This is the first sermon in a series I never planned to preach. The story of how it came to be starts in February when I spent a week preaching at Word of Life Florida. One day I ate lunch with George Theis, former executive director of Word of Life. He told me about a book called Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall, the longtime pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. “Ray, you need to read this book and then you need to preach it to your people” he declared. From time to time people say things like that to me and I generally tend not to take them seriously. There are lots of good books out there, and I can hardly read them all, much less preach them all. But on the other hand, George Theis is a man I respect greatly, in part because he’s not the sort of person who would say something like that lightly. He told me that he had been recommending the book to others, and had been preaching its message himself with great impact in various churches.
So I said I would read it, which I eventually did. I found the book powerful and convicting. In the very first chapter Pastor Kendall tells of a time when someone very near and dear to him hurt him greatly. He doesn’t say who it was or exactly what they did, only that the pain was deep and the hurt profound because he had looked to this person as a surrogate father figure. The anger that he felt overwhelmed him. At length he talked it over with Josif Tson of Romania. After he poured out all the sordid details of what his so-called friend had done to him, he paused, waiting for Pastor Tson to say, “R. T., you are right to feel so angry. What happened to you was awful.” But he didn’t. After listening to all the details, Josif Tson said simply, “You must totally forgive them.” Pastor Kendall was dumbfounded. So he started to tell the story all over again, this time adding more details. Josif Tson interrupted with words that would change R. T. Kendall’s life, “You must totally forgive them. Release them, and you will be set free.”
Release them, and you will be set free.
This is the first of five sermons on the topic of total forgiveness, but everything I have to say will be nothing more than that one sentence: Release them, and you will be set free. The very moment we say those words, the mind begins to argue:
“But you don’t know what he did to me.”
“They lied about me over and over again.”
“She intended to destroy my career—and she did.”
“You can’t imagine the hell I’ve been through.”
“If you knew what this has done to my family, you would be angry too.”
“They deserve to suffer like they’ve made me suffer.”
“I’m going to make them pay.”
“My daughter was raped. How do you forgive that?”
“I was sexually abused by a priest. How do you forgive that?”
“I will never forgive those people. Never!”
C. S. Lewis made this telling remark: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” There are two parts to that observation and both of them are important for us to think about:
1. Forgiveness is a truly Christian virtue.
Consider these words from the lips of our Lord:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said it very plainly:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The Apostle Paul put forgiveness into a slightly different framework in Ephesians 4:32:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
He said a very similar thing in Colossians 3:13:
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
When Peter (a man who knew from experience the value of forgiveness) wrote his first epistle, he summed it up this way: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” That’s I Peter 4:8.
There is another way to say it, and it comes from the “Love Chapter"—I Corinthians 13. While describing the greatest virtue, Paul declared that “love … keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5). That little phrase deserves a closer examination. Eugene Peterson (The Message) says it this way, “Love … doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.” Love doesn’t keep score because love has a bad memory. It finds a way to forget the sins of others.
Finally, we have the greatest, most profound statement on this topic in the entire Bible, the finest, purest, highest example of forgiveness. When he hung on the cross, condemned to death by evil men who plotted to murder him, who produced lying witnesses to convict him, as he surveyed the howling mob assembled to cheer his suffering, Jesus the Son of God, the One who knew no sin, the only truly innocent man who ever walked this sin-cursed planet, in his dying moments uttered words that still ring across the centuries: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Those 11 tortured words sweep away all our shabby excuses. They reveal the barrenness of our heart; they rip the cover off our unrighteous anger and show it for what it is. Many of us say, “If only the people who hurt me would show some remorse, some sorrow, then maybe I would forgive them.” But since that rarely happens, we use that as an excuse to continue in our bitterness, our anger, and our desire to get even.
Consider Jesus on the cross. No one seemed very sorry. Even as he said those words, the crowd laughed, mocked, cheered, jeered. Those who passed by hurled insults at him. They taunted him. “If you are the King of Israel, come down from the cross and save yourself.” Let us be clear on this point. When he died, the people who put him to death were quite pleased with themselves. Pilate washed his hands of the whole sordid affair. The Jewish leaders hated him with a fierce, irrational hatred. They were happy to see him suffer and die. Evil was in the air that day. The forces of darkness had done their work and the Son of God would soon be in the tomb. No one said, “I was wrong. This is a mistake. We were such fools.” And yet he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
That is precisely what we must say if we are going to follow Jesus. We must say it to people who hurt us deliberately and repeatedly. We must say it to those who intentionally attack us. We must say it to those who casually and thoughtlessly wound us. We must say it to those closest to us, to our husband or wife, to our children, to our parents, to our friends, to our neighbors, to our brothers and sisters, to our fellow Christians.
2. Forgiveness is difficult in part because we do not understand it properly.
At this point it is necessary to clear up some of the misconceptions about forgiveness. In some ways, it is easier to say what forgiveness is not than what it is. These misconceptions matter because sometimes when we say we can’t or won’t forgive, we are actually talking about something other than biblical forgiveness. Let me list a few things forgiveness does not mean:
It does not mean approving of what someone else did.
