Forgive, as you have been forgiven

“I forgive you.” Three words that are easy to say, but hard to do. What does it mean—or perhaps, what should it mean—when we say to someone who has wronged us, “I forgive you”? What are we promising with those words, and how can we find the strength to actually do it, and not just say it?

As Christians, our forgiveness of others should be both reflective of and rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For those of us who trust in Christ, we have received God’s full forgiveness and as a result, we’re called to reflect that by giving that same kind of forgiveness to others. Paul instructs us in Ephesians 4 to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). The standard is God’s forgiveness to us in Christ, and God’s forgiveness to us in Christ gives us the strength we need to forgive others in the same way.


How were we forgiven? Completely. The promise that we saw in yesterday’s sermon on the New Covenant in Hebrews 8 was that in Christ God promises us, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

To say that he will remember our sins no more doesn’t mean that he simply forgets them. It doesn’t mean that his mind gets fuzzy on the details after a set amount of time passes. It means that he chooses to not hold them against us. He actively chooses (not passively forgets) to not bring them to mind, to not remember them in that way.

The issue with that, that we’ve all experienced, is that the sin still has to be dealt with. God’s justice is at stake. It would not be just to simply sweep sin under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. It did happen, and it has effects. You’ve felt this first hand. When someone sins against you, there is pain, there is hurt, there is a sense that justice must be paid. What happens to that in God’s forgiveness of us?

The answer is, God absorbed the cost of our sin on himself on the cross. That’s what Isaiah 53:3–6 is all about. Christ absorbed on himself the cost of our sins. He took it on himself instead of holding it against us, and in that way, he forgives. And that’s what we’re called to do every time we need to forgive someone else: we’re called to absorb the cost of that sin ourselves instead of holding it against the person who has wronged us.


This process of forgiveness is described wonderfully in the book The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. In his chapter titled “Forgive as God Forgave You”, Sande points out the four promises that we’re making to someone when we forgive him:

  1. I will not dwell on this incident.
  2. I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.
  3. I will not talk to others about this incident.
  4. I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

When you say “I forgive you” to someone else, this is what’s on the table.

I will not dwell on this incident. I’m not going to keep thinking about it. I’m not going to keep stewing on it. Continuing to stew on the wrong act of another against you can lead to bitterness and resentment, exactly the opposite of the fruit of true forgiveness: peace and reconciliation. (For those of you with a few “but what about’s,” stick with me. I’ll get to those at the end.)

I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you. If I’m constantly bringing up a past issue, then I’m still holding it against the other person. I haven’t truly forgiven that person as God has forgiven me. God says, “I will remember their sins no more.” That’s what this is talking about.

I will not talk to others about this incident. I’m not going to go to others and say, “You won’t believe what Alex did this time!” If I’m talking about it in that way, I’m still holding it against the other person. I haven’t truly forgiven him.

I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship. The fruit of forgiveness is reconciliation. We see that in our own relationship with God, and that’s what we’re to aim for in our relationships with one another. The goal is to get back to at least the level of relationship prior to the sin, and often the relationship may be stronger on the other side.


Now, I recognize that there are a number of “but what about’s” when dealing with something like this, and I recognize that I can’t address all of them in a short blog post. But I’ll try to deal with a few:

What about instances where there is a threat of abuse or harm? In cases of abuse, forgiveness doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to remain in dangerous situations. “Not holding it against” someone doesn’t mean we don’t move ourselves to safety. In cases of physical or emotional abuse, you should move yourself to safety.

Furthermore, in these types of situations, forgiveness does not mean that you don’t talk to the appropriate authorities or to others who can provide the help that both of you need. In cases of physical abuse of any type, you are not loving that person by not reporting the abuse. The loving thing to do for that person is to get him or her the help that he or she needs. Additionally, consequences for actions, including legal consequences, are part of the world that God created, and part of genuine repentance is dealing with the consequences of our sins. God does not punish us for our sins, but he does discipline us, and part of God’s corrective discipline even includes using the legal system of the state (see Hebrews 12:5–11 and Romans 13:1–5). In short, “forgiveness” is not a cop-out for enabling continued abuse, neglect, or harm. If you are experiencing abuse, you need to report it.

What about recurring patterns of sin? The second promise of forgiveness states that “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.” The last phrase of that promise is important here. If there is a recurring pattern of sin from someone you love, true forgiveness doesn’t mean you allow it to continue unaddressed. You are not “using it against” someone if you bring up the recurring pattern of sin in love as a means of helping her address it. It may genuinely be a blind spot in her life and God may use you to help correct it.

Do I have to forgive and forget? This is one of the hardest issues that most of us will deal with. “I’ll forgive them, but I won’t forget it!” is a phrase that many of us have heard, and probably that many of us have thought ourselves. Since God doesn’t “remember” our sins anymore, do we have to outright forget the wrong that someone has done to us? The full answer would require another blog post (because this one is long enough!), but I’ll give two quick thoughts:

First, the promise we’re making is that we’re not going to hold it against someone, just as God in Christ doesn’t hold our sins against us.

Second, it is not sinful for someone to protect herself against the ongoing sin of another. If the offender is practicing genuine repentance, he or she will take steps to address their sinful actions and attitudes, to correct what needs to be corrected, to act differently in the future. That is a process, at times a difficult process, and it is a process that takes time, but the genuinely repentant person will desire to work through that process, seeing that it is necessary to regain trust. You can grant forgiveness, but there may be situations where the offender needs to regain trust. Again, the repentant person will desire to work for that as a fruit of repentance. If the person is not repentant, it is possible to still forgive, but it is an issue of wisdom at that point to remove yourself from ongoing harm. Prayer, Scripture, and godly counsel are needed in handling these situations.


Who can forgive like this? Only the forgiven, and only those with the Spirit of God in them. You can’t do this on your own. You’ll need to constantly remember the gospel. Remind yourself daily of God’s forgiveness of you in Christ. And you’ll need the strength of God in you. God, who has given you a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26); God, who has written his law on your heart (Hebrews 8:10); God, whose power is made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9)—that’s the God who is with you, supplying you with all you need to do his will, even forgiving others just as he has forgiven you.

Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.

Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash