Forgive and Forget? Matthew 6:14

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Just forgive and forget! Let bygones be bygones. Such is the all-too-common advice given to someone struggling with the hurt inflicted by another person’s heartless action. But is this always—or ever—the right advice to give to such a person?

To discover the real nature of human forgiveness, it is helpful to consider carefully the characteristics of divine forgiveness.

First, the aim of forgiveness is the restoration of harmonious relations between the offending party and the aggrieved party. Anything short of such a reconciliation is less than the full-orbed sense of forgiveness. Enmity must be removed. “Once you were estranged from God and enemies in your minds because of your evil deeds. But now he has reconciled you …” (Col 1:21–22).

Second, on both sides there must be an appropriate attitude toward the other. For the offended person, there must be a willingness to forgive. “God our Savior … wants all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:3–4; see also 2 Pet 3:9), that is, to receive the forgiveness of sins. On the part of the person who has committed the wrong, there needs to be an acknowledgment of wrongdoing (= confession), and a turning away from their wrongful attitude and action (= repentance) (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 1 John 1:9).

In the Bible, forgiveness is never portrayed as automatic. Christ died for all (2 Cor 5:15), but not everyone is forgiven. Confession and repentance are required.

It is clear that when God forgives our sins, he does not “forget” them, for he is omniscient and cannot forget anything. On the contrary, all things—past, present, and future, real and potential—are simultaneously and permanently present to his consciousness. When he forgives our sins, he chooses not to remember them in the sense that in his divine accounting he no longer reckons them to our account.

So we read in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding people’s transgressions against them.” And centuries earlier the psalmist restated the divine blessing on the person whose transgressions were forgiven by saying, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them” (Ps 32:1–2 NIV; cf. Isa 43:25; Jer 31:34).

From this analysis of God’s forgiveness, we may infer some principles that can guide Christians seeking to know the proper way to deal with wrongs done to them. To pretend that the wrong did not happen or to try to erase it from the memory (= to “forget” it) is pointless, if not impossible.

We must aim at reconciliation with the wrongdoer, encouraging them to acknowledge the wrong and repudiate the attitude that prompted the action, and assuring them that we are eager for harmony to be restored—for forgiveness in its full sense.

But forgiveness offered does not always guarantee forgiveness received. When repentance is not present (see Luke 17:3), we must maintain a willingness to forgive and transfer to God responsibility for forgiveness, as Jesus did when he was confronted by unrepentant soldiers who were simply doing their duty but were unaware of the significance of their actions: “Father, forgive them, for they do not realize what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

***

This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris, professor emeritus and author, is well known for his commentaries on 2 Corinthians. He has written several books, including Navigating Tough Texts.

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Written by Murray J. Harris
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