How do you think of God’s forgiveness? So you see it as a finite resource; something that He gives you once but if you mess-up too badly that’s it? Do you see it as something He gives continually so that no matter what you do He’ll cover it up for you?
We tend to error in one of those two directions when we think of forgiveness. We might see our sins as too big for God to forgive, or ourselves as worth to little for Him to bother. Or we might think that since He forgives and loves us, He’ll keep ignoring our sins no matter how bad they might be even if we don’t bother to repent again. Neither one is true.
What if we instead saw forgiveness as an incredible gift that’s freely given and always available, yet is also a gift with certain conditions attached?
Most of us don’t like the idea of conditional gifts, especially if we’re coming from a Western cultural mindset. We might even resent the idea that something freely given might come with an expectation that we’ll respond in a certain way. However, the Bible does speak of things we must do if we want to be forgiven. Let’s take a look at them.
Repent and Commit
The first thing to do if you want forgiveness is ask. We receive forgiveness after we repent of our past sins and come to Jesus. Forgiveness is not initiated by us — it is an act of rich grace available because of the death of Jesus (Eph. 1:3-7; Col. 1:14; 2:13). There is a participation aspect, though.
John the baptist came “preaching the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Peter reaffirms this process in Acts 2:38, saying we must “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” God doesn’t impose forgiveness on people who don’t want it. He gives it to those who turn to Him and ask.
Repentance and baptism are part of our initial commitment to God, who forgives us as part of that salvation process. But we all know that’s not the end of us doing things that are wrong in his eyes. Committing to God doesn’t magically make us perfect (though we are counted as perfect in His eyes so long as we continue growing toward perfection). We still need forgiveness after this initial repentance, baptism, forgiveness process. So how does that work?
The Apostle John writes in his first epistle to those who have fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3). His audience has already committed to God and Jesus, and therefore we can conclude they’ve already been forgiven for their past sins. John writes this to them:
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9, WEB)
Existing in a forgiven state and staying in fellowship with the Light involves continuing to turn back to God when we fall short of His standards. Our walk with God is meant to change how we live, but He also knows we don’t get things right 100% of the time even when we are trying. Thankfully, He is abundantly merciful. He keeps forgiving us as many times as we keep on asking.
If you’re reading this on the day it posted, today is what the Jews call Shabbat Shuva — the Sabbath of Return. It is the Sabbath between the Day of Trumpets (Yom Teruah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the Jewish people use this day to remind them of their need for repentance. As believers in Jesus as the Messiah, we can also use this time to turn our hearts toward repentance and recommit to following Him (especially if we’re already observing His holy days).
There is one very sobering warning that Jesus gives regarding forgiveness. In no uncertain terms, He states, “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15, see also Mark 11:25-26). Later in Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks for clarification on just how many times he has to forgive. Is seven enough? Jesus gives His famous “seventy times seven” answer, and then shares a parable to illustrate His point (Matt. 18:21-35).
In this parable, a king forgives one servant who owed him 10,000 talents after the servant said, “Lord, have patience with me and I will pay you all.” The king showed compassion because the servant asked, and even went beyond the servant’s expectations. Instead of extending the loan, he wiped away the debt.
That could have been the end of the story, “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii” (about 1/60 of a talent). When this man begged for time to repay his loan, the forgiven servant does not pass-on the mercy he received. He throws the man who owes him money in prison. When the king finds out, he rescinds his forgiveness.
Then his lord called him in and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’ His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.” (Matt. 18:34-35, WEB)
Let Go of Unforgiveness
This parable is downright scary. The servant was freely forgiven, but he actually lost his forgiveness and went back into debt because he didn’t learn how to forgive others. The mercy he received did not change him, and that lack of transformation cost him his freedom.
We can actually block ourselves from having a close, personal relationship with God by holding onto bitterness and unforgiveness. We need to release such things and let them die, buried forever in Christ’s death, so we can walk with Him in newness of life.
We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. … Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. (Rom. 6:4, 11-12, WEB)
Once we repent, are baptized, and receive forgiveness we start a new life. This life is lived in our Lord Jesus Christ, and it involves taking on His character traits, including compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. We won’t always do this perfectly, but when we slip-up we must turn back to God and recommit to living a spirit-led life. One of the ways we do that is through participating in forgiveness by passing-on the mercy we have freely received.
Featured image credit: lechenie-narkomanii via Pixabay