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In October 2006, an American firefighter, driving home from a taxing shift, fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle. He collided with a vehicle, killing a pregnant mother. The woman’s husband, a pastor, deeply grieved the death of his wife and unborn child. One day, a teenaged girl in his church commented that she could not imagine how the firefighter must be feeling. Realising she was right, the pastor urged his church to pray for the firefighter. He saw an opportunity to model forgiveness to his congregation. “You forgive as you’ve been forgiven,” he later said. “It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35) was told to make that point. The servant, who had been forgiven much, was sternly rebuked for refusing to forgive others. Jesus concluded by urging his disciples that they must forgive “from the heart.”

Forgiveness is a huge subject over which there is a great deal of misunderstanding. As we reflect on this parable, it will help us to gain a biblical understanding of what forgiveness is not and what it is.

First, forgiveness is not simply accepting an apology. We apologise for making mistakes. Forgiveness has to do with sin. This parable flowed on the heels of Peter’s question, “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Forgiveness is a response to acknowledgement and repentance of sin.

Second, forgiveness does not ignore sin. God takes sin seriously, and we do not exemplify Christlike forgiveness if we merely ignore it. God sent his Son to die for sin and we do a grave injustice to the gospel to overlook what Christ died for.

Third, forgiveness is not just “getting over” or “letting go” of something. There is space for love to cover a multitude of sins, but forgiveness requires us to deal with sin.

Fourth, forgiveness is not simply avoiding someone rather than getting back at them. If we forgive as God, in Christ, forgave, it will result in restored relationship.

Fifth, forgiveness is not simply a feeling. You have not forgiven when the passing of time has eased the tension. Forgiveness is an active process and a deliberate choice, despite our feelings to the contrary.

What, then, is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a faith-fuelled decision to pursue a relationship with someone who has wronged you, without constantly reminding them of what they have done. This implies at least two things

Forgiveness is a gift. The New Testament word translated “forgive” is derived from the Greek word for “grace.” It speaks of a gift. Forgiveness is not earned; it is given.

Second, forgiveness is a promise. It is a promise to not to dwell in the incident; to not raise the incident again to use it against the person; to not talk to others about the incident; and to not allow the incident to hinder your relationship.

But to whom must we extend forgiveness? In the context of the parable, which follows instructions for church discipline, the immediate command is to forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ, particularly those in our own local church. This suggests that we should expect to be sinned against in the church and that forgiveness is required. But it may look different in different circumstances.

Sometimes, obedience to the spirit of this command requires us to withhold bitterness as we trust divine justice. If the wrongdoer unrepentantly resists restoration, a restored relationship may not be possible, but we must always maintain an attitude in which we will quickly and unquestioningly grant forgiveness when it is sought.

The goal of biblical forgiveness, however, is always restored relationship. We have no right to withhold forgiveness from those who seek it—regardless of who they are or what they have done to us—and forgiveness necessarily implies a willingness to restore a previous relationship.

The motivation for this is the forgiveness that we have received. The servant was rebuked for withholding forgiveness when he had experienced such great forgiveness. Likewise, we are called to forgive because we have experienced forgiveness in Christ.

As you reflect on the parable of the unforgiving servant, allow it to challenge your own heart about the need to release bitterness and embrace the forgiveness that you have experienced in Christ. Who do you need to forgive? Will you do so for the glory of God and the name of Christ?