As We Have Forgiven Our Debtors: What Forgiveness of Others Really Entails

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14–15, Matthew 18:21–35, Mark 11:25, and Luke 17:3–4 are some of the clearest, unequivocal instructions in Scripture. The One who forgives our sins commands us to act in kind: “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” (Matt. 6:14–15). The apostle Paul echoes this teaching, rooting this responsibility to forgive in the forgiveness we ourselves have received from God: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13; cf. Eph. 4:32). Indeed, we affirm this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us out debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

There are, of course, situations where the need for forgiveness does not seem so clear cut. Can we forgive someone who does not ask for it? Should abuse victims be pressured to forgive their abusers? Does forgiveness excuse violators from any consequences of their actions? For the most part, however, we know that forgiveness is the clear-cut order of the day. Yet even then forgiveness can be difficult to extend.

In this article, we consider the topic of forgiveness. While pride and self-righteousness often get in the way of forgiving others, many times Christians do not understand the key elements of biblical forgiveness. In what follows, we seek out a better understanding of what forgiveness entails.

What Is Forgiveness?

When Scripture speaks of forgiveness, most frequently it describes God’s forgiveness of sinners who cry out for mercy. God’s forgiveness is, according to Robert Jones, “God’s decision, declaration, and promise to those who believe in Jesus Christ to not hold our sins against us because of Jesus Christ.” When sinners repent and believe, “[God] grants that forgiveness—declaring them not guilty in his eyes.” Thus in his forgiveness, “God promises to not hold our sins against us.”1

When Scripture does speak of our forgiveness of others, it expects us to model that on how God forgives us, as Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, and Matthew 6:12 bear out. Our forgiveness of others emulates nothing less than the mercy and grace shown to us by God Himself, albeit in an analogous human way. Thus forgiveness is, in the words of Ken Sande, a “costly activity.” Sande explains: “When someone sins, they create a debt, and someone must pay it. Most of this debt is owed to God. . . . But if someone sinned against you, part of their debt is also owed to you. This means you have a choice to make. You can either take payments on the debt or make payments.”2 We can withhold forgiveness and take vengeance (i.e., take payments), or we can release others and leave vengeance to God (i.e., make payments; cf. Rom. 12:19).

The Two Aspects of Forgiveness

Wilhelmus A’Brakel, a theologian of the Dutch Further Reformation (Nadere Reformatie), wrote that though forgiveness proceeds from a heart that does not harbor vengeance, hatred, or aversion. “An expression of the disposition of the heart does not always occur; rather it only occurs when the offender confesses his guilt and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation” (emphasis added).3 In distinguishing between the heart and the expression of the heart, A’Brakel describes the twofold nature of forgiveness.4 Consider two passages:

  • “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
  • “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).

In Mark, we are to forgive someone if wehave anything against them. There is no suggestion that forgiveness is contingent upon their repentance. In Luke, however, contingency is indeed present: if he repents. This is no contradiction. Instead, each passage concerns a different aspect of forgiveness: attitudinal forgiveness (Mark 11:25) and transactional forgiveness (Luke 17:3–4). Let us consider each in turn.

Attitudinal Forgiveness. The first step toward forgiveness is to cultivate an attitude or disposition toward forgiveness with a strongly God-ward orientation, one that “concerns our attitudes toward the other person before God.”5 Jones draws attention to three components of attitudinal forgiveness:

  1. Releasing the offender from our judgment and entrusting him, ourselves, and the situation into God’s hands. Citing Genesis 50:19, Romans 12:19, and James 4:12, Jones says that “we let God be God. By faith we consciously lift the offender and place him before God the righteous judge.”6
  2. Emptying our hearts of bitterness. Bitterness is deceptive, fooling us into thinking that our resentment is godly vigilance. In reality, it prevents us finding true comfort. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb explain: “Instead of crying out to God and dealing with how you really feel, you become consumed with sheer hatred for the perpetrator or ways to seek vengeance. Locked in bitterness, you tend to hold grudges and are characterized by cynicism, implacability, vindictiveness, arrogance, hatred, and hostility.”7 Bitterness leaves us under the victimization of the offender.
  3. Being ready to grant transacted forgiveness and to reconcile the relationship if the offender repents and seeks reconciliation. As we think about reconciliation, attitudinal forgiveness “leads us to pray for God to show mercy to the other party, the way Jesus (Luke 12:34) and Stephen (Acts 7:60) prayed for their persecutors. In addition, depending on the severity of the sin, attitudinal forgiveness leads us to take loving steps to rebuke the other person so that transacted forgiveness can be granted and enjoyed by both parties.”8 Whether or not they eventually ask for forgiveness, we at least prepare for the possibility.

