Forgiveness from the Heart:
Are Christians Obligated to Forgive Unrepentant People

by Greg Wright, Stephen's Father
December 28, 2003

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), Copyright (c) 1960, 1962,
1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.


Urgency of Interpersonal Forgiveness

While God's forgiveness of man is a favorite topic of many theologians, man's forgiveness of man is neglected. There are many books on interpersonal forgiveness, but it is rare to find a careful exposition of the biblical requirements.

Yet this is a critical issue. Jesus warned that people who withhold forgiveness are not forgiven. God does not forgive the unforgiving! Consequently, the way people forgive one another is a serious matter. This is not an insignificant theological issue! Who wants to risk being unforgiven by God!

Conditionality of Interpersonal Forgiveness

So what do the theological experts say? I wish I could tell you that the people who share reformed theological convictions agree on how people should forgive one another. But there are many differences of opinion. Indeed, many godly men, men who have contributed greatly to the field of biblical counseling, disagree on this issue.

The main point of disagreement is on conditional interpersonal forgiveness. Some say that Christians should forgive personal offenses immediately and unconditionally. Others say to forgive only people who repent. Some argue for both, depending on the situation. Others argue that there are different kinds of forgiveness with different requirements.

Kinds of Interpersonal Forgiveness

I believe that there are two kinds of forgiveness: heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness. Heart forgiveness must be given unconditionally, while verbal forgiveness is conditional. The failure to understand this has caused a lot of confusion.

For one is a battle and one is a response. Heart forgiveness is the battle in the soul to subdue the reaction of the flesh to injury. Verbal forgiveness is the response of the forgiving heart to the repentance of the offender. Generally, Christians who only recognize one kind of forgiveness--verbal forgiveness--still would agree that bitterness must be overcome in the heart, but they would not refer to this heart-work as forgiveness. However, I maintain that not only is this heart-work appropriately called forgiveness, but this is the kind of forgiveness that is always demanded by Christ. Even when offenders do not repent, Christians are still required by the Bible to forgive personal offenses from the heart.

To understand this, heart and verbal forgiveness must be carefully delineated. Following are some of the other ways in which heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness differ:

They differ in direction:

  • Heart Forgiveness is godward and vertical. With the help of God the victim seeks to set aside bitterness, hatred, and revenge.
  • Verbal Forgiveness is manward and horizontal. The victim responds to the repentance of the offender by telling him that he is forgiven.

They differ in what is accomplished:

  • Heart Forgiveness restores the victim. It removes the evil thoughts that undermine communion and fellowship with God.
  • Verbal Forgiveness restores the offender. It renews fellowship and makes full reconciliation possible.

They differ in what is required:

  • Heart forgiveness is the required response to all personal offenses.
  • Verbal forgiveness is required only when the offender repents.

They differ in location:

  • Heart forgiveness can be done alone before God in prayer.
  • Verbal forgiveness must be communicated to the offender.

They differ in possibility:

  • Heart forgiveness is the response of the offended party, so it is always doable. The victim does not need the cooperation of the offender.
  • Verbal forgiveness requires the repentance of the offender, so it is not always doable.

They differ in finality:

  • Heart forgiveness must be done continually. Man might sooner tame the wind than still the recurring bad memories that ignite bitterness. Yet as often as he remembers he must forgive.
  • Verbal forgiveness is required only once. Yet the victim may need to reassure the offender of forgiveness, just as Joseph had to reassure his brothers after Jacob died.

They differ in dependency:

  • Heart forgiveness may be done without verbal forgiveness.
  • Verbal forgiveness means nothing without heart forgiveness. The man who verbally forgives yet nurses a grudge has not truly forgiven

Christ's Command to Forgive

Christ's Command to Forgive Sets No General Limiting Conditions

Though heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness differ, they have the same object--people. One area of confusion concerns just who it is that the Christian is required to forgive. This is answered in the Lord's Prayer:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. . . . 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. (Matthew 6:12-15, NASB)

The Christian is commanded to forgive debtors. Debtors are not just those who owe money, but those who have offended in any way.

Not only must the Christian forgive debtors but all debtors. This is emphasized in the version of the Lord's prayer found in Luke 11:4, "And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us." (NASB)

Matthew Henry writes, "We profess to forgive everyone that is indebted to us, without exception."

