Forgiveness is an easy word to say but a hard concept put into practice. Yet, when we are the guilty one and full of contrition, forgiveness is earnestly sought and cherished. Without such forgiveness from God we could only stand condemned of our sin and guilt. Hence Jesus taught us to pray "forgive us our debts" (Matt 6:12). In spite of the grievousness of our sins – we are to seek forgiveness through Christ. Regardless of the evil of our transgression, God will forgive if we would return to Him.*
It is interesting to me that coupled with the offer of forgiveness is the demand that we be forgiving. This occurs not once, but some 8 or more times in the NT. Jesus taught "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Mtt. 5:7). In praying for forgiveness he instructed us to add "as we forgive our debtors" (Mtt. 6:12). He added that "if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mtt. 6:15). Mark records this statement: "when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: THAT your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11:25). Luke writes that Jesus said: "be ye therefore merciful, as your father also is merciful…. Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:35-37). Paul demanded that we are to be "kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). He wrote to the Colossians that they were to be "forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Col. 3:13). That we are to be forgiving cannot successfully be refuted.
Peter asked a related question concerning this when he said" Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" (Matt. 18:21) While most people are still struggling with forgiveness at all, Peter has raised the stakes. Jesus' answer raises them even higher – 70 time 7. I understand this as figurative for as often as they seek such from you. Personally I have never had anyone seek such 490 times – nor do I think that the 491st time would allow me to be unforgiving. My conclusion comes from the story that Jesus attached to this statement – the story of the unmerciful slave. In my relationship to God I seek His forgiveness and am confident that I can find it -- whether 490 times, 491, or more. How often can I find forgiveness with God? How often then should I be forgiving?
Can such be done? Joseph was able to forgive his brothers – Gen. 45:5-15; 50:19-21. David found he was able to forgive Saul – 1 Sam. 24:10-12; 26:9, 23; 2 Sam. 1:14-17. Stephen could pray for mercy for those who stoned him – Acts 7:60. Jesus prayed for the Father to forgive those who crucified him – Luke 23:34. Yes, it can be done if I will. It MUST be done if I am to be forgiven.
A frequently asked question in this regard has to do with whether I must / can forgive a person BEFORE they have repented of their transgression. It seems to me that Jesus addressed this question when he said "Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4). Forgiveness involves more than kind feelings and benevolent actions. Forgiveness is the dismissing of the wrong – the restoring of the offender to the position of innocence. It involves no longer charging him with the sin. It includes the refusal of bringing up the error for renewed consideration. It would seem to me that if I actually did all of the this before a person repented that I would defeat the rest of the teaching concerning my responsibilities towards those who sin. If I forgive them, what right would I have to bring it up and rebuke them? Yet, I am to rebuke those who sin against me. If I have forgiven them, how can I then bring it up to encourage their repentance? Yet, I must encourage those who sin against me to repent. If I have forgiven them, why would I need to take 2 or three with me and confront him about it – or latter to tell it to the church and withdraw myself from associating with him? Yet, that is precisely what I must do with those who have sinned against me. In addition to the above, we could point out that to actually forgive before they repent is something that God doesn't do. We are to 'forgive AS God forgives'…which is to require repentance (Acts 17:30; Luke 13:3; 2 Pet. 3:9).
However, as long as we are speaking about forgiving AS God forgives, perhaps it is good to stop and consider God's attitude toward us while we are 'getting around to repenting'. First, while God has not forgiven us of the sin, yet He is not willing for us to perish – that is, He is seeking our salvation and not our condemnation. God is not pleased in the destruction of the wicked – but in His holiness such will happen to those who persist in their rebellion against Him. In like manner, I must desire the salvation of those who have sinned against me. I cannot rejoice in their destruction. I must pray for them in this matter. In this regard I am to 'love my enemies' and 'pray for them who spitefully use me'. Even though I haven't forgiven them, I am to treat them in such a manner that will bring about their repentance and the opportunity for me to forgive. In their sin and rebellion I cannot allow myself to harbor anger, wrath, and bitterness against them. I must be seeking their repentance and reconciliation even as God has sought mine. While they may refuse all such offers of mercy I must not allow myself to become the stumbling block to them. To hold forth God's commandments and requirements of righteousness is right, but to demand more than that is to stand condemned. There is only ONE lawgiver – I can't demand more or less than God. Let me be merciful unto others as He is merciful to me. Let me seek a forgiving spirit even has He has towards me. Let me be tenderhearted towards others as He has been tenderhearted towards me. Let me forgive them even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven me.
*Such returning to God for those who are not Christians involves believing that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 16:16; John 8:24), repenting of our sins (Luke 24:44f), making the good confession of our belief (Rom. 10:9-10), and being baptized (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38). For us that are Christians and have sinned against God we are repent (Acts 8: ), confess our sins, and pray for forgiveness (Acts 8: ).