Over the centuries there have been thousands of books, articles, sermons, lectures, hymns, treatises, you name it, on the subject of the Bible and of Theology. Here's some more to add to the pile!
If you were to press me to describe our society in a single word, the one I might very well choose is “Fear.” North America in particular has long been subject to a mentality of constant fear, fueled by (though not exclusively) sensationalized media fear mongering. The world around us seems, for decades, to have simply moved from one fear to the next. From the fear of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War’s nuclear standstill, to the insanity that was the Y2K scare, to post-9/11 terrorist concerns, and now to 2020’s coronavirus scare. This doesn’t even begin to mention the numerous “smaller” scares like the Cuban missile crisis in the 60s, the Ebola outbreak from a couple years ago, or the bizarre and terrifying saga of Trump and Kim Jong Un’s Twitter war?
The world is constantly telling us to be afraid. The thing that breaks my heart is the degree to which Christians become caught up in, perpetuate, and at times even seem to exacerbate this culture of fear. From conspiracy theories masquerading as “prophecy watching” or political activism, to groups twisting the Scriptures from being fundamentally about faith, hope, and love into an excuse for hate, to some (often well-meaning) evangelistic approaches using hell as essentially a scare-tactic, making fear the motivation for salvation. Let me be clear: being mindful of our eschatology, active within our political environment, honest about what the Bible calls sin, and realistic about eternal judgement are all important and have their place in the Christian life. But as with anything, there’s a danger of taking things too far, making them a greater priority than they ought to be.
Allow me to clarify something else: I don’t remove myself from this indictment. I’ve been part of almost every group I just mentioned at one point or another in my life. I’ve also found myself on the flipside in the last couple of years as one who seems to be ruled by fear and anxiety in greater and greater measure. I don’t know where this has stemmed from, or why. I just know that I’ve become far more worried and fearful in recent memory, far more than I ever was before. As such, I don’t write this as someone who has deluded themselves into thinking they are outside of the problem looking in. I’m right there in the trenches with the rest of you. Frankly, that’s why I wanted to write this article in the first place.
The Bible has a great deal to say about fear, from a few different perspectives. In this article, I’m only offering some quick thoughts around one passage. In 1 John, the eponymous beloved apostle writes a section focused on love. In particular, he writes about love in chapter 4. But it is not merely a general discussion about the nature of love. The passage is presented in the framework of an imperative. In v7 he commands us: “Brothers and sisters, let us love on another.” As is often the case in the Scriptures, he does not simply let that imperative hang, but rather proceeds to helpfully describe what it means, why we can do it, and how we can bring it about. Moving down into verse 12, he introduces the idea of the Christian abiding in God and God, in turn, abiding in the Christian. This abiding, then, is the means whereby we are able to accomplish the command. How do we learn to love one another? By abiding in God. It is here that we come to the passage in question, beginning in v15:
“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him, and He in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
After declaring the command, and describing the means, John then offers the results. If we abide in love, love is perfected in us so that we then are equipped to demonstrate love. This demonstration not only manifests as our love for one another, but it has a secondary effect. In v18 see love, that is true and perfect love, has no room for fear. Fear in antithetical to love. Fear means something is lacking in our love, our love is not yet ‘perfected.’
While the question is not explicitly asked of the text, the answer is clear. What are we to do about our fear? Well, we are to seek a perfected love. How do we do this? It is just as the text prescribes: abide in love. And, as John points out in the passage, God is love. So, if we want to drive out fear from our hearts, we need to abide in God.
Before I discuss what it means to “abide in God,” I want to just rabbit trail a tiny bit. There is something that is not explicitly stated in the text, and so we might miss it. The abolishment of fear is presented here as a secondary effect of our love being perfected. As I stated, fear is evidence of love not being perfected in us. There is also the primary result of a perfected love to be kept in view here: loving others. The text puts these two results, being without fear and loving others side by side, but doesn’t explicitly draw the connecting line between them. So here it is: if we are living in fear, it means we are not loving others the way we’re supposed to. Fear is the enemy of love. Whatever that fear is, wherever it comes from, however it is manifesting, you can be sure of one thing: it is restricting your capacity to love the people around you.