This same encouragement is found in Mark 11:25, "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." (NASB)

To carefully consider this verse, one must compare it with Luke 17:3-4, "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." (NASB)

Commenting on this verse John MacArthur writes, "The forgiveness of Mark 11:25 is therefore different from the forgiveness of Luke 17:3. This forgiveness is to be granted unconditionally and unilaterally."

The word unilaterally means done by one person. The forgiveness in Luke 17:3-4 in response to the offender's repentance requires at least two people.

Christ's Command Establishes Threats for Disobedience

Not only must the Christian forgive all offenders, but there are penalties if forgiveness is withheld. "If you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions." (Mark 11:26, NASB)

The Christian who refuses to forgive must face the fact that, in some sense, God will not forgive him. By this I do not mean to say that the Christian can lose salvation. However, he is certainly subject to temporal penalties--failure to forgive brings the disciplining hand of God. It hinders fellowship, intimacy, and communion with God. But in the worst case, just as with any other continuous sin, the continuous failure to forgive may indicate that the person is not really a Christian at all--that he was never truly born again.

Either way, it is hard to imagine a situation more serious, more perilous than being unforgiven by God. Anyone who would seek loopholes in the command to forgive all debtors, and any who would teach others to withhold forgiveness, should soberly and fearfully consider the severity of the penalty.

The Application of Christ's Command to Forgive

Forgiveness Requires the Release of the Offender

In view of these commands and threats, the Christian has much incentive to try to understand how to forgive.

Forgiveness is the gracious response of the offended party towards the offender, the offense, and the penalty for the offense. In A Dictionary of Christian Theology, Atkinson writes, "Forgiveness is the act whereby an injured party allows the party responsible for the injury to go free." Noting the emphasis on release, John Nieder, author of Forgive and Love Again, wrote, "In the Hebrew and Greek languages used in Bible times, the term 'release' is the best one-word definition of the word 'forgiveness.'"

Further elaborating on the concept of release, Robert Jeffress, in his book When Forgiveness Doesn't Make Sense, defined forgiveness as follows:

When we forgive:
  1. We acknowledge a wrong has occurred.
  2. We recognize that the wrong has created an obligation for repayment.
  3. We choose to release our offender from that obligation and to cover the loss ourselves.

This release is expressed by releasing the offender from demands for compensation. Or to use Barabas' words from The New International Dictionary of the Bible, "The idea of forgiveness is found in either religious or social relations, and means giving up resentment or claim to requital."

The biblical emphasis on release is consistent with the modern definition of forgiveness. In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary people are said to forgive when they "cease to feel resentment against (an offender)," when they "give up resentment of or claim to requital," and "when they grant relief from payment."

In order to cease to feel resentment, the offended party must give up the reason for that resentment by releasing the offender. The giving up of claim to requital and repayment is similar. Requital can be "something given in return, compensation, or retaliation." When the offender is released from the offense, the claim to requital and repayment is set aside.

How can the Christian know that he has forgiven his offenders? Thomas Watson gives this advice:

When do we forgive others? When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. This is gospel-forgiving.

Forgiveness Begins in the Heart

To be genuine, forgiveness must come from the heart. Certainly when the offender repents, the Christian must verbally forgive him. But this means nothing unless the Christian has already forgiven from the heart and has determined that he will continue to forgive from the heart.

In the Bible the heart is the essence of the personality. In the book The Bible Doctrine of Man C. Ryder Smith describes the heart as the seat of the intellect, of the will, and of feeling. While in modern thinking the heart is associated mainly with the emotions, this is different from the way the word heart is used in the Bible. In the Bible the heart is not separated from the intellect. Rather, according to Smith, "In the New Testament, it is the heart, not the head, that rules the body, and it is 'in the heart' that Christ 'dwells'." Smith goes on to say that, "'Heart' comes the nearest of the New Testament terms to mean 'person'."

Forgiveness from the Heart is a Kind of Forgiveness

Support from theologians

Many respected theologians from days gone by clearly understood the importance of the heart in forgiveness. They saw two kinds of forgiveness. Regretfully, many today see only one kind, and they make the conditional forgiveness of Luke 17:3 the touchstone for it. They use this verse to build an argument that there can be no biblical interpersonal forgiveness without the offender's repentance.