It does not mean pretending that evil never took place.
It does not mean making excuses for other people’s bad behavior.
It does not mean justifying evil so that sin somehow becomes less sinful.
It does not mean overlooking abuse.
It does not mean denying that others tried to hurt you repeatedly.
It does not mean letting others walk all over you.
It does not mean refusing to press charges when a crime has been committed.
It does not mean forgetting the wrong that was done.
It does not mean pretending that you were never hurt.
It does not mean that you must restore the relationship to what it was before.
It does not mean that you must become best friends again.
It does not mean there must be a total reconciliation as if nothing ever happened.
It does not mean that you must tell the person that you have forgiven them.
It does not mean that all negative consequences of sin are canceled.
Let’s say you are the coach of a major college football team. And let’s suppose that you go to a topless nightclub and engage in activities that embarrass your university. When your activity is exposed, you confess what you have done and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness may be granted to you, but you will still lose your job, which is exactly what happened to the head football coach at the University of Alabama yesterday. Forgiveness does not cancel all the negative consequences of our foolish choices.
In preparing this sermon series, I have been greatly helped by three books. I have already mentioned the book by R. T. Kendall—Total Forgiveness. The other two are both by Lewis Smedes. The first is called Forgive and Forget. The second is called The Art of Forgiving. I consider all three books so valuable that we have copies available for you to purchase in the Resource Center.
A Matter of the Heart
This week I received an e-mail from someone who lives in a distant state. Recently he has come to grips with the fact that a neighbor abused him when he was a child. That trauma plus the fact that he was raised in a family where his parents could not express love to their children played havoc in his adult life. Only recently has he come to grips with his own pain. This is part of what he wrote:
But just this year, through prayer and a Christian counselor I am beginning to “let go” of the past. It is still very difficult to overcome the anger and maybe even the hatred I felt toward my father. It took me going to the cemetery to visit my father’s and mother’s graves and having about a 2-hour conversation with them that began to let the anger go that had kept me in a state of sadness most of my adult life.
He went on to say that for many years he focused on helping others because he knew how to “fix” people and “fix” problems. “Until the facts of my childhood awoke and slapped me in the face and I couldn’t ‘fix’ it. If it was to be ‘fixed,’ then God would have to do it.”
And the first step was learning to forgive.
That story is very helpful because it demonstrates that forgiveness is essentially a matter of the heart. This is a hugely important point because most of us think forgiveness is primarily about what we do or what we say. But it is quite possible to mouth kind words of forgiveness while harboring anger and bitterness within. Forgiveness begins in the heart and eventually works its way outward. There is a profound sense in which all forgiveness, even forgiving someone who hurt you deeply, is between you and God. Other people may or may not understand it, or recognize it, or own up to their need to receive it.
Forgiveness in its essence is a decision made on the inside to refuse to live in the past. It’s a conscious choice to release others from their sins against you so that you can be set free. It doesn’t deny the pain or change the past, but it does break the cycle of bitterness that binds you to the wounds of yesterday. Forgiveness allows you to let go and move on. And this story illustrates that you can forgive even when other people make no confession. You can forgive without a restoration of the relationship. You can forgive when the other person has done nothing to earn forgiveness because forgiveness is like salvation—it is a gift that is freely given, it cannot be earned. You can forgive and the other person may never even know about it. You can forgive without saying, “I forgive you” because forgiveness is a matter of the heart.
Seventy Times Seven
That brings me back to the statement by C. S. Lewis: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” Then it becomes difficult. One day Peter asked Jesus how many times should we forgive someone who sins against us (Matthew 18:21-35). Jesus told him, “Seventy times seven.” Do the math in your head. That’s 490 times. That’s a lot of sin and a lot of pain and that’s a whole lot of forgiveness. It seems impossible and definitely impractical but that’s what Jesus said.
Then Jesus told a story about a man who owed his boss a vast debt that in today’s terms would be something like $50 million. Somehow he had run up this enormous debt and somehow he had managed to spend all the money. When the boss demanded his money, the man unashamedly begged to be forgiven. He even promised to pay the money back. But the boss forgave him the whole debt. Just wiped the slate clean. Soon after that, the man who had been forgiven such an enormous sum saw a fellow who owed him a tiny debt—something like $100. When the fellow couldn’t pay, he had him thrown into jail. But people heard about it and told the boss who got angry and had the first man thrown into jail to be tortured until he paid back the amount that previously had been forgiven. The King James Version says that he was turned over to the “tormentors.” The moral of the story is very clear: “This is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). These words are for believers. Jesus said, “What happened to that man will happen to you unless you learn to forgive and forgive and forgive.” The tormentors will come and take you away and torture you. What tormentors? The hidden tormentors of anger and bitterness that eat your insides out, the tormentors of frustration and malice that give you ulcers and high blood pressure and migraine headaches and lower back pain, the tormentors that make you lie awake at night on your bed stewing over every rotten thing that happens to you. The tormentors of an unforgiving heart that stalk your trail day and night, that never leave your side, that suck every bit of joy from your life.
