Matthew 6 records some of the most alarming words ever spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ. In the portion of His teaching which has become known as the Lord’s Prayer, He instructed the disciples to regularly pray for forgiveness. He then concluded His teaching with the warning: For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15).
What was Jesus saying? He was saying this: So serious is the refusal to forgive, by one who claims to be a Christian, that Jesus warns that such a character pattern may be evidence of false faith; that is, that the professing Christian is merely that—only one who professes Christ, but does not actually possess Him. But the true believer, the sinner who has been made new in Christ, will be one who desires to make peace.
The fruit of the gospel’s work in a person’s heart includes the formation of a posture of forgiveness which flows from grace. That is, the ongoing recognition of one’s own desperate need for salvation will produce a humility and tenderness of heart that stands ready to forgive those who sin against us—whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally.
The importance of this need to forgive and be restored to one another is so great that there may even be times in which the help of a third party is necessary. This peacemaking ministry is also a fruit of the gospel’s work in the human heart. As Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9). In the writing of the personal letter called the book of Philemon, it is that peacemaking role that the apostle Paul now assumes.
Paul’s appeal to Philemon to receive his runaway slave, who is now a brother in Christ, reveals ten admonitions connected to biblical forgiveness. To be a believer who models genuine grace, you must…
Forgive as an obligation of the gospel (vv. 8-9). – Paul possessed apostolic authority over believers and the churches. Therefore, he could have commanded Philemon to receive Onesimus, but instead appealed to him. He wanted Philemon to do so for love’s sake; that is, he desired forgiveness to flow from his brother’s heart as a proper response to the gospel. Forgiveness, Paul said, is what is required; it is a basic duty of every genuine believer.
Forgive in order to facilitate restoration (vv. 10-13). – Again, rather than giving a command, Paul makes a request for his child, whose father I became. Paul was the runaway slave’s spiritual father and, as such, chose to be an agent of peace on his behalf. We are all called to be peacemakers, but we can learn much from the apostle. Restoration cannot be forced or coerced, but we should be agents of peace who aim to bring about restoration, with care and wisdom. Through the gospel, God is restoring sinners to Himself. As believers, therefore, we are then called to have a ministry of reconciliation by bringing the gospel to others, and by modeling what genuine forgiveness and restoration look like (Matthew 5:23-24; Romans 12:17-19). So, think about a simple contrast:
- Forgiveness paves the road to restoration, which receives God’s blessing.
- But bitterness paves the road to vengeance, which incurs God’s wrath.
You cannot have true restoration apart from forgiveness. And Paul treated the restoration of Onesimus to Philemon as a higher priority than keeping Onesimus to himself (v. 13).
Forgive freely, not under compulsion (v. 14). Paul knew that true forgiveness comes from the heart and, therefore, could not be brought about by human coercion. He had to trust the Holy Spirit to work in Philemon’s heart to motivate him to willingly obey the Lord. A genuine peacemaker recognizes the work of God which is necessary for true forgiveness to be granted. He will not demand that one party forgive the other against their will. He will patiently, yet persistently, exhort toward reconciliation while he also prays for the Lord to do a work of grace in the heart.
Forgive because of God’s gracious providence (vv. 15-16). Although he did not fully understand God’s sovereign ways, Paul was confident that everything that had taken place was under His control. This is the same confidence that Joseph had at the end of the book of Genesis (Genesis 50:20. The forgiving person grows in grace through difficult and confusing times. And even though he cannot see or understand the intricate workings of the sovereign God, he learns to trusts Him (Romans 8:28). Like the old gospel song says so beautifully,
God is too wise to be mistaken
God is too good to be unkind
So when you don’t understand
When don’t see His plan
When you can’t trace His hand
Trust His Heart
There are twists and turns in our road, but God is sovereign over them all. Don’t allow resentment and bitterness to keep you from the blessing of seeing God work out His mysterious, but beautiful plan.
Forgive because of mutual acceptance in Christ (v. 17). – Believers are to accept one another—flaws, failures, warts, and all. This is another implication of truly believing the gospel. In other words, the work of the gospel in a person’s heart will lead to accepting other believers. Paul makes this connection in Romans 15:7, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. Ephesians 1:6 teaches us that we have been accepted by God in Christ. Therefore, we must accept one another. This acceptance—a recognition that we are on equal standing before God—naturally leads to the practice of forgiveness.
Forgive and make restitution where necessary (vv. 18-19). – Perhaps Paul knew the runaway slave had stolen from his master before leaving and, therefore, was willing to repay it: if he owes you anything, charge that to my account. This is restitution, which is the act of making good or compensating for loss, or damage, or injury. This is rooted in Old Testament law (Numbers 5:5). “But,” you say, “that is Old Testament law. When we get saved, our slate is wiped clean and, therefore, there is no need to make restitution.” But forgiveness does not always eliminate the need for restitution when a person has been defrauded. A New Testament example of restitution is Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Paul’s legitimate offer to make things right with Philemon is a beautiful illustration of substitution. Paul was willing to pay the slave’s debt because that is what Jesus had done for him.
Forgive in order to bring spiritual refreshment (v. 20). – The word refreshed means to be refreshed from the innermost being, to give rest from labor. Believers who demonstrate the grace of forgiveness are like a refreshing spring in the lifeless desert of bitterness. As Philemon has been a spiritual refreshment to the hearts of other believers (v. 6), so Paul now calls upon him to do the same for him—by following his instruction and practicing biblical forgiveness.
Forgive as an act of obedience to God (v. 21). – Paul was confident that Philemon would honor the Lord and display gospel grace by being obedient. Forgiveness is a command for the believer in Christ. Jesus made this clear in his response to Peter: Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Forgive in order to maintain fellowship (vv. 22-24). Being confident of his release, Paul requested they be ready for him to visit. The men mentioned were various co-laborers and servants of Christ. Philemon enjoyed the fellowship of these believers, and now so did Onesimus. The body of Christ consists of redeemed sinners who daily battle against their sinful flesh. We will offend each other. We will sin against each other. But the ongoing practice of forgiveness—as an act of obedience to God and the outworking of genuine faith in the gospel—will maintain the fellowship we have in Christ.
Forgive from the wellspring of grace (v. 25). – God’s forgiveness flows from His grace (Romans 5:1-2). We are saved by grace, and must continue to live by grace. A fruit of this salvation will be a heart that is governed by the posture of forgiveness, which then leads to the practice of forgiveness. When we forgive others who have wronged us we proclaim the redemptive grace of God in a powerful way.
SOME FINAL, PERSONAL QUESTIONS
- Have you been forgiven by God? Have you repented and believed in Jesus Christ and, therefore, been cleansed and made new?
- Is there someone who has offended you, hurt you, sinned against you…whom you refuse to forgive? If so, what does this reveal about the reality of your faith in the gospel?
- Is there someone you have sinned against, but you have not made the effort to be reconciled?
What will you do today? This week? Who do you need to call, or write? Who will you visit? How will you walk in obedience to the gospel?
[Adapted from last Sunday’s sermon, “The Practice of Forgiveness.” Search on the title here.]
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED MINI-BOOK: HELP! I Can’t Forgive (Jim Newcomer)