Forgiveness Of Injuries - Part I


Adapted from a Sermon by John Angell James

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. Matthew 18:21-22

After this follows one of the most beautiful of all our Lord's parables, that is, the parable of the unforgiving servant, who having had ten thousand talents forgiven him took his fellow-servant by the throat and cast him into prison for a hundred denarii.

Forgiveness is a word which occupies a large and conspicuous place in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New. It meets us at every turn. It comes before us in the form of a doctrine to be believed, in the proclamation of Divine mercy through the blood of Christ to sinful man—and in the form of a precept to be obeyed, in the injunction to man to forgive his erring fellow-mortal.

The scriptures resound with the word forgiveness, and are radiant with the brightness of its blessings. At every step we hear the announcement from heaven, "I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins;” (Is 43:25) and “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph 4:32) Therefore, to call ourselves Christians without performing the duty of forgiveness, is as impossible as calling ourselves Christians without believing the doctrine of God's forgiveness. Since that simply cannot be a true faith which does not work by love; nor that a true love which does not act in the way of forgiveness.

One might suppose, did we not know the contrary both by experience and observation, that it would be at once the easiest and the pleasantest of all duties, for the man who professes to have received forgiveness from God to forgive an offender; that in the fullness of his gratitude, joy, and love, for having received the pardon of his ten thousand sins, and in the consciousness of his inability to make any adequate returns to God, he would hasten to his "offending" brother, and say, "I have had so much forgiven, that I freely forgive you all."

It would seem as if, by a kind of moral necessity, a forgiven man must be a forgiving man. And yet is it really so? Is not the very contrary the case? Is there any duty so difficult, so rare, or so reluctantly, grudgingly, and sparingly performed? Is it not almost as true in reference to the church, as it is to the world, that "A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle?" (Prov 18:19)

We will consider this subject in two parts. This week we will:

I. First, look into what it is really to forgive.

II. Then we will consider some circumstances connected with the exercise of forgiveness.

III. In the third place we will consider the indispensable necessity of our exercising this disposition of forgiveness.

Next week, God willing, we will conclude the sermon with:

IV. In the fourth place, an inquiry as to why a duty so obvious is so much neglected,

V. Next, some means and helps which we should use in performing this duty.

VI. And finally encouragement by some appropriate and effective motives to perform this duty.

And so to begin,

I. As no duty is more mistaken, as well as neglected; and as forgiveness includes much more than is generally supposed, let us look into what it is really to forgive.

This may seem to need no explanation, and it would need none, if men's judgments were not clouded by the deceitfulness of their hearts. It is to be feared that very many imagine they have performed this duty when they have been brought to say, "I forgive him with all my heart, and pray to God to forgive him also." It is well to go this far, instead of saying, "Forgive him! No never, I cannot and will not." But good words without good feelings, are just adding hypocrisy to revenge—and there is no doubt that forgiveness is often on the lips, while revenge is in the heart. Men deceive themselves with their own words, they believe their own lies. Genuine forgiveness is not only the declaration that we forgive, but an entire feeling of forgiveness. It is the heart saying, "I forgive," and the conscience attesting the truth of the assertion. The following things are all necessary to the right performance of this duty.

i) It implies that we extinguish, or take great pains to do so, all feelings of anger and wrath towards the offender.

The first impulse of the soul when injured is to become angry, to look at the offence in the worst light, to brood over it, and at every returning thought of it to burn up with fresh indignation. This is always the case with the relentless and implacable person. But the forgiving one calms the agitations of his mind, keeps down his rising passions, and curbs the fury of his temper. Forgiveness puts a stop to the spreading wildfire of the soul. It extinguishes the flames of our fiery tempers and allows not even the embers to burn. We have never forgiven, whatever we may say, or however we may outwardly conduct ourselves towards the offender, until we have quite laid aside all bitterness, anger and wrath.

ii) Every man that forgives an injury, must have a mind free from all intention and all wish for revenge.

