This series was first published in April 2016. -ed.
Forgiveness is Christianity at its highest level. It reflects God’s immense forgiveness through Christ, and no human expression of forgiveness could ever surpass what Christ has done for us.
But extending forgiveness to others also brings with it great blessings upon the Christian life. Let’s conclude this series by considering some of those tremendous blessings.
Forgiveness Deflects Pride
Pride, I am convinced, is the primary reason most people refuse to forgive. They nurse self-pity (which is nothing but a form of pride). Their ego is wounded, and they will not stand for that. Prideful reactions to an offense can run the gamut from those who simply wallow in self-pity to those who retaliate with an even worse offense. All such responses are wrong because they are motivated by pride.
Self-glory, self-protection, ego, pride, vengeance, and retaliation have no place in the heart of true forgiveness. It doesn’t wallow in pity nor does it gather supporters in the quest for vengeance. It doesn’t bask in the sympathy offered by supporters.
True forgiveness sets aside the wounded ego. One of the most beautiful biblical illustrations of this is Joseph, whose own brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery. In Egypt Joseph was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and then imprisoned for several years. For many people those would have been years of festering resentment and time spent plotting revenge. Not Joseph. When he finally encountered his brothers again, he was in a position to save them from famine. He told his brothers, “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).
All Joseph saw was the divine providence:
For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:6–7)
Where’s the ego in that? Where’s the “poor me”? Where’s the coddled misery? Where’s the self-pity? Where’s the longing for vengeance? There isn’t any. Forgiveness erases all such evil influences. Forgiveness frees us from the bitter chains of pride and self-pity.
Forgiveness Shows Mercy
Paul admonished the Corinthians to show mercy to a repentant offender whom they had disciplined: “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority” (2 Corinthians 2:6). The discipline the man had already suffered was enough. He had confessed his sin and repented. Paul wanted the Corinthians to back off. Now it was time to show mercy.
Christians should be more eager to forgive than to condemn, because forgiveness, not condemnation, epitomizes the heart of our Lord (Luke 9:5; John 3:17). Furthermore, we who live only by the mercy of God should be eager to show mercy to others. When an offender repents, we should restore him in a spirit of gentleness, realizing we too could be in the same situation (Galatians 6:1). We accept his repentance. That should be the end of the issue. That’s the whole gist of Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13, which tell us we should forgive in the same manner Christ forgave us—generously, eagerly, magnanimously, and abundantly.
Forgiveness Restores Joy
Paul, modeling the forgiveness he wanted the Corinthians to show to the offender, was eager to restore the man’s joy: “You should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7).
Sin destroys joy. David noted this in his great confession of sin: “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Sin always shatters the sinner’s joy. But forgiveness restores the joy. Two verses later David wrote, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness” (Psalm 51:14).
So Paul instructs the Corinthians to forgive their brother and end his sorrow. The sorrow of discipline had brought him to repentance; now it was time for joy. The believers in the Corinthian fellowship needed to be more eager to bring the man joy than they were to cause him sorrow.
That is the heart of God. He is always tenderhearted toward repentant sinners. He takes no pleasure in the punishment of the wicked but delights when the wicked repent (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11). “He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men” (Lamentations 3:33). God is like the prodigal son’s father, who ran to meet his son and embraced and received him “while he was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20).
Forgiveness Affirms Love
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). How does the world know Christians love one another? What about our love for one another is remarkable, and visible, to a watching world? Is it because we socialize? No. Non-Christians socialize too. It’s not our potluck meals or group activities that best display our love toward one another, but our forgiveness. Love is best manifested in forgiveness. And the real test of love is how eagerly we forgive when we are offended.
Almost nothing can fracture a church where forgiveness is practiced, because unresolved issues are never left to fester. Offenses are dealt with. They are forgiven. Transgressions are covered.
Forgiveness Proves Obedience
We have seen so far that forgiveness is inextricably tied to humility, mercy, joy, and love. Those are all noble virtues—fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22–23). Forgiveness prompts and nurtures all those virtues. But if forgiveness were entirely unrelated to those crucial Christian character qualities, if forgiveness did nothing to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, it would still be right to forgive.
Why? Because, as we’ve seen in this series, God has commanded that we forgive.
Forgiveness Thwarts Satan
Paul urged the Corinthians to forgive, “so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11). Satan’s whole agenda is undermined by forgiveness. If forgiveness deflects pride, restores joy, affirms mercy, and proves obedience, imagine how Satan must hate it! Therefore, forgiveness is an essential part of undoing Satan’s schemes.
To refuse forgiveness is to fall into Satan’s trap. Unforgivingness has all the opposite effects of forgiveness: it hinders humility, mercy, joy, love, obedience, and fellowship—and therefore it is as destructive of individual character as it is of harmony in the church.
Forgiveness, then, is the soil in which numerous spiritual fruits and divine blessings are cultivated. Tending and nurturing the soil of forgiveness is one of the surest ways to develop spiritual health and maturity.
Why, then, would any Christian ever deliberately withhold forgiveness? We whose very existence depends on the inestimable mercy shown to us in Christ ought to foster a similar mercy in our dealings with one another, and we ought to model forgiveness before a watching world whose greatest need is God’s forgiveness.
Think about it like this: Forgiveness is both a blessing and a means to further blessings. Those who refuse to forgive forfeit the multiple blessings of forgiveness. But those who forgive unleash multiple divine blessings, not only on those whom they forgive, but also on themselves. This is the very thing to which we are called.
Used with permission from John MacArthur.