Forgiving others and the Gospel

Forgiving each other must be based on the penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. This may sound simple to you. This may sound counterintuitive to you. It may even sound crazy, odd, foolish. But any true and lasting forgiveness between people must be Gospel centred. I remember from my time as a High School teacher breaking up a fight on the playground. I’m sure if you have ever had children, or been involved in working with them, this scene will sound familiar. But there they stood, two young men, seething with anger. When I asked what had happened one said, “it’s his fault.” Quick as a flash the other shouted back “no it isn’t. It’s his fault.” Then, after having to separate the pair again, we discussed the problems and managed to get to the bottom of it. We talked through feelings, hurts and pains, shook hands and the boys accepted each other’s apologies. I let them go, and things looked positive. Moments later I heard some shouting and banging in the corridor. Walking outside, the apology and forgiveness was short lived, and the boys where fighting again. Forgiveness is not easy!

Some suggest that penal substitution, in which Christ pays for the sins of people, is incompatible with discussions around forgiveness and reconciliation between individual people.[1] If we revisit the  work of Timothy Gorringe, he suggests that these two concepts are impossible to harmonise.[2] Also, not all Christians when considering the practical side of Christianity find value in penal substitution. One example that has drawn much attention and praise is South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” headed up by Desmond Tutu, and other works such as “The Forgiveness Project”. The following quote from Tutu highlights the nature of the problem that needs to be addressed.

“To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger. However, when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.”[3]

We see here a respected Church Leader talking about forgiveness and reconciliation, not in terms of the work of Christ or his substitutionary death, its efficacy and effect upon our lives. Rather, Desmond Tutu focusses on self-help, self-improvement and being a “better person.” But that is not how the Bible envisions forgiveness between people. Not even close.

Ephesians 4:32

  Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you

In this verse we see how penal substitution does not primarily describe a model for how we are to punish, but how we are to forgive and show grace when injustice is committed against us.[4] Unforgiveness is one of the hardest, heaviest burdens to carry. I remember looking through into the eyes of someone close to me, as they said through tears, “I can never forgive him for that.” I remember another pastoral situation where a dear friend said to me, “Tom, I know I’m a Christian and I should forgive them, but I just can’t.” I remember in my own heart carrying around a pain about some of the decisions the leaders of the denomination I used to be a part of where making. But, one day, I realised my frustration with the denomination had turned into anger, and my anger had turned into sin. As I realised that, this verse from Ephesians 4 came into my mind, and I was reminded of my need to forgive. As I forgave, a deep sense of freedom and peace came over me, and I could only turn then to praise Jesus. Hallelujah. We are all moved, I’m sure, by staggered stories of forgiveness. Corrie Ten Boom forgiving the Nazi concentration camp guard.[5] Elizabeth Elliott being moved in love to go as a missionary to the same people who killed her husband. These are, of course, dwarfed in comparison to the ultimate act of forgiveness, as the Son of God himself cried out on the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[6]

When we begin to study Ephesians, we find that Ephesians 4 and 5 is simply full of practical, pastoral commands from God to the Church. Simply to work through Ephesians 4:18-5:12 we are encouraged over and over again in practical ways. We should speak the truth with our neighbour,[7] not let anger turn into sin,[8] stop ourselves from corrupting talk,[9] not grieve the Holy Spirit,[10] get rid of bitterness and a whole host of other negative traits,[11] be kind and forgiving,[12] get rid of sexual immorality and crude jokes,[13] and not be a party to “the unfruitful works of darkness”.[14] Certainly, the key verse of Ephesians 4:32 makes the motivation of “why” we should do these things. We should forgive others just as “God in Christ forgave you”.[15] Importantly, the word forgiveness in Ephesians 4:32 is the same word as the word “grace” in English.[16] Paul is saying to the Ephesians here, show grace to people just as grace has been shown to you in what Christ has done. Now, anyone who has read Ephesians will know that Paul has much to say about grace in the letter. The two most pressing are instances are Ephesians 1:7 and 2:5

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, – Ephesians 1:7

Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved – Ephesians 2:5

It is important to note the concepts of forgiveness taking place in Ephesians 1:7. Here we have a different word for forgiveness from that in 4:32, but a similar concept. The clear point Paul is making here is that through the grace of God we receive forgiveness.[17] But again, this is not arbitrary. This redemption and forgiveness come “through his blood.” The following quote explains further this connection made by Paul

