You may be the woman whose husband left you for a younger, prettier version of yourself.
You may be the adult who endured trauma during your childhood at the hands of one who should have loved you, but instead abused you.
You may be someone who has been falsely accused by others in an intentional attempt to ruin your reputation and career.
You may be the church member who experienced spiritual abuse by authoritarian church leaders who seemed more interested in protecting their institution than offering loving support to members of said institution.
In other words, you may be a person in need of an understanding of biblical forgiveness.
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
These words are from Jesus on the cross. Matthew Henry, in his Concise Commentary on the Scripture, writes "As soon as Christ was fastened to the cross, he prayed for those who crucified him."
A couple of things need to said about those for whom He prayed:
(1). They were intentional. They were intentional in their shouts "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" They were intentional in their desires that Jesus be killed. They were intentional in everything they did.
(2). They brought injury. It's self-evident that crucifixion brought injury to Jesus. Yet, not many consider the injury that came to His mother who watched Him die. Nor do any of us fully understand the injury of those who had followed Him every step of the way for the previous three years.
(3). They possessed ignorance. According to Gill, "they did not know that Jesus was the Messiah, nor the prophecies concerning him, nor the evil they were committing." Paul said had they not been ignorant, they would not have crucified the Lord (Acts 3:27). This ignorance is simply descriptive of the persons crucifying Jesus, and is not the basis for their forgiveness. Remember, they were intentionally injurious; the ignorance was in relation to "Whom" they were crucifying. Had not this forgiving spirit been in the Son and His request to forgive been made, the Father very well may have struck all the crucifiers down immediately and catastrophically in righteous judgment.
These ten words of Jesus, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," comprise the first of seven last statements of Jesus from the cross. They also fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12; "He made intercession for the transgressors."
This spirit toward intentional, injurious, and ignorant sinners is a peculiar character quality of God's people. Nobody else in the world has this spirit.
A Difference Between the Spirit and the Act of Forgiveness
Much of the confusion about "forgiveness" can be resolved when one understands the difference between the spirit of forgiveness and the act of forgiveness. Only God can ultimately forgive sin. ("Father, forgive them...") for in the end, all sin is ultimately against God.
Though our God alone is ultimately the One who forgives, we are called to maintain a spirit of forgiveness toward all people, just as Christ had this spirit on the cross.
Albert Barnes put it like this:
"No other religion "teaches" people to pray for the forgiveness of enemies; no other "disposes" them to do it. Men of the world seek for "revenge;" the Christian bears reproaches and persecutions with patience, and prays that God would pardon those who injure them, and save them from their sins."We must actively maintain a spirit of forgiveness toward the injurious, intentional and often ignorant persons who are in the act of harming us. Jesus language on the cross was in the present, active tense, "Father, forgive them for what they are doing..."
Here's the hard part. When the injurious, intentional and often ignorant person says "I repent," we are to forgive. Forgiveness is not granted until there is repentance, but I've found that as long as there is always a willingness (spirit) to forgive, the act of forgiveness is relatively easy. It's a little bit like "We love Him because He FIRST loved us." In a spirit and climate where people are known to be willing to forgive, real repentance grows like flowers in a well-water garden.
Someone has said, "Forgiveness without forgetting is like loving without liking." I tend to agree. That's why it is impossible for people to judicially forgive, and why we should remember that ultimately only God forgives sin, but we should all possess His Son's spirit of forgiveness. We should want the intentional, injurious, and ignorant sinners who cause harm to others to come to the place of repentance, find peace with God, and change their injurious behavior.
Until they do, we will always maintain a spirit of forgiveness, forgiving them when they say, "I repent." In addition, until they come to repentance, we will in love continue to point out sin when it occurs. Further, we will even forgive the intentional, injurious, and ignorant sinners for the same sin, again-and again-and again -even if they sin repetitively (seven times in one day) or infinitely (seventy times seven) because this is precisely what Jesus commanded us to do.
Two Key Questions
So how do we know that we have the spirit of forgiveness?
Answer: We don't question the motives of the intentional, injurious, and ignorant people who cause us harm when they say they repent.
So if we 'forgive' does that mean we don't remember their sin in the future?
Answer: No. We are human. Only God can judicially forget. The child predator's actions must be remembered and standards of accountability implemented. The unfaithful spouse's actions must be remembered and the consequences of the infidelity felt (i.e. "divorce, annulment, etc...). The action of an oppressive church leadership government that places a covenant above a congregant must be remembered and steps taken to stop the spiritual abuse, if not completely abandon of the abusive church.
But the entire time we stand for truth, we must always display a spirit that is willing, hopeful and desirous of God to forgive and bring to repentance.
Though Jesus was willing to forgive those who crucified Him, they were not forgiven until they acknowledged their wrong and repented of it (Luke 23:34; Acts 2:36-39). When one refuses to repent, he is to be regarded as a "heathen and a tax collector to you" (Matt. 18:15-17).
Here's the difficulty for us all. "How do we know someone has 'truly repented?'" Answer: We don't. All we can do is maintain a spirit of forgiveness, speaking truth where we see sin, and granting forgiveness when a brother or sister in Christ says "I repent."
So here's the formula: Speak the truth in love. Be a person full of grace and truth. Be willing to forgive when repentance comes, and don't be a judge of whether or not repentance is real by questioning the motive of someone's statement of repentance. Forgive and forget as much as humanly possible, but never be afraid to speak out against sin, and never neglect the protection of helpless.
Maintaining a spirit of forgiveness means we must make a separation between the actions of the injurious person and our acceptance of that injurious person.
(1). In having a forgiving spirit I will want those who injure to ultimately be blessed by God in the same manner that I am blessed by Him - "Father, forgive them..."
(2). I am not dependent on the behavior of others for my personal happiness; I look to God for my inner satisfaction and happiness. To the extent I am able to trust God with my past, present and future is the measure of my ability to pray- "Father, forgive them...".
(3). I will never confuse actual forgiveness with a spirit of forgiveness. Ultimately God will cast sin and its consequences into the sea of forgetfulness, but until then, I will continue to point out injustice, I will continue to protect the helpless, and I will continue to encourage the broken -- all the while praying for the intentional, injurious and ignorant persons who harm the innocent.This spirit is unique among Christians. It's peculiar to we who follow.
It's the mark of genuine Christianity.