Luke 17:3-10 “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him. The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you. Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Would he not rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
This passage is for every disciple, for those who are serious about their relationship with God, for real Christians, not for merely religious people. This passage is for true believers in the Lord Jesus. It is one of the toughest passages in the Bible. My knees knock before its scrutiny, but it is indispensable for Christian living, and if I refuse to take it on board then I will limp and stagger for the rest of my pilgrimage. I have to receive it and make it a part of my Christian universe.
The Lord Jesus tells us that if our brother – a fellow Christian – sins against us we are first of all to point this out to him by way of mild rebuke. “I was quite hurt by your ignoring me on Sunday . . .” That simple word is difficult enough, but if he repents then we are told that our duty is to forgive him.
WHAT FORGIVENESS IS.[I have taken all this section from the book of a former teacher of mine at Westminster Seminary, Jay Adams, From Forgiven and Forgiving (Calvary Press) and I hope you will find it as helpful as I did.]
I often talk and preach about forgiveness, but frequently I’m failing to explain it. Let me start with a foundational text, a great word of the apostle Paul to the whole congregation in Ephesus when he says, “Forgive one another just as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you” (Ephs.4:32). Alfred Place church, (or any New Covenant congregation), is a fellowship of divinely forgiven believing sinners who constantly forgive one another. That is a normal church, the people of God. We forgive one another because we’ve been forgiven by God. We pray, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us,” because we’ve been forgiven so much and so we’re constrained to forgive the comparative trifling things that men and women have done to us. So our practice of forgiveness is modeled on God forgiving us, and it is inspired by that mercy which Wesley called “immense and free, for O my God it found out me.”.
Now the $64,000 question is this, what actually does God do when he forgives us? If that is our model for our forgiving we need to be clear about that. Obviously, when God forgives, he doesn’t simply sit in the heavens and give off strong feelings, does he? No. So though our feelings are very much a part of forgiving someone we realize that forgiveness itself is not a feeling. There may be a peace in our hearts after we have offered forgiveness to someone who has wronged us, but feelings are not of the essence of the act of forgiving someone. So what actually does God do when he forgives repentant sinners? It is this; when God forgives, he basically goes on record. He calls all creation in heaven and on earth to witness that through his Son Jesus Christ he has forgiven us. He says it like this, “I will not remember your sins” (Isa 43:25). When he forgives, God lets us know that he’ll no longer hold our sins against us. Forgiveness is a process at the end of which God declares that the matter of our sin has been dealt with once and for all. The apostle John says it like this; “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I Jn. 1:9). God bears witness to this fact; our sins have all been forgiven. God makes that promise. Forgiveness is not a feeling; forgiveness is a promise!
Never forget that fact. It is one of the most stupendous realities of heaven and earth. When our God forgives us, he promises that he will not remember our sins again; a time or an occasion can never come when God will say, “Now answer to me for these sins of yours,” and he holds them against us. Rather he says, “I will remember your sins no more.” You might be still perplexed and say, “How can God, who knows all things – past, present, and future – ever forget anything? How can he forget our sins?” The answer to that is that what God says is a bit different; it is that he does not bring them to his remembrance, and that’s not the same thing as forgetting them. Obviously, the omniscient God who created and sustains the universe is never forgetful. Even if he casts our sins into the deepest part of the ocean he knows where and what they were, but he chooses not to remember them. You see, forgetting is passive; it is a nuisance; it is something that we older folk do a lot more than you younger ones. We slip into forgetfulness; we have senior moments. But refusing to remember is active; it is a promise whereby one person (in this case, God) determines not to remember the sins of another against him. To refuse to remember something is simply a graphic way of saying, “I won’t bring up these matters to you or others in the future.” He will not hold our sins against us because he has held them against his Son on Golgotha. He has dealt with them in the Lamb of God. He has taken them away and they will not and cannot come back to condemns us again. Yes we will think of them, and rue the day we did them, and humble ourselves through the memory of the pain we caused ourselves and others, but in their power to put us in hell it is as if they never existed.
