The most important thing of all is to experience God’s forgiveness, through Jesus Christ (September ET). And we must then forgive those who sin against us.
Consider first the forgiveness Christians should show to one another. This should mirror God’s forgiveness of us — ‘forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Ephesians 4:32); ‘as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive’ (Colossians 3:13).
If we are sinned against, Christ tells us what we should do (Matthew 18:15-35). Matthew 18:15 says, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother’.
We are from the outset to deal with the matter privately and directly, involving no others. This is contrary to the all-too-frequent practice of gossiping as widely as possible and failing to go to the person concerned.
Matthew 18 tells us that the offending person will either ‘hear’ (v.15) or ‘not hear’ (v.16). ‘Hearing’ means accepting and acknowledging the truth of the charges made.
Not to ‘hear’ is so serious that the issue must then be widened to include others and, eventually, if there is still no repentance, the whole church.
If the church upholds the charge (v.17), then the professing yet obstinately sinning believer is to be treated as an unbeliever, since he or she adamantly rejects the rule of Scripture.
Let me ask readers, do you have a dispute with another believer, that you have taken to someone else rather than the person concerned? If Matthew 18:15 is followed, everything will be brought to a resolution one way or another and there will be nothing left ‘hanging’ in limbo, no unfinished spiritual business.
Two believers should always come to a peaceful resolution. If one will not behave in this way, then that person is eventually to be treated as an unbeliever and beyond the responsibility of the church.
In the world of commerce or politics, we fully expect all sorts of injustice and unresolved issues that leave people in pain. We are not surprised when such matters are swept under the bulging carpet. But this should never happen in the church of Jesus Christ.
When Paul travelled to Corinth on his third missionary journey, he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians ahead of his visit. He was concerned that he would find an ugly situation there (2 Corinthians 12:20), so he addressed the issue. Earlier, he heard of their divisions (1 Corinthians 11:18) and he dealt with that too.
But how often today sinful situations are allowed to drift on and damage the Lord’s people and God’s cause. May Christians take necessary action and may godly leaders be resolved to ensure such matters are brought to a proper conclusion, as they aim at harmony within the body of Christ.
The whole purpose of taking action is not to divide but to restore. But an indiscriminate forgiveness that ignores sin does nothing. There is no progress or reformation and, tragically, the erring brother isn’t ‘gained’. What a lost opportunity!
‘How often should we forgive?’ Peter once asked Jesus that question. ‘Then Peter came to him and said, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’
‘Jesus said to him, I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’ (Matthew 18:21-22; see Luke 17:3-4).
Christ’s answer must have shocked Peter. Of course, it wasn’t about counting and we don’t stop forgiving at 490 times. Even though Peter thought he was generous with his offer of seven times, Christ was really reminding him that Christians are forgiven countless times by their heavenly Father.
God is faithful to forgive us our sins day after day, so if others are repentant and ask for our forgiveness, then we are to forgive them, no matter how often. The lesson could not be clearer.
Christ continued with a parable that reinforced all this (Matthew 18:23-35). In this parable, one person is forgiven an impossibly colossal debt but refuses to forgive someone else a most trivial debt.
Each of the two debtors confessed their need (vv. 26, 29). They both showed genuine ‘repentance’ and ‘confession’, although the second creditor with little to forgive refused to do so.
What a wretched man he was! Could the same happen among God’s people today? Sadly, it’s all too possible. So, let me ask you, has anyone sought your forgiveness, yet you have been slow (or even failed) to respond?
Or have you failed to forgive sincerely not holding a grudge against that brother? Remember, how completely God forgave you!
Consider secondly the relationship between believers and unbelievers. Very probably only believers will be guided by Scripture, so passages like Matthew 18:15-17 are not applicable in the same way and the most important duty of Christians to unbelievers is to point them to Christ.
But Christians are, as far as possible, to live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18), and an array of biblical passages teach clearly that Christians must love and help others (Proverbs 3:29; 25:21-22; 1 Peter 3:1; Luke 6:35; Romans 12:14).
Surrounded by unbelievers, Christians have no shortage of opportunities to make Christ known. Picture an unbeliever acknowledging their wrong to you (although he or she may not call it ‘repentance’). As you respond to that person with forgiveness, here is a good moment to explain the really important forgiveness that this person needs.
If no repentance is shown, it would be foolish not to take account of that and treat the person as though they had repented. In such a situation the effects of forgiveness cannot yet take place. But bitterness and anger must not be entertained. The door must be left wide open to the offender for reconciliation.
Having a heart free of bitterness, anger and grudges is a vital precursor to forgiveness; it is impossible and hypocritical to ‘forgive’ if there is inwardly burning rage.
Repentance towards God is of utmost importance (Luke 13:3, 5). Where there is no repentance, there is no sorrow for sin, and sin has become a matter of indifference.
Christians have been accepted as sons of God (Galatians 4:5). So let no Christian fail to resolve promptly all conflicts with fellow brothers in sincere, genuine repentance and appropriate confession of sin.
And may each repentant person, in turn, be received with a complete and full forgiveness that knows nothing of harboured grudges or carefully filed records, to be raked up subsequently.
May our testimony as believers point others to their urgent need of God’s forgiveness. And may we clearly display Christ in our behaviour towards one other as pardoned sinners.