The duty of forgiveness is not in doubt for any serious student of the Bible. The serious consequences of unforgiveness are also not in doubt, as is clear from Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14-15: "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Obviously, forgiveness of our debtors is not optional if we desire forgiveness for ourselves. The question then becomes, “What does it mean to forgive?” Jesus’ words in Mark 11:25 are crucial to understanding the nature of forgiveness:
"Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”
Christ’s command that we forgive anyone who has anything against us whenever we stand praying, reveals many things about the nature of forgiveness. Let us first consider then what forgiveness is NOT. Since Jesus said we must forgive others whenever we stand praying, therefore …
1) Forgiveness is not a feeling. Can feelings be so quickly altered? If we take a mental inventory as we stand praying and conclude that we have something against someone, can we by mere force of the will alter our feelings about the person who has offended us? I sincerely doubt it. I doubt this is what Jesus had in mind. Consequently, we can forgive someone who has offended us without an accompanying warm and pleasant feeling rushing through our hearts. We may forgive someone else even though we do not have pleasant and warm thoughts about that person. We do not need to wait for such feelings to arrive before we forgive or before we conclude that we have forgiven.
2) Forgiveness is not forgetting. You have heard that it was said, “forgive and forget.” Well, Jesus never said that. Remember, Jesus said that we are to forgive when we stand praying. The clear implication of this is that we have remembered that we have something against someone. It is impossible that we should remember an offense and at the same time forget the offense. Over the course of months or years, we may forget a sin committed against us. This can be a good thing, but it is not essential to forgiveness. What Jesus commands us to do in forgiveness is done in an instant. Whatever He means, He does not mean to forget.
3) Forgiveness does not require interaction with the offender. Reconciliation will ordinarily require interaction, but not forgiveness. Otherwise, how could Jesus command us to forgive whenever we stand praying? If we have forgiven someone, then we will be willing to interact positively with the person who has sinned against us. The point here is that such interaction is not a prerequisite to forgiveness.
4) Forgiveness does not require an apology or request for forgiveness from the person who has sinned against you. Again, this is obvious from the fact that we can forgive whenever we stand praying. It is wonderful when the person who sins against us confesses the sin and asks for forgiveness, but such rarities are not necessary for the performance of our own duty to forgive.
5) Forgiveness is not minimizing the sin committed against you. This inference is not derived from Mark 11:25, but rather from the consideration of God’s forgiveness of sinners. When God forgives someone, He does NOT do so by minimizing the offense. He does not say, “Oh, that’s okay. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not that big of a deal.” No, all sin is a big deal. There is no such thing as a small, insignificant sin. Every sin is a violation of God’s Law. God is a big deal. God’s Law is a big deal. When someone sins against me, he has broken God’s law of love. The sin is not a big deal because it is against me, but rather because it is against God’s Law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I have no right to call such things insignificant peccadilloes.
Having considered forgiveness in terms of what it isn’t, let us now clear up two more misconceptions.
1) Forgiveness must be granted by the person sinned against. This may seem to be rather obvious, but there is a lot of muddled thinking about forgiveness these days. For instance, a man who spent many years in jail for murder and rape was recently released. As he sought to make a new life for himself, he ran into inevitable nervousness and discomfort on the part of those who discovered his past. One of his new friends, disgusted by the reticence of the community, made the comment, “People just need to forgive.” But forgiveness has nothing to do with it. The man’s sin was against the woman he murdered and her family and God. Only the family and God can now forgive him. His sin was not against the community. They have no obligation to “forgive,” since no sin was committed against them. In this respect, forgiveness is never vicarious. We cannot forgive an offender on behalf of the person offended. When someone sins against me, I am the only one (besides God) who can forgive and who must forgive. Of course, this completely invalidates the Roman Catholic confessional booth and the alleged forgiveness of sins obtained there through a priest.
2) Forgiveness is the duty of individuals, not the civil magistrate. This is connected to the previous point. It is not the business of the civil magistrate to forgive sins. According to Romans 13:4, the civil magistrate is “an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” The purpose of the magistrate is to punish, not forgive, to bring wrath on the evildoer, not mercy. Our justice system is fouled up enough already, but what would our society be like if every judge looked at the convicted criminal before him and said, “Don’t worry, I forgive you. You can go free.”?
So, what does it mean to forgive? It means to cancel a debt owed to you by a sinner. The metaphor of finances is employed frequently in scripture to teach the concept of forgiveness. In the financial realm, debts can be canceled. Once they are canceled, the person who was in debt is no longer in debt. Who paid the debt? The one to whom the debt was owed. If I loan you $10,000 and then after a time, I forgive that debt, then I eat the $10,000. I cancel your debt. I am declaring that you do not owe me the money. I do not go around treating you like someone who still owes me $10,000 but who just won’t pay it. No, I treat you like one whose account is paid up. The debt was cancelled. You don’t owe me anymore. You did once, but no longer. In the same way, because of the second greatest commandment, we all owe love to one another (Rom. 13:8). Any time we fail to love another person, we fall into debt to that person. Forgiveness is the cancellation of that debt. It is to say, “You don’t owe me anymore. I have forgiven what you owe. I do not expect payment.” It is then to treat that person as one whose debt has been paid, not one who has gotten away with murder.
This is what God has done for every Christian, as is evident in Colossians 2:13-14: “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
This cancellation of debt is something that can be done, by the grace of God, whenever you stand praying. It does not require an apology. It does not require a request for forgiveness. It does not require warm feelings, and it does not require a forgetting of what was owed. It is a resolution before God not to exact payment or revenge. This is very different from the popular misconceptions of forgiveness perpetuated in our culture today. And though it is not as difficult as the “forgive and forget” notion, genuine biblical forgiveness is still difficult enough to be quite beyond our reach. Because we are depraved sinners, we desperately need the grace of God to soften our hearts and enable us to forgive the debts accrued by our debtors.