Forgive as Forgiven: Treating Others with God's Tender Mercy
Though forgiveness is close to the heart of God, it can be a struggle to forgive. A better understanding of what forgiveness is, what it isn't, and what it does for those who offer it, can help in showing mercy to others.In 2009, an intruder who was under the influence of crack cocaine broke into the home of Assemblies of God minister Kevin Ramsby. The man stabbed Ramsby 37 times and left him lying in a pool of blood.
Ramsby survived but struggled to forgive. He fantasized about seeking vengeance and even wrestled with suicidal thoughts. In desperation, Ramsby pleaded with God to change his heart.
Over time, an inner transformation began to occur. Not only did Ramsby finally overcome his anger, but he also developed a relationship with the incarcerated assailant. The two continue to correspond, and Ramsby no longer feels anger and resentment toward the man who almost took his life.
“I see a man in need of a Savior — just like me,” Ramsby says.
Ramsby’s experience demonstrates the truth of Alexander Pope’s statement, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Indeed, forgiveness is close to the heart of God, who delights in showing mercy (Micah 7:18).
It is also central to the gospel. Holding the cup at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The Atonement made a way for humans to be reconciled with God. This is the vertical dimension of forgiveness.
A proper understanding of forgiveness does not end there, however. Christ’s reconciling grace has a horizontal dimension as well, extending into the painful disputes and offenses that divide neighbors, embitter hearts, and imprison wounded souls.
Both dimensions of forgiveness are on display in Jesus’ Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21–35).
MOTIVE AND NATURE
The setting of the parable is a question Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (verse 21).
Peter likely thought he was erring on the side of generosity. Some strands of rabbinic teaching proposed three times as the limit for forgiving an offender. In the Book of Amos, God counted four sins before issuing judgment against each nation (Amos 1–2).
Jesus’ response must have astonished his disciples: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).
The number 77 may allude to Genesis 4:24: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” If so, Jesus was reversing this Old Testament curse of vengeance.
In any case, placing a numerical cap on forgiveness was not the Lord’s intent. The One who is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4) and offers abundant grace (Romans 5:17; 1 Timothy 1:14) calls His people to love and forgive generously as well.
To illustrate His point, Jesus told a parable about a king whose servant owed him 10,000 talents. A talent was a weight of measurement roughly equivalent to 7,300 days’ wages for a manual laborer.
Multiply 7,300 by 10,000, and you realize the servant owed an astronomical sum of money — 73 million days’ wages. If you do the math, that’s 200,000 years. Clearly, Jesus was speaking hyperbolically. The servant’s debt was of infinite or incalculable magnitude.
When the king ordered the sale of this deeply indebted man and his family, the servant begged for more time. The servant could not possibly have made good on his promise to “pay back everything” (Matthew 18:26). Nevertheless, the king “took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (verse 27).
Verse 27 helps us understand the motive for and nature of forgiveness.
The Greek word translated “took pity” (splanchnízomai) indicates strong emotion — literally, “a stirring of the intestines.” Matthew uses this same term to describe Jesus’ compassion for two blind men (20:34). In Matthew 18:33, the king uses the Greek verb “to have mercy” (eleéō) to describe his motive.
Tender mercy moved the king to act as he did.
The New Testament uses two verbs for “forgiveness,” and both are present in Matthew 18:27: aphíēmi and apolýō. They are roughly synonymous, though here they connote, respectively, the cancellation of the man’s debt and his release from incarceration.
By analogy, forgiveness means canceling the debt of sin we owe to God or others, and it liberates us from bondage to sin.
The king’s actions are not the end of Jesus’ story, however. The liberated man next encountered a fellow servant who owed him the modest sum of 100 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage, so this other servant’s debt was roughly equivalent to three months’ wages.
Rather than extending the mercy he had just experienced, the unmerciful servant treated his fellow servant harshly, choking him and throwing him in prison.
When the king learned of this, he was angry. Condemning the first servant for his wickedness, the king delivered him to the jailers “until he should pay back all he owed” (verse 34).
Jesus concluded the parable with a sober warning: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive [aphíēmi] your brother or sister from your heart” (verse 35).
The parable sheds light on Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “For if you forgive [aphíēmi] other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14–15).
This does not mean there are works-related preconditions to salvation. God does not withhold vertical forgiveness until people perfect their horizontal relationships. God’s forgiveness comes through unmerited favor, not good works.
In the narrative, the servant’s debt was already cancelled when he chose not to treat his fellow servant with the mercy he had known. The breakdown occurred when the gift of grace he had received did not result in a genuine change of heart.
Experiencing God’s mercy should reorient the believer toward mercy. Jesus summarized the law and prophets in the twin commands of loving God completely and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:37–40). James later singled out neighbor love as Scripture’s “royal law” (James 2:8). No one can earn God’s compassion, but Christians can and should imitate it in their dealings with others.
Jesus’ parable also highlights the difference between what God forgives and what He asks people to forgive — an infinite debt versus a comparatively infinitesimal one. There is a human tendency to think of forgiveness as an easy thing for God but a near impossibility for everyone else.
This underestimates the seriousness of sin. To God, any transgression against His righteous standard is more than just an offense. It is open rebellion against Him. To violate God’s commands is to oppose His very nature and character.
Yet Christ died to redeem sinners “while we were God’s enemies” (Romans 5:10). Divine cancellation of sin debts did not come easily or painlessly. The price was the Cross. As Timothy Keller observes, “Forgiveness means the cost of the wrong moves from the perpetrator to you, and you bear it.”
That is what Jesus did through the Atonement. As 1 Peter 2:24 puts it, “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (paraphrasing Isaiah 53:4, LXX).