Why? Because you will not forgive from the heart. It is happening to you just as Jesus said because you refuse to forgive.
We are like the unforgiving servant. We stand before Almighty God with our sins piled up like a mountain. The mountain is so tall we can’t get over it, so deep we can’t get under it, so wide we can’t go around it. That’s every one of us. Our sins are like a $50 million dollar debt we could never pay in our lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes. We come as debtors to God, come with empty hands, and we say, “I cannot pay.” God who is rich in mercy replies, “I forgive all your sins. My Son has paid the debt. You owe me nothing.” Then we rise from the pew, leave the communion table, walk outside the church humming “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.” And before we get to our car we see a man who has done us wrong and we want to grasp him by the throat and say, “Pay me right now!”
No wonder we are so tormented. No wonder we are so angry and bitter. No wonder we have problems. No wonder our friendships don’t last. No wonder we can’t get along. We have never learned the secret of unlimited forgiveness. Verily, the hidden tormentors have done their work.
Three Levels of Forgiveness
Lewis Smedes says there are three levels of forgiveness. First, we rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us. That simply means that without diminishing their sin, we admit that they are sinners just like we are sinners. Second, we surrender our right to get even. This is hard because it is natural to want someone else to pay for all the pain they caused us. But in the end, we must leave all judgment in the hands of a just and merciful God. Third, we revise our feelings toward the other person. This means giving up our hatred and letting go of our bitterness. Ultimately, it means taking Jesus seriously when he said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NKJV). You’ll know you have reached total forgiveness when you are able to ask God to bless those who have hurt you so deeply. This is indeed a high standard, so high that without God it is impossible. That’s why Smedes calls forgiveness a miracle. He’s right. Total forgiveness is nothing less than a miracle of God.
And it is the miracle we desperately need.
Two Final Thoughts
This is only the first sermon in this series. There is much more to be said and much more we all can learn together about the miracle of total forgiveness. For the moment let’s wrap things up with two final thoughts:
1) Forgiveness is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian. If we are going to follow Jesus, we must forgive. We have no other choice. And we must forgive as God has forgiven us—freely, completely, graciously, totally. The miracle we have received is a miracle we pass on to others.
2) We will forgive to the extent we appreciate how much we have been forgiven. The best incentive to forgiveness is to remember how much God has already forgiven you. Think of how many sins he has covered for you. Think of the punishment you deserved that did not happen to you because of God’s grace. Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Your willingness to forgive is in direct proportion to your remembrance of how much you have been forgiven.
Mark Twain said it this way: “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet gives to the heel that has crushed it.” You are never more like Jesus than when you forgive. And you will never be set free until you forgive.
Release them, and you will be set free.
The only question that remains is the most basic one: Have you ever been forgiven by God or are you still carrying the heavy burden of your own sin? This week I received an email from someone who started attending Calvary in January. Here is part of what he had to say:
For various “reasons,” I had not regularly attended church since vacation Bible school as a child. I attended the Good Friday performance of “The Borrowed Tomb,” and half-heartedly (I admit) asked Jesus to come into my life as my Savior. I say half-heartedly because only on Easter Sunday, when the church was full of people and the music was playing, did I realize what it meant to truly say that prayer and ask Jesus into my heart. I said that prayer with my eyes squeezed shut and my hands clenched tight. I felt euphoric and was moved to tears by the enormity of acknowledging that I needed Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
Here is a man who has discovered the joy of having his sins forgiven. Has that ever happened to you? As I was preparing this sermon, the words of an old gospel song kept ringing in my ears:
Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing flood?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin,
And be washed in the blood of the Lamb!
There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean,
O be washed in the blood of the Lamb.
That is my prayer and my exhortation to you. If you are still laboring under a heavy load of sin, come to Jesus. Run to cross. O be washed in the blood of the Lamb. You can be forgiven here and now. If you want to know what total forgiveness is all about, trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
This is the first message in this series. Four more will follow on the subject of forgiveness. As I prepared this message, it occurred to me that we need two things: soft hearts and courage. Some of us have been deeply hurt by the things others have done to us. People have attacked us, maligned us, mistreated us, abused us, sexually assaulted us, ridiculed us, belittled us, publicly humiliated us, physically beaten us, and they have done it deliberately, repeatedly, viciously. In response we chose to become hard on the inside to protect ourselves from any further pain. But that hardness has made it difficult for us to hear the gentle call of the Holy Spirit. We need soft hearts to hear his voice. And then we need courage. The timid will never forgive. Only the brave will forgive. Only the strong will have the courage to let go of the past. May God soften our hearts to hear the truth. And may God give us courage do the hard thing and let go of our bitterness, give up our anger, turn away from our resentment, stop keeping score, and enter into the miracle of total forgiveness.
Father, go now where my words cannot go—deep into the hearts of those who read these words. Grant that we may discover the freedom that comes from being great forgivers. Break the chain of remembered hurts that binds us to the past.
Lord, we want to do it but we lack the courage. Show us what we must do and then give us the courage to do it.
We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.