(Preached at First Baptist, Pauls Valley, OK 1-18-15)
The great symbol of Christianity is the cross, and for good reason. As we saw last week, the cross of Jesus is the center of Christianity. The basic message of Christianity is that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” — and He died for our sins on the cross. Paul called the gospel “the message of the cross” because the cross is so central to Christianity.
But the cross symbolizes something else as well: it also pictures the two very important kinds of relationships that Christianity impacts in the life of its followers: the vertical bar of the cross points us towards heaven, indicating that it makes us right with God, and the horizontal arm of the cross reminds us that it also impacts our relationships with other people as well.
Last week, we looked at how the gospel saves us and makes us right with God. This morning, we are going to follow that up by looking at how the gospel should affect our horizontal relationships with others as well. A great scripture that addresses this is found at the very end of the fourth chapter of Ephesians, verse 32. This verse is pure gold for Christians of every level; it is one of the first verses we teach our smallest children in Sunday School, and yet it challenges the maturity of the most experienced saint:
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
I. The Foundation of Forgiveness
“God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
Everything this verse commands us to do is built upon the foundation of what we talked about last week: the gospel, that “Christ died for our sins” so that we might be forgiven. It says that we are to forgive each other, “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Thus the forgiveness which God gives us in Jesus is foundational to our ability to forgive others.
“God in Christ has forgiven you.” Let’s think together for a few moments about what that means:
When Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins, He did indeed pay for them. All of them. I John 2:2 says, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” There is no one in the world for whose sins Christ did not die, according to the scriptures.
And He died for every single one of our sins. I John 1:9 says “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “All means all”! Jesus paid for all of the sins of every one of us.
Just before He died on the cross, Jesus cried out, “It is finished” — the Greek Bible word is “telelestai”, a commercial word meaning that the debt had been paid in full. All of our sins were atoned for by the death of Jesus on the cross.
This has great implications for us. That means when we ask the Lord to forgive our sins, that He does: “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins.” And He forgives us in some marvelous ways:
— He forgives us GRACIOUSLY:
That is, we did not deserve it. God did not forgive us because we were “good.” Romans 5:8 says it was “while we were yet sinners” that “Christ died for us.” He forgives us because He is gracious, which means that He treats us better than we deserve.
— He forgives us FREELY:
God did not make us “earn” our forgiveness by doing some great deed. Forgiveness is not cheap; it cost the unimaginable price of the death of the Son of God on the cross. But it is free to us; we don’t have to “pay” anything for it. “The GIFT of God is eternal life …” (Romans 6:23) He forgives us freely.
— He forgives us DEEPLY:
No matter what our sin, He forgives us. It doesn’t matter what sin you have committed, God will forgive you! King David was an adulterer and a murderer and a liar, and God forgave him. The Apostle Paul said he was a blasphemer, and God forgave him. Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus, and God forgave him. Paul said in I Corinthians 6:9-11, speaking of adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, and drunkards, that “such were some of you, but you were washed.” He indicated that all of these sins can be forgiven — you have anything worse than that on your “spiritual resume”? I John 1:9 says “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from ALL sin.” ALL! There is no sin you have committed that God will not forgive if you bring it to Him. We can take comfort in that. He forgives us deeply, that is, no matter what the sin! We can thank God for that.
— Not only that, He also forgives us REPEATEDLY:
Again, here we can claim I John 1:9, which says that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins.” That word “faithful” means that He will do it every time! He forgives us repeatedly. Just think of it: if Jesus commanded Peter that we were to forgive our brothers “70 x 7” times, then we know that He does the same thing for us too! (Matt.18:21-22) He is not asking us to do something which He Himself will not do! And aren’t we glad of it! How many of us have to avail ourselves of His repeated, forgiving grace, for the SAME sins, over and over? How many times do you have to ask God to forgive you for those words? How many times do you have to come back to Him in prayer for that same anger? Or for not doing what you knew you should have done — or whatever your besetting sin is. Thank God there is no “limit” on His forgiveness of us!
I was talking to my mom on the phone the other day, and after a while she said, “Well, I’d better not use up all your minutes.” I have tried to tell her again and again that I don’t have any “minutes”; I can talk on the phone as long as I want! I am not going to run out. And we can praise God that His forgiving grace has no limit either! He has “infinite grace” and forgives us repeatedly. As often as we might come, we find forgiveness!
All of these aspects of the Lord’s forgiveness of us are marvelous, and I hope that you have experienced them personally. If not, then today, confess your sin to God. Admit that you have rebelled against Him, and broken His laws. Believe that Jesus died on the cross to make full payment for your sins, and turn to follow Him as the Savior of your sins and the Lord of your life. Then you can know that all of these things which the Bible says about the forgiveness of our sins will be true of your sins too!
