I recently read that, since 1996, wealthy countries have forgiven nearly $110 billion dollars in debt from impoverished countries. Don’t just gloss over that figure – $110 billion! This is an astonishing amount of debt! As I marveled over that figure, another thought occurred to me. Canceling a huge debt makes an enormous statement.
When one party forgives what is owed by another party, it expresses mercy. Mercy comes to us, or flows through us, when an uncollected debt is wiped clean. Mercy means the relationship resets, as if the debt were never there.
As I’ve said before, forgiven sinners forgive sin. If you enter pastoral ministry, you will sin and you will be sinned against. But here’s the thing: being sinned against can become a gospel opportunity – a place to pass along to others the mercy that we have received. If you’re called to ministry, you’re called to apply the gospel in the face of sin. In fact, the degree to which we really understand the gospel is revealed by how faithfully we extend mercy when sinned against.
But what exactly does mercy look like? Four things come to mind.
Mercy means my goals when you sin are changed.
The incredible mercy I have received at the cross becomes the starting point for how I respond when others sin against me. The gospel tamps down my outrage and sense of injustice. It reminds me daily that I received an inexhaustible mercy, and so I must pass this mercy along – inexhaustibly!
This means that when someone sins against me, my goals are changed. I am not trying to convict them of sin, because the Holy Spirit will do that. I’m not trying to exact justice, because justice was satisfied at the cross. I should never condemn others because they have haven’t met my standard. Because Christ met God’s standard, His righteousness has been imputed to them (2 Corinthians 5:21). The gospel frees me to forgive when I’m sinned against.
The gospel wakes me up each day with this reminder: I didn’t get what I deserved, so I won’t hold them hostage until they get what I think they deserve. I can retire my inner cop who is always working the beat, looking for crimes and policing to make arrests for sin. And if I do discuss sin with you, I won’t be doing it for satisfaction or vindication. I’ll be doing it for reconciliation and forgiveness.
Paul says in Colossians 3:12-14:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Because I have received incredible forgiveness, I am free to forgive. Forgiven sinners forgive sin. Forgiven sinners extend mercy.
Mercy means I won’t see you through your sins or mistakes.
Sometimes we want to forgive, yet retain the right to be suspicious. We accept a person’s apology, but his record remains. Have you ever noticed that it’s far more enticing to be a record-keeper than a forgiveness-giver? That’s because it’s hard to give up the power of keeping a record of wrongs. We want to hold the trump card so that, should it become necessary, we can pull it out and remind the sinner of all he has done.
Unlike us, God is not a record keeper (Psalm 130:3). Forgiven sin is not encoded into the hard drive of heaven for easy retrieval. God does not keep sin on the brokers table to negotiate better behavior from us. Psalm 103:10 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
If this is how God responds to sin, we should respond in the same manner. When someone sins against me, and then asks forgiveness, it is an opportunity not only to declare my forgiveness, but also the forgiveness of God. It’s an opportunity to say, “God does not see you through your sins and mistakes, and I won’t either. God does not keep a record of your wrongs and I won’t either!”
It’s way more than simple kindness. It’s costly forgiveness.
The mercy I’ve received from God enables me to pass mercy along to you. Forgiven sinners forgive sin, and forgiven sinners extend mercy.
Mercy means I’ll accept your confession at face value.
It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to forgive if I wait until the sinner truly “gets it”, and then returns to me with a deeper, more sincere confession. The reality is, forgiveness is not a reaction to confession. It springs from a merciful heart that is ready to forgive. My heart is prepared to forgive because I remember that God has already forgiven all my sins – even those that remain unconfessed.
The call to forgive is not dependent on someone else confessing sin. Mark 11:25 makes this clear: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” The idea that I won’t forgive until someone repents is typically just a super spiritual way of saying, “Pay what you owe!” Remember, bitterness in Christians, and even leaders, is always wrapped in more sophisticated and spiritual garb.
Also, think about this: there really is no biblical warrant for judging the sincerity or humility of a person’s confession. The more I make my forgiveness depend on the quality of the confession, the more I’m moving away from true mercy. In Luke 17, Jesus says that if a brother asks forgiveness seven times a day, I must forgive.
True mercy accepts confession at face value. Forgiven sinners forgive sin, and forgiven sinners extend mercy.
Mercy means I’ll be patient with your fallenness.
When sinners come together, weaknesses become known, familiar sin patterns emerge, and fallenness is put on full display. The danger then is not ignorance of sin, it is corrosive fatigue – the kind that emerges when I begin to grow weary of your fallenness.
John Calvin says, “…he [God] expressly declares that there ought to be no limit to forgiving; for he did not intend to lay down a fixed number, but rather to enjoin us never to become wearied.”
Are you weary of the sins of another? I have to wonder whether this weariness contributed to the attitude of the unforgiving servant. He simply became tired of having someone in his debt. So he, as one author put it, “…forgot what he should have remembered (that he had been forgiven a great debt) and remembered what he should have forgotten (that he had a smaller debt owed him).”
The call here is not to suck it up and just endure being sinned against. The answer is to return to the debt I have been forgiven. The answer is to be freshly inspired by the patience, forbearance, and goodness of God, and then to go and do the same to others.
Wealthy countries have forgiven $110 billion dollars in debts from poorer countries, and that is an extraordinary debt forgiven. But as a sinner, I have been forgiven a much greater debt! All my sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ. It’s amazing, but the debt I owed God has been paid for by God himself.
Ministry is a call to be merciful. But it’s not because we’re pastors or called to be pastors. It’s because we’re forgiven sinners, and forgiven sinners extend mercy, which is just another way to say, forgiven sinners forgive sin.