The story of the Bible is the story of God making a way to rescue His creation from their sin and restore relationship with Him. Time and time again, God’s people hurt each other and hurt Him. Yet God forgave them every time they turned to Him. The first human beings were also the first humans to sin—and the first to experience God’s forgiveness. Given the freedom to choose to obey God, Adam and Eve opted for rebellion. Yet God pursued them and made a way for the human race to experience redemption (genesis 3). Here are just a few more examples of God’s forgiveness.
Moses murdered an Egyptian in anger. Yet God used him to rescue His enslaved people. Aaron made a golden calf and helped the people participate in idolatry, yet Aaron was later appointed head of the priesthood (exodus 32; leviticus 8).
Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho, turned to the Lord of Israel and became part of Jesus’ family tree (joshua 2; matthew 1:5).
After decades of opposing God in the worst ways imaginable, Israel’s most immoral king, Manasseh, repented. He found forgiveness and was even restored to his kingdom after having been a captive (2 chronicles 33:1–20).
Matthew, a tax collector with a bad reputation, became Christ’s disciple (matthew 9:9–13). A repentant criminal who was crucified with Jesus cried out to Him and was welcomed into paradise (luke 23:40–43). Peter denied Christ three times at the hour of Jesus’ deepest need, yet he became a pillar in the church (john 21:15–19). When the Pharisees trapped a woman in adultery, Jesus exposed their hypocrisy and forgave her sins (john 8:1–11). A greedy tax collector named Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus and came down to receive forgiveness (luke 19:1–10). Paul, the killer of Christians and self-confessed “chief of sinners,” is a prime example of the grace of God (acts 9; 1 timothy 1:15).
Luke gives us one of the most powerful accounts of the love and forgiveness of God. A woman with a bad reputation was washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. The Pharisee in whose home Jesus was a guest found such behavior scandalous and objected that Jesus would let such a woman even touch Him (see luke 7:36–39). So Jesus said, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, Teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
The Lord then explained how she who had sinned greatly was forgiven much, and so she loved much. But those who had not sinned as much loved less.
Then Jesus told her, “Your sins are forgiven” (luke 7:40–48).
It’s normal to have persisting questions about the forgiveness of God. We can’t ignore relational and emotional issues that stubbornly refuse to be put to rest.
“What if I don’t feel forgiven?” Most of us struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. Long after we have confessed our sins to God, we are apt to feel unforgiven. We might fear we have been rejected by God.
Tracy, who struggled to forgive herself, understands this. “It’s pride that keeps us from forgiving ourselves,” she said. “We’re telling God that His grace isn’t powerful enough. Somehow, we have to do something else to earn His forgiveness. That’s pretty insulting to God when you think about it.”
When feelings of guilt hound us—and they will—we need to remind ourselves that our forgiveness does not depend on how we feel. Forgiven people can feel like they are hanging by a thread over the fires of hell. Forgiven people can be oppressed by the accuser of our souls, Satan, who stirs up old emotions. Suddenly we are oppressed by anxiety and despair. But our emotions are not telling us the truth about the forgiveness of God. Forgiveness is something God does. It is not rooted in our own emotions. It doesn’t depend on whether we forgive ourselves. Forgiveness is what God does when He marks “canceled” over our debt of sin. We are forgiven when He declares us legally acquitted, regardless of how we might be feeling at the moment.
“Isn’t forgiveness something between us and God alone?” Yes, forgiveness is personal. No one else can decide for us whether we are going to believe in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. But personal doesn’t mean private. When we know the joy of forgiveness of sin we have every reason to go public. If we had found a cure for AIDS or cancer it would be criminal to keep the information quiet. Those who have experienced forgiveness must share their discovery with those still struggling.
“Why does the Bible say God will not forgive us if we don’t forgive one another?” The answer is in the context. Jesus said, “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (matthew 6:14–15). By this statement, Jesus was not teaching lost people how to earn salvation. Rather, He was teaching His disciples how to stay in a healthy family relationship with the Father.
“Does this mean we should always forgive others unconditionally?” No. Like so many other principles of Scripture, there is a time to forgive and a time not to forgive. While we are always to love others unconditionally by seeking their good rather than their harm, Jesus teaches us to forgive people when they acknowledge their wrongs (see luke 17:1–10 and matthew 18:15–17). We do not love well when we allow our brothers or sisters to knowingly harm us without holding them accountable.
By comparing Luke 17:3–4 with other passages, we must conclude that Jesus was referring to an unwillingness to love those who have harmed us and an unwillingness to forgive those who have repented of the wrong they have done. What He will hold against us (in a family sense) is our determination to withhold from others the kindness and forgiveness that He has shown to us. This is a “family issue,” and not a factor that determines our eternal destiny.
“But doesn’t God forgive us unconditionally?” When the apostle Paul told us to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (ephesians 4:32), he made it clear that we are to pattern our forgiveness after God’s forgiveness of us. God does not forgive unconditionally. First He grants legal pardon to those who meet the condition of acknowledging their sin and believing in His Son. Then He extends family forgiveness to those sons and daughters who confess their sin and seek to be restored to the Father.
“If we have been forgiven by God, why won’t people let us forget the past?” Being forgiven by God does not release us from the natural consequences of our sins. Crimes against the state must be subjected to legal due process. Acts against individuals deserve restitution. The forgiveness of God does not qualify former embezzlers to be entrusted with other people’s money, just as it does not give us reason to entrust our kids to someone with a history of harming children. This is wisdom.