5 ways we should forgive

Mike Wilkerson » Counseling Sin Atonement Community Sexual Assault

Some in our culture advocate forgiveness, but it is not biblical forgiveness. Why do we really forgive, and how do we put Christlike forgiveness into practice in real life?

There are many benefits of forgiveness, such as release from anger, bitterness, and resentment. For some, forgiveness is motivated by nothing more than these personal benefits. Dr. Phil, for example, says: “Forgiveness is a choice you make to release yourself from anger, hatred, and resentment. [It] is not about [your wrongdoers]. It is about you.” This so-called therapeutic forgiveness emphasizes the “benefits for the forgiver as she transforms negative emotions and motivations into positive emotions and motivations.” It is not biblical forgiveness at all; biblical forgiveness is a gift given to someone else, not a favor to oneself.

Why should we forgive?

First and foremost, we should forgive because God forgives, because we are moved by gratitude and compelled by the love of Christ to love others the way God has loved us (2 Cor. 5:14).

Second, we should forgive because we were created to reflect God’s glory, to declare his greatness, to show how good he is. These gifts, flowing through us, ultimately point to the greater Giver of such gifts. To tell someone, “I forgive you because God has forgiven me,” is to tell God’s story with our lives.

Biblical forgiveness is a gift given to someone else, not a favor to oneself.

Finally, we should forgive because God tells us to: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13).

How should we forgive?

We should forgive “as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:32). Let’s look at five implications of this command.

1. We should forgive genuine debt

God knows exactly what sins he forgives. There is no turning of a blind eye, no shrugging it off, no naïveté. He knew you were a sinner when he sent his Son to the cross for you. He knew exactly what sin to place on Jesus to pay your debt (2 Cor. 5:21). When we forgive, it is fitting that we name the sin and the sinner, and we condemn the sin as wrong.

2. We should expect forgiveness to be costly

The fact that God has given forgiveness freely doesn’t mean it was cheap. It cost him his Son, worth more than the whole world. And before it cost Jesus the pain and agony of crucifixion, it cost him a life of humility. He descended from perfect fellowship with the Father and Spirit to the earth, where he would endure every humiliation and pain you’ve ever known, including mockery, temptation, betrayal, slander, social rejection, physical harm, separation from his Father, and ultimately death (Phil. 2:6–8).

3. We should forgive generously

This should be obvious from the very nature of forgiveness as a gift; God gives gifts generously. We see in the Passover, a foreshadowing of Christ’s work on the cross, that God is an exceedingly generous giver of forgiveness. He has spared no expense to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). You might think, “I’ll forgive the person who hurt me, but he doesn’t deserve my friendship, so that’s where I draw the line.” Or you might force the words “I forgive you” out of your mouth but resist actually granting them from the heart. But “to forgive is to give people more than their due.” It is a gift from the heart (Matt. 18:35).

4. We should forgive whether or not the wrongdoer repents

We should forgive even before the wrongdoer repents, and even if the wrongdoer never repents. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God did not wait for us to repent before expressing his love toward us. Likewise, we can and should grant forgiveness to others, regardless of their repentance.

God is an exceedingly generous giver of forgiveness.

This will lead some to ask, “But if they never repent, isn’t that like letting them get away with it?” Remember: when someone sins against you, he also sins against God. In your forgiveness, you turn him over to God, not primarily hoping that he will be punished by God but first with the hope that he will eventually repent and receive God’s forgiveness. Every wrong will be made right in the end, one way or another (Rom. 12:19). Ultimately, nobody gets away with anything.

5. After forgiving, we should allow for appropriate consequences

Sin causes damage that cannot always be undone and sets things in motion that cannot always be stopped. In God’s world, human choices have natural consequences. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7–8). When we forgive someone, it is not always wise—if it is even possible—to spare them the consequences of their sin.

We can and should grant forgiveness to others, regardless of their repentance.

A year ago, my home was burglarized. To my surprise, the burglars were caught—a man and a woman—and I attended the woman’s sentencing hearing. She’d burglarized several houses in the neighborhood for drug money. In court, I saw her face and her cuffed hands behind her back. In my heart, I forgave her. Yet there were still consequences: prison time and the obligation to make restitution.

In cases of abuse, the consequences of the abuser’s sin may include limited or no access to the victim. There are evildoers whose presence is always threatening. In such cases, we should not be naïve but seek protection. Love calls us to forgive even while wisdom warns us to keep our distance.



This post is adapted from Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, by Mike Wilkerson. Copyright © 2011.

« Newer Older »