However, John Calvin did not see it that way. In his commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John Calvin described two kinds of forgiveness:

Sins are forgiven in two ways. If anyone does me an injury and I set aside any feeling of revenge and do not cease to love him and even repay him with benefits instead of injuries; although I may think badly of him, as he deserves, yet I may be said to forgive him. For the Lord bids us wish our enemies well, He does not demand that we shall approve in them what He Himself condemns, but only wishes our minds to be purged of hatred.

The second sort of forgiving is when we receive a brother into our favour in such a way as to think well of him and be convinced that the memory of his fault is wiped out before God.

Calvin makes a distinction between the kind of forgiveness where hatred is set aside in the heart and the forgiveness where a brother is received back into fellowship.

Matthew Henry, in commenting on Luke 17:3, also describes two different kinds of forgiveness:

You are commanded, upon his repentance, to forgive him, and to be perfectly reconciled to him: If he repent, forgive him; forget the injury, never think of it again, much less upbraid him with it. Though he do not repent, you must not therefore bear malice to him, nor meditate revenge; but [if he does not] at least say that he repents, you are not bound to be so free and familiar with him as you have been.

Henry further clarifies his view of heart forgiveness in his comments on Mark 11:25:

When we are at prayer, we must remember to pray for others, particularly for our enemies, and those that have wronged us; now we cannot pray sincerely that God would do them good, if we bear malice to them, and wish them ill. If we have injured others before we pray, we must go and be reconciled to them; Mt. 5:23,24. But if they have injured us, we go a nearer way to work, and must immediately from our hearts forgive them.

John MacArthur refers to heart forgiveness as internal forgiveness, as opposed to external forgiveness. He wrote:

We always forgive, then, by forgiving in our hearts whether the person ever gets right in their life or not; that's the internal forgiveness. And then, later on when they have restored themselves and things have been set right, we give them that external kind of forgiveness that makes the relationship all that it should be.

Support from Christian counselors

Don Dunlap, a man with over twenty-five years of counseling experience, distinguishes between forgiving an offender face to face and forgiving before God:

Jesus instructs us in Luke 17:3,4, "If your brother sins, admonish him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." God wants us to understand that we are not permitted to set a limit on the number of times we will forgive an offender who asks for our forgiveness.

God also requires us to grant an offender immediate forgiveness in our hearts, whether or not he/she ever asks for forgiveness. When we refuse to do this we allow a root of bitterness to spring up in our hearts. The bitterness will defile our lives and the lives of other people as well.

We are not in a position, however, to tell offenders that we forgive them unless they first ask for our forgiveness. God has not authorized us to do this. This may lead them to think that they are "off the hook." Unrepentant offenders are not off the hook with God, and, depending upon the nature of the offense, they may not be off the hook with the legal authorities.

Support from scripture

At this point there may be some confusion about heart forgiveness. While the above writers discuss two kinds of forgiveness, the Lord's prayer only mentions forgiveness in general. So how can the Christian be certain of obeying the Lord's command to forgive?

Thankfully, the Bible provides clarification in Matthew 18:21-35,

Then Peter came and said to Him, "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. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart. (NASB)

The last verse indicates the kind of forgiveness that is always demanded by Christ--the Christian must always forgive from the heart. Here we clearly see forgiveness from the heart established as a biblical principle. In the book Love in Hard Places, Carson writes, "It is possible for one party to forgive another from the heart while the other party remains hardened in self-righteous bitterness. To put the matter another way: in some contexts, forgiveness is bound up with reconciliation, but in other contexts forgiveness reflects the stance of the one who forgives, even though no reconciliation with the other party has taken place."

While forgiveness from the heart is established in Matthew 18:35, it is also implied in the apparent absence of the offender in the Lord's Prayer and in Mark 11:25-26.

Heart forgiveness paves the way for verbal forgiveness. If the Christian has truly forgiven from the heart, then he can be certain of responding appropriately to an offender's repentance, if that happens. In fact he will want to be reconciled and will seek reconciliation where possible and safe. And he will confront and rebuke, if that is called for, not just for his own benefit, but out of love for the offender.

But even if the offender does not repent, if the Christian still forgives from the heart, he has satisfied Christ's command to forgive.