We model our forgiveness of others on the way God forgave us. I have forgiven you, so that when we meet in a wedding or on the street then I will greet you and show affection to you. What you did that time ago is not going to determine our relationship ever again. I shall say, “Jimmy! It is lovely to see you. How are you doing?” and I shall show real interest in you because by God’s grace I have succeeded in forgiving you. I have buried in the depths of the sea that unpleasantness that had driven us apart. When we bump into one another again I refuse to unpack my wet suit and snorkeling kit, my compressed air cylinders, putting them on and going diving to look for your sins before I’ll speak a word to you. I will not exhume those white bones and show them to you reproachfully with a wagging finger and big eyes and a sniff of sorrow and a catch in my voice. I refuse to remember them, and I will never use those sins against you again. I will not so much as hint at them, not when I am under stress, not when you have done another silly thing. I will never raise the matter of your past sins against you. That is forgiveness. That is the promise I make to you. Forgiveness is a promise. When God forgives our sins then he does it eternally; before his throne of judgment our sins will be as if they never happened. There will be no condemnation whatsoever because of the condemnation taken so lovingly and freely by Christ on the cross.
HOW FORGIVENESS IS TO BE SHOWN.
i] Forgiveness is to be offered persistently. “If your brother repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (vv.3&4). Here is a Jay Adams illustration; there you are once again, simply standing quietly, surveying the scene, doing no one any harm, provoking no one to anger, when all of a sudden, out of a clear blue sky, ‘pow!’, literally or figuratively (probably the latter), a brother hits you right on the nose! There you stand, nourishing and cherishing your sore nose when here he comes up to you, hat in hand, shuffling up. He says, ‘You know what I just did?’ You reply, ‘I certainly do; why did you do it?’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘you see, I’ve got this terrible temper, and I got upset, and you were the closest one around, so I cracked and biffed you. Oh, I am sorry. It was nothing personal. Will you forgive me?’ ‘All right, yeah,’ you say, molding your nose back into shape, ‘but don’t do it again.’
“Five minutes later, just when your nose is beginning to feel a little bit better, ‘pow!’ He does it again! And again he comes, hat in hand, shuffling toward you. ‘Do you know what I did again?’ ‘I sure do. Why did you do it again? I thought you said you weren’t going to do that again!’ ‘Well, you see, I’ve got this temper, and . . .’ ‘I know about your temper.’ ‘Well, you can’t do much to overcome a temper like that in five minutes! Will you forgive me?’ ‘Yes, But don’t you ever do it again!’
“Not once, not twice, but seven times in the same day (literally or figuratively) he pokes you in the eye, and seven times he returns asking for forgiveness. What are you going to do? Well, there are many who will say, ‘Once, yes; twice, maybe, three times – no way.’
But Jesus said, ‘And if he sins against you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him’ (v. 4). That hurts! Now, of course, by ‘seven times’ Jesus didn’t mean that the limit was seven times; he just rounded it off with that number, meaning, in effect, ‘as often as it happens that way, you must forgive him.’ Forgiveness is to be shown persistently” (Jay Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving, Calvary Press, 1994, p.19ff).
Maybe many of you are finding it hard to imagine such a situation in which you’ll need constantly to be forgiving someone. But in the confines of a marriage in a single bad day a spouse will lose his temper, or be sarcastic, or mean-spirited, or selfish, or lazy, or unappreciative, and seven times he’ll need to show his repentance by saying sincerely to his wife, “So sorry! What a stupid bad man you’ve married,” And because she loves him and has made vows ‘for better for worse’ then on these worse days in her marriage she will forgive him, or maybe he will forgive her, and they will forgive their children and this will be the pattern all their lives long. Now there are more serious crimes; the husband can be an abuser of the children, he can be out selling drugs, he can be a thief, and he can slip into the temple and make a sacrifice to an idol. Then there are other laws that come into operation besides the law of forgiveness. If he is a persistent criminal and you as his wife are withholding that information from the police then you are party to his crimes. I am not saying that a wife should be a milksop without righteousness or moral backbone. No wife should continue to be a punch-bag for a violent evil husband. There are refuges for battered wives. We will help you get there. At first, even for a serious offence, there should be the offer of forgiveness at the words of repentance, but if there is no end to these repeated crimes – if he is a serial wife abuser – then other counsels also operate.
I would say that we are rarely involved in criminal activity. What we are confronted with on a day to day basis with our family and neighbours is thoughtlessness and selfishness, but then “If he sins . . . seven times a day . . . and returns seven times saying ‘I repent’ then we are to forgive him.” You see what Jesus is getting at? People will say, “But if he hits me in the nose (literally or figuratively) on seven occasions in a day, his repentance can’t be sincere; after all, ‘by their fruit you shall know them.’ I’d forgive him if I saw any fruit commensurate with repentance. He might say sorry, but where’s the fruit of godly sorrow in his life? Surely self-control and victory over the sin that besets him so easily would be an accompanying grace to repentance. Repentance never comes alone.”
