“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7
We are looking today at the subject of forgiveness. To forgive a person who has hurt you deeply may be the greatest challenge you ever face and the greatest gift you ever give.
We began last week looking at the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We looked at what that means, and today we come to the question: How? How can I become a more merciful person? How can I become a more forgiving person? How can I cultivate more of this good fruit in my life?
I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who did not want to forgive. So, all of us know something about the struggle of forgiveness. I’m going to use the word “forgiveness” today, and it’s important to understand the relationship between forgiveness and mercy. Mercy is broader than forgiveness. Forgiveness goes further than mercy.
Mercy is broader than forgiveness. The good Samaritan had no need to forgive the man who was lying in the road. The wounded man had not wronged the Samaritan in any way. So mercy is broader than forgiveness.
Forgiveness goes further than mercy. Suppose someone hurts you, wrongs you, harms you… to be merciful means you have compassion on them. You have a tender heart towards them. Rather than return harm to them, you seek to do them good.
Do not repay evil for evil, but rather overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). That’s mercy, and forgiveness arises out of mercy. But forgiveness goes further, because it involves restoring a relationship. So, mercy is the path that leads to forgiveness.
Many people struggle with forgiveness. If a great wrong has been done to you—it is so severe that it seems to you that forgiveness is impossible—it is a mountain that you cannot climb. You may find yourself saying, “Forgiving sounds wonderful, but I have no idea how to get there.”
That’s what the message is about today. I want to show you from the Bible the path that leads to forgiveness. Follow mercy and you will get to forgiveness. But before we get there…
Forgiveness is a fruit of life in Christ who forgives
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7
Someone might say, “It sounds like forgiving other people is a means to an end.” Is Jesus saying, “If we forgive others, God will forgive us?” God’s forgiveness is never a reward for something we have done. It cannot be, because God forgives us freely.
Remember, the Beatitudes are not telling you how to become a Christian. They tell you what a true Christian looks like. They are not a map that says, “Go this way and you will get to a place where God forgives you.” They are not a map; they are a mirror that says, “Look at yourself and see if you have the marks of someone who has been forgiven.” Here’s the mark: Forgiven people are known by the way they forgive.
This is a distinguishing mark of all who are in Christ, which is why the Lord teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12).
How and When God Forgives
Think with me for a moment about how and when God forgives. God forgives
i. where wrong has been done
ii. when repentance begins
iii. because atonement has been made.
Now let’s take each of these in order.
1. God forgives where wrong has been done
If I were to say to you, “I forgive you,” you would reasonably say, “Whatever for? I haven’t done anything for you to forgive!” Forgiveness is only appropriate, it is only meaningful, when a wrong has been done.
When God forgives us, it means we’ve wronged him. Every sin in your life and mine is a personal offence against God. Saul of Tarsus was on a campaign in which he hurt people, and the risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Lewis Smedes says,
“Forgiveness always comes with blame attached.” 
Forgiveness can only happen when a wrong has been done. We have wronged God. Thank God, he forgives.
2. God forgives where wrong has been done, when repentance begins
The story of the prodigal son makes this clear. The son goes off on a journey of rebellion, and when he comes to his senses, he says to himself, “I will go to my father.”
The boy has a change of heart, and he begins the long journey home. He isn’t expecting much. He hopes that perhaps the father might take him on as a hired servant.
Remember what happens: The father sees him from a distance and runs out to meet him. Rather than wait, he runs to him. Why? God embraces us with mercy and forgiveness at the first sign of repentance.
Repenting is a process that every believer begins, but none of us completes in this life. Our repentance towards God is at best a small part of what it should be. Thank God, he forgives when our repentance begins, not when it is complete. Without this none of us would ever be forgiven.
But friends, remember this—there is no forgiveness without repentance. To people who rejected Him, Jesus said, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin” (John 8:21). The Bible never suggests that whatever we do, it will all be right for us in the end.
There is no forgiveness without repentance. Forgiveness is a priceless gift. It should always be placed by the one who forgives directly into the hand of the one who needs to be forgiven. It should be released where it will be received, but it should not be allowed to fall to the ground.