Objections to Heart Forgiveness as a Kind of Forgiveness.

Differs from Other Definitions of Forgiveness

Regretfully, many are opposed to regarding this activity in the heart as forgiveness. Some oppose it because their definition says that there is no forgiveness without repentance. For example, Stuart Scott defines forgiveness as "The full restoration of a sinning brother who is now repentant." (see the tape, Exploring When Love Should Cover Sin, by Stuart Scott, available from the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC)) By his definition, there is no forgiveness in advance of the offender's repentance.

Similarly, Jay Adams does not recognize forgiveness for unrepentant people. Writing in From Forgiven to Forgiving he says, "Forgiveness is modeled after God's forgiveness which is unmistakably conditioned on repentance and faith." Nevertheless, he does maintain the notion of heart forgiveness to a point. There is something that he calls forgiveness from the heart. In an earlier book, A Theology of Christian Counseling, Adams writes:

While forgiveness must not be granted to those who do not seek it repentantly ('if he repents, forgive him'--Luke 17:3), the one who 'has something against anyone' may not continue to hold it against him in his heart. Before God, in prayer, he is to forgive him (i.e., he must tell God that he will hold it against him no longer). He may not brood on it. But this forgiving in prayer (in his own heart before God) does not preclude his responsibility to pursue the matter with the offender.

However, upon further investigation, it appears that Adams recognizes heart forgiveness only if it exists in conjunction with verbal forgiveness, or to use his term, granted forgiveness. In his book From Forgiven to Forgiving he sticks tenaciously to his position that forgiveness is a promise that is conveyed to another person: "When you say, 'I forgive you' to another, you make a promise to him. It is a threefold promise. You promise not to remember his sin by not bringing it up to him, to others, or to yourself. The sin is buried." The offender has to be involved. Consequently, Adams does not recognize the possibility of forgiving a person while alone before God: "Forgiveness is not a decision that we can make without the person who wronged us being aware of it." So while Adams recognizes the forgiving activity of the heart, he does not appear to believe that anyone can be forgiven by heart activity alone. For him it must be two-party transaction.

His position affects the way he interprets the scripture passages on covering. I believe that when a Christian is offended, he has an obligation to either confront or cover. If he confronts and the offender repents, both heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness should take place. In fact, heart forgiveness should take place before he confronts. If instead he chooses to cover, that is still a form of forgiveness. An offense has occurred, bitterness and revenge have been set aside, and forgiveness has taken place in the heart.

Disagreeing, Adams wrote, "God has provided a means for handling the multitude of offenses that we commit against one another. But it is not by forgiveness. In 1 Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 17:9, Peter points out that those who love one another 'cover a multitude of sins.'" (NASB)

MacArthur wrote in response to Adams in his book The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness:

Having defined forgiveness as a two-way transaction, he [Adams] has no room in his system for unilateral or unconditional forgiveness. So he draws a distinction between forgiveness and overlooking another's transgression. If true, that would mean all the petty offenses we choose to overlook (or "cover," in biblical terminology) are not really to be regarded as forgiven.

But the Bible itself makes no such distinction. Covering another's transgression is the very essence of forgiveness.

Psalm 32:1 equates the concepts of forgiveness and the covering of sin: "How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!" This is a Hebrew parallelism, employing two different expressions to designate the same concept. To cover someone else's sin is the very essence of forgiveness.

Some theologians such as Donald Whitney downplay the forgiveness that occurs in the heart by refusing to call it forgiveness. In the book Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health he wrote, "Yes, we ought to release our sinful bitterness and hatred whether the offender ever seeks forgiveness. Some equate this decision with forgiveness itself. In reality though, this is only getting ready, being willing to forgive. Then if the offender repents, we are prepared to complete the process by saying, 'I forgive you.'"

Wendell Miller, in his book Forgiveness: The Power and the Puzzles, challenges this position:

Some theologians, who are both godly and scholarly, say that Mark 11:25 teaches that we are to have an attitude of forgiveness or a spirit of forgiveness and to be willing to forgive if our offenders should ever ask us to forgive them.

