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Lesson 1 - The Nature of Forgiveness and Repentance

The Nature of Reality

To be a human is to live in a universe, created by God, to be a reflection of his own nature. So, to know how to live we need also to ask: what is God like? This is perhaps a strange question to ask, when God is the source of everything. So, the question that we should really be asking is what is everything else like, with God as the reference. However, either way we need an understanding of God's nature in order to understand ourselves and others.

God is One! God is Three! Implied in these two statements is the truth that God is relationship. Not just IN a relationship, but actually IS a relationship. The person of the Godhead, and the members of the Godhead, relate to each other and to themselves in perfect knowledge, understanding, intimacy, vulnerability, interdependence, selflessness and love.

The physical universe and all of its creatures come from God, and reflect his glory. So, they exist in a harmony that depends on and is sourced by the harmonious love relationship within the Godhead.

The universe holds together and functions by means of laws established by God - the laws of physics and chemistry, some of which we know and some which are still to be discovered, the laws of the mind, the laws of society, and the laws of the spiritual realm.

If any of those laws are violated in any way, great or small, there will be consequences. If you decide that the law of gravity does not apply to you and you try to fly from a high place, you will fall and hurt yourself. If you defy the laws of logic and rationality it is likely that you will find yourself with a mess on your hands. If you ignore societal laws you will likely find yourself in an embarrassing or even dangerous situation. If you declare that God's spiritual laws are wrong you just might "wake up one morning and find yourself dead", as the joke goes.

It makes sense, then, to find out which of the laws have greatest effect in our lives, and discover how to best cooperate with those laws. If the nature of God and of creation are fundamentally based in relationship, then it follows that anything that affects our relationships is crucial to living well.

The human has a special place within the reality described above, in that we are the only beings actually created in the image of God, designed above all other parts of creation to mirror God's glory back to him. This means, among other things, that good relationships will be even more important to our wellbeing than for any of the other creatures. It is for this reason that God's revelation of himself to humanity, throughout history, his written word, and pre-eminently through Jesus Christ, focuses so strongly on the producing and protecting of good relationships.

Of course, since sin entered the world through the Fall, then relationships are inevitably under stress and will often break. For this reason, God has provided a mechanism by which broken and unhealthy relationships may be repaired. This mechanism is centred around the notions of repentance and forgiveness.

Forgiveness in the BIG Picture

The most important relationship that God has to restore and protect is that between himself and us. It is so important that it cost everything God had to bring us back to himself. That cost included God taking the results of the broken relationship onto himself. As Andy Stanley says in the History video series - "How did God show his glory to the traitor race? He came and rescued us!"

Jesus - God the Son - came to earth as a baby; lived a life that demonstrated to humanity what relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit really looks like; died to pay the cost that sin and broken relationship had wrought upon the world; rose from the dead with a changed body that showed what truly restored human existence should be like and established the possibility of that for all who wanted it; ascended to the Father to intercede for us; and also returned to live within each of us as a token and the empowering of the very relationship that was broken in the first place.

In other words, God forgave us! He forgave us for rebelling against our Creator and going our own way. What is required of us in return, for this transaction to have any reality in our lives? First, to receive his forgiveness, on the terms that he established as necessary - the willingness to allow Jesus to be our Lord and Saviour, thereby acknowledging that he is our Creator. In answer to the question, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:28,29). In other words, to say "Yes" to what God has done. Peter told Cornelius, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he (Jesus) is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:42,43). Second, as we heard Ken Fish say at a Vineyard conference in the 1990s - "Be like God - forgive!" It's his nature, and it should therefore become ours.

What is Forgiveness?

In Wikipedia we find the following definition:

Forgiveness is the process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. This definition, however, is subject to much philosophical critique. Forgiveness may be considered simply in terms of the person who forgives, in terms of the person forgiven and/or in terms of the relationship between the forgiver and the person forgiven. In some contexts, it may be granted without any expectation of compensation, and without any response on the part of the offender (for example, one may forgive a person who is dead). In practical terms, it may be necessary for the offender to offer some form of acknowledgment, apology, and/or restitution, or even just ask for forgiveness, in order for the wronged person to believe they are able to forgive.

Another definition: "Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves." (Simon, Sidney and Suzanne, Sidney and Suzzane Simon, Forgiveness: healing of wounds by confronting the past)

It is important to understand what forgiveness is NOT! Proverbs 17:15 says, "Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent - the Lord detests them both". Forgiveness is not: denying the past ever happened; denying our anger and hurt; trying to forget what happened; saying that what happened was unimportant; finding someone to blame.

