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The Christadelphian | October 2009

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Being a Christadelphian
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “The act of forgiving” | Glenn Blair-Ford
  • Fellowship in the Gospel 14 – Tensions in the Ecclesia | Michael Ashton
  • Pause and ponder 33 – Flee temptation | Stephen Whitehouse
  • The Letter to the Philippians 10 – “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:17-21) | Mark Allfree
  • “The Olive Branch” | The Olive Branch Committee
  • Acts of the Apostles 31 – Acts 27:33 – 28:15 | Paul Cresswell
  • Pontius Pilate | John V. Collyer
  • The woman taken in adultery | Dudley Fifield
  • Three sixteen | Geoff Henstock
  • The faith of Jacob | Roger Long
  • Signs of the times “Men’s hearts failing them for fear” | Stephen Hole
  • Israel and their land The Winton Train | John Morris
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Sunday morning

“The act of forgiving”

THE Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors … For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:12,14).

It is a basic truth that we must forgive others if we are to experience God’s mercy ourselves. God forgives us. Thus when we forgive, we emulate an aspect of His character. Forgiving is necessary when we are at our place of work, when mingling among strangers, dealing with our children or with our parents, when maintaining a friendship or a marriage, and when living in the ecclesia. In all interpersonal relationships, there will be the need, many times, to forgive and to be forgiven. But do we know what it really means to forgive? What do we have to do when we forgive? Why should we forgive, and when should we forgive?

To separate

Different Hebrew and Greek words are translated “forgive” in the Bible, and reveal the scriptural perspective. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”, the Greek word aphiemi means ‘to send away, or to disregard’, and comes from a root word meaning to separate. Thus one aspect of forgiving is mentally to separate the offender from his wrongdoing, and from the offence he has caused. Therefore we do not reward offenders according to their iniquity, but show mercy:

“The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:8-12)

This is the divine example we have to follow when we forgive each other. This idea of forgiveness is developed in 2 Corinthians 2, where the Apostle Paul wrote of one that caused grief in the ecclesia: “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.” But in the following verse we are told that though the initial ecclesial action was correct, something further was required. Now, he said, “Ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (see verses 6-8).

To preserve from peril

A different word is translated here as “forgive” (charizomai), meaning ‘to be kind, to preserve a person in peril’. Forgiveness is an act which can preserve the other person from the peril of being swallowed up with “overmuch sorrow”. Withholding forgiveness can effectively condemn a person to whatever peril awaits. The prophet Jeremiah wanted to do just that with regard to his adversaries, and his prayer provides another insight on forgiveness:

“Yet, LORD, thou knowest all their counsel against me to slay me: forgive not their iniquity, neither blot out their sin from thy sight, but let them be overthrown before thee; deal thus with them in the time of thine anger.” (Jeremiah 18:23)

To forgive, is to blot out transgression. The word for forgive in Jeremiah 18 is kaphar, meaning ‘to cover or coat’. It is used in Genesis 6:14 when Noah was instructed to pitch the ark within and without. It is translated elsewhere as “reconciliation” and “pacify”, but the vast majority of the time it is translated as “atonement”. Atonement for sin, which is central to our faith, cannot therefore be complete without God’s forgiveness towards us for our transgression. Forgiveness emulates God’s mercy towards us, and we must practise it if we wish to experience judgement with mercy and enter the kingdom.

But experience reveals that forgiveness is often very difficult. In certain circumstances we may even be loath to forgive. It can be stressful; it takes effort. We have to conquer our pride, for our natural feeling may be that the person does not deserve to be forgiven. But that is the carnal mind at work within us, warring against the mind of the spirit.