How can a clearly stated command to forgive merely mean "have an attitude of forgiveness" or "have a spirit of forgiveness" (Mark 11:25)? The only condition of Mark 11:25 is "if you have anything against anyone" (author's translation)

This is not just splitting hairs over a theological term. To adopt Whitney's willing to forgive position is to confuse the fruit of forgiveness with the struggle to forgive. The essence of running a marathon is not the prize at the end but the struggle to endure the race. The essence of forgiveness is not the fruit of the forgiving attitude, but the struggle to overcome bitterness. The difficulty of this struggle is recognized in Proverbs 18:19, "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a citadel." (NASB) We also see this struggle early in scripture in Cain's bitterness against God and against his brother Abel in Genesis 4:7, when God tells Cain, ". . . Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it." (NASB)

Heart forgiveness is analogous to a high school wrestling match. Try to picture the wrestling match that takes place in the heart:

The flesh responds to injury by challenging the regenerated will. It lunges for the takedown with bitterness, revenge, and rage. The will rises to subdue the flesh. Armed with faith and scripture, the will maneuvers to find a weakness. The flesh falls; the will is on top; the flesh is pinned against the floor; the countdown has begun.

But the greater the injury, the greater the strength of the flesh. Before the countdown is finished, the flesh rises and the will crashes against the floor. It tries to stand, but the flesh prevails with its arsenal of pride, personal honor, and the demand for vengeance. Anger is skillfully deployed and the will falls down.

Now the flesh is on top. Urgently, the will cries out to God for wisdom, and God answers. Renewed humility makes way for power from above. Demands for justice are handed over to God, and a weight is lifted. Now, with renewed strength, the will rises to subdue and pin the flesh. The countdown is over. Victorious, but wounded and exhausted, the will rests.

Let it rest. For there will be another battle. There will be another wrestling match. The flesh will rise again. But when it does, there will be sufficient grace to fight it.

Folks, this is what is means to forgive with the heart. It is more than attitude, and it is more than willingness to forgive. It is the ongoing struggle of the will to overcome the bitterness of the flesh.

Prevents Church Discipline

Another objection to regarding heart forgiveness as a kind of forgiveness has to do with church discipline. Adams writes, "If forgiveness were unconditional, then this entire process of discipline would be impossible. It is my contention that the very existence of such a program as this requires us to believe that forgiveness is conditional."

Church discipline forgiveness is conditional, but heart forgiveness is not. Just as heart forgiveness is often confused with verbal forgiveness, heart forgiveness can be confused with church discipline forgiveness. Church discipline forgiveness is another kind of verbal forgiveness. It requires repentance, and it requires confrontation. But woe be to the elder or church member who fails to forgive from the heart before confronting. If he has not already forgiven the erring brother from his heart, he will run the risk of further alienating him. The Christian must forgive the erring church member from his heart, prior to his repentance. But no forgiveness should be verbally expressed until the erring brother actually repents.

There are similar issues in family discipline. How many parents unnecessarily provoke their children because they discipline them in wrath? Can children see love through the face of anger? Let parents be diligent to forgive from their hearts before they raise the rod. As it is written, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4, NASB)

Precludes Confronting

There are many occasions when it is necessary to confront people for their own good, for example, where simply overlooking an offense will be to their harm. Does this mean that forgiveness must be withheld? In church discipline, while heart forgiveness is unconditionally given, verbal forgiveness is delayed until the offender repents. Would this not be true with any kind of confrontation that involves an offense? Whether or not the offender responds repentantly to the confrontation, the Christian must always forgive from the heart?

In his book, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, MacArthur writes, "There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender. In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option." Here MacArthur overstates the limitation of unconditional forgiveness by not distinguishing between heart forgiveness and verbal forgiveness.

However, when MacArthur speaks specifically of forgiveness from the heart, he clearly states that it is to be given unconditionally:

God's people are to be like Christ and like Stephen. We are to forgive at once every sin, regardless of who the sinner is and whether he repents or not. Do you understand that? We are to hold no grudges against a person who has wronged us, no matter how they have wronged us or how deeply we are wronged. (see Discipline of God's Children: Learning to Forgive (Part 1)

Varies from How God Forgives

Some object to regarding heart forgiveness as a kind of forgiveness because of the way it seems to differ from the way God forgives. They say that since God does not forgive a person unless he repents, neither should Christians.