Back to the point, then. We abolish fear by abiding in love, that is, abiding in God. How do we do this? I’m not going to present anything earth-shattering hear. As a matter of fact, I learned the answer to this one in Sunday school: read your Bible and pray. As Christians, if we want to demonstrate love in greater measure, and purge ourselves of fear and anxiety, we need to invest in our relationship with the Lord. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, presents prayer as the direct antidote to anxiety (Philippians 4:6). And the means whereby we get to know the Lord is His Word, His special revelation of Himself to humanity. We need to be a people saturated in His word, drinking deeply and constantly of it. Abiding in God means abiding in His word.
It's a lesson that is almost laughable in its simplicity. It seems to basic, to simple, to be true or profound. But I assure you, it really is as plain as that. While we may balk at this as the “obvious answer,” how many of us have actually been faithful in following it through? What is your relationship with fear? I want to encourage all of my brothers and sisters who are reading this, especially during a season like the one I’m in while writing this: let’s do what we can to try and stem the tide of fear, rather than allowing it to sweep us out to sea, or worse being a part in making it worse. Let’s instead focus on learning and disciplining ourselves to abide in God and in His Word.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Have you ever noticed how much we tend to compartmentalize our theology? Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have categories and to think about specific things at specific times. I mean, this whole series of articles has been all about forgiveness. But what we often tend to do is study a topic, then study another topic, and then not spend much time thinking about how those two topics affect one another.
Why am I bringing this up? The first article, about forgiveness being rooted in eternity, was specifically about all of the uses of the word “forgive” in the Bible, so pretty easy to understand it as a study in forgiveness. Then there was the article about forgiveness stretching to infinity, which took a more anecdotal approach. It looked at examples of forgiveness actually taking place in the Bible and being taught about in the Bible. This third, and final, article is going to be very different. The passage that we’ll be talking about today doesn’t mention forgiveness in any way. Why am I analyzing it in a study about forgiveness, then? Well, in a shameless tactic to make sure you read all the way through, I’ll say that you’re just going to have to wait and see!
Philippians 2 begins with Paul exhorting the church to “be of one mind” (v2). In the next verse he defines this “mind”: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (v3-4). So the mind that the church is encouraged to have is one of humility, defined here as “counting others more significant than yourselves” and “looking not only to one’s own interests.” I want to take a second and just think about those two elements, because it’s really a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing if we’re not careful.
Paul has, simply and in no uncertain terms, defined what it means to be humble. One of the great villains in the Christian life, brought up time and again in the Scriptures, is pride. It is arguably the root of every single other sin. Here, we see a clear description of what it looks like to be rid of pride. It means putting other people above yourself, not just serving their needs first, but actually esteeming them as “more significant.”
Let me just take a second to clarify what this is not saying. It does not say “count yourself as insignificant.” Neither does it say to “look only to the interests of others.” Self-deprecation is just another, slightly more insidious form of pride! Let me say that again another way. Yes, pride can look like arrogance. But pride can also look like self-deprecation, self-loathing, dwelling on guilt and shame. Pride is to be always thinking of yourself, and if you’re always thinking about what a loser you think you are, then guess what? You’re still just thinking about yourself! And if you run yourself so ragged serving others that you stop taking basic care of yourself, you’ll burn out, get sick, or worse. Then you’re not looking out for anyone’s interests at all. Let me be clear: you are significant, and your interests are important.
This should only serve to intensify what this passage is saying. If self-worth and self-care are important, and we’re called to esteem others more highly than ourselves, then how high our esteem for others should be, indeed! The tendency in our culture, when thinking about our esteem and our interests as being important, is to elevate them above the needs of others. The movement towards encouraging better self-esteem and self-care has over-corrected, turning us into a generation that can never seem to stop talking about self. We have become “lovers of self,” often to the exclusion of others (have a look at 2 Timothy 3:1-6 for what Paul has to say about “lovers of self.” Spoiler alert – it’s not good!). Have you not noticed how much more easily people get offended these days? Even in the span of my short life, I’ve seen a serious uptick in just how quick people are to offence, and this has quickly turned us more and more into a harsh, unforgiving society.
