Forgiveness is a familiar topic in the Bible. In fact, God’s plan to forgive mankind of their sins is the major theme of the Bible (1 Peter 1:20; John 17:24). So, when wondering why we should forgive those who sin against us, we need look no further than the example God gave us. Christians must forgive others because God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32).
Jesus gave a parable in Matthew 18:21–35 about why we should forgive. He tells the story from the perspective of a king who has forgiven a servant of tremendous debt. But then that servant encounters another servant who owed him a few dollars, and the forgiven servant deals harshly with his fellow servant and demands instant repayment. When the king learns what had happened, he is furious and orders the one he had forgiven to be punished until the huge debt was paid in full. Jesus ends the parable with these chilling words: “That is how My Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (verse 35).
Forgiveness is mandatory for all those who have experienced the forgiveness of God (Ephesians 4:32). Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), reminding us that God holds us accountable for paying forward what He has done for us. Refusing to forgive those who wrong us is an insult to the Lord who has forgiven us much more. We forgive as an act of gratitude for all we have been forgiven.
Those who have been forgiven by God are transformed into forgiving people. To approach the Lord and ask for His forgiveness while at the same time refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters is the height of hypocrisy. If a person who claims to be a Christian refuses to extend forgiveness to others, that person is showing evidence that he or she is not truly born again. We forgive others because it is in our (new) nature to forgive (see 1 John 3:9).
Forgiveness is not letting an unrepentant sinner off the hook. Rather, it is an eager readiness to extend mercy to those who have wronged us. When we forgive, we free ourselves from the bondage someone’s wrong has created for us. It is impossible to live in complete obedience to God when someone else controls our emotions. Followers of Jesus are to be controlled by nothing but the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). In order to grow spiritually and live in submission to God’s Word, we must obey even the difficult commands about forgiveness (Luke 6:46).
Forgiveness is often a window through which the world glimpses the mercy of God. As the popular slogan goes, “You may be the only Bible some people ever read.” When we forgive, we model God’s teachings on kindness, mercy, love, and humility. People cannot see Jesus in us when we are walking in bitterness and anger. When all we can talk about is how we were wronged, how someone betrayed us, or the wounds we are carrying, we lose sight of our primary mission, which is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Unforgiveness makes us self-focused instead of God-focused and steals our love, peace, and joy (see Galatians 5:22).
Forgiveness comes more easily for some than it does for others, but we are all required to forgive if we want to walk in fellowship with God. Some find it hard to forgive because they have a misunderstanding of what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. We can forgive from the heart while keeping betrayers at a distance. Forgiveness does not allow unrepentant abusers back into our lives, but it does allow the peace of God back into our lives.
From the cross, Jesus prayed for His murderers: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). We reflect Jesus when we forgive the ones who wronged us, and for believers being like Jesus is the ultimate goal (Romans 8:29).