There are problems with making too close a comparison with God's forgiveness. God is both judge and offended party; we are just an offended party. God regenerates His people before He forgives them; we have no such power. God is perfect and has never needed man's forgiveness; we have been forgiven a great debt.

Some would object that the notion of heart forgiveness in advance of spoken forgiveness is foreign to God. But are they right? Did not forgiveness exist in the very heart of God long before he made His people able to receive it?

However, there are many things that Christians should imitate from God's pattern of forgiveness. When the apostle Paul describes the forgiveness of God, he emphasizes its graciousness. "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32, NASB)

Here the kindness and tender-heartedness of God are magnified.

Colossians 3:12-13 is a similar passage. "So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (NASB)

These are the things to imitate when considering the forgiveness of God.

Defies Human Effort

Some who would agree that heart forgiveness is required throw up their hands in frustration and say, "I can't do this! This is for super Christians. This is not something that I can do."

But they must not give up--the consequences are deadly. Bitterness clogs the lifeline of spiritual health. When that lifeline gets clogged, the Christian must look for obstructions and remove them. One of the biggest obstructions is our forgetfulness.

  1. We forget the magnitude of forgiveness. Focussed on personal injuries, we overlook our accumulated debt of a lifetime of sin against God.
  2. We forget the cost of forgiveness. The greater the physical and emotional pain, the harder it is to forgive. Unwillingly, we endure the injuries of man, and even less willingly we forgive. Yet Christ willingly endured the cross and more, that His people might be forgiven.
  3. We forget why we are here. Instead of living for the glory of God, we become absorbed with the defense of our own dignity and honor.
  4. We forget the humility of Christ. Instead we seek recognition for ourselves and dare anyone to challenge it.
  5. We forget how God creates holiness. We forget that God sovereignly puts difficult people in our lives to refine our graces.
  6. We forget the doom of the ungodly. Distracted by their temporary prosperity, we forget that they will soon face the judgment of God.
  7. We forget where to go for help. We forget that the God who was with us in salvation is with us in the furnace of injury and affliction. And why is He with us--to carry us, to encourage us, to teach us, to love us, and to bring us safely home.

Patrick Morison, in his book, Forgive! As the Lord Forgave You, speaks sensitively to those for whom the pain of injury is severe:

When the entrapping sin is a refusal to forgive, we must be sensitive to the pain and fear that often lie beneath it. We must give support and comfort, encouraging our fellow-disciple to trust his Lord's grace and power: 'I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength' (Phil. 3:13). But we must also keep before him the Lord's command. Easy or not, Christ both commands and makes possible forgiving those who offend us, who sin against us, whose faults and failures get under our skin. The Holy Spirit writes this command into our hearts as He confirms to us God's forgiveness: it is for us now to trust and obey.

Benefits of Forgiving from the Heart.

It will be worth whatever it takes to learn to forgive from the heart. When the Christian forgives from the heart he benefits in many ways. Regretfully, the idea of personal benefit from forgiveness would immediately cause some to raise an alarm--what a man-centered statement! How typical of today's man-centered culture! For example Adams wrote, "This self-oriented motive for forgiveness is foreign to the Bible."

Yet God has often encouraged obedience by laying out its benefits. One example is Proverbs 3:7-8, "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your body and refreshment to your bones." (NASB)

Another similar passage is Proverbs 4:20-22, "My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your sight; keep them in the midst of your heart. For they are life to those who find them and health to all their body. Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life." (NASB)

Thus scripture clearly encourages obedience by laying out physical benefits. There are similar benefits in obediently forgiving from the heart.

One benefit of forgiving from the heart is that it frees the Christian from the emotional bondage that would undermine his effectiveness in serving the Lord. Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (NIV) In response to this verse Jeffress wrote, "God wants us free of any weight that distracts us from running the race of life. Unconditional forgiveness allows us to 'throw off everything that hinders' and live a Christ-honoring life."

Another benefit is that when one quickly forgives from the heart, he avoids bitterness. Nieder wrote:

Bitterness is a devastating sin that can be directly traced to the failure to forgive. You become caustic when you continually nurse the wound inflicted by another person. Malignant thoughts and harassing memories eventually distort how you look at life. Anger begins to rage and can easily get out of control. As your emotions begin to run wild, your mind may do the same. You entertain desperate ideas for revenge. Even casual conversations with others become your forum for slander, gossip, and innuendo against the offender. Your flesh, that horrible remnant of your old sin nature, has gained control.