But if you would say that you already know that you are forgiven by the Lord, then this verse indicates that there is a great responsibility for you to fulfill:
II. The Responsibility of Forgiveness
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
Here God teaches very clearly, that if we consider our sins to be forgiven by Him, then we are equally responsible to forgive others for their sins against us. It says we are to be “forgiving” of “one another, just as God in Christ also has forgiven us.” Are you saved? Are your sins forgiven? Are you going to heaven? Then you are to forgive whatever complaint or affront or hurt that anyone has done to you. You are to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving, just as God has been towards you.
But here is where we usually make a big effort to get off the hook. We believe that we are the exception to the rule. This is what Satan always wants us to think: “Yeah, that verse is for the general run of people, but you just don’t understand MY particular case. It is really bad.” He always wants us to think that whatever scripture is being taught, somehow doesn’t apply to us.
— for some, he might tempt them to think that the promise of forgiveness applies to everyone but them. “You just don’t know my sin.” Yes, God does know your sin, and He is the One who said He would forgive “ALL our sins.” You are not a special case; you can be forgiven.
— for others, the temptation is not that we think we are the special case in that we can’t be forgiven, but that we are the special case in not being able to forgive others. We are tempted to say things like, “Oh, you just don’t know what they have done to me. I couldn’t possibly forgive them. They have hurt me too badly.” Again, we want to think that we are “special”; we are a special case. Everybody else has to forgive, but in our case — well, it’s just so bad, there is no possible way we could!
Only, the truth is, the Bible IS speaking to you. You may say, “But you don’t know what they did to me. You don’t know how much they hurt me.” I may not. But YOU know how much God has forgiven YOU, and He says that is exactly how you are to forgive others. Our English words “just as” come from the Greek word “kathos”, which means, “JUST as; corresponding to; to the same degree as.” So then, it means that we are to forgive other JUST AS, in the same degree, in the same way, that God forgives us.
Remember what that means? We saw that He has forgiven you:
— and repeatedly.
And that is exactly how God says that YOU are to forgive those who have sinned against you; in the SAME WAY:
— You are to forgive them GRACIOUSLY. That is, you are to forgive them even when they don’t deserve it — just like God forgives you when you do not deserve it!
— You are to forgive them FREELY — that is, you are not to “make them pay for it” somehow; you are to forgive them as freely as God forgives you in Christ.
— You are to forgive the DEEPLY: that is, just like it does not matter what you did, God will forgive you; in the same way, you will forgive them, NO MATTER WHAT it was!
— You are to forgive them REPEATEDLY: that is, no matter how many times they did it, or continue to do it, you are to forgive them as often as God forgives you — which is every time!
It does not matter what the circumstances are; what the sin was; how deeply you were hurt; or how many times it happened. God forgives YOU in those very same circumstances, and that is exactly how He now commands you to forgive. And because the Holy Spirit of the same God who forgives you that way is inside of you, He will give you the grace to forgive in that very same way.
I shared last week a little bit of the story of Louis Zamperini, the American Olympian and U.S Airman who was captured by the Japanese after his plane crashed, and how he was tortured and abused by his captors. This one particular guard, the first time he saw Zamperini, hit him in the face because he didn’t look at him — and so the next time he appeared, when Zamperini looked at him, he hit him for that! He would take off his belt, with a huge metal belt buckle, and beat Zamperini until he was unconscious. But as I shared last week, when the war ended, Zamperini and the other American captives were freed. But Zamperini was not really “free.” He had nightmares about his captors, and such a hatred for those guards — especially that one called “The Bird” — that he dreamed about killing him, and planned to return to Japan to kill him personally. But Zamperini’s life was spiraling out of control. He began drinking to deal with the pain he had experienced, and he became a full-fledge alcoholic. His wife filed for divorce. He was at the end of his rope — when his wife invited him to a Billy Graham meeting where he was saved. And he was saved indeed. He never had another flashback. He became a fully devoted Christian, and began working with those who were juvenile delinquents like he had been. But perhaps the greatest sign that he was truly saved was that his heart towards the Japanese had changed. Some months later, he did indeed travel back to Japan, not to kill his former captors, but rather to visit them in prison, where he told them that he forgave them, and loved them, and shared the same Gospel of Jesus with them that had saved and changed his life.
From a human standpoint, if anyone might say, “You just can’t understand what they did to me; I will never forgive them”, it would be someone like Louis Zamperini. But when Jesus saved and forgave him, his heart was changed, and he forgave those who had sinned against him, “just as God had forgiven (him)”!
