Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Lord’s Prayer: Forgiveness Explained

We’re returning to consider again the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that deals with forgiveness.

and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6.12

Jesus is assuming something here. He is assuming that we do, in fact, forgive others. And, as I explained last week, if someone refuses to do that he will not be forgiven by God.

Now, it would be great if there were no questions about forgiveness so that Christians were able to quickly and properly forgive others. But it seems that there is some confusion in this area. Sin will do that. So, I’m going to spend today’s sermon dealing with some of that.

It’s important that this happen. Failure here deeply affects relationships. How many struggle in their relationships with others because they don’t understand forgiveness. And how many struggle in their relationship with the Father for the same reason. So, bringing even a little more clarity to this topic is quite important.

Before we look at forgiveness itself there are a couple of things that need to be said to set things up.

Forgiveness is a response to sin. You know that. But let me say that in a more pointed way. Forgiveness is a response to some evil experienced, some evil brought into your life by what someone did to you. This is one reason why granting forgiveness can be so very hard to do. Don’t minimize the offense that forgiveness deals with. It’s evil.

Here’s a second thing. There is a difference between someone sinning against you and someone merely making a mistake that affects you. If I accidentally step on your foot, I haven’t sinned against you. I don’t need to ask for forgiveness. I should apologize for my mistake, and it would be good for you to accept my apology. However, if I sin against you, my response is not to be an apology. By some sinful choice that I made, I brought evil into your life. That calls for much more than an apology.

Let’s now take a look at forgiveness itself.

So, you’ve been sinned against by someone. But, happily, that person wants to make it right. So, what is required of a person seeking forgiveness from you for the evil he has done against you? Here’s one thing: repentance. He needs to repent of what he did.

Jesus assumes this in another teaching of His.

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him. Luke 17.3-4

According to Jesus seeking forgiveness involves an expression of repentance.

That means that this person who sinned against you needs to acknowledge that what he did was sin. He brought evil into your life. And then, he needs to express sorrow over what he did. He needs to repent.

This is important. Without it, an evil sin can be dealt with as if it were just some mistake that you are being asked to let slide. That’s not what forgiveness is about. Forgiveness is about evil, and it requires an appropriate expression of repentance for that evil.

Now, another question. When someone comes to you and asks for forgiveness, what does he want you to do? What is forgiveness? First of all, it’s a promise. You are promising that you will not allow that sin to be an obstacle in your relationship with that person.

There may well be some serious issues related to that sin, issues that will need to be worked out after forgiveness is granted. Things don’t automatically go back to the way they were before the sin. Damage has been done to the relationship. And it may take some time to deal with that. But that work is to be done with no obstacle in the relationship. There is to be nothing that stops you from working at a relationship with that person. That means there is to be no anger that refuses to meet with the person. And it also means that you can’t just avoid him because of that sin. You forgave him. You made a promise.

As you can see, a lot depends on this idea of making that promise. But how do we know that forgiveness is such a promise? We know this because this is how the Father forgives.

This should sound familiar.

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Isaiah 43.25

What is this ‘will not remember’? Does the Father have amnesia? No. This language of remembering shows up in other Scriptures. Here’s just one example.

But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. Genesis 8.1

To remember is to bring something to mind and then to take appropriate action. God brought the situation of Noah and those with him in the ark to mind. He then acted by getting rid of the water.

So, promising not to remember some sin is to refuse to bring that sin to mind in order to take some action because of it. It’s about refusing to act on the sin. Or to say it in another way, it’s to promise not to let that sin be an obstacle in the relationship. That is what the Father promises when He forgives. And that is what we are promising when we forgive.

Next question. What does forgiveness, making this promise, look like? It’s a conversation between the person who sinned and the person who was sinned against. This conversation includes expressing repentance and making a promise. That’s already clear. But here is another place where the words you use are so very important.

The conversation should not go like this.

Person who sinned: ‘Hey, sorry about that.’
Person who was sinned against: ‘Yeah, well okay.’

That might work as an apology for a mistake, but it doesn’t work when we’re talking about a sin committed. Clear words are needed.

So, the conversation might go something like this.

Person who sinned: ‘I was wrong when I got angry at you. I sinned against you. I’m so sorry that I did that. Would you please forgive me for what I did?’

Person who was sinned against: ‘I do forgive you’.

The offense is clearly stated along with repentance. The promise is clearly made.

This says something about how to train your children. The classic, ‘Now, say you’re sorry’, doesn’t work. It has become, for so many, the magic words that are supposed to fix the situation. How many adults have said, with some heat, ‘I said I’m sorry! What more do you want!?’

No, the children need to be trained in the habit of biblical forgiveness: sin admitted, sorrow expressed, request for forgiveness made, followed by a promise made. This will likely require teaching your children important concepts. How else will they be able to say the right words with a proper understanding.

I think that it’s fair to say that asking for and granting forgiveness should be a normal part of family life and not just for the children. There is plenty of sin going on in every family. How many have built up walls in their family relationships, brick by brick, by remembering sins of the past. There needs to be forgiveness.

