Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven

From a Roman prison cell Paul wrote a short letter to be hand delivered to a Christian brother. The recipient was Philemon, and the deliverer was his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul could refer to Onesimus as “my child. . . whose father I became in my imprisonment” (v. 10) because this slave became a child of God by faith. As Paul discipled this new believer, his heart was knit to that of Onesimus. This young believer was of great encouragement and service to Paul, but Paul knew that Onesimus needed to be returned to and reconciled with Philemon. On his behalf, Paul writes to Philemon to receive back on brotherly terms this one who had run away.

While it is easy to harbor a hurt and resentment, it is our duty, our “glory to overlook an offense” (Prov 19:11). If we withhold forgiveness, we put a basket over our light. Nothing causes our testimony to shine brighter than when we forgive for Christ’s sake. Onesimus had an opportunity to show obedience to the Lord by returning to the one he robbed by running away. Philemon had an opportunity to show the forgiveness of the Lord. Paul had an opportunity to lead both men to be more Christ-like.

Onesimus had not a farthing to restore him to Philemon. Philemon could not begin to pay Paul for the spiritual debt he owed him. Paul could very easily have pressured Philemon to do him a favor, but instead he tenderly leads Philemon to the high principle of forgiving one who owed him so much.

It could be said of all of us that we have a debt that we could not pay. No one is more in debt than a sinner is to God for sending Jesus to die in our place. Like Onesimus, we were in no position to contribute anything to change our status before God. Whether someone has defrauded you or maligned you, you are not owed as much as you owe your gracious God for salvation.

Our heavenly Father, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, gives total, glorious forgiveness. We have no right to give anything less than complete forgiveness. Paul instructed the church at Colossae, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). The standard we are to live by is very high and does not change. We cannot seek what we are not willing first to give (Matt 6:14).

When we show mercy we promote unity. When we forgive beyond what is commonly seen in the world, forgiving as often as someone wrongs us (Matt 18:21), then we show we value true fellowship more than anything and want the focus to be on Christ.

Instead of demanding justice or compensation, the Christian practices compassion in light of the great grace shown to us while a sinner with nothing to offer.

To refuse to forgive someone who has wronged you is to declare that you are not forgiven and changed by God, or else that you have been forgiven your sins by God, but are asking for chastening for not obeying the commandment of God. But to forgive as Christ forgave you is to give a clear testimony to the One who redeemed you.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).

April/May 2010

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