Ah! There it is. Lack of humility leads to easy offence, and easy offence begets a lack of forgiveness. The more offended we are, the harder it is to forgive. If we could instead aspire to greater humility, esteeming others more significant than ourselves, and looking to their interests, we would find forgiveness to be much more forthcoming. So how do we become humbler? I don’t know that I have a comprehensive answer, but I think that two things help. The first comes right in the context of Philippians where Paul offers four examples of humility as a pattern for us to follow, the greatest of these being Christ Himself. The second thing that I think can help us comes from Psalm 51.
This is David’s psalm of repentance in the wake of the whole Bathsheba affair. In v4 he writes something very interesting in speaking to the Lord: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Bear in mind here that 1) David committed adultery, betraying his family; 2) This also dragged Bathsheba into adultery against her husband, making her share in the guilt; 3) He literally murdered Bathsheba’s husband by having him left alone on the frontline of battle (a battle that David should have been fighting in himself); 4) He then lies to everyone covering the whole thing up; 5) Oh, and he’s a king, meaning that this is a scandal that affected the entire nation of Israel! In other words, there’s a whole country full of people that David will have offended here.
And yet, he says to the Lord “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” as though God is the only offended party. Saying this doesn’t mean that he hasn’t wronged all those other people. What it means is that the offence against them so pales in comparison to how much David has offended the Lord God Almighty, that it fades well into the background! Anytime someone sins against us, they are sinning all the more against the Lord, and frankly that’s a much bigger problem for that person than our hurt feelings.
Once again our forgiveness should find root in eternity as we realize the eternal consequence of a person’s sin is so much more important than our wounded ego. Offences against us to not demand retribution on our part, but instead they demand we point the offender to the cross. If it’s a non-believer, then we preach salvation through repentance and faith to them, because their sin is leading them to destruction. If it’s a brother or sister in the Lord, then we remind them of the Gospel which they have first received and call them to live in conformity with the image of Christ in which they have partaken, restoring them back to a place of strong relationship with God.
I hope this little endeavour into the source, scope, and shape of the forgiveness proves to be fruitful in your life as you read, and continue to meditate on and study these things. My hope is that we all continue to grow in sharing the “one mind” that is “ours in Christ Jesus”; that prayerfully integrating these things leads to greater unity and fellowship among the body of Christ. Forgiveness is a hard thing to understand, accept, and apply. I pray that as we continue to ponder forgiveness’ root in eternity, have it stretch to infinity, and begin sharing it in humility, the kingdom will grow both in maturity, coming to greater conformity with the image of Christ, as well as in number, as the supernatural capacity for humility and forgiveness from God’s people shines a beacon to a selfish, unforgiving world.
Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
“That’s it…I’m done.” “I’ve had it up to here with you!” “You’ve gone too far this time!” How many times have we heard something like this? How many times have we said it? As human beings, under the common grace of God, we may be the forgiving type “naturally.” But even where that’s the case, we tend to have a limit. Maybe the person has done that same thing one too many times. Or maybe they’ve just gone too far this time. Pilots have a “point of no return” which is the point in a trip where half the fuel tank has been depleted, meaning they can no longer return to the point of origin as they would run out of fuel. We too tend to have a point of no return, where our tank of forgiveness is tapped and we feel that we can no longer go back to the way things were before.
As Christians, we are commanded to be a people characterized by forgiveness, which clearly means that we should be running with a larger fuel tank than most. The question we tend to want to know is how large is the tank exactly? How far does our forgiveness extend? How long until we reach the point of no return? If we want to determine the dimensions of our forgiveness fuel tank, there’s two things we need to know: how many times, and how serious?
To answer the first question, we turn to Matthew 18:21-22 where Peter approaches his Rabbi and asks “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Woah! A whole seven times!? Peter, you’re such a forgiving soul. Anyway, Jesus takes this meager number and completely blows it up to seventy-seven times, according to some translations, or seventy times seven times (equaling 490), in others. So, I suppose that settles that. The maximum limit of our capacity to forgive someone is 490 times. At the 491st offense? Done. If you’re anything like me and my brother, that means you’ve got a good year and a quarter at most before your relationship is done!
