RPM, Volume 18, Number 42, October 9 to October 15, 2016

Forgiving Like God

Ephesians 4:32

By D. Marion Clark


Three hundred years ago the English poet Alexander Pope wrote an essay as a long poem. It is an essay on literary criticism that no one but English literature specialists would have an interest in reading, but it yielded three proverbs still widely quoted. See if you recognize them:

"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
"To err is human; to forgive, divine"

Our text helps us to understand that last line.


Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Verse 32 brings to an end a chapter rich with teaching about the church and the individual Christian life. The first three chapters of Ephesians form one glorious doxology extolling the riches we have received in Christ Jesus. Chapter 4 addresses the question of "How then shall we live?" We are to walk in a manner worthy of such a calling.

The chapter then lays out what such a walk consists of. We are to walk in humility and gentleness, with patience and forbearing with one another in love. We are to be eager to maintain unity that is founded on seven pillars of truth. We are to exercise in the church the bountiful gifts given to us by Christ so that we build up the body of Christ until we attain unity of the faith and of knowledge of Christ, maturing and becoming like him and building up one another in love.

As Christians we are to be distinctly different from our former way of life as unbelievers. And so in Christ we put off the old self and put on the new self that makes us to be more and more like him. Such a life is marked by speaking truth, by self-control, by honest labor, and by building up others. In other words, it is marked by being grace givers.

Our verse presents three character traits that we are to now possess: to be kind, to be tenderhearted, to be forgiving. These are traits not gifts. As individuals who have been "created after the likeness of God" (cf v. 24), these are traits that identify us as chips off the old block. All three traits are worthy of examination, but we are going to focus on the third — forgiving one another.

When the Apostle Paul lists this third trait, he adds a furthering thought. We are to be forgiving one another "as God in Christ forgave you." "God in Christ forgave you." Let's examine this phrase carefully.

First, "God in Christ forgave you." Some of us may have a great sense of our sins, and some not so great. What matters is how God regards us as sinners. Romans 3:9-18 depicts us in our sinful state:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one."
13 "Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive."
" The venom of asps is under their lips."
14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."
15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known."
18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."

It sounds harsh; nevertheless, this is the perspective of the one true Judge. And it is that sin in us, in all of its vileness, that God forgives. Think about it. We have broken every commandment of God - every one. We have committed idolatry, adultery, theft, and murder. Scripture depicts us as rebels against God, even as his enemies. Our righteous acts are as filthy rags in God's sight. And so we must ask ourselves — What sin then has been committed against us that we cannot forgive?

Second, God in Christ forgave you. Again, we may have our own concepts of what God is like, but what does Scripture say? Perhaps the best single illustration is found in Isaiah 6, where Isaiah comes into the presence of God.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

He is the Holy God who cannot abide sin, indeed, who because he is holy must destroy sin and whatever sin taints. This is the God who has forgiven us. Who then are we that we would withhold forgiveness?

Third, God in Christ forgave you. What is it to forgive? For God it is to forget.

"I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isaiah 43:25).

"For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:34).

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:18-19).

Our sins are forgotten. Forgotten! We lie in bed, we pause in the middle of the day, at any time the guilt of a past sin strikes us. We ache from the hurt we caused; we feel the shame of folly; we mourn what we have lost. We cannot forget. But God does. When he forgives, he forgets. He does not hold our sin over us. Why then would we hold the sins of our brothers and sisters over them? Why would we refuse to forgive and to forget?

Finally, most significantly, God in Christ forgave you. You know the story of Abraham, who after twenty-five years of waiting was granted the son that God had promised. One day that same God gave Abraham a heart-wrenching command — to sacrifice his son on an altar. Abraham took his son, his only son whom he loved, and traveled three days to a mountain.

7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father!" And he said, "Here am I, my son." He said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, "The LORD will provide"
(Genesis 22:7-14).

God did provide an offering — not a ram, not a beast, not any created being, but his Son, his only Son whom he loved. He did not withhold his Son; he did not stay his hand. There, on Mount Calvary he gave his Son to make atonement for our sins. In Christ, through the sacrifice of his Son, God forgave our sins. If God would make such a sacrifice for us, what greater sacrifice do we think we are making in order to forgive?

Forgiveness is what God has done for us, what Jesus Christ gave his life for. It is why the Holy Spirit is at work in us now — to make us know forgiveness for ourselves and to extend it to others. Will you not give what you have so graciously received?


Forgiveness is difficult. We want to protest.

"But God, if you only knew what he had done to me."
"But if you only knew how ruthless she has been."
"If you only knew…"

But, as we just studied, God knows the worse about us and nevertheless forgave us. It takes the wind out of our argument. We feel like it is pointless to even present our complaint.