Those are very searching words, but when did you ever see an apple grow in a day! A strawberry? Even a blackberry? It’s small at first, and then it’s bigger but still green, and then red but unripe, and finally the blackberry is ready for picking and cooking. Jesus tells us that we will know his disciples by their fruit, and fruit takes time to grow. It takes patience, cultivation, work, etc. The person who has hurt you may be a baby Christian; this is a New Testament category, a ‘novice.’ He or she is taking baby steps in understanding and living the Christian life. And, as Jesus sets it up in our text, he tells of this new Christian who has hurt you that he comes into your life and he tells you he is really repentant, that he is sorry for what he’s done, but you have often walked down that street before. “Been there; done it!”. That is what you are facing, and you know that the path of a God-honouring decision is frequently not a four lane highway but a razor’s edge. You are called to be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. You are to act in love and so you must believe all things, and hope all things. You cry to God for help to take hold of his naked word; “Lord the only reason I would do this is that you’ve told me to do it.” You may not say, “Ah, when I see the full luscious fruit of powerful repentance, a new humble quiet walk with God, a new hatred of sin, a grief over the past, a new tenderness, it will be then that I’ll forgive him, and only then.” You are asking for instant maturity. You understand that I am not talking about persistent serious crimes, but the hurtful sins that destroy relationships and kill love. You have the same heavenly Father as I have. He doesn’t play games with us and torment us and tantalize us by asking for the impossible from us. Ask God for wisdom; he won’t give you a row for asking him for something as good as that. Seek wise counsel. Didn’t the Lord say that we have not because we ask not? Doesn’t James exhort us to ask for wisdom? “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). “Lord, help me to be wise with this person who says he has repented and is sorry for what he did. What should my response be? His falls are so big and frequent and I don’t know if I can trust him, and my elders and minister don’t seem to know much more. You help me. Lord, give me wisdom.”
I make this distinction (which must be known to most of you by now) between offering someone forgiveness and promising him forgiveness. I think we are under an obligation to offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us, but that we cannot promise them our full and free forgiveness unless they say. “I did a terrible thing against you. I sinned, and it was horrible. Please forgive me.” Then, when they acknowledge their sin and repentance, then we are under obligation to promise them forgiveness. There is a challenge at both levels, to even offer forgiveness to the man who abducted and killed your child and has not expressed any grief – that act is as hard as climbing Everest without oxygen. It requires heavenly power and grace. Then to promise forgiveness to a repentant criminal who has destroyed much that is precious to me – that requires just as much grace from God. But that is what we are being asked by God. He forgave the men who murdered his Son, and he can help us to forgive those who have killed those precious to us. I had an older widow friend who had great influence over my life when I was a student. She has now passed away. She kept a little corner shop in Dowlais living there alone, and one night a man broke into the shop and stole all the money he could find. The police caught him and she went to his trial in Merthyr and she had a little word with him. “I forgive you,” she said to him. “I don’t want your forgiveness,” he snarled back at her. She made the offer but she could not say to him, “You are forgiven; I promise you that, full forgiveness for your stealing . . .” She could not say that to him because he would not acknowledge that he had done wrong.
ii] Forgiveness is to be offered in the teeth of little faith. What was the response of the apostles to these word of Jesus about forgiving your brother seven times? “’Wow!” they said, rolling their eyes as they looked at one another, “Increase our faith” (v. 5). Of course, there was no ‘wow!’ because the Greeks didn’t have a word for it. But that certainly expressed their attitude. They were saying, ‘Well , . . that’s a great ideal you have set before us. That’s a very admirable attitude you are describing. We can appreciate that, but no one could live like that. If we’re being asked to forgive someone seven times, then, Lord, we’re going to need more faith!”
What is that? It’s a pious cop-out! We meet it all the time. People try to deflate our evangelism by saying that they admire us, but the gospel is not for them. It does nothing for them but they are glad it does something for us. End of discussion. Being the sort of personalities they are they couldn’t believe in Jesus. “Good for you, friend, but it’s not for me.” But the words of our text are the words of our Creator and Sustainer and our Judge. Men and women, you have no choice about whether you are going to live a life of forgiving others or not. This is not some option for the very religious elite. This is how God expects everyone to live and how everyone is going to be judged.