I think it becomes fairly self-evident that Jesus isn’t assigning a specific numeric value to forgiveness, but illustrating that his followers should be ready to forgive far more than they would naturally be inclined to do. If you recall, our first point regarding forgiveness is that it is rooted in eternity, meaning our forgiveness of others is patterned after God’s forgiveness of us. So if we want to know how many times we forgive someone, just ask yourself how many times God has forgiven you? How many times, even in a single day, do we sin against God and need to lean on His forgiveness? Now stretch that into the scope of your entire life, from the day you were born to the day you eventually die. I’d wager that if we took the number of times we need to forgive every person who offends us over the scope of our entire lives, the tally would still vastly pale in comparison to the total number of times God has forgiven us. So there seems to be no cap on how many times we ought to forgive someone generally speaking, but is there anything that is unforgiveable?
The Apostle Paul is, next to Christ Himself, perhaps the most highly regarded figure in the history of the church. His life and ministry are the stuff of legends and he is responsible for a great deal of our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ and its application to our lives. He was a man whom Jesus personally visited after His resurrection and ascension in the famous recounting of his conversion in Acts 9. Brilliant scholar, charismatic leader, fervent missionary. Paul even wrote approximately 28% of the New Testament! What a guy, that Paul! How interesting it is, then, to realize that he was a murderer. Now, this is technically true, as Paul never violated any laws. In fact, his zeal to persecute the church would be a credit to his already considerable advancement in Judaism. But think about it from the viewpoint of the apostles. This man imprisoned and/or killed a number of their beloved brothers and sisters. We don’t know how many he executed per se, but we know of Stephen at the very least (Acts 7:58). So, again, from the perspective of the apostles, this man was public enemy number one!
Consider, then, the significance of Galatians 2:6-9:
“And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” (Gal 2:6-9, emphasis added)
They extended to Paul the right hand of fellowship, meaning they embraced him whole-heartedly. Now, we know from previous context that this wasn’t exactly immediate. The event Paul describes here occurred about fourteen years after his conversion (2:1), and he was initially met with great reluctance when he had first tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-27). So even the apostles didn’t capture the full scope of forgiveness initially. But eventually they came around and embraced this man who had once caused so much grief and hardship with open arms. They forgave him.
Paul is just one example of a person being forgiven by others despite serious offence in the Bible, but if we again turn to the prime example of our forgiveness, God Himself, we realize that he has forgiven many who have done even worse! This mainly has to do with the fact that, in God’s eyes, there is no greater or lesser violation of the law. There is perfection and there is sin. There is no greater or lesser violation. You are either perfect in all points and at all times, or you are a sinner (James 2:10). So in this light, if God is capable of forgiving a child who stole a stick of bubble gum, he is capable of forgiving a serial rapist as well. There is no limit to what the blood of Christ can cover for those who repent and place their faith in Him! So too there should be no limit to our capacity for forgiveness.
In light of all of this, as we understand our forgiveness being rooted in Eternity, we should also now understand that it should stretch to Infinity. There is no sin to grievous, no offences too numerable that we can’t forgive. There is no point of no return. The fuel tank has no end, as it is forever being resupplied by the infinite source of forgiveness bought by Christ through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. So we should delete things like “I can’t do this anymore!” or “There’s no coming back from this one!” from our vocabulary. Our forgiveness should know no limits, since God’s doesn’t either.
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of forgiveness to be difficult. Sometimes it comes pretty easily, usually more as a result of my own forgetfulness leading me to not remember there was ever an offense to begin with. But other times hurt and bitterness can just fester in my heart, and I find it difficult to let go. So I turn to the Scriptures to help me. What does the Bible say about forgiving others? The first thing to note is that we MUST be forgiving. The New Testament doesn’t really leave any wiggle-room on this. We are commanded more than once to forgive others, such as what is seen in Ephesians 4:32. So we know that we must forgive, but how do we do it?
That’s what this little 3-day devotional is all about. A practical application of what the Bible teaches us about Christians forgiving others. Each day examines 3 main points, and frankly (as you will see) this only really scratches the surface with regards to what the Bible teaches us about forgiveness. However, I hope that having these three in the backs of our minds will help us take steps to becoming more forgiving of one another, and thereby create a greater unity within the Body.