This is a word which most Christians would denounce, but it is a thing which very many practice nonetheless. By revenge they mean great acts of injury returned for others as great; but it should be considered, any return, in whatever small way, of injury for injury, though it be a spiteful word, is revenge. And it is pitiable to see what petty acts of retaliation some will be guilty of, who perhaps imagine that because they have not openly and mischievously avenged themselves, they have really practiced forgiveness. All intention or wish to resent an injury, in any way, must be entirely banished from the mind, if we really forgive.

So neither must we desire that others or that God would take up our cause and revenge the injury. Some will say they forgive, and yet secretly wish that though not inflicted by themselves, some evil may be done by others to an offender. "I forgive him," say they, "and leave him to God." For what purpose? To be pardoned or to be punished? Alas, how often does it mean the latter—but we never forgive until we can pray to God to forgive our enemy, and to bestow upon him good, rather than evil.

iii) Forgiveness implies that we endeavor to forget the offence.

We have a beautiful instance of this in God's language to the Jews—"I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Is 43:25) And how impressive is that language of the prophet Micah, "Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." (Mic 7:18) Wonderful language! This is one of the finest images to represent the completeness of God's pardoning mercy to be found in all the Bible. He casts our sins not into a brook nor a river where they might be found again, no, nor into the sea near the shore where the tide might cast them up again, but like a stone into the depths of the sea, where they can never be fished up again, but lie forever buried and forgotten at the bottom of the ocean! This is divine forgiveness, casting all our sins into oblivion!

Yes, and this is human forgiveness too, where it is genuine. "I will forgive," say some, "but I cannot forget." This means that they really do not forgive at all, for they do not wish or intend to forget the evil but to cherish a memory of it. They write it down in their memory, preserve it there with care, often read it, and always with feelings of ill-will towards the offender.

Now absolute erasure is impossible. To determine actually and absolutely to forget anything which has once been known to us is a thing beyond our power; and there may be cases in which, in order to govern our behavior towards the offender in the future, it may be desirable and proper to retain an accurate recollection of the offence. But the remembrance which true forgiveness prevents, is that which is cherished for the mere purpose of perpetuating a sense of the injury received. This we must endeavor as far as possible to forget. "The devil," says Jeremy Taylor, "is ever ready to do this office for any man; and he that keeps in mind an injury will need no other tempter to uncharitableness than his own memory."

iv) Forgiveness requires that we do not upbraid the offender with his sin after we have pardoned it.

It seals our lips, as well as ties our arms from injury. To reproach one for his offence after we have professed to pardon it, proves that our profession was insincere. Of course if he repeats the injury, it may then be mentioned as aggravating the new offence; since it is a great wrong on his part to renew again the transgression we had generously forgiven. And as we do not upbraid the offender himself with the offence, so we must not repeat it to others for them to upbraid him with it. To go round from individual to individual with the tale of a transgression which we profess to have forgiven can be only to do him who has committed it an injury, or to magnify our own 'false charity' in passing it by—the first of which is unkindness to him, and the other a contemptible vanity of our own.

v) Forgiveness is not genuine unless we are prepared to do the offending party all the good in our power.

Merely to abstain from evil is not enough, for we must be willing to do him good. To do actual evil is positive revenge; and to abstain from doing good is negative revenge. Our example is the conduct of our God in Christ, who not only forgives all our sins, but "who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places." (Eph 1:3) How we deal with offenders must in this way resemble God's.

vi) He that really forgives must, except in certain extreme cases, restore a person to the same relations to himself as he occupied before the offence.

There are exceptions to this rule. The offence may have been of such a nature, or the confession and repentance may be so ambiguous, that to take the offender back again as entirely into our confidence, or our esteem, or our love, as he was before, is more than can be expected, or even required.

In all other cases restoration should follow reconciliation, and the latter is not complete without the former. The man who has offended me, but who has acknowledged to me his offence, (with all the sorrow that the act called for, and with all the change of his behavior which the sincerity of that sorrow demands for its proof,) gives evidence of a degree of excellence which should restore him to a place in my regard at least as high as the one he held before. If that were all he did to injure me, his humiliation and reformation are a more convincing demonstration of a radically good character, than the offence was of a bad one. When a man says to me with obvious and undoubted sincerity and sorrow, "Sir, I have wronged you; forgive me," that man rises more by his penitence than he sunk by his transgression. To withhold from him my love, to keep him at a distance, and to treat him with coldness and suspicion, is still to punish and not to pardon him. It is useless to say to him, "I forgive you," for he feels that you have not done so.