Jesus said: “Do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). This is important when we come to the question—how can I forgive someone who isn’t even sorry for what they have done? They don’t even recognize what they’ve done. They’ve taken no responsibility…
God does not forgive unrepentant sinners. He loves them, and that is what he calls us to do, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” Why does he say that? Because that’s the way God loves sinners.
God does not say, “Forgive your enemies.” He says, “Love them. Pray for them.” Because that is what God himself does. He laid down his life for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). You may say, “That sounds like arguing about words.” No, it is protecting the sacred truth that where there is forgiveness a relationship is restored.
You often hear Christians talk about “forgiving the unrepentant person.” They say “You must do it for your own sake, so your life is not controlled by another person.” But in asking you to forgive the unrepentant person, they’re asking you to do something that God himself never does, and in the process, they’re changing the nature of what repentance is. God’s forgiveness always effects a restored relationship.
Forgiveness involves the reconciling of two people—one who repents and the other who forgives. I believe, as a pastor, that it is a great mistake to tell people that they must forgive where there is no repentance. God forgives at the first sign of our repentance, and where forgiveness and repentance meet a relationship is restored. He does not say to us “Forgive your enemies.” He says to us, “Love your enemies.”
3. God forgives where wrong has been done, when repentance begins, because atonement has been made
There is a sense in which God is the only being in the universe who cannot forgive. For us who are sinners, it is reasonable to be indulgent, lenient, and forgiving towards others whose wrongs may not be very different from our own.
But God is holy. God sees sin in all the ugliness that it is. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Every time someone says, “I know God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself,” I want to ask: “Are you saying that it’s easier for God to forgive you, than it is for you to forgive yourself?” James Denny says:
If there should turn out, after all, to be such a thing as a Divine forgiveness of sins, we may be sure it will be such a forgiveness as carries the Divine condemnation and destruction of sin at the heart of it. 
That is precisely what we find at the cross. God’s forgiveness flows from the destruction and condemnation of sin in the atoning death of his Son, Jesus Christ, as he bore our sins at Calvary.
Whenever there is an injury, there will always be something in the human spirit that cries out, “What about justice?” The Christian answer is that justice has been poured out on Jesus. The cross makes forgiveness possible. God forgives where wrong has been done, when repentance begins, because atonement has been made.
Now this leads to our central question…
How can I get to forgiveness?
Imagine standing right next to a hurdle on a race track. You are right up against it. You can’t jump a hurdle from a standing start. It’s impossible. It can’t be done. You have to take a run at it.
This, to me, has been one of the most important things I have learned about the Christian life, and it is at the heart of our series. All progress in the Christina life is made by the momentum of our spiritual health.
Satan can get us so focused on one sin, one problem, one issue that we want to overcome. How do I get over my fear? How can I prevail over this lust? There you are, standing right next to the hurdle, and you can’t get over from that position. You have to begin further back, so you can get a run at it and get some momentum.
We have been learning this principle from the Beatitudes. You can’t begin with forgiving other people. You have to go back and begin with your own need to be forgiven. How’s that relevant? The very beginning is seeing my own need of forgiveness.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
Start mourning your own sins and you will be on the way to forgiving the sins of others.
As I began to reflect on what the Bible says about getting to the place where you can forgive, I realized that everything we need to know is brought together in Ephesians 4. The forgiveness is in verse 32, and how you get there begins in verse 30.
Six Strides Toward Forgiveness
- Remember that the Holy Spirit lives in you
“…the Holy Spirit by whom you were sealed.” Ephesians 4:30
Progress towards forgiveness begins here: The Spirit of God lives in you.
You may have experienced hurts and wounds that are incredibly hard to forgive, hurts that I know nothing about, hurts that are deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced. Here’s what you need to know: No one has had more to forgive than God.
Think how much God has had to forgive: Every sin you have ever committed is a sin against him. Each of these sins played a part in the awful suffering of God’s Son. That is true, not only of your sins, but of every sin of every believer who has ever lived.
Think how much God has had to forgive, and he has done it! And his Spirit lives in you!! When you look at an offense, and forgiveness seems impossible, take a step back, get some distance, and begin your run here.
- Don’t dwell on the injury
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger… be put away from you. Ephesians 4:31
Bitterness, wrath and anger all come from nursing a grievance. Someone has wronged you, and your mind keeps going over it, and over it, and over it again. All of us know about this in our own experience.