The three points are this: Christian Forgiveness is-
- Rooted in Eternity
- Stretched to Infinity
- Shared in Humility
We begin our study in thinking about how Christian Forgiveness is rooted in eternity, and our start point for this is a word study! Anyone who is a statistics geek will really get a kick out of this. If you’re not, hang in there. It’ll seem like we’re really falling down the rabbit hole, but I assure you things will come back around!
Who doesn’t love a good word study, am I right? It’s super easy to crack open a bible and a concordance (or I guess in this day-and-age, a Google search window), search out all the times “forgive” is found in the Bible, and then build a comprehensive theology of what the Bible has to say about forgiveness. This is what I did. Opened up good ol’ BibleGateway.com and typed “forgiv” (intentionally with no “e” so I got all the instances of “forgiving”) into the search bar and got 114 results, meaning in the ESV translation, some variant of “forgive” shows up in 114 verses (sometimes multiple times per verse)! Then I added in four additional references using “forgave” as the search term, but also removed three that were references to section titles, which are editorial additions, not inspired Scripture. All-in, you’re still left with 115 uses of “forgive,” or some variant thereof. In other words, the Bible has a great deal to say about forgiveness, it seems! Bear in mind as well that this is just the word “forgive,” and not necessarily the concept. A further search on synonymous words or phrases may well produce even more biblical data to pull from. However, this result is sufficient to illustrate my point.
Of those 116 results, 92 were exclusively references to God’s forgiveness of people. That left just 23 verses in all the Bible that speak about human beings forgiving other humans. Four of these are Old Testament uses that have some unique contexts, specific to the situation, that don’t necessarily have a direct, one-to-one application to Christians forgiving others (Joseph’s brothers pleading he forgive them, Pharaoh asking Moses to forgive him, Abigail pleading for David’s forgiveness, and a prophetic declaration by Isaiah to Judah and Jerusalem concerning the rest of Israel). That leaves us with just 19 verses about Christians forgiving people.
There’s so much that can be gleaned by zooming in closer and closer on this data, adding in synonymous references, and analyzing every passage in context. For now I just want to make one simple point. We have 19 verses that talk about Christians forgiving others. Of these 19, we find only 5 that don’t reference God’s forgiveness of the person doing the forgiving in the very same verse. Stated another way, 12 out of the 19 times the Bible makes reference to Christians forgiving others (that’s 63%, or two-thirds of the total references), in the very same verse God’s forgiveness of the person is referenced as well. So we may look at how few the actual references to Christians forgiving others are in the Scriptures and think that the Bible doesn’t give us a whole lot to go off of on what it means to forgive others as a Christ, but the truth is very much the opposite.
There very first point in learning how to forgive others is to understand that forgiveness is rooted in Eternity, that is to say, the Christian’s forgiveness of others stems from an understanding of, and is really an overflow of, God’s forgiveness of sinners in Jesus Christ. Taken in this light, then, what looks like a mere 19 references to human forgiveness in the Bible becomes once more over 100 verses, and thus over 100 passages and contexts, speaking to us about the character and quality of our forgiveness as we need to add back in all of those references to God forgiving people.
Without diving into all of the many attributes and dimensions of this, I’ll close this first point off with a very simple step in practical application. If you want to learn how to forgive other people, spend time contemplating just how much God has forgiven you! This is the whole point of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 7, when the woman who was known to be a “sinner” comes and starts cleaning Jesus’ feet with her hair and her tears and the Pharisee that Jesus was eating with took offence. Jesus launches into a parable about two people who are forgiven a debt, one small and one large, and asks the Pharisee which of the two would be more grateful, and love the moneylender more? The Pharisee answers that obviously it would be the one whose debt was larger. Jesus then responds in v.47 - "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven - for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little."
When we contemplate the scope of the debt which the Lord has forgiven us in Christ (i.e. Every. Single. Sin. EVER!), this should immediately increase our love and affection for the Lord, and that love should then overflow and manifest itself as a love for others, making forgiveness so much easier. When struggling to forgive someone who has wronged you, it does well to remember at that moment how much you have wronged the Lord and been forgiven. Christian forgiveness finds its roots in the forgiveness offered to us by our Eternal God.