying, “Oh, it’s okay, don’t worry about anything. You’re all let off, you’re all wonderful people.” Jesus is saying, “Father, forgive them.” How is anyone forgiven? On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus. And when the message of that sacrifice is made known, then those who will come on the basis of God’s wooing mercy and turn from their sins and embrace Christ will discover the reality of it. The listeners were not excused; they were forgiven as and when they believed that Jesus had born their sins in his body on the tree.
Now, let me try and say one or two things that summarize much of this. I found myself, as I made my own notes, saying, “This is a bit scattered here. I think you should summarize a few things at this point.” So I just wrote them down—seven things—now I want to say them to you, and then some concluding comments.
What is it that we’ve been discovering in the course of all of this? Number one, that we are all God’s debtors—that we are all in debt to God on account of sin. Number two, we’ve had it made very clear to us from the Bible that none of us is able to repay the debt—that all of our best attempts at repaying the debt must inevitably founder. Number three, that by means of Christ’s atoning sacrifice—by means of his propitiation, as we saw last Lord’s Day morning—the debt has been paid for all who come to believe in him, thus raising the question whether I have come to believe in him. Fourthly, that we then in turn must forgive the debts of those who are indebted to us in order that we might experience the assurance of forgiveness. It is the forgiven who are forgiving. Fifthly, we recognized that it really should not be too difficult for those who have been forgiven so much to forgive the often trivial offenses that we face—and, may I hasten to add, to forgive the deep offenses that we are caused to face in the journey of life. Sixthly, we have noted that the unforgiving person is destined for everlasting punishment, for it is the forgiving person, it is the penitent, who gives evidence of having been forgiven. And seventhly, we’re endeavoring to point out in these final moments that both the offended and the offender should take steps toward reconciliation. Love always takes the initiative. The fact that you are the offended party does not mean that you should not be the one who initiates the concerns that have established a rift between you. And the power of forgiveness is such that when we find illustrations of this, both in the biblical record and in the reading of church history, we know that this is true, no matter how hard it may be for us to put into practice.
For example, few if any of us will know the name Alfred Bosshardt. He was a China Inland Missionary in the twentieth century, in the early part of the twentieth century. He actually died in 1993 at the age of ninety-six. He was one of the unfortunate group of foreigners, mainly foreign missionary captives, who had been forced to struggle two and a half thousand miles across China in what is historically referred to as the Long March of the Communists. Some of you … no, I don’t think any of you are old enough to remember it; old enough, perhaps, to have remembered your parents speaking of it. But he walked, along with others, two and a half thousand miles across China. Eventually, he was arraigned as an imperialist spy, although he wasn’t. He was stripped, and he was beaten with bamboo rods. He was thrown into the worst of incarcerations. And while there, amongst other things, he made use of a sword, not to slash his way to freedom, but to fashion a crochet hook from a chopstick. (You know what a crochet hook is, do we? All of the ladies, and some of the educated men.) He fashioned a crochet hook so that he could make woolen caps and gloves for the guards. For the guards. And in his biography, he says that in the horror of the Long March, embittered, disillusioned, crushed, cold, and almost lifeless, he looked at his captors and he said to himself, “God loves these people, so I must love them too.” Can you imagine the Communist guards receiving the gift? Oh, the power of a forgiving heart!
Many of you will have read a more contemporary missionary—in a sense, she was a missionary—Corrie ten Boom. You’ll have read of how she was imprisoned in the worst of circumstances in that concentration camp; how, in the course of that incarceration, she was humiliated and degraded, along with others—nowhere more so, when we read of her, than in the delousing shower, where the women were ogled by the leering guards, who took delight in the opportunities that were granted to them. And those of you who have read Corrie ten Boom, or perhaps have visited, as some of you have told me, her place of hiding there in Holland, will know this better than I. But by the time she emerged from that concentration camp, she felt that she had worked her way safely to a position where she had genuinely forgiven these people, her captives, from her heart—even the fiends, she said, who guarded the shower stalls.