Look how Jesus handled their plea that they didn’t have enough faith: “He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you’” (v. 6). What was Jesus saying? “I am speaking to you as my disciples, those who trust in me, those who are in me and I am in them, those who have indwelling resources, the power of the living Spirit of God. I am not talking to ordinary unbelievers, but men whose Father is God, who are able to say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Now I have told you to do something, and immediately you are making excuses why you can’t. You’re saying, ‘When we get more faith, we’ll be able to obey, but not before then.’ I tell you it isn’t a matter of how much faith you have. If you have any faith at all, even tiny faith the size of a mustard seed, if it is true faith, as thin as a spider’s threat, as long as it is attached to me you can do wonders with it. You can turn the other cheek, and you could go the second mile, and overcome evil with good, and love your enemies, and lay down your lives for one another and love your wives so that you would die for them. You and ford any river, and bear any burden, and climb any mountain, and resist any temptation – not by great faith but by true faith. You can be like the men and women of Hebrews 11 who obtained promises and wrought righteousness and subdued kingdom not by having the second blessing and speaking in tongues but by faith, by trusting in the Lord. You could do miracles of grace day after day. Jesus is saying to them, “Don’t tell me you need more faith. This is a matter of exercising what faith you already have in obedience. It is not that you disciples lack any faith at all. It’s not a matter of the quantity of faith, getting more than 51%, it is a matter of obedience, of using the faith you have.” We are to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that for me he can say nothing wrong. I believe that he wants me to forgive the one who repents seven times. I believe that whatever he asks from me he is able to help me to do.” That is overcoming faith.
iii] Forgiveness is to be offered in the face of feelings of weariness and self-pity. Jesus proceeds to tell them a story: “Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Would he not rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:7-10)
As Jay Adams exhorts us, Picture this slave, who has been working under the cloudless Syrian sky all day long, coming home. He’s tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, and smelly. Does his master size up his condition and say to him, “Go take a shower, and get something to eat”? No, not on your life. What he says is, “Go get those dirty clothes off, have a wash, and then go into the kitchen and fix my supper, and don’t you take a bit of food until I’ve finished eating.” Perhaps, the master even posts a guard to see that his orders are followed.
Now here is this servant throwing golden lumps of butter into a pot of mashed potatoes. There are the green peas bubbling on the stove, and the aroma of roast beef is filling the air. Can’t you see him? There he stands, his own stomach growling, his mouth watering, but he can’t touch a bite of the food. By the time he brings the food out, it looks like a feast. It looks like mountains of potatoes, lakes of gravy, fields of green peas, and forests of roast beef reaching up to the sky, and he has to stand there, with a towel hanging over one arm, waiting for his master to finish toying with the last pea on the end of his fork. Then he has to bring in the dessert! But instead of dessert, it looks like Niagaras of whipped cream cascading over hills of peaches!
OK, got the picture so far? Now think about it. Everything in that slave says, “Eat it yourself; forget what that guy out there has said.” But he can’t. He must obey his master – against all his feelings. He cannot say, “If I feel like it I’ll obey,” but Jesus makes the point that even then, this servant hasn’t done anything exceptional, but only what he is supposed to do and what he is paid to do. His alternative is becoming a beggar; he’s on the streets.
So, now there have been three excuses raised by us disciples for not forgiving, and all three have been demolished. You can’t reject Christ’s commands to forgive by simply saying, “When I get more faith I’ll do it,” or by saying, “When I see the fruit in his life I’’ do it,” or by saying, “When I feel like it, I’ll forgive.”
iv] Forgiveness is to be offered in the teeth of feeling that I’m being a hypocrite to forgive. “Wait a minute!” someone says, “God doesn’t want me to be a hypocrite, does he?” Short answer, No. “Then, if I forgive someone when I don’t feel like forgiving him, won’t I be a hypocrite?” Short answer again, No. Let me tell you why. The only reason you raise such an objection is because you have been influenced by the feely-touchy times in which we Christian live and worship and function. Even to think in that way one must adopt some unbiblical, feeling-oriented understanding of what hypocrisy is. Remember, your argument is that if you don’t feel like forgiving, then offering another person forgiveness will be insincere and so hypocritical.