This is not the way God deals with us. God has so pardoned us that He has not only shielded us from the punishment which our sins have deserved, but He has received us back to His favor, and He treats us with all the love He would have borne towards us, if we had never offended Him. A repulsive method of meeting a returning offender; a cold, distant, suspicious line of conduct to him, has often, like a frost, nipped the opening bud of his penitence and reformation; while kind, generous, warm-hearted confidence like the sun, will bring on and develop it, and ripen it into the beauty and the fragrance of the full-blown flower.

Such then is true forgiveness; and let any one looking back upon the description, say, if such a disposition is not much more rare than many people are ready to imagine. If all this is included in this beautiful branch of a Christian's duty, (and is it not?) then how few of us have made any great progress in this evangelical virtue, and how much do we all need to be stirred up again and again to look into its nature, and our own progression it.

II. Let us now consider some circumstances connected with the exercise of forgiveness.

1. We may ask, how often are we required to forgive the same offender?

Our Lord, in His reply to Peter's question, has answered this. That apostle came to Jesus, and said, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" The Jews in their corrupt morality had a maxim that we should forgive an enemy three times, but not a fourth. Peter doubtless in proposing his question imagined he was giving his charity a wondrous stretch, in extending it to seven times forgiveness. How must he have been astonished at the answer of Christ. "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matt 18:21,22) Astounding idea! We are to be so full of love as to forgive the same person over and over again, if he so often offends, and as often repents! And was this too much for Jesus to demand, who has repeated His own forgiveness many more times than that, to each one of us? It is not surprising to hear the apostles reply to such an injunction "Lord, increase our faith." (Luke 17:5) Nothing but a very strong faith can do this.

What can we say of those who have not faith enough to forgive once! Of course our Lord in this case used a definite for an indefinite number, and meant that our pardon is to be repeated as often as our brother's offence—when that offence is followed by sorrowful confession and the fruits of repentance. If Christ were to stop in pardoning us at the seventy seventh time—what would become of us?

True it is that the oftener a sin is committed, the more striking and convincing must the evidence be of sincere repentance; and the more difficult it is to determine its sincerity—and also the more cautious we should be in restoring the offender to our confidence and favor. Nor can it be expected, however truly we may forgive him so far as to abstain from doing him evil and to be willing to do him any good, that we should take him back into our favor and confidence, and trust him altogether as we did before. He has proved himself by repeated offences hardly to be trusted; for it is plain he has not been cured of the evil principle, the malicious heart or the evil eye—the slanderous tongue or the unjust hand—his covetous desire, and his anger—and thus though he must be pardoned charitably, and prayed for heartily, he must be handled cautiously. In this, our love must be neither credulous nor morose; too difficult, nor too easy.

2. Again we may ask, Are we to forgive a person—if he will not confess his fault?

Forgiveness has various degrees, and in the fullest and most complete sense of the term it is not required of us, until confession is made. God does not forgive us unless we acknowledge our sins. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8,9) Christ makes the duty of forgiveness dependent upon the repentance of the offender. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him." (Luke 17:3,4)

But still there are certain duties to be performed towards him even in this stubborn and unrelenting state of mind. We should in the exercise of meekness and gentleness endeavor to convince him of his wrong-doing. We are not, as we discover his impenitence and stubbornness, to immediately turn away from him in anger and disgust, and leave him to himself, and in this way allow sin to dwell in him.

And even after all suitable arguments have been used, and he still remains stubbornly bent upon making no concession, we are not to allow ourselves to cherish enmity and malice towards him; we must harbor no ill-will towards him; we must pray for him—and be willing to do any good to him. Kindness shown to an impenitent offender, in a way that will not seem to encourage his sin, or a repetition of it—may melt his hard heart. This is what the apostle calls heaping coals of fire on his head, and by the agony of a guilty conscience, made more susceptible by your forgiveness, melting down the cold, hard substance of his iron heart.