So often when forgiveness is taught in the church it is in the context of God forgiving a sinner. Less commonly is the connection between God forgiving us and our forgiving others made, despite the very clear statements in Jesus' model prayer and elsewhere:

"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12 NIV)

Some versions have sin instead of debts, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer uses trespasses instead of debts.

"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:25)

"Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).'" (Matthew 18:21-22)

At the conclusion of this parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus says:

"In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:34-35)

Though there are numerous theories about how it is achieved, the most common understanding of God's forgiveness is that it is through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus at his crucifixion. The process is called atonement, derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'a making at one' or bringing those who are estranged into a unity (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p 147). Sin is serious (Isaiah 59:2; Proverbs 15:29; Habakkuk 1:13), all have sinned (1 Kings 8:46; Psalm 14:3; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Mark 10:18; Romans 3:23), and no human is able to deal with it (Numbers 3:23; Proverbs 20:9; Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16), hence the need for a Saviour.

The way God appointed in the Old Testament was through the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb. Death was clearly the penalty for sin (Ezekiel 18:20), but God's love allowed for the substitution of a lamb. The atonement was not due to any value inherent in the victim, but through its death, because blood must be shed. Later the writer to the Hebrews makes this clear: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Hebrews 9:22)

Such atonement was only temporary, and pointed forward to the complete, perfect and permanent sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, at the beginning of the New Testament era.

Many are the theological debates which take place regarding whether or not God is so holy that he can't cope with sin, or so vengeful that he'd rather kill his own Son than let someone get away with wrongdoing. We believe that such arguments miss the whole point. It is too easy to approach God from an Old Testament Hebrew viewpoint, and forget that the Old Testament clearly reveals that the Israelites themselves, the writers of the Old Testament, had a distorted understanding of God, hence their constant falling into sin and needing to be rescued. The more complete revelation through Jesus, as recorded by New Testament writers and experienced by believers today, makes the events of the Old Testament and the love and grace of God revealed there understandable in a way that was completely beyond the vast majority of people of that time. Only a few, such as Moses, Elijah, Elisha, David, and numerous judges, kings and prophets, had more than a glimpse of the constant striving of God to keep his people from destroying themselves.

For this is what it is all about - the destruction we wreak on our selves, our families, friends and loved ones, our relationships, our societies, and our world because of our unstoppable propensity to sin. It is not about God's wrath, or God's need to demonstrate his holiness. God has nothing to prove! It is about God working out his purposes for creating us so that he might bring many sons - and daughters - to glory (Hebrews 2:10). To paraphrase Jesus' cry from the cross, "Father, you will have to provide the means of forgiveness, because they really have no idea what it is they are doing!" (Luke 23:34)

The Forgiveness of God, the Forgiveness of Others

Our emphasis so far has been on God forgiving us. However, when we realise the effect that one person's sin has on others, not just on themselves, we must agree that forgiving others is just as important.

Jesus' model prayer includes the words, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:12 NIV) Jesus goes on to explain, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15) He linked anger with murder, and stressed the importance of seeking forgiveness from the one we have wronged before bringing our offering to the Lord. (Matthew 5:21-24)

God does not withhold his forgiveness from those who do not forgive as a punishment for their unforgiveness. Rather, it is a law of the universe - a necessary consequence of the way God created the world - that one who does not forgive can not receive forgiveness. This may be explained in various ways, but if you realise that refusal to forgive is an action that sets us diametrically against God's purpose that we grow to be more like him (in other words, it is sin), and if you are familiar with the concept of sin giving demons legal rights to act in a person's life, then it begins to become clear.

The Need for Forgiveness

Peter Horrobin, of Ellel Ministries says, "We have probably seen more healing and deliverance take place through applying the principles of forgiveness than through any other spiritual discipline." (Healing through deliverance, Vol.2, p. 40)

Unforgiveness causes more soul-sickness and dis-ease in individuals, families and communities than any other attitude of heart - true forgiveness is the key to healing. The character of God is to forgive. (Exodus 34:6,7a; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5-7,15,16; Psalm 103:2-13; Daniel 9:9) We have already seen that if we are in need of forgiveness, we block God's voice, our prayers are hindered and healing is delayed. (Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 59:2; James 5:16) If we hold unforgiveness this is sin, and we cannot be forgiven by God.

