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by Jacob Ninan
Forgiveness of our sins marks our entry into the kingdom of God. It is not salvation in whole, but still it is very vital in our spiritual experience. If we do not understand it properly, the rest of our spiritual life will suffer. Either we may not be able to enjoy all that Christ has acquired for us, or we may suffer unnecessarily from the attacks of Satan. If we look around, we can see that there is a lot of wrong teaching about forgiveness and also that many of God’s people are struggling with the issue in their lives.
We were all born with a sinful nature, and all of us have sinned in many ways in thoughts, words and deeds (Rom.3:23). These sins block our access to God (Isa.59:2). Unless this issue is cleared up, God is unable to let us experience the love He has for us. As a righteous God He could not just overlook or ignore our sins; that is not forgiveness as some people seem to think it ought to be. Therefore He took it on Himself to take the punishment on our behalf, by sending His only Son to die for our sins (Rom.5:8). He offers forgiveness to us now through grace, freely, because none of us deserves it.
When God offers us this forgiveness through His grace, we can receive it only through faith (Eph.2:8,9). It is very important to know that this ‘faith’ is not just believing that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, but for it to be genuine it must show forth fruit in terms of what it does for us and what we do with it. From our side there will be an acknowledgment our sins and sinfulness and what we really deserve for them, and there will also be a genuine turning away from a sinful life to a life under subjection to God (Jer.3:13;Tit.2:11,12). In other words, we need to enter into a covenant relationship with God through Jesus, recognising the basis on which we are given this forgiveness.
We must not forget that even though we receive forgiveness from God freely as a gift, it is still an extremely costly gift because of two reasons. Firstly, Jesus had to die in order to make it available to us. Secondly, the gift had to suffice for redeeming us from Satan’s hands where we belonged (1Pet.1:19). This understanding should direct us in our life after we have received God’s forgiveness, being careful not to take it lightly.
Nor can we take God’s forgiveness for granted. Romans 11:20,21 makes it clear that we stand in the covenant relationship with God on the basis of our faith. As we discussed earlier, a genuine faith will be accompanied by certain attitudes and behaviour. If ever we turn away from this stance we stand in danger of moving out of this covenant. There was a covenant with Israel which they broke, and the warning in the above passage is that a similar thing can happen to us too. God has promised from His side that He would never leave or forsake us (Heb.13:5;Matt.28:20), just as He promised to Israel (Deut.31:6). But they forsook Him, and we ought to fear lest we should too (Heb.3:12).
When God forgives us when we go to Him through faith in Jesus, He justifies us. Our faith in Jesus – as our substitute for the punishment of our sins – is credited to us as righteousness (Rom.4:5). It is not just that our sins are forgiven, but also that we, as persons, become acceptable to God, along with free access into His presence (Rom.15:7).
When we go in this way before God, God’s forgiveness is lavish, washing away all our sins with the blood of Jesus (Isa.1:18). He also promises to ‘remember them anymore’ (Heb.8:12). Since God knows everything, it is not possible for Him to erase the memory of our sins from His mind. What He is saying here in spirit is that He would not hold them against our sins against us anymore. He would not bring up the record again.
These are not just for the sins we have confessed (it is impossible for anyone to recognise, remember and confess every sin he has committed in his life). Some people go wrong, thinking that they should confess every sin in their life in order to become right with God and assuming that the Holy Spirit will bring all their past sins into their remembrance! This is ridiculous. Some others are afraid that if there was a single unconfessed sin in their life when they died they would miss heaven! This does not take into consideration both the largeness of God’s heart as well as the practical impossibility of confessing every sin.
Some others go to the opposite extreme of thinking that once they have been forgiven by God there is no need to confess any sin they might fall into later. Some of them say that since God has already forgiven them on the cross, it would be an insult to Him if we confess them and ask for forgiveness now. It is true that when Jesus died He has already paid in full for the sins of the whole world (1Jn.2:2). But as we know, no one receives this forgiveness till he goes to God repenting from his sins and putting his trust in Jesus. In other words, the death of Jesus has the potential to offer forgiveness for all sins – for all people, and for the past, present and future sins – but it is not automatically applied to all the sins of the world. After we have been forgiven and accepted by God, when we fall into any sin our conscience gets defiled. It is then necessary to confess that sin to God (essentially acknowledging it) and receive forgiveness and cleansing from Him (1Jn.1:9). This is how we maintain our position of faith in our relationship with God.
It is not that if we do not confess that sin we will go to hell, but we would have some defilement in our conscience which can confuse us and take away our boldness before God. Those who make themselves believe that their conscience does not get defiled because they know all their sins are already forgiven tend to slowly become callous in their conscience, not acknowledging sin as sin anymore. On the other hand, if we confess our sins as and when we become aware of them, that keeps us in a proper attitude towards ourselves and God.
Another major practical issue is about forgiving others. Jesus has said without any ambiguity that if we do not forgive others their sins, our Heavenly Father will also not forgive our sins (Matt.6:14,15). We ought to realise that we do not have any right or authority to hold anyone to judgment because we ourselves are only recipients of God’s mercy. God is the Lawgiver and He alone has the authority to judge (Rom.12:19). Therefore it is only reasonable that we should let others go free from our hands. That is what it means to forgive others.
When we forgive others it does not mean that their sins get forgiven automatically before God. For that, they need to personally go to God with repentance and ask for forgiveness. All we are doing is to demonstrate that only God is the Judge and that we are leaving the matter in His hands.
Some of us can find it very difficult to forgive others because we have suffered seriously because of their sins. God is not asking us to pretend that there was no sin or that it was only a small thing. He understands our pain. All He is asking us to do is to transfer the case to Him and to take our hands off. In order to help us with this, He reminds us about how He has forgiven us in order to help us to forgive others (Eph.4:32;Col.3:13).
Some people argue that if our forgiveness is dependent on our forgiving others, it would no longer be through grace but by keeping the law. No. We do not receive our forgiveness as a reward for forgiving others, and it is not something we earn by forgiving others. We forgive others because we have been forgiven ourselves. If we refuse to forgive anyone, what we demonstrate is that we have not understood the basis on which we ourselves have received forgiveness from God. What God would say is that we cannot keep double standards, one for ourselves and another for the others. The parable of the two servants in Matthew 18 is meant to teach this to us.
A practical struggle many people face when they want to forgive someone else is because of the flood of emotions they have when they think of what this person has done to them. Then it is helpful for us to remember that it is a choice that we make in our heart and mind to forgive someone. If we wait for our feelings to become better before we forgive, it may never happen. On the other hand, after we choose to forgive someone, and then the memory of that person comes up again, as we remind ourselves that we have already forgiven him, we will find that our feelings of hurt and pain become smaller and smaller till they stop troubling us. A question which bothers some is whether we should wait for someone to apologise to us before we forgive him. But Jesus has given us the answer when He said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk.23:34).
Let us not forget that an unforgiving heart can be a fertile ground for the Devil to sow seeds of bitterness, anger, malice, etc., which will ultimately hurt us and others.
Forgiveness is such a precious gift God has given us for which we should be eternally grateful to Him. One way we can show this gratitude is by scattering this forgiveness to others around us just as freely as we have received.
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