Importance of Forgiveness

The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer clearly shows the importance of forgiving others. In this petition we are asking God to forgive us in the same manner we forgive others. This means that believers are to base their forgiveness of one another on the model of God’s forgiving our sins, and that we are so conscious that we have actually done this that we are now able to pray that God may forgive us in the same way. Not that our forgiving of one another is a ground or condition for our prayer for forgiveness, for that is Christ and His atoning blood alone. But in order to receive forgiveness of God, there must be deep sorrow for sin and a longing for the great mercy of God in Christ. All this is not present while there is an unforgiving attitude toward the brethren, “If we love not the brother whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen?” (I John 4:20).

Definition of Forgiveness

In the treatment of this subject, let us firstly define forgiveness as it is taught in the Scriptures. Clearly the word is used in two different senses. In the wider sense, it includes negatively, not having a spirit of revenge, and positively, exercising a spirit of kindness and love, and displaying that spirit by all our outward actions. This is forgiveness as a Christian duty in all cases, “…love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you…” (Matthew 5:44a) Thomas Watson calls this ‘gospel-forgiveness.’ (“The Lord’s Prayer”, page 252).

In the more restricted sense, the word forgiveness is used in Scripture to describe the remission of the penalty due to an offence, such as we understand in the doctrine of Justification. In this restricted sense of forgiveness, repentance is the condition of the remission of the penalty. In Matthew 5:44b we are exhorted to, “…pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you”. In this way we are asking God to work in their hearts and bring them to repentance; that forgiveness might be granted, and reconciliation achieved.

Scope of Forgiveness

When considering our personal forgiveness of others, we need to carefully define the sin being forgiven. The only sin we are able to forgive is that committed against us (Matthew 18:21,22). In this passage, Jesus is not dealing with the remission of sin committed against God; which is declared in the ‘loosing’ of the repentant sinner from biblical Church discipline (Matthew 16:19). Of course sins committed against us are also sins committed against God; and they are sins against us because they are, first of all, sins against God. (Psalm 51:4). But it is not our prerogative to forgive the sin against God, even in those sins committed against us. The only sins we can forgive are those directed against our persons by way of injury, or insult, or slander. It is the ready forgiveness of such sin that Jesus is urging upon us.

Covering of Sins

In our Christian fellowship, there are often offences and hurts which are not intended. Through lack of thought; or maybe in haste; hurtful things may be said or done, even though there was no harm meant. Scripture has something to say about such offences; we are to cover them with love (Proverbs 10:12). Love puts the best construction on doubtful matters and does not rigidly eye or wantonly expose a brother’s faults (Genesis 9:23); nor will it seek to expose them at all, unless it is needful for his ultimate good.

Pitfalls in Forgiveness

In the practical outworking of forgiveness in the lives of believers, there are two extremes to guard against. The first is to harden our hearts against those who have sinned against us, and not even display the spirit of forgiveness (‘gospel forgiveness’) which God requires of all believers. Instead of extending love and friendship and returning good for evil, we remain aloof and haughty. In this state we are unapproachable if our brother comes to us in a repentant spirit and seeks our forgiveness. Where would we be beloved, if God treated us in this same way? “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).

The second pitfall in forgiveness is to err on the side of what we will call ‘meaningless forgiveness.’ In it’s extreme state, this would be the covering of all sins against us with love, and never seeking to bring those who have erred to repentance. Clearly, the sins we are to so cover with love, are the unintentional hurts of others; but it is very wrong to treat all sins in this same way. We must not treat offenders as though they had done no wrong. That would be to condone the offence, and we would thereby fail in our duty to uphold the requirements of God’s righteousness. Bringing a brother to repentance on the other hand, is to restore harmony through forgiveness and to remit the penalty of sin. In Luke 24:47 the risen Lord tells his Disciples that, “…repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations…” Repentance and remission belong together, not just in the application of salvation, but also in our relationships as brethren.

Blueprint for Forgiveness

Our Lord in His infinite wisdom has mapped out a plan for us to follow in the process of forgiveness and in the reclamation of an offending brother (Matthew 18:15-17). This passage also gives direction on church discipline; for lack of repentance is censurable and prohibits forgiveness, in its more restricted sense.

Now it is true that when a brother sins against us, he ought willingly to come to us and repent. In repentance there are three main ingredients: contrition, confession and conversion; all which are necessary before the application of forgiveness. But if the offending brother does not come to us, then we ought to go to him and reprove him, “…go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone…” (verse 15). We must do our utmost to bring him to the right state of mind, and that means to repentance, so that we shall be in the position to forgive him and resume relations of peace and harmony.