The Sandfords teach that there are immutable laws of the spiritual realm:

As you judge so will you be judged. (Matthew 7:1)

The law of sowing and reaping. (Hosea 8:7; 2 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 6:7-8)

The law of increase, by which means a small number of seeds planted can produce a bountiful harvest - life begetting life, blessing producing more blessing - but which also means you not only reap what you sow, but you reap it bigger!

If we sow judgement we will reap judgement. If we sow blessing we will reap blessing. If we sow unforgiveness, we will reap unforgiveness. Unforgiven sin in our lives gives the devil legal rights to harm us.

In case we thought forgiveness is optional, Jesus and other New Testament writers make it very clear, as we saw above, that it is essential.

Matthew 18:21-35 "> - Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

"When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Mark 11:25-26 - "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins."

Luke 6:27-38 - "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

Luke 17:3-4 - "So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."

John 20:23 - "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

2 Corinthians 2:7 - "Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow."

Ephesians 4:30-32 - "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."

Colossians 3:12-13 - "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."

1 Peter 3:9 - "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing."

Forgiveness is not an option - unforgiveness imprisons us. It is sin and therefore gives grounds to Satan to have a place in our life. The Greek word used for 'tormentors' (jailers) in Matthew 18:34 translates as inquisitor, torturer, one who brings pain, toil, torment, who harasses and distresses, who tosses and vexes with grievous pains of body or mind.

We have found that in most ministry situations there will be need of forgiveness - either towards another for offences committed against the person receiving prayer, or from God, which involves repentance on behalf of the person receiving prayer. All worthwhile prayer ministry leads to forgiveness - forgiveness for sins, forgiveness of others, forgiveness of our wrong reactions, forgiveness of ourselves and forgiveness for our failure to accept God's faithfulness and purpose in our lives. (Romans 8:28-39; Hebrews 13:5b,6)

Jesus demonstrated unconditional forgiveness (Luke 23:33,34; 1 Peter 2:21-23). The grace of forgiveness comes to us through the work of Gethsemane and Calvary and both need to be experienced in the hearts of those needing to forgive.

What is Repentance?

Repentance is one of the six foundation doctrines mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-3. When John came to prepare the way for Jesus he called for the people to repent, something the Old Testament prophets had called for persistently. Jesus took up this theme and sent out the disciples with the same message (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 6:12). After his resurrection he told those on the Emmaus road that repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47). Repentance is essential for forgiveness. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness. In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus pronounced judgement on those cities which did not repent in spite of the miracles through which he had demonstrated his kindness.

In Wikipedia we find the following definition:

Repentance is a change of thought and action to correct a wrong and gain forgiveness from the one wronged. In religious contexts it usually refers to confession to God, ceasing sin against Him, and resolving to live according to His law. It always includes an admission of guilt, and also includes at least one of: a solemn promise or resolve not to repeat the offense; an attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong where possible.

The idea of repentance in Biblical Hebrew is conveyed by two verbs: ??? (shuv - to return) and ??? (nicham - to feel sorrow), while in the New Testament, the word translated as 'repentance' is the Greek word ???????? (metanoia), with two parts, 'meta' meaning after, which implies change, and 'noia' coming from the word meaning 'mind'. "after/behind one's mind", which means 'to think differently after'; a change of mind accompanied by regret and change of conduct, a "change of mind and heart". So repentance is a 'change of mind (after)' - after hearing the Word and being touched by the Holy Spirit.

This is well demonstrated by the account of the day of Pentecost. Peter's preaching brought conviction of the enormity of the sin of murdering Jesus, whom God had made both Lord and Christ. In response to the people's question,

"Brothers what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37-41).

Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call."

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Their repentance was demonstrated by a turning from their sins, which were forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ, accepting his message and being baptised.