And so she began to travel and to speak all across the world. And one Sunday morning in Munich, after she had spoken at a church service, as she was greeting people, she noted the face of a man standing two back from her waiting to speak with her. And he approached her with his hand outstretched and said, “Ja, Fräulein, it is wonderful that Jesus forgives our sins, just as you say.” And she remembered his face: it was the leering, lecherous, mocking face of an SS guard at the shower stalls. And her hand froze at her side, and she found she couldn’t speak. She says, “I prayed, ‘O Lord, forgive me. I cannot forgive.’” And suddenly, she said, her hand was unfrozen, the ice of hate melted. And reconciliation took place.
It’s been well said that we are most like beasts when we kill each other, we’re most like men when we judge each other, and we are most like God when we forgive each other. The unforgiving spirit as a pride form is the number one killer of spiritual life. The number one killer of spiritual life is an unforgiving spirit.
I think I must have been a very bad boy, as I reflect upon it, that there are so many vivid recollections in my mind of having to go to my father for forgiveness. And I know I always have this illustration in mind, and you probably are waiting for it to come out, and here it comes again, but it’s so vivid to me. I don’t think of a specific instance at the moment, but just of that dreadful feeling of kind of being down at the bottom of the garden, knowing that everything was wrong and nothing was right, either because of what I’d said or because of what I’d done, because of the offense that I had caused; not because my father had thrown me out, but because I had distanced myself from my father’s love as a result of my own pride, or rebellion, or whatever it had been. And I can actually remember riding my bicycle round and round the block, probably about a quarter of a mile at a time: riding my bicycle around as though I had a large pack on my back that burdened me, knowing that all I had to do to be relieved of my burden was to go in and confess it to my father. And still I ride my bike, round and round and round and round, until eventually parking the bike against the garden wall, and going in and confessing my sin, and finding his forgiveness. And then back out, and your bike seems like it has a twenty-five speed gear, you know? You feel like you’re E.T., that you could just ride off and you’re gone, whereas before you were just riding yourself down into the ground.
There is a personal benefit to forgiveness as well. It’s not held out to us in the Bible as the reason for our forgiveness; it is not that we are to forgive because, “You know, you’ll feel much better about yourself if you do.” Away with that kind of nonsense! But let me tell you, when we forgive in obedience to the command of God, and when we make these kind of promises to one another, we will feel a lot better.
To forgive is to put down a fifty-pound pack after a ten-mile climb up a mountain. To forgive is to fall down into long grass after a fifteen-mile run. To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner was you. To forgive is to dance to the beat of God’s forgiving heart. To forgive is to ride the crest of God’s strongest wave. To forgive is to bid farewell to the past and to all of its regret and is to seize the future with open arms.
Lord, teach us to pray. Forgive our sins, for we forgive those who sin against us.
 Luke 11:1 (NIV 1984).
 Richard Chenevix Trench, Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Drawn from the Writings of St. Augustine, with Observations (London: 1844), 99.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith 11.5. Paraphrased.
 Ephesians 5:18 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 4:31 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 18:35 (paraphrased).
 Kenneth Allsop, Letters to His Daughter, ed. Amanda Allsop (London: Hamilton, 1974), 3. Paraphrased.
 William Garden Blaikie, The Personal Life of David Livingstone (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881), 86.
 Luke 23:34 (KJV).
 Acts 2:37 (paraphrased).
 Acts 2:37 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 2:38 (paraphrased).
 See Rudolf Alfred Bosshardt, The Restraining Hand: Captivity for Christ in China (Hodder and Stoughton, 1938).
 Lewis B. Smedes, “Forgiveness: The Power to Change the Past,” Christianity Today, January 7, 1983, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/decemberweb-only/12-16-55.0.html.
 William Arthur Ward, Thoughts of a Christian Optimist: The Words of William Arthur Ward (Droke House, 1968). Paraphrased.
 Smedes, “Forgiveness.” Paraphrased.