Those are some basics about forgiveness. But questions remain.

Here’s one. What if someone has sinned against you but hasn’t come to you to ask for forgiveness? What do you do? The key question here is not, ‘How do I get to feel better about the situation?’ or anything like that. As always, the key question is, ‘How do I love this person who has sinned against me?’ Thinking in this way makes a very large difference.

I’m sure that you’ve all heard these words of Jesus, ‘If your brother sins against you go to him’. [Matthew 18] But are you aware of the context? Immediately before that, Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep. This is where the shepherd left the ninety-nine to search for the one that went astray in order to bring him back to the flock. So, when Jesus teaches that you are to go to your brother, He’s telling you to go after a straying sheep in love so that you can restore him to the flock.

Now, love can show in different ways. There will be times when you are to go to that brother or sister. But there are going to be times when, to use Peter’s words, you are to cover his sin in love. [1 Peter 4.8] There are times when a person is just overwhelmed with life. Going to tell him about a sin he just committed just may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. So, out of love, you forgive without saying a word. However, that should be a pretty rare occurrence. What should usually happen is for you to go to that errant sibling in the faith to deal with that sin in love.

Another question. What if someone has sinned against you and refuses to deal with the sin when you go to him? If the person is a Christian, you have to follow the procedure that Jesus teaches in Matthew 18. If, after that procedure, he still refuses to deal with his sin, then according to Jesus’ teaching the church is to declare him not to be a Christian. Remember from last week that the Father’s forgiveness is conditional.

But what about people who aren’t Christian? What if they sin against you, and in one way or another, refuse to deal with that sin? With this situation in mind, some people refer to these words that Jesus said while He was dying.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Their argument goes something like this. Jesus forgave the people who plotted His death without requiring any repentance. We should do the same when people refuse to seek forgiveness for their sin against us.

This misunderstands what’s going on. Who is that ‘them’ and ‘they’? Who is Jesus referring to? It’s not the Jewish leadership who was behind the plot. He’s not asking that they be forgiven. How do I know that? What’s the very next thing that Luke writes?

And they cast lots to divide his garments. Luke 23.34

Who is the ‘they’ here? It’s the Roman soldiers. And it makes sense to say that ‘they know not what they do’, because, as far as they were concerned, they were just executing another Jewish guy. But the Jewish leadership had no such excuse. And ultimately, they were punished for their sin.

And yet, we need to also remember what Stephen said as he was being martyred for the faith.

And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Acts 7.60

Stephen is referring to his Jewish murderers among whom was someone who would become the apostle Paul.

So, imitating Jesus and Stephen, you have those Amish folk who, back in 2006, forgave the man who shot and killed a half dozen of their young daughters. And don’t forget the saints in Charleston, South Carolina who forgave the man who joined their prayer meeting only to kill nine who were there. Unbelievers did those things. And there was no repentance in either case. Yet there was forgiveness.

But on yet another side, there are times in the Scriptures when forgiveness is denied. Listen to the prayer of some martyred saints, people like Stephen.

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Revelation 6.10

What happens next? Are they shamed and rebuked for wanting justice? No. Listen.

Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. Revelation 6.11

And what happens when that number of martyrs is complete?

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” Revelation 6.15-17

The cries of those martyred saints for justice will be acted on. There was no forgiveness for those who had sinned against them.

So back to our question. But what about people who aren’t Christian who refuse to ask for forgiveness? You have a choice. You can forgive them or you can cry out for justice. But you will need to make that decision very carefully because you will be held responsible for how you decide. It will take the blessing of wisdom to understand well the situation and God’s purposes in it before you will be able to make a good decision about how to respond.

So, what is the Spirit up to in this sermon along with the previous sermons in this series on the Lord’s Prayer? Here are some things that come to mind. We all need to understand more clearly what it is that Jesus expects of us. And the fact of the matter is that He expects a lot. Forgiving little trifles is no big deal. But that’s because most of the sin that we deal with is just that, little trifles. However, as we get to understand better the subtle nature of sin - our own sin and the sins of others - that’s when it is no longer a little trifle. That’s when not only granting forgiveness but even asking for forgiveness becomes hard, very hard. But that is what Jesus calls for: repentance expressed and a promise made.

When we see our sin more clearly for what it is, to ask for forgiveness is a blow to our pride. We come to see that we are not nearly as good and nice as we think. And to grant forgiveness for some evil experienced, to make the promise not to remember it, that will make our hearts recoil because they will demand the right to see the other person punished for what he did to us. But asking for and granting forgiveness are things that Jesus calls for, that He demands.

It’s when we really get this, when we see the impossibility of our satisfying Jesus’ demands, that the grace of God shines. It is when we are hopeless in ourselves that our hope in God can burst forth producing Godly living.

This is what the Spirit wants you to see.

But that’s not all. There is something else that He wants you to see. He wants you to see that you are making progress. The Spirit has been busy in our midst. And, as a result, you’ve made progress when it comes to following Jesus. So, be optimistic about your future. The Spirit isn’t done with you yet. More growth is on the way. Look forward to it.