FORGIVENESS AND JUSTICE
In any discussion of forgiveness, it is important to keep in view that God is both merciful and just. Forgiving an offense is not the same as ignoring it, keeping it a secret, or refraining from seeking justice. Neither is it the same as reconciliation. Sometimes, because the offense is too great or the offender is unrepentant, a relationship cannot be restored to its former state.
Unfortunately, abusers and perpetuators of injustice sometimes use Christian teachings about forgiveness to manipulate victims into silence, forcing them back into unjust relationships.
Steven Tracy, a professor of theology and ethics at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Arizona, tells of a teenage girl who reported to her pastor that another church leader had been sexually abusing her. Instead of notifying the police, the pastor told the girl — erroneously, Tracy adds — that God expected her to forgive and forget. As a result, the abuse continued.
This pastor’s unconscionable response grossly misrepresents biblical teaching. Such stories help explain why some mental health professionals and trauma survivors reject forgiveness as a harmful concept that revictimizes people, saddles them with an impossible burden, and prolongs their pain.
As Tracy points out, forgetting is not a part of forgiveness. God does not wipe a person’s memory of past experiences, even when He brings inner healing.
Further, the pastor in Tracy’s story recklessly and sinfully disregarded God’s concern for justice, caring for the vulnerable, and protecting the flock from thieves who come to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10).
Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences for sinful behavior. In The Cross of Christ, John Stott writes, “All authentic Christian peacemaking exhibits the love and justice — and so the pain — of the cross.”
In the same chapter in which Paul told the Ephesians to forgive as God had forgiven them, he instructed church members to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15,32).
In an oft-cited Old Testament story of person-to-person forgiveness, the patriarch Joseph called out his brothers’ actions for what they were: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20, NASB).
The king in Jesus’ parable honestly and publicly assessed the size of the debt. Before the servant could seek forgiveness, someone had to raise the issue. Acknowledging the damage is the first step toward healing — both for the victim and the offender. Facing truth and consequences gives the offender an opportunity to repent and rehabilitate.
In the case of criminal activity — especially when it involves behavior such as physical assault or sexual abuse — utilizing the justice system is the best way to prevent further injury to the victim and protect others from being victimized. In fact, ministers should consider themselves mandatory reporters in cases involving minors and dependent adults.
“Forgive as you are seeking justice,” Keller advises.
FORGIVENESS AND REPENTANCE
Confronting injustice raises another thorny issue: Do Christians need to forgive when there is no sign of remorse or repentance?
Those who argue for forgiveness conditioned on repentance might point out that the king in Jesus’ parable did not cancel the debt until after the servant had begged for mercy.
Luke 17:3–4 seems to imply repentance as a condition for forgiveness: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (emphases added).
Further, the Bible suggests repentance is a condition of divine forgiveness (2 Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 36:3; Luke 3:3; 13:3,5; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 1 John 1:9).
However, there also are passages that teach person-to-person forgiveness without mentioning repentance as a prerequisite (Matthew 6:12–15; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; 11:4; Colossians 3:13).
Jesus told His disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, following the example of their Heavenly Father, who gives blessings to righteous and unrighteous persons alike (Matthew 5:44–45).
The Lord demonstrated this on the cross as He prayed for His executioners and died for His adversaries (Luke 23:34; Romans 5:7–10; 1 Peter 2:23–24).
Stephen, a believer who was “full of the Holy Spirit,” similarly prayed for those who murdered him. As he died, Stephen’s final words reflected the merciful heart of God: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Jesus calls His followers to showcase His love and grace by passing on the generous gifts they have received from Him (Matthew 10:8). Withholding forgiveness until someone seems penitent enough makes humans judges and arbiters, putting them in the place of God.
The apostle Paul instructed believers to refrain from vengeance, love their enemies, and leave the final judgment in God’s hands (Romans 12:19–21). “If it is possible,” Paul wrote, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (verse 18).
This posture does not come naturally. Rather, it flows from a genuine, daily encounter with God’s forgiveness and transforming power. Jesus pointed to a woman’s expression of love as evidence that she had experienced forgiveness (Luke 7:47). Those who understand the depth of God’s mercy will more readily submit to the work of His Spirit in their hearts, which will result in increasing love for God and others.
Remaining in a state of unforgiveness does not help bring about justice. In fact, it only deepens the victim’s pain.
Keller compares unforgiveness to a kind of prison that traps victims in a cycle of reliving their victimization and letting it determine their future. Instead of moving toward God’s grace and experiencing His healing, the unforgiving person moves further from God and experiences a hardening of the heart.
Therefore, it is better to forgive — even in the absence of repentance; even if the offender is deceased, unknown, or unapproachable; even when relational reconciliation and restoration are not safe, practical, or possible; and even when it is exceedingly difficult.
In psychological terms, forgiveness has therapeutic value for the forgiver. Even social science recognizes this. A 2016 study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine summarized their findings: “Greater forgiveness is associated with less stress and, in turn, better mental health.”
Or as Lewis Smedes put it, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
STRENGTH TO FORGIVE
In Amazing Love, Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, told of a post-war conversation she had with a former Nazi soldier, Karl Heintz.
After hearing her preach, Heintz confronted ten Boom. “Everything you spoke of in your talk was weak,” he said. “You spoke of forgiveness. Forgiveness is weakness.”
Ten Boom responded with a question: “Can you imagine, Karl Heintz, that forgiveness requires more strength than hatred?”
The gospel is a demonstration of the strength of God’s forgiveness. As the apostle Paul put it, “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13–14).
The grace of God that overcame sin is sufficient for healing the pain of injustice, enabling the believer to “forgive as the Lord forgave” (Colossians 3:13).
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Influence magazine. Used with permission.