Forgiveness of sins is freely given to all who come to Jesus. There are no prerequisites or hoops we have to jump through to receive this; we just accept him as king and we are forgiven. There are, however, certain requirements to remain in our newfound status of peace with God. Jesis is king, after all, and the king must be obeyed.
So what did Jesus say about forgiveness? He said if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from the heart, God won’t forgive you. This is no small matter—it could be the difference between your living for eternity in paradise in God’s presence and living forever away from him in the torment of eternal fire. So I would want to be completely sure that I had forgiven those who had sinned against me!
A tool I’ve found that helps me be sure I’ve truly forgiven someone is to begin to bless and pray for them out loud. If you find it difficult to do this, it is a sign that you haven’t fully forgiven them. That is, you are still holding something against them, because you don’t want good to come to them.
When I first recognize the need to forgive someone, I’ll say out loud something like, “I forgive ________, and I don’t hold anything against them, and I ask, Father in heaven, that you would forgive them.” Then if I don’t think of it again, that’s great! But if I do find myself stewing over how a certain person has hurt me, I will first reaffirm that I’ve forgiven them, and then I will pray for blessings on them: “Father in heaven, I ask that you would bless ________ and give him understanding of your ways. Please shine your light on him, and draw him to yourself. Please give him peace and bless his relationships and his family. Please prosper him in every way, heal him physically and let him excel in his work and give him favor!” If you find it burns a bit to pray this for the person, that’s a good sign that your heart needs to hear you say these things. Pray at least until that sense of bitterness or resentment is gone, and you genuinely want the person’s good.
Blessing others is also about what we say to them and about them. Always look for the good in people and speak about that. A person who is hateful towards you at work may also be a hard worker. Talk about that. Or someone who is deceitful towards others may have a soft heart for their children, and you can say to others that he or she is a good father or mother. Of course, as Thumper’s mother told him, “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say nothing at all.” I have often stood silently while others have criticized another person, and while I may not disagree with them, it’s wrong for me to say so. It creates an awkward moment, but more often than not helps to redirect the conversation, and this is part of being the salt of the earth.
Question: Do I need to forgive everyone, or only those who apologize or show remorse?
Jesus taught his followers, “when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25) The issue here is our own heart, not whether or not the person has repented or deserves to be forgiven. He also taught them to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:4) Jesus also modeled this while he was being killed on the cross: he prayed for those who were crucifying him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then in the book of Acts, Stephen, an outspoken follower of Jesus was being stoned to death because he said he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. As he was dying, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Question: What about serious cases of abuse or other offenses that are especially difficult to forgive?
As the above examples show, it is possible in Jesus, and should be our goal, to release our offenders from their guilt immediately for even the worst offenses. For most of us, we need to start by growing in our understanding of who God is: that he doesn’t want us to be hurt, but only wants good for us; that he doesn’t take our abuse or injury lightly; and that he is the ultimate judge and avenger of all who are oppressed. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thess. 1:6-8 ESV) We have a righteous and zealous God who is passionate about bringing justice for the poor and opressed. This foundational understanding of our God’s nature allows us to move on from our vain efforts to punish those who have hurt us, to trust him to bring perfect justice, and to begin to cry out for their restoration and forgiveness rather than their condemnation. In this way we begin to mirror Christ’s nature who did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)