by Justin Lonas
To err is human; to forgive, divine," so the saying goes. There is much truth in that. Christ's atonement on the cross is the supreme example of forgiveness-the intrusion of God's love into a sinful world. Through the Spirit, believers are able to reflect God's forgiveness to those around us. Too often, however, the church is a place of dissent and division rather than the representation of Himself which Christ called us to be. If we are to be a unified body that glorifies God and works for His purposes, we must be a people of forgiveness.
Scripture explicitly commands forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35, Eph. 4:32, etc.), but, more than that, it describes it as an implicit theme of our life together as believers. If a church cannot practice restorative forgiveness among its members, there is precious little that will distinguish it from the surrounding world.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul exhorts the believers in that city to recognize that their belligerent refusal to live in forgiveness was destroying their witness. In this case, they were taking mutual grievances to the secular law courts rather than settling them within the church. Paul calls them to a higher road in verse 7; "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?" The mark of a Christian, he says, is not clinging to one's rights, but rather laying them down willingly for the sake of the cross. God is glorified when the believer reacts to adversity with grace instead of anger (1 Cor. 4:11-13, for example).
Paul knew firsthand the power of forgiveness from his miraculous conversion, as those believers whom he pursued unto death welcomed him as one of their own when he testified of his salvation (Acts 9:26-28). He was therefore able to speak authoritatively to the Corinthians in verses 9-11, reminding them of their former ungodliness and their newfound position in Christ: "Such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." The placement of this statement in this passage reminds us that we are all equally unworthy, and that our bond of salvation should take precedence over the petty disagreements among us.
Forgiveness in the biblical view is far more than accepting an apology or overlooking the offense of another. At its core, forgiveness is exercising an extension of Christ's atonement. To do that we must recognize the weight of our own cancelled debt and sacrifice our claim to worldly justice. Such forgiveness boldly proclaims the power of Christ.
Because of its place as a mark of the church and a habitual reminder of Christ's sacrifice, forgiveness is the restorer of unity within the church. We see a tremendous example of its use by God to overcome sin and guilt in the oft-overlooked gem that is the Book of Philemon. As Paul writes to commend the escaped slave Onesimus to his rightful master, he urges Philemon to accept him back, forgiving Onesimus' theft and escape and recognizing him as a brother in Christ.
Paul illustrates restorative forgiveness in several ways through this letter. First, he makes his appeal to Philemon in love as a fellow believer rather than in authority as an apostle (vv. 8-9), laying aside his rights in order to bring restoration. Second, he shows Philemon that Onesimus is now his brother (vv. 10-12) and reminds him of his own salvation (v. 19) so that they would recognize each other as equals (v. 16). Finally, he recognizes that consequences for sin are not necessarily eliminated even when it is forgiven (v. 18-"If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account."). In this instance he offers to take Onesimus' guilt onto himself in order that restoration can take place. In all these things, Paul is following the example of Christ. In verse 17, he tells Philemon to accept Onesimus as if it were he himself coming to him-just as we are to accept our brothers as we would Christ Himself.
The challenge from 1 Corinthians and the urging from Philemon resonate today. Everywhere the church is beset by opposition from governments, cultures, philosophies, and religions, but it is from within that the greatest danger may arise. As local bodies wrestle with one another and break fellowship over selfish disagreements, they harden their hearts to Christ's example of forgiveness. If we don't grasp our own "forgiven-ness", we cannot live in Christlikeness, and will end up just as the ungrateful servant of Matthew 18. The unregenerate heart cannot forgive-just as forgiveness is one of the surest marks of a healthy church, its absence is a sure sign that revival is needed.
Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps magazine.