The best way to cultivate attitudinal forgiveness is to remember our own status as offenders. We are wretched sinners who have sinned against a holy God. Yet God does not treat us as our sins deserve. In light of this, we can view God’s forgiveness of us as both a model and a motive for our forgiveness of others. Attitudinal forgiveness frees us from the tyranny of bitterness and unresolved anger and helps us to grieve the wrong committed against us in hopeful and godly ways.9

Transactional Forgiveness. Once we have developed an attitude of forgiveness, we are in a position to grant forgiveness should the person who has wronged us ask for it. But what does it look like to grant or transact forgiveness? Most of us recognize that more is involved than simply saying the words “I forgive you,” but we are unclear about what this means. When we grant forgiveness, this entails making several promises to the person asking to be forgiven.10 When we say “I forgive you,” we are really saying:

  1. I promise I will not bring up this offense again to use it against you.” When we forgive someone, we promise we will not mentally file their offense to whip out the next time they make a mistake. Some people claim they have forgiven another but in reality are mentally compiling a case against them: “That’s it! You’re a lazy and unreliable jerk! You forgot to pay the credit card bill last week, you bought that lawnmower without consulting me last summer, you said that mean thing about my mother back at Christmas, and you cheated on that test back in high school!” When we forgive, we promise to not dredge up the past in order to shame or punish the offending party.
  2. “I promise I will not gossip or malign you because of this offense.” When we forgive, we promise to not shame the repentant person behind their back. Though it can feel good to vent frustration to others about how someone has made us feel, forgiveness promises to ask God to replace frustrated hearts with hearts of mercy and service toward the very one who has wronged us. If we do need counsel from others concerning the offense, we ask for it carefully and with a desire to help the person who has wronged us, not to make our counselor think less of him or join us in putting him down.
  3. “I promise I will not dwell upon, brood over, or harbor bitterness about this offense.” When we forgive, we promise to continue the work of dispositional forgiveness. Much like the second promise, we commit to turning over bitter and vengeful thoughts to God whenever they burble up. When the cold grip of bitterness begins to imprison our hearts, we will instead follow the way of freedom, directing our thoughts about the person in a different direction: “Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

In a culture where feelings dominate, these promises keep us from making forgiveness contingent on our emotional state. These promises also help us to think constructively about the wrong. Instead of letting our feelings bounce us back and forth between bitterness and anger, we commit to a course of action that will glorify God by seeking our own spiritual growth and the growth of the person who has wronged us.

Avoiding Wrong Views of Forgiveness

As we noted above, there are times when the command to forgive does not seem so clear cut. We hear of victims of abuse, rape, molestation, and neglect and wonder how we are to encourage them to forgive their abuser.11 We hear of theft, drug use, or adultery and wonder how forgiveness fits with consequences. If we do not make some important caveats, forgiveness will not seem to provide the freedom it is intended to give.

  1. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the wrong. When God says “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34), this does not describe amnesia. Timothy Lane explains, “The word ‘remember’ in this passage does not mean ‘memory,’ it means ‘covenant.’ A covenant is a promise. When God forgives our sins, he does not forget that they ever happened. Rather, He makes a promise not to treat you as your sins deserve.”12 Likewise when we forgive, we promise to do the same.
  2. Forgiveness does not mean denying the pain. Real wrongs cause real heartache, loss of appetite, nightmares, and a host of other painful experiences. Thankfully we worship a God who comforts those who mourn. Rather than pretending we feel fine, we are invited to go to Him with our grief and be reminded that He is even now “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17), a place where there is no mourning, crying, or pain anymore (Rev. 21:4).
  3. Forgiveness does not mean turning a blind eye to sin or minimizing the wrong. Some fear that saying “I forgive you” communicates to the perpetrator that what he or she did was not very serious. Aaron Sironi notes, however, that the opposite is true: “If you are called to forgive someone then, by definition, that means the offender has sinned against God and against you.”13 Saying “I forgive you” means “What you did was truly evil, and this is the only way to overcome the estrangement that has resulted.”
  4. Forgiveness does not mean enabling continued sin or becoming a doormat. When we promise to not bring up the offense, this does not mean that we permit habitual and repeated sins to go on without loving confrontation. Lane explains: “Scripture does not tell us to make it easy for people to sin against us. It calls us to love people well by challenging their actions. . . . Godly confrontation is important. In fact, failure to confront appropriately shows a lack of love.”14
  5. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. The Holcombs write: “Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. . . . Forgiveness provides a framework in which the quest for properly understood justice can be fruitfully pursued.”15 Forgiving a cheating husband does not mean allowing him to be unaccountable for his whereabouts. Forgiving an embezzling treasurer does not mean giving him back the checkbook. Forgiving an abuser or molester does not mean returning to regular contact or proximity. Consequences are guardrails designed to benefit those who have repented. Indeed, those who have committed a sin against another should willingly accept the consequences when asking for forgiveness.16

