Before moving to Parkersburg, one of the things I had to do was familiarize myself with the town. The first thing I learned was the story of Coach Ed Thomas. (Read a book about his life here.) Briefly stated, Coach Thomas was a well-recognized high school football coach. He was a legend, to say the least. Not only this, but he was also an outspoken Christian. Tragically, on June 24, 2009, one of his former football players came into the school workout facility and shot him to death in front of a number of students.
Unbelievably, within hours of his father’s death, his son Aaron held a press conference announcing that he and his family forgave the shooter, and asked the town of Parkersburg to forgive him and show love to his family.
While many people may read such a story and admire someone else’s ability to forgive, rarely are they able to extend this kind of forgiveness to someone who has hurt them. And yet, we as Christians are called upon to forgive those who have hurt and offended us in any way. In my reading of the Bible this morning, I came across these words from the Apostle Paul:
So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. . . . Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs (2 Cor. 2:8, 10-11).
Paul is calling upon the church at Corinth to forgive the person in the congregation who was leading the charge against him, asserting that he was not a legitimate Apostle (among other things). From a human perspective, Paul’s words are mind blowing. Because we are sinners by nature (Eph. 2:1-3), we don’t want to forgive. We want to hold things over people’s heads, ensuring that they feel the pain that they’ve inflicted upon us or those we love. We do this because loving people is hard, especially if they’ve wronged us in some way.
But Jesus calls us to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying, “. . . forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Lk. 11:4). And this isn’t just once or twice, but as many times as they sin against us (Matt. 18:21-22). This is the way of love. After all, Paul said that true, biblical love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Cor. 13:5, NASB). Why? Because this is what God has done for us in Christ (Eph. 4:32; cf. Col. 3:13). If God has forgiven us our sins, how can we possibly not forgive others? No one has done to us what we have not also done to the Savior.
It gets deeper, though. Jesus said, “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). This is critical for us to understand. Jesus isn’t saying that God forgiving me of my sins is dependent upon my forgiving other people of their sins against me. Such an interpretation would imply that I have to do something to receive forgiveness, which would mean that salvation is earned by works. Rather, Jesus’ point is that if I refuse to forgive people then the genuineness of my repentance is called into question.
Presumably, if I’ve been forgiven of my sins by God, I’m thankful to him for that. I love, enjoy, and cherish what God has done for me! Therefore, how can I revel in my own forgiveness while simultaneously resenting its expression to someone else?
The gospel frees us from holding on to the past; it frees us from holding past sins over peoples’ heads; it calls us to forgive people. After all, God has made us a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). By forgiving others, we are able to live out one of the implications of the gospel in a visible, practical day. Who do you need to forgive?