“God brings about this redemption through the blood of Christ and this is linked, by Paul, with the forgiveness of sins. In the New Testament, the redemption of man is redemption from the bondage and the power of sin, involving a resolution of the power of guilt.”[18]
– R. C. Sproul

Now we can begin to connect Paul’s thought in Ephesians 1:7 and 4:32. We are forgiven and shown grace through the blood of Jesus. That is how God forgives us. Specifically, through the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus, his sin covering, wrath absorbing, life giving death is the process through which divine forgiveness comes to us. Through the blood of Jesus, because of it, we can know forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father, and each other. Then Paul builds upon this basis with those ethical and pastoral commands in Ephesians 4:18-5:12. We see that the Gospel is linked to the practical outworking of the Gospel in Ephesians 4-5. All of the encouragements towards righteous living in the last three chapters of Ephesians are built upon the foundation of the Gospel and Christ’s substitutionary death in our place.[19]

            Ultimately, and most importantly, our forgiveness of other people is grounded in the Gospel. Just like the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, we have accrued a large debt, but as Christians our master has taken on our debt himself and bore the cost. Therefore, as the parable teaches us, we should forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart. Or like the parable of the two debtors in Luke 7, where Jesus reminds us “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” The implication being “whoever has been forgiven much loves much.” Or, as we learn in the Lord’s prayer “forgive us just as [to the same degree that]we forgive others.” When thinking about forgiveness, John Stott recalls the following deeply sad story:

“We long for the freedom that forgiveness brings. Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candour on television, Marghanita Laski, one of Britain’s leading novelists and atheists, blurted out: ‘What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.”[20]

In our Christian walk, we of course need to know and understand divine forgiveness. But we are also called to forgive one another. Releasing pain and agony through forgiveness can be incredibly powerful. Equally, being on the receiving end of someone’s forgiveness of you can be life changing and powerful. The core of what we preach, believe, practice, and do must always be based upon the penal substitutionary death of Jesus. This is infinitely true of any forgiveness work. Because we have been forgiven, let us forgive one another.

Application Questions

  1. Is there anyone I need to forgive?
  2. Is there anyone I need to receive forgiveness from?
  3. How does the penal substitutionary death of Jesus help me to give and receive forgiveness?

A Prayer

Good Father, I know I make mistakes. Every sin I commit is against you. But I am also aware of how my sin impacts and hurts others. Would you help me to know your heavenly forgiveness, and to seek after forgiveness and reconciliation with my fellow human beings. Lord, I feel how hard it is to forgive those who have wronged me.  But with both eyes fixed firmly on the death of Jesus, I ask you now for the grace to forgive those who have wronged me. Father, give me release, relief and a revitalisation in the Spirit as I seek to forgive just as you have forgiven me. Amen.


[1] Stump, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, pp. 61-91, especially see p. 62. Shults & Sandage go further than this seeking to claim that OT forgiveness is, by nature, forgiveness without the cross, and so the cross is not necessary for forgiveness. See: Shults & Sandage, The Faces of Forgiveness, p.149.

[2] See: W. Law, Works (9 Vols., London, 1762), vol. v (The Spirit of Love) and vol. ix, p. 143. This citation is taken from T. Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 183.

[3] D. Tutu, The Forgiveness Project, [https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/desmond-tutu/]

[4] Tidball, The Atonement Debate, p. 349. For example, John Stott’s final section is all about how the Cross, and the doctrines of the Cross he sets forth in the first three sections of the book, is supposed to influence and effect the Christian life. See: Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 225-337.

[5] See: Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971).

[6] Luke 23:34

[7] Ephesians 5:25

[8] Ephesians 5:26

[9] Ephesians 5:29

[10] Ephesians 5:30

[11] Ephesians 5:31

[12] Ephesians 5:32

[13] Ephesians 6:4

[14] Ephesians 6:11

[15] Ephesians 5:32. For more on this see F Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 10, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), p. 144.

[16] A. G. Patzia, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), p. 255.

[17] Patzia, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, p. 154.

[18] R. C. Sproul, The Purpose of God: Ephesians (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), p. 27.

[19] See J. R. W. Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), pp. 24–28.

[20] John Stott, Why I Am a Christian (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), p. 89.

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