Here we act like God, who though he does not receive impenitent offenders to his favor, or bestow upon them the blessings of his children, still continues to give them many providential comforts. And for what purpose? The apostle declares this, when he says, "Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom 2:4) This is extraordinarily beautiful—the goodness of God, instead of turning its back upon the unrepenting sinner and withdrawing from him in wrath and disgust, turns towards him in kindness, and even takes hold of his hand to lead him to repentance.

Here is our pattern. We cannot receive the offender to our favor until he has confessed his fault; but we can be kind to him, and like our Heavenly Father take him by the hand and lead him to a better state of mind. He is, not even in his brooding stubbornness, to be an object of our hatred and revenge.

III. Finally, we will now consider the indispensable necessity of our exercising this disposition of forgiveness.

This duty cannot be placed among the non-essentials of religion; as that without which a man may be a real, though an incomplete Christian. It is not to be ranked among those matters about which good men may differ, and be nearly as good whichever side they take. Nor is it to be viewed as merely a graceful and ornamental addition to religion, a sort of tasteful decoration of character, which a few fine spirits, men made of softer clay or cast in a more attractive mold, may wear; but which can very well be done without. Nothing of the sort.

And here pause and carefully consider the truth, which is now laid down, for so it is—you are not a Christian, you never can be one, you are not in the way to heaven, but on the road to perdition, your trespasses are not forgiven you, but are all upon you at this moment—if you are habitually an unforgiving person. This is a solemn fact, which, with in a dark and frowning manner now stares you in the face. A voice from the unseen world uttered in thunder could not make it more certain. Take the following evidences of this fact.

1. First, forgiveness is positively commanded in holy Scripture. How frequently, how solemnly, and how authoritatively is this duty enforced by our Lord himself! Read with devout and fixed attention the following passages, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses," (Matt 6:14-15)—the same thing is repeated in four other places. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph 4:32) "Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." (Col 3:13) "Confess your sins to one another." (James 5:16) Remember this is law, not merely advice—a command, not only counsel—as truly law, as that which requires honesty or chastity; so that a man who is unforgiving, is as truly a rebel against Christ, as he who does not pray, or he who is a an adulterer.

If Christ is our Master, then we are bound to obey Him in everything—and in this among the rest. If we cannot forgive, we cannot be disciples of Christ. We resist His authority; we cast off His yoke; we trample under feet His commands. We tell Him in effect He has passed a law which we cannot—and will not, obey. We cannot plead ignorance either of the existence or of the meaning of this law. Here it is laid down as the rule of our conduct. A child can understand it; nothing can be more unmistakable. The command lies upon the very surface of Christianity, and the meaning lies upon the surface of the law. Is not forgiveness necessary? Can we even pretend to be Christians without it?

2. Next, it is not only a command of the Christian religion—but it is one of the commands which peculiarly belong to it, as in a very extraordinary manner linked to it. Paganism knows nothing about it. Revenge has ever been its spirit in all forms and all ages. No wonder, its deities have usually been impersonations either of lust or cruelty. To Judaism it was not unknown, but, like the doctrine of a future state, was far less clearly revealed than it is under the Christian dispensation.

That bright providence which has revealed so clearly God's forgiving love, through the atonement of Christ, has also as clearly revealed our duty to forgive one another, as God has for Christ's sake forgiven us. The 'olive branch of forgiveness' is suspended from the cross. Like the duty of loving one another, the duty of forgiveness is especially Christ's commandment, for the latter is included in the former. So that we may say of this, as well as of love, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” (John 13:35)—if you forgive one another."

