I’ve had a lot of nasty things done to me in my 43 years of life. Many of which were done by church people while we were worshipping and serving Jesus together. I’ve also done some nasty things to others along the way, but as a highly skilled theologian of glory, I like to believe that the nastiness done to me far outweighs the sin I’ve committed against others.
The message of the gospel declares that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ. But there is a double-edged sword aspect to this powerful truth — if the sins I’ve done are forgiven and nailed to the cross with Jesus then so too are the sins that have been done to me. When Jesus proclaimed “it is finished” (John 19:30) he was referring to all the sin ever committed in the history of the world, he took it all, yours, mine, and everyone else’s. This means its not our sins that keep us from God but the rejection of his forgiveness of those sins. It also means that in order for you to hear and believe the words of absolution, “your sins are forgiven” you are also confessing that the sins done to you are forgiven as well.
I’m often asked, by well-meaning friends and colleagues, if I’ve forgiven those who have hurt me so deeply? This question used to send me on an inward search of my heart and mind to see if I was holding on to any bitterness or animosity. Of late, however, I have realized these efforts not only do not answer the question they lead me to despair because I know that I can never truly forgive them in a way that will bring reconciliation and restoration. The trust has been broken too severely, the wounds run too deep, the damage done is too far-reaching. So now instead of turning in upon myself to answer this important question, I turn outside myself to the promise of Christ. The promise of Christ that says their sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus and is 100% forgiven. Therefore while I cannot confidently say, “yes I’ve forgiven them” I can with full assurance of faith declare that Jesus has forgiven them.
But what of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14-15,
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
I’ve heard a myriad of explanations for what Jesus is communicating here. Most of which simply cheapen the intensity and gravity of Jesus’ message still leaving us despairing of ourselves desperately hoping we’ve truly forgiven all the wrongdoings done to us for fear that we may not be forgiven by Christ. However, when we take Jesus’ words in this text and compare them with what we read elsewhere in Scripture, we begin to feel the weight removed and the shackles fall off. Jesus has already forgiven our sins; there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Jesus has already forgiven the sins done against us, despite our unwillingness and inability to truly forgive Jesus has done it for us. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. We do not merit forgiveness by our obedience, and that includes our obedience in forgiving those who have sinned against us. Therefore what I believe Jesus is saying in this oft mishandled text is simply this: In the same way that your sins have been forgiven so too the sins done against you have been forgiven. And if we withhold forgiveness from our sinning neighbor we are implicitly declaring that Jesus’ blood is insufficient for their sin denying the power of the gospel not only for others but for ourselves. However, forgiveness is not contingent on us, it’s found outside of us in Christ. So while we fail to forgive as we ought, denying the gospel along the way, there is forgiveness even for this.
When Jesus handed out the keys to the kingdom he proclaimed, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18-19)
As citizens of Jesus’ kingdom we are given a tremendous responsibility. We are asked to steward the forgiveness of Christ. This doesn’t mean we control it or that it originates with us but as Dr. Steve Paulson says, “the gospel always comes from a creature to a creature, not out of thin air.” When we withhold forgiveness from our neighbor, we are also denying it for ourselves because the promise of the forgiveness of sins is not to us only but to every sinner who has ever walked this earth. Sin is not the issue. Jesus has dealt with our sin and declared the law’s condemnation against us to be finished. Therefore when we withhold forgiveness from those who have sinned against us we are failing to understand and appropriate the fullness of the gospel. Thankfully the message of the gospel does not depend upon us or our ability to consistently live in light of it. Instead, it is held by Christ and his Spirit who give it out freely without waiting for us to get it right. You really are free you know, free to forgive and free to hold grudges, the law does not hold sway over this for in Christ it really is finished.