This whole idea of having God our Father and Christ our Brother as our models to follow can be suffocating. And it is all through the scriptures. In this letter to the Ephesians, the apostle keeps bringing it up. We are to be holy like God: "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:24). We are to love like Christ: "walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (5:2).

Anyone who has taken Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seriously knows the unreachable standard of conduct that it presents. In the midst of it, after commanding us to love our enemies, he summarizes the code of conduct he is presenting: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

How then can we turn to a perfect Father or to a perfect Brother for understanding? When we have been hurt, how can we turn to someone who can simply reply, "I've been sinned against much more often and in much greater ways than you, and I have forgiven"? We can, because our Father and our Brother understand what we go through.

Psalm 103 celebrates, among other things, the Lord's forgiveness of our sins. And he does so because he understands our frailty.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust
(vv. 13-14).

Yes, our Father understands how difficult it is to keep his commandments. Because he is sinned against, he knows how his children struggle with being sinned against. And it is because he is our Father that he instructs and disciplines us to be forgivers. We who are parents understand this. It is precisely because we love our children and understand the struggle to walk righteous and loving lives, that we do not bend in training them to walk the right path.

If we can look to our Father for understanding, all the more we can look to our Brother, our Lord Jesus Christ. There is what seems an odd statement about God's Son in Hebrews. In Hebrews 5:8, it says that Jesus "learned obedience." Learned? Had he not obeyed before? The full clause is that Jesus "learned obedience through what he suffered." Yes, the Son was always obedient to the Father, but it was not until his incarnation — when he was made like us — that he experienced what it is to obey in the flesh through suffering. That education is what made him to "become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Hebrews 2:17-18).

What does this mean for you? It means that when you are sinned against and you go to your Father, he will listen to you. He might even sympathize with you. The psalmists, especially David, felt that he did. But he will always direct you to what is right to do, not what feels good to do. And when you go to your Brother Jesus Christ, he will respond that he understands the suffering, the pain. But he will also remind you that he bore the same pain and yet did his Father's will. He may sympathize, but he also will always direct you to do what is right before his Father.

And that is good, isn't it? To know that you can turn to one who will provide you the comfort you may need but always guide you to do what is right. How many times have we wished that we had been given the right counsel especially when we could not think straight because of our anger and hurt. How comforting it is that as I grieve I can know my Father's kindness, but as my grief turns to vengeful hate, his kindness will turn to rebuke. I need that. And it does help to know that he can remind me that he who is holier than I, who has been sinned against more greatly by me, nevertheless has forgiven me at great cost. It helps to hear from my Brother that though he has suffered more greatly than I, nevertheless understands my pain, nevertheless will not excuse me to give in to sin. I need both that understanding and that discipline.

And here is what gives us hope to have the power to forgive or follow any commandment. We have been made new creatures in Christ Jesus. The bumper sticker is wrong, the one that says, "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven." Give praise to God that it is wrong. Just forgiven? We remain the same? No! The Holy Spirit has entered us. He has caused us to be reborn in Jesus Christ, so that we truly are members of God's family. And as new creatures in Christ, as members of the family of God, we have within us the same spiritual genes as our Father and as our Brother, so that to be told to be like them is not an empty saying.

Our positive-thinking, self-esteem idolizing culture likes to repeat over and over the mantra, "You can be anything you want to be." We cannot. If such were true, I would have been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame many years ago. Perhaps if I had devoted myself to practice, I could have outshot Michael Jordan at the free throw line. But I could never have jumped like Mike, be as quick as Mike, be as tall as Mike, or handle a basketball like Mike. It is not in me.

But to be kind? To be tenderhearted? To be forgiving? As tough as such traits may be to develop, they are nevertheless in me and in you because of the Holy Spirit's regenerating work in us. We can forgive others. Yes, even so and so, who still makes you so angry to think about. We can be those who are forgiving others because we have not only been forgiven ourselves but have been made new in Christ to be like Christ.

I have been speaking as to a people who have called on the name of Jesus Christ for forgiveness, to those who have been convicted of their sin and have turned in faith to Jesus for salvation. This is a culture that frowns upon such feelings and actions. We not only can be what we want to be, we have nothing to be ashamed of. But you know better. It is shame that keeps you from admitting your sins. It is pride that keeps you from admitting that you need forgiveness or salvation.

But should you grow tired of having to deny even to yourself your need for forgiveness and redemption, know that God the Father will not be reluctant to forgive and that Jesus Christ his Son will not be ashamed to be called your Brother. To be forgiven — forgiven of everything: the sins of the past that shame you, the sins of the present that frustrate you, even the sins of the future that worry you. It can be yours if you but repent and turn to your Savior. And not only forgiveness, but you can receive a new life that gives you the power to forgive.

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