But why does forgiveness sometimes seem impossible? One of the first scriptural uses of the word ‘forgive’ helps to explain. After the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers believed he would do them harm:

“Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil.” (Genesis 50:15-17)

To bear the guilt

Just as we must acknowledge our sin before God, through Christ, with a contrite spirit if we are to receive His forgiveness, so Joseph’s brothers acknowledged their sin. Joseph did not deal with them according to their wrongdoings. Not only did he forgive inwardly, there was also the outward sign of forgiveness in the form of love and comfort, so that they might not be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow”:

“Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.” (verse 21)

The Hebrew word used here is nasa, meaning ‘to bear, to carry away, to endure and suffer, to bear the guilt’. This shows that the one who extends forgiveness has to endure and suffer, bearing a burden created by the guilt of the offender.

Hebrews 9:28 shows us that “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation”. As well as providing the means of our forgiveness, he relieves the burden and effect of transgression for those who look for him. When we forgive someone who has sinned against us, we take on or bear a load, even as Christ does for us.

When to forgive

So when do we forgive, and under what circumstances? Jesus said, “If [your brother] trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:4). There are no boundaries; the command is open-ended. When we do wrong, we must seek peace and forgiveness from God and from those whom we have offended.

To repent is to turn from our transgression and cast it from us. This does not mean covering up or never addressing or mentioning the unresolved issue, for: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). This process requires the removal of barriers erected by sin. It requires honest and transparent communication with one another. It requires acknowledgement, repentance, confession and forgiveness. It requires trust and faith in God, that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him.

If one is “overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1,2).

If both forgiveness and repentance are genuine and full, then the burden will disappear swiftly. There will be no residual bitterness, chiding, distrust or tension. The strife will be resolved. But most of the time real life doesn’t work out like that! We often find that the offender cannot or will not confess, repent or apologise. What do we do then?

If it was a problem between God and a man, then we would expect the unrepentant man eventually to experience the full, and just, wages of his sin. But we are all sinful and God is not. So how should we sinners behave in such circumstances?

Forgive the debt

Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). This is made even clearer in Luke 11:4: “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.” “Indebted” suggests that those who have sinned against us and have not repented owe us an act of goodwill for that sin. Proverbs 3:27 warns, “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it”. Jesus says the same:

“If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matthew 5:23,24)

In other words, we must pay our debts of reconciliation, before our life (which is our sacrifice or gift) will be acceptable to God. If we deliberately withhold the act of reconciliation, then we deny peace to the other party. Christ teaches that even when we are being treated unjustly, and there is no repentance or apology, we must still find a way to forgive. The Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2: “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (verses 19,20). We are exhorted to suffer wrong, and patiently forgive out of faith in God.

Jesus exhorted us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despitefully use us. He also added this teaching: “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” If we are truly God’s children, we have no alternative – we must forgive. We must trust in the Lord, even when confronted by one who is difficult and stubborn.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21). This is true forgiveness, by not treating a person according to the evil he has done.

David’s example

David is a prime example. When Saul was searching throughout Israel to find David and kill him, David’s words are remarkable: “The LORD judge between me and thee … mine hand shall not be upon thee” (1 Samuel 24:12). Saul rightly acknowledged, “Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil” (verse 17).

David overcame evil with good. He forgave even without apology or repentance from Saul. Similarly, we must rely on the Lord to give us peace. We must rely on Him to judge, to rebuke, to pardon and to excuse, according to His righteousness, and His mercy. Only He knows all things; we do not. And He will by no means clear the truly guilty.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:22, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment“. It may be “without cause”, that we who can only look on the outward appearance, believe that someone has done wrong, and we are offended. Perhaps we should question more closely our own judgements when we take offence at the words or actions of others. We must show faith in God, by following His example. Our forgiveness should not be dependent on the repentance of the offender.

Stephen put this principle into action when he forgave and relied on the Lord even as he was being killed: “He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). There can be no doubt that Stephen patterned his behaviour on what he learned from the Lord Jesus when he suffered at the cruel hands of his executioners, calling out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

This is the attitude of mind we remember whenever we take bread and wine, the symbols of the Lord’s obedient sacrifice.

Glenn Blair-Ford


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