You keep thinking about it—how wrong it was, how hurtful it is. But every time you think about it, you are stoking a fire within your own soul of anger and bitterness.
Bitterness and anger are fires that need to be fed. Stop feeding them. When your mind goes back to that stuff, say to yourself, “There are better things to fill my mind with than this.”
With the help of the Holy Spirit, set your mind on something else—whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise. You have the power to do this if you are a Christian because God’s Spirit lives in you.
- Don’t fight and quarrel
Let… clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Ephesians 4:31
When a relationship is in trouble, fighting and quarreling over who did what or who said what can make it worse. “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel” (2 Timothy 2:24). Quarreling stokes the fire of bitterness and anger, putting you further from the forgiveness you’re trying to cultivate.
Put clamor and slander away from you: I am not to sit at the breakfast table, or go around talking to other people about what that person has done or about what a terrible person he or she is.
Put away all malice: Malice is the desire that the person who hurt you will get what they deserve.
These are the negatives, and they are very important. There are certain things that make forgiveness impossible. If you keep doing them you will not be able to forgive.
- Have compassion on the one who has hurt you
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted… Ephesians 4:32
This is especially important with a person who has wronged you and still has no idea what he or she has done. They’re completely unrepentant—they have not taken ownership. They have no sense of responsibility. They’re blind to what they’re doing, and to the pain they’re causing.
Well, if this person is blind, then you should have pity. When you see a person walking on the street who’s completely blind, do you want to run up and kick their cane away? No!
Jesus became the merciful, tender hearted, compassionate high priest he is through what he suffered (Hebrews 2:17). That means suffering can produce hardness of heart, but it can also produce great tenderness! Pain made him the kind of high priest that you can come to.
If you have experienced great pain through the sins of another person, if something can hurt this much, then use your pain as fuel for compassion.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were… like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). They didn’t even know they were lost! The person who has sinned against you may be just like that. Be kind to one another, tender hearted.
- Realize that you will need the forgiveness of others
Forgiving one another… Ephesians 4:32
God does not tell us here that we should forgive someone who has hurt us.
He says that we should forgive one another. What does that tell us? There will be things that you need to forgive in others, and you can be absolutely certain that there will be things that others need to forgive in you.
Here’s something that you will find to be true: It is impossible to say from the heart “Lord, have mercy on me,” and at the same, to refuse mercy to another person in your heart. Realizing your own need of continuing forgiveness will help you to take another stride towards forgiving.
- Savor your forgiveness in Christ
Forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you… Ephesians 4:32
God’s forgiveness is both the model of our forgiving and the motive of our forgiving. So, the Apostle draws our attention to the way in which we have been forgiven by God.
Think about how God has forgiven you. Turn this over in your mind. God has forgiven me in Christ. He did it gladly, freely and fully. This forgiveness us undeserved, it is irreversible, and it is eternal.
God has forgiven me in love and mercy, out of an agony of heart, shrouded in darkness at Calvary, and I will never fully understand that pain, even in all eternity.
Savor your forgiveness in Christ. Appreciate it. Enjoy it. Let this priceless gift of God that you have received move your heart to worship, wonder, love and praise. Forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.
Practice the six strides and…
your seventh will take you over the hurdle of forgiveness
Here’s what you do with regard to a person who has hurt you badly, and is completely unaware of what he or she has done: Take these six strides on the path of mercy, and you will be ready at any moment to forgive.
Forgiveness will already be in your freed heart, ready to be released. You will be ready to place it in the hands of the one who has wronged you when he or she is ready to receive the gift.
And this is how Jesus Christ is towards you today: Ready to forgive whatever in your life needs to be forgiven. He is kind and tender-hearted. He has compassion on you. His nail-pierced hands are stretched out towards you today. Whatever you see that needs to be forgiven, he is ready to forgive as you come to him.
If you believe that this is true, why would you not come to him in repentance today?
 Lewis Smedes, “The Art of Forgiving,” p. 85, Ballantine books, 1997
 James Denney, “The Way Everlasting,” p. 299, Hodder & Stoughton, 1911
© Colin S. Smith
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