Christ will not own us as disciples if we do not forgive. He in effect says, "Look at that man who cannot forgive—is he like me? Does he bear my image? Does he carry about my mind? Does he breathe my spirit? No! Let all men therefore know that though he bears my name—I disown him. He bears false witness against me. He misrepresents me—he is a living slander, a foul misrepresentation of me; and is at the same time a betrayer of my religion. If men believe that I am like him, as his profession assumes, they will, they must conclude, that I am instead of a Savior a destroyer—instead of an incarnation of mercy, an impersonation of revenge. Do not believe him, when he says he is a Christian—for no habitually unforgiving man can be one."

3. Thirdly, forgiveness of others, is a condition of our own forgiveness from God. Now by ‘condition’ is meant not of course one that earns us anything, but that state of mind without which one cannot be forgiven; the evidence and demonstration of our pardon. It is a condition in the same sense, though not for the same purpose, as faith is, and is as necessary. There is no merit in either, but both are required as indispensable. Indeed, for one is included in the other, for the faith which believes the doctrine of forgiveness by God; believes also the duty of forgiveness towards others. A true faith works by love; and a true love works by forgiveness. Nothing can be more explicit than our Lord's words, "if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matt 6:15)

This is again repeated with still greater emphasis where the beautiful parable of the merciless creditor who was forgiven ten thousand talents, and yet could not forgive a hundred denarii, is delivered that he may also forgive in his turn, and which closes with the declaration, "Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart!" (Matt 18:32-35)

How can this be evaded? By what logic of even our deceitful hearts can this be answered? None can be so blind, so utterly ignorant of the nature of religion, or the prerequisites to salvation, as to imagine he can be forgiven—while continuing to live in lying, stealing, or adultery; and yet it is as certain that he can be saved while indulging in these sins, as while living in the habitual indulgence of an inexorable, malicious, and unforgiving disposition! Can a man be saved without love? Let the apostle answer this by his language in the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, where he tells us that neither the power of miracles, nor the eloquence of angels, nor the most generous almsgiving, nor even the sufferings of martyrdom, can be a substitute for love. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7)

There must be, whatever men may imagine, the absence of faith where there is the absence of love; for love is the natural and necessary fruit of faith. Is it possible for any man really to believe that he has sinned against God ten thousand times, and that God has fully and freely forgiven him all; is it possible he should have gone with a broken heart to the cross, groaning under the burden of his guilt, and heard the voice of redeeming mercy say to him, "Your sins are forgiven Your faith has saved you; go in peace!" (Luke 7:48,50) and while rejoicing with gratitude and love in a sense of God's pardoning grace—refuse to extend the mercy to a fellow creature who has not sinned a millionth part as much towards him as he has towards God? This is incredible and impossible! How can an unforgiving man put up the petition to God, "Forgive me my sins—as I forgive those who sin against me."

Does he understand, does he consider what in reality in such a case is his prayer? "O God, enter into judgment with me, and be extreme to mark all my offences. Blot out none of my sins, but deal with me according to my transgressions. Let me never know a sense of your pardoning love, but let your arrows stick fast within me, and their poison drink up my spirit. Banish me from your life-giving presence, and consign me to the regions of hopeless despair, and let me pass through eternity under a sense of committed and unpardoned sin!"

You tremble at the very idea; it makes your blood curdle, and sends a chill of horror through your body—to think of a sinner petitioning for damnation in this way. But what else, or what less, is the petition, "Forgive me my sins—even as I forgive the sins of others," in the lips of an unforgiving man? His forgiveness is revenge.

The case is put so strongly, because it cannot be put too strongly! The case is put so strongly with the hope of rousing attention! The case is put so strongly, for it is to be feared that multitudes are deceiving themselves! To them it must be said—the gates of heaven are closed, barred, and bolted against the man who refuses to forgive his brother! They would as soon fly open at the approach and knock of a continual swearer or adulterer—as at the approach of a man who has no mercy in his soul.

And so forgiveness has been set before our eyes: What it is, How often and who is to be forgiven, and Why it is so necessary.

Next week, God willing, we will conclude the sermon with thoughts on why so obvious a duty is so much neglected, some means and helps which we should use in performing this duty, and finally encouragement in the form of effective motives to perform this duty.

May God make us able by the gift of the Holy Spirit and help us in this solemn and holy duty.