And that is exactly what God wants you to do. Whatever person may come to mind right now; whatever they did to you — no matter how hurtful, no matter how deep, no matter how often — “just as” God has forgiven you, He commands you to forgive them. If you have been forgiven by God in that way, He demands that you forgive in that exact same way.
III. The Demonstration of Forgiveness
“just as God in Christ also as forgiven you”
Your ability to obey this command to forgive others demonstrates two very important things:
A. First of all, it demonstrates the genuineness of your own salvation.
— “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
The Parable of the Two Debtors that Jesus gave us in Matthew 18 is one of the greatest passages in regard to our understanding of our forgiveness, and that which we should offer others. In it Jesus responded to Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive someone who had sinned against us. It is instructive to us that Jesus responded with this story:
“For this reason the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. But since he did not have means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before Him saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ And The Lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that fellow slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved, and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slaved, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy with you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back all that was owed him. My Heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)
Now, understand that the point of this passage is not that if you don’t forgive others, you will lose your salvation. As we saw last week, once you are genuinely saved, you can’t lose it. But it was obvious that the first slave had absolutely no appreciation of what his master had done for him, in forgiving him all that debt. Which teaches us that if you do not forgive others, it demonstrates that you have never really understood what God did for you, in forgiving you in Jesus — because if you had understood it, you would have readily forgiven anyone who had offended you! The “10,000 talents” of your sins have been forgiven, graciously, freely, deeply, repeatedly by Jesus, and if you really understand that, you will not hesitate to do the same for those who “owe” you “100 denarii.” Thus your forgiveness of others is one of the greatest indicators you really are forgiven yourself.
Do you readily forgive others? Is there no one in your life you are unwilling to forgive? Then you have every reason to believe that you yourself are forgiven, and you can be confident of your salvation. But if you do NOT forgive others, and there one or more people you just will not forgive, then you have every reason to question whether you are really saved. Because if you truly realize how God has forgiven you, then you will readily forgive others. Just like no one would doubt Louis Zamperini’s salvation, because of the way he forgave those Japanese, so there will be no reason to doubt YOUR salvation — if you show that you are willing to forgive those who have offended you. It is one of the best marks of genuine salvation.
B. Secondly, it demonstrates your maturity in Christ.
— “just as God …”
Our goal as Christians is to become like the Lord. We see this earlier in the chapter, where it says in :11-13 that God gave leaders to the church, not to DO the work of the ministry, but “to equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith, to the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” In other words, the goal of our lives as Christians and as church members is to become like Christ. Our goal is not to build bigger buildings; our goal is not to get more money; our goal is not to become recognized by the denomination; our goal is to become like Christ. Many of the problems we face in churches are due to the fact that we have set the wrong goals for ourselves. We are to become like Jesus. That is what we are to be all about!
No area tests our Christlikeness more than this challenge of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what Jesus was known for. It is the very thing He came to earth to do: to lay down His life, and pay for our sins, so that we could be forgiven. Jesus is all about forgiveness. So then, our ability to forgive becomes one of the greatest indicators that we are, or are NOT, like Jesus.
When Stephen was being stoned by the Jews in Acts 7, he cried out: “Lord, do not hold this sin to their account.” (:60) Where did he get this? Did he just “think it up” on his own? No, you know where he got it: from Jesus, who, when He was dying on the cross, cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 22:41) Stephen was being just like Jesus, and you KNEW that he was just like Jesus, because he demonstrated it in the way that he forgave.
— The greatest mark of maturity in your Christian life not how many times you go to church. Some of the most immature Christian people are in church all the time.
— The greatest mark of maturity in your Christian life is not how much you read your Bible. It doesn’t matter how much you ready your Bible if you don’t do what it says! (and one of the most important things it says is that we are to forgive!)
— The greatest mark of maturity in your Christian life is not how much money you put in the offering plate. Giving money is a lot easier than this!
— Rather, quite possibly the single greatest mark of maturity in the Christian life is one’s ability to forgive. It demonstrates how much you realize that you are only forgiven by God’s grace, so you must forgive others; and it demonstrates how much you are like Christ when you forgive others like He did.
This verse ought to bring every one of us to a prayerful evaluation of ourselves today:
— If forgiveness is one of the best signs of real salvation, then what does the way I am forgiving/not forgiving others say about whether I am really saved?
— if forgiveness is the great mark of Christlike maturity, what does that say about you as a Christian? Have you forgiven others? Is there anyone you have not forgiven, or whom you are not willing to forgive?
Everybody who reads the story of Stephen looks at him and instantly sees how much he was like Jesus.
Everyone who sees or hears the story of Louis Zamperini knows he had to have been genuinely saved, because of the way he forgave his captors.
What are people seeing in YOU, in the way that you forgive?
Let us hear the word of God and respond to it today: “Be ye kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”