Don Dunlap wrote, "When we harbor resentment against someone, certain glands in our bodies, including the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands, produce excessive amounts of hormones. These hormones can cause a breakdown in any part of our bodies."

The Demonstration of Forgiving from the Heart

Jesus understood these things. No doubt, an essential part of His arsenal of godliness was His understanding of forgiveness. Not only did Jesus suffer that we might be forgiven by God, not only did He command us to forgive, and not only did He instruct on how to forgive, He demonstrated forgiveness with his very life.

Consider the way He prayed for His tormentors: "But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.' And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves." Luke 23:34 (NASB)

Who did Jesus forgive from the cross? Much ink has been spilt on this subject, some arguing that He forgave the Romans only, others arguing that the focus of the prayer was more extensive. Some would say that He forgave no one, that all He did was pray. Carson in his book Love in Hard Places redirects this focus to the very heart of Jesus. He wrote, "The most important thing about this prayer is not the precise way in which it was answered or the precise degree of guilt that the men incurred and for which they needed forgiveness, but the way it discloses Jesus' heart."

We can see into Jesus' heart from what He said. He could have cried out like Zechariah, who when he was stoned for serving the Lord prayed, "May the LORD see and avenge!" 2 Chronicles 24:22b (NASB)

He could have cursed them with quotes from the imprecatory Psalms. For example, Psalm 69:20-28 could be understood as referring to the suffering that Jesus was enduring at that very moment:

Reproach has broken my heart and I am so sick. And I looked for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. May their table before them become a snare; and when they are in peace, may it become a trap. May their eyes grow dim so that they cannot see, and make their loins shake continually. Pour out Your indignation on them, and may Your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be desolate; may none dwell in their tents. For they have persecuted him whom You Yourself have smitten, and they tell of the pain of those whom You have wounded. Add iniquity to their iniquity, and may they not come into Your righteousness. May they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous. (NASB)

Certainly Jesus knew this passage, and He knew that all scripture had to be fulfilled. Indeed, it was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and in the centuries of persecution of the Jews, and it is still being fulfilled today in continued spiritual blindness.

Yet, even when Jesus could have legitimately cursed, He chose to bless by praying for the forgiveness of His enemies.

He not only blessed them, but he blessed them with the greatest of all blessings--he interceded for their souls. And that is still the heart of Christ for us today.

In this life there are many things for which I am thankful. But they all fail in comparison to this: that in the very gates of heaven, where holy angels see the face of God, where God is glorified day and night, my name is known. It is known because Jesus, the Son of God, intercedes for my soul.


In view of this, the magnitude of the mercy of God, let us seek to live as people who forgive. Let us never forget our sin; that massive accumulated weight and debt; and the grace and kindness of God in removing it. And in obedience to Christ, let us learn what it means to forgive immediately and unconditionally from the heart. Amen.

Personal Epilogue

In forty-two days it will have been three years since my son Stephen went home to be with the Lord. Because of events in the last week of his life, it is fitting, as we approach this milestone, that this sermon would be about forgiving from the heart. On Tuesday, February 8, 2001, 4:00 p.m., he was a healthy, happy boy, on his way to the city park to ride his bicycle. By 4:10, he was unconscious--he crashed on his face while doing a bicycle stunt. A couple of hours later he died.

On the Tuesday of Stephen's last week, I made him angry, and he was very bitter. While I was out of the house, his mother intervened to show him how to deal with anger and bitterness. She told him, "This is how you handle anger or despair; this is what you do: you go to your bed, you kneel down, and you cry out to God." They did, and so it was that on that day, Stephen learned to forgive with his heart. And though verbal forgiveness was prevented by the crash in the park, because he knew Jesus as his Lord and Savior, he was prepared for death, and because he had forgiven from his heart, he was ready to face God without having this bitterness on his conscience.

I cannot overstate the comfort that it gave me to hear my wife say, during that first week after he died, that she heard him praying out loud, asking God to help him to forgive his Dad. O Let us learn what it means to forgive from the heart, and let us strive to always be ready to face God with a pure conscience.