Understanding what forgiveness is not helps us to see how freeing true forgiveness is. Rather than viewing forgiveness as something that puts us at risk, we can see that forgiveness works hand in hand with prudence and accountability.

Fleeing to the Christ of Forgiveness

In conclusion, forgiving is necessary, God-glorifying, and freeing—but let us not forget that forgiving is also difficult. Even when we have made proper distinctions between attitudinal and transactional forgiveness, and even when we have avoided wrong views of forgiveness, each one of us faces a great hindrance: ourselves! The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us: “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q&A 114). For example:

We struggle with pride: we think highly of ourselves and do not like it when others do not treat us with the esteem we have assigned ourselves.

We struggle with self-righteousness: we think, “I would have never done that,” and thus distance ourselves from the one who has wronged us. Lane writes: “We fail to see how desperate and needy we are for the forgiving grace of God every moment of the day. . . . We have done far worse things to God than anyone has ever done to us.”17

We struggle with control: we think that our well-being ultimately hinges on our vigilance and refuse to do anything that we perceive as weak. Withholding forgiveness makes us feel strong, giving us the illusion that we are at least in control of the other person’s emotional well-being.

When forgiveness seems impossible, let us remember that in our own strength it is! But the wrongs committed against us should drive us to the One who was wronged to the utmost. When falsely accused, Jesus Christ, the innocent One, did not open his mouth. Our Lord did nothing to deserve the rejection and abuse He received, yet He still was able to say from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). By his perfect work on Calvary, Christ reconciled to the Father the vilest of offenders and now sends His Spirit, strengthening us and renewing us more and more after his image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10).

When we have been wronged, let us look to the God of mercy, entrusting our pain to Him and asking Him to grant us the strength we need to forgive those who have sinned against us.

1. Robert D. Jones, Pursuing Peace: A Christian Guide to Handling Our Conflicts (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 124, 125.

2. Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 207.

3. Wilhelmus A’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1994), III.566.

4. For a survey of terms describing this twofold approach, see Jones, Pursuing Peace, 196–98, an appendix titled “Forgiveness on Two Levels: What Others Say.”

5. See Timothy S. Lane, “Pursuing and Granting Forgiveness,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 23, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 56.

6. Jones, Pursuing Peace, 134.

7. Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb, Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 126–27.

8. Jones, Pursuing Peace, 135.

9. For a useful booklet, see Robert D. Jones, Freedom from Resentment: Stopping Hurts from Turning Bitter (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010).

10. Cf. Sande, The Peacemaker, 209; Lane, “Pursing and Granting Forgiveness,” 53–54.

11. For helping those who have been molested or abused, the Holcombs’ books are highly recommended. In addition to Rid of My Disgrace, see Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Abuse (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).

12. Lane, “Pursuing and Granting Forgiveness,” 54.

13. Aaron Sironi, “From Your Heart . . . Forgive,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 26, no. 3 (2012): 49.

14. Lane, “Pursuing and Granting Forgiveness,” 55.

15. Holcomb and Holcomb, Rid of My Disgrace, 136.

16. See Sande, The Peacemaker, 131, who includes “Accept the Consequences” as one of the “7-A’s” of confession.

17. Lane, “Pursuing and Granting Forgiveness,” 57.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is Associate Pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA), Anaheim, CA.  He has been appointed as Assistant Professor of Old Testament studies at Mid-America Seminary to begin in June, 2016.

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