Actually, you’ve bought into a very foolish viewpoint. Let me explain. Every morning I do something against all my feelings: I get up. Hardly ever do I want to get up. I’d like to throw the digital alarm out of the window on a Friday morning when it bleeps noisily at 6.30. But I don’t. I get up. Now, does that make me a hypocrite? Of course not. And
that isn’t the only thing I have to do against my feelings. All day long, in order to be responsible to God and others, I must do many things against my feelings. I’m to pursue all my responsibilities day after day in the teeth of my feelings. I walk all over my feelings. I don’t wait for the moment of inspiration to read the Bible or go to church. My feelings are not the touchstone of my duties. I believe in the responsibility of man. The more you think about it the more the biblical view of hypocrisy makes sense. If I’d told you or led you to believe that I actually love to get out of bed Friday mornings at 6.30 when the truth is that every Thursday night I grumble to Iola about it, then I would have been acting hypocritically. But I’ve told you the truth. I act against my feelings and I am not acting hypocritically.
“Well,” you say, “I can see that, but something still seems wrong.” Perhaps that’s because you’re still holding on to a feeling-oriented view of forgiveness. But I have already set before you that forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a promise you make to someone not to hold their past sins against them in your relationship. Now do you see how important that fact is? Let’s explore it a bit further. You can make a promise to pay a certain charity ten pounds a month, whether or not you feel like it, and you can keep that promise whether or not you feel like it. You may be in church, for example, and the pastor is homing in on husbands who are inconsiderate to their wives. He asks, “When was it you last bought your wife a bunch of flowers?” You think, “Let’s see. Did I buy her flowers last year?” So, he gets under you skin; you are convicted. You don’t feel like buying her flowers, but you know you should. It’s your ‘duty.’ So, you decide that at the end of Monday’s work, on your way home you will call in the florist and buy her a dozen long-stemmed roses with a sweet note attached, “My love is like a red, red rose.” You didn’t feel like it; you thought they would be expensive, but still you’d do it. See, you can make a promise whether or not you feel like it. You can truly forgive out of a sense of duty as Jesus says here, “We have only done our duty,” (Luke 17:10b). The Lord Christ is talking about duty not feelings. Always duty trumps feelings.
Now imagine that you called home on Monday morning and announced to your wife, “I am bringing you a nice surprise tonight,” but then there was a crisis in work and chaos through the afternoon and you completely forgot about the flowers, and when you walked through the door there was your wife walking up to flower-less you with a curious smile on her face and the words, “Well, what’s this surprise?” on her lips. Oh boy! You can’t wait after the day you’ve had in the office to get home, relax, and put your feet up. You have forgotten about the flowers. But when you opened the door, your wife met you expectantly saying, “Where’s the surprise?” and in a moment you say, “ . . . I thought we’d go out for a meal tonight to the new restaurant,” and her face lights up. And all your ideas of a quiet evening by the fireside are gone. You see, you can also keep a promise whether or not you felt like it.
I am saying to you that these words of Jesus are tough, but that’s why Jesus warned you at the outset, “Watch yourselves!” Men and women hearing me who are Christians, is there someone you are refusing to forgive? Is there someone you have offended whom you are refusing to ask for forgiveness? Is there someone who stepped on your toes whom you have never sought out? Do you have unfinished business to attend to? Then take these words of Jesus to heart and by the grace of God go. Seek forgiveness yourself for your sin of refusing or putting off reconciliation. Then talk about those matters that stand between you and resolve them in God’s way. Don’t put it off any longer. Repent, ask God’s forgiveness, and then go and do what Christ commands. On more thing . . .
v] Refusal to offer forgiveness is a commitment to vengeance. It is taking revenge into your own hands. Joseph’s brothers were afraid that after their father died the protection of his paternal authority (which was preventing Joseph wreaking vengeance on them) would be gone, and they would all be killed or thrown into prison. So they told Joseph that Dad had told them to say to him, “forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly . . .please forgive” (Gen. 50:17). Joseph wept because he had been so kind and forgiving to them from his heart, but they thought it might be only a show because he didn’t want to hurt the father he loved. He said, “Don’t be afraid; am I in the place of God?” (Gen. 50:19) It is not mine to rub my hands with glee at the death of Dad because now I can exterminate you. It is the Lord who says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” To take vengeance of any kind – even the withholding of forgiveness – is an attempt to arrogate God’s work to yourself.
When you say, “I forgive you” to another person, you make a promise to him. You promise not to remember his sin; you will not bring it up to him, you will not bring it up to others, and you will not bring it up to yourself. The sin is gone and buried. That is not an easy promise to make, but Jesus never told us that the Christian life would be easy. How many times each day does Jesus forgive you?
2nd October 2011 GEOFF THOMAS