It is at this point that we often fail to appreciate what is implied in our forgiveness of others. Forgiveness is not overlooking a transgression: it is not simply to be of a forgiving spirit, nor having the readiness to forgive. Forgiveness is a definite act performed by us when certain conditions have been met, “…if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17:3). Forgiveness is something actively administered on the repentance of the person who is to be forgiven. When we fail to appreciate what is involved in forgiveness, we do great harm to ourselves and weaken the relationship we should have with our brethren. Where would we be in relation to God, if He were simply ready to forgive, but never actually gave us the sentence of remission and absolution?

But what if our brother who sins against us turns a deaf ear when we seek him out? Jesus deals with this circumstance in verses 16 and 17, and outlines a definite course of action. Having reproved the brother in the strictest privacy and found this has failed, then we are to take one or two more persons. There is still a good measure of privacy in this step and, if this involvement of one or two more causes the brother to repent, no further action is necessary; the matter ends with our forgiveness of the erring brother. Only when this semi-private reasoning with our brother bears no fruit, are we instructed in verse 17 to take the matter to the Church of God and bring it into the open. But to the Church of God it must be brought if neither of the other steps is successful. Being now before the Court of the Church, if the offending brother still refuses to repent though faithfully and repeatedly admonished, then he is to be regarded by the offended brother and the Church generally, as an unbeliever. Forgiveness is unable to be extended, and the keys of the kingdom are to be used against him.

Christ’s Prayer for Forgiveness

During His public ministry, Christ often forgave the sins of others. This is perhaps quite understandable, as He knew the heart of every man. But of particular interest to us, is the saying of Christ on the cross, “…father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Here we see a lovely example of Christ’s own teaching, for in the Sermon on the Mount our Lord taught his disciples, “…love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). Above all others, Christ practised what he preached. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. He not only taught the truth, but was himself the truth incarnate. (John 14:6).

Notice that on the cross, Christ did not personally forgive His enemies; but rather prayed for them. Likewise in Matthew 5:44 He did not exhort His disciples to forgive their enemies, but instead exhorted them to pray for them. This is totally consistent with what we have previously considered on forgiveness. It is through prayer that we plead with God to work in the heart of a sinner, and bring him to repentance. Only when he repents can forgiveness be declared. Certainly we are to exercise ‘gospel forgiveness’ right from the start and this is what the first part of Matthew 5:44 tells us to do, “…love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you…” Isn’t this what Christ also did on the cross, with a view to the salvation of His elect?

Christ’s prayer on the cross for forgiveness was clearly for those elect who were involved in the crucifixion; but were not aware at the time that Jesus was the Messiah. And the prayer of Christ was certainly effectual, as many were brought to repentance for their crucifying the Lord of Glory, and came to faith and obedience; three thousand in one day alone. (Acts 2:23,37-42). Christ’s prayer on the cross reminds us of His intercessory prayer for the elect in John 17. In verse 9 of that chapter, Christ says, “…I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” It is inconceivable that Christ would pray for the forgiveness of the non-elect, as the efficacy for all forgiveness is to be found in the work of the atonement, and is applied through God’s great gift of saving faith and His work of repentance. Such a prayer would have been contrary to the eternal decrees of God.

Forgiveness is Endless

There is never an end to God’s forgiveness. Never does God say to us, “So often have I forgiven you, and always you commit the same sins: I will forgive you no more.” There is never a last time with God, for He forgives abundantly; His mercy is without limit. Likewise, there can be no last time with us, for always we must forgive the brother or sister who repents; and that too for Christ’s sake. There is no more unmistakable sign that we are not right with God, than when we shut up our hearts against a brother or sister in Christ, and assume an attitude of unforgiving pride against that person. Luke 17:4 tells us to forgive seven times in a day if our brother repents. Matthew 18:22 draws this out to seventy times seven. Admittedly it is difficult for us to forgive repeated injuries and insults from the same person, but there must be no end to our long-suffering.

In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35) we have a very sad account of a servant, who despite the fact that he had been relieved of a massive debt, showed no mercy toward a fellow servant who owed him very little. The clear teaching of this parable is that those like the unfaithful servant who show no mercy and will not forgive others, have never tasted the mercy of God. The parable further teaches us the great truth that God is merciful to them that show mercy, and that He forgives the sins of those who forgive the sins of their brethren. Forgiveness of others is not the condition of their own forgiveness; but is clearly a fruit of such forgiveness, and proof that they have themselves tasted of the mercy of God. Those who have tasted the mercy of forgiveness will certainly show mercy in forgiving one another; but those who have no compassion on others who seek forgiveness, have never tasted of the mercy of God.


When we think seriously about forgiving others, and come to the realisation that each one of us so often fails to meet the requirements of God; let us take heart beloved that our strength is not in ourselves but in Christ. It is a very difficult thing to admit to ourselves that we are wrong, let alone confess our failings to the one we have wronged, or have shut up our heart against. Remember it was in the strength of the Lord that Joseph forgave his brothers, and that only after much testing of their repentance for what they had done to him in selling him into slavery. May God give us the strength and grace of Joseph.