God’s forgiveness – and ours!
One of our children once said of me to her brother, ‘He’s getting just like granddad!’ She had noticed that I was showing the marks of getting older – so I was not altogether pleased. Generally speaking, though, I would have been glad to be thought I was growing more like my father. Christians are supposed to grow like their heavenly Father; Paul says, ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children’ (Eph. 5:1). We need to grow more like Him in every way, but Paul has something specific in mind: ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Eph. 4:32). Paul’s words are daunting because he is talking especially about life and relationships within the local church.
Every Christian has been forgiven
This is the glorious truth: we have been forgiven by God. ‘God forgave you’ says Paul. Though you had sinned against Him and though your sins were far more serious than you can imagine and though they deserved the proper punishment, He forgave you in Christ. When you turned to His Son, Jesus Christ, and put your trust in Him alone, He forgave you. And this was because Christ loved you and gave Himself up for you. In obedience to His Father He offered the perfect sacrifice for your sins – and now you are forgiven!
Living as forgiven people
Being forgiven we also became members of Christ’s people, His church. He puts us into local churches where we can worship and serve together; where faith can be strengthened and mutual encouragement can be found. How we live in the church should be fitting for those who have been forgiven. There is a negative side: putting away harmful characteristics; things which will hurt one another and hinder fellowship and service. Paul lists them out for us: bitterness, wrath and anger, clamour and slander, and all malice. Such things will certainly cause trouble and create the need for forgiveness. There is a positive side too. Being forgiven ourselves by the kindness of God, we also are to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. These are things that will show whether we have been forgiven, and how much we appreciate what God has done for us. Jesus told a parable to underscore the importance of this; you will find it in Matthew 18:21-35.
Forgiveness in the local church
There will always be both opportunities and need for forgiveness in the church. Jesus was speaking realistically when He said to Peter: ‘If your brother sins against you’ (Matt. 18:15). The Lord of the church has set out a procedure which is to take place when this happens. First of all, go to your brother (or sister) privately and if possible sort the problem out and in that way gain your brother (or sister). Christians can sometimes be as reluctant to do that as they are to apologise for something they have said or done. And forgiveness must be real, not tucking away the offence in the mind to be used against the other person at some future date.
If there will always be a need for forgiveness that means there will also be a need for repentance and apology. In fact, the need for some Christians to be forgiving always means there is a need for others to face up to their sins and to seek to be reconciled to those they have offended. Those who are not Christians often fail, both in confessing and in forgiving. In the church we should set an example of honest confession and true forgiveness both before one another and those outside.
Strangely enough there is sometimes a need to accept forgiveness. Some people have over-sensitive consciences and a faulty sense of humility; they find it hard to accept that they have really been forgiven – whether it is the forgiveness of God or a Christian friend. Their doubts and fears are often played upon by the devil who tries to keep them in a low and depressed condition. Do not allow him to cheat you out of the freedom that comes from real forgiveness.
The importance of forgiveness in the church
Forgiveness in the church maintains love and harmony; it promotes fellowship and enables members to get on with the work of the gospel. When Euodia and Syntyche fell out with each other (Phil. 4:2-3), it seems to have had a serious effect in the church at Philippi. Paul felt it necessary to write about it in a letter to be read out publicly before the church, one that forms part of the word of God. So this appeal for agreement has been heard throughout the centuries. Sins, of one sort or another, are inevitable, even in the churches of Christ. What should not be inevitable, however, is that these should remain unacknowledged and unforgiven. James 5:16 says: ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.’ This should be understood in the context of the church, and those sins that spoil relationships within it. A truly healthy congregation depends on honest confession and mutual prayer.
Forgiveness also proves the reality of conversion. The local church is generally made up of people who are very different from each other. They have different backgrounds and may differ widely from one another in character. The genuineness of their Christian profession will be seen, not in sinless perfection, but in the way they face up to their failures and sins and desire to put them right. They will want to help one another in this; each one knowing his own weakness and understanding how graciously God has dealt with him. The more mature Christian will want to help those who are only just beginning the Christian life and those who, by reason of circumstances, have greater struggles to contend with. Relationships in a Christian church ought to demonstrate the change that comes about through the new birth and the indwelling Spirit.
Forgiveness amongst the people of God also shows the world what forgiveness is. The church preaches a message of forgiveness, but the reality of it should be seen in restored relationships among believers. Churches can either demonstrate what forgiving love does, and thus reinforce the message they preach, or else fail in their relationships and so tend to ‘dis-confirm’ it. If they do there will always be some from outside who will notice. Believers should also demonstrate what repentance and apology is like. Naturally we are all loath to face up to our sins and the way we harm and hurt others. We all tend to make excuses for ourselves even when we make our apology. Within the church we must set an example of confession without qualification. We need to show, too, that a willingness to forgive and expressing this, is not in itself forgiveness or reconciliation. We may forgive others in our hearts, but without confession and putting things right that is where our forgiveness will remain.
To return to the beginning, forgiveness reflects the character of God and pleases him. We are to ‘walk in love’, following the Son of God, who made the Father known to us in a human life in our world (John 1:18). He is our example, setting the pattern. Some people at least will learn something about Him and His character if we live as we should, and if the church functions as it should. Others, sadly, may not. Most important of all, however, is the fact that whatever the world might think, God Himself will be honoured and glorified if the members of his churches imitate Him.
Paul E. Brown, a retired pastor, is the author of ‘Churches in Trouble? Developing good relationships in your church’ published by Day One.