One of the best depictions of repentance in the New Testament is the parable Jesus told of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

About repentance, Ed Roebert says,

The word means more than being sorry for what one has done, although this always accompanies real repentance. It also means more than to stop sinning, although every repentant person will deliberately stop sinning. In essence, repentance is a right about turn involving part of a person, their minds, their emotions, and their wills. It is a total change of life, a total change of direction, it is becoming a totally new person... It is an on-going response to the Holy Spirit, resulting in a life of constant fellowship with the Lord. Repentance brings us into the family of God and it also keeps us in an intimate relationship with the Father... In order to experience real Holy Spirit-inspired repentance, it is vitally important to allow the Holy Spirit time. Time to show us our sins. Time to show us ourselves. Time to show us our desperate need of Jesus. Time to show us that Jesus is able to meet our every need. (Explaining repentance, pp. 11,48,51)

The word relates both to someone coming to faith in Jesus needing to repent of their sin and rebellion, as well as the believer's need for personal repentance when seeking the Lord for his forgiveness for reactive sins as well as the need for forgiveness of deliberate sins.

We need to repent for our sin. In Acts 2:23,37-39, Peter told his listeners about Jesus, and their responsibility for his death.

"This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross."

Peter said they should repent, which they did, as we saw earlier.

We need to recognise that some people have been so wounded and blamed as children they are inclined to feel guilty and take all the blame themselves. Ask the Holy Spirit to give them a clear understanding of sins for which they need to repent, and those things for which another is responsible.

Repentance is more than saying the words, "I'm sorry." Being sorry because of the pain our sin has caused us will be inadequate too. We need deep repentance or the sin can still resurface. Job's response to God's revelation of himself was, "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:6) "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret." (2 Corinthians 7:10). As we see what our sin has done to Jesus, what pain and suffering was his, our hearts should break that we sin so easily. The cost of our forgiveness was the death of Jesus. How then can we withhold forgiveness from another? "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21) It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us to repentance so we are willing to bring to death those structures which continue to foster sin in us.

Repentance is not a feeling; it is action. It will not effect much change to feel sorry. Change happens in relationships only as the cycle of hatred is broken and transformed by the stimuli of love. Change can happen only in individuals, one by one, in relationships. Change happens in individuals only as these structures which stimulate wrong actions and which respond to them are crucified on the cross. Without that crucifixion, battle scenes will be repeated in endlessly varied forms. (Transformation of the inner man, p. 108)

As Rikk Watts has said, "The completeness of Jesus' death for all our sins, past, present and future, is what gives us freedom to live the abundant life he promised. The pressure is off, because we know we will not be condemned. Should we fail and sin we are not condemned, but encouraged to try again because Jesus died for that sin too." (The Bible for Today's Church, Whitley College School of Ministry, August 2008)

Conclusion

Clearly, forgiveness is an essential part of the life of every follower of Jesus, as is the need for repentance without which the receiving of forgiveness is not possible. Neither is an optional extra.

Resource Sheet 1 - Scriptures regarding forgiveness and repentance has been included as a by no means exhaustive list of Bible references for your further study of this topic.

In our next lesson we will examine the relationship between forgiveness and repentance and the consequences of their application in different areas of life.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • American Psychological Association. Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results. September, 2006.
  • Augsburger, David, Caring enough to forgive: true forgiveness. Ventura, Ca: Regal Books, 1981.
  • Bingham, Geoffrey C., Angry heart or tranquil mind? Blackwood, SA: New Creation Publications, 1991.
  • Dennett, Bill and Jo Anne, Unusual marriage: the story of Bill Dennett and Dr Jo Anne Ader. Adel, SPCK, 2006.
  • Douglas, J. D. et. al (eds.), The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part I. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980, pp 147-150
  • Giglio, Louis and Stanley, Andy, History. Roswell, GA: 268Store, 2005.
  • Horrobin, Peter J., Healing through deliverance: vol. 2 - the practical ministry. Chichester: Sovereign World, 1995.
  • Roebert, Ed, Explaining repentance. Chichester, W Sussex: Sovereign World, 1991.
  • Sandford, John and Paula, Norm Bowman, Choosing forgiveness. Lake Mary, Florida: Charisma House, 2007.
  • Sandford, John and Paula, The transformation of the inner man, Tulsa, OK: Victory House Inc, 1979.
  • Sandford, John and Paula, Transforming the inner man. Lake Mary, Fla: Charisma House, 2007.
  • Simon, Sidney and Suzanne, Forgiveness: healing of wounds by confronting the past. In Lotus Magazine, Issue 1 Fall 1991, p. 7.
  • Watts, Rikk E., The Bible for Today's Church, Whitley College School of Ministry, August 2008.
  • Wikipedia, Atonement. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement
  • Wikipedia, Forgiveness. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgiveness
  • Wikipedia, Repentance. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repentance