The first nine articles of the Apostles' Creed straighten our theology. The last three tell us what good it does. Specifically: the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. These three chapters of our salvation begin with the forgiveness of sin.

No ParkingAn exasperated salesman abandoned his car in a "No Parking" zone and left this note: "I've circled this block 20 times. I have an appointment and must keep it or lose my job. Forgive us our trespasses." He returned to find a ticket under his wiper blade with this note attached: "I've circled this block 20 years. If I don't give you a ticket, I'll lose my job. Lead us not into temptation."

A sign in a convenience store said, "Check cashing policy: to err is humor, to forgive, $10. Everybody makes mistakes. Forgiveness costs. Usually more than ten dollars. It often costs your pride and anger. But it is worth it.

Forgiveness is precious. Imagine the world without it. Husbands who don't forgive their wives and wives who don't forgive their husbands. Parents who don't forgive their children and children who don't forgive their parents. Employees and employers, friends and neighbors, merchants and customers, rulers and citizens. Imagine a world where everybody resented and punished every wrong done to them. Imagine a world of pure justice without mercy. I don't want to live in that kind of world, so I believe in forgiveness. By that I mean two things. First…

When I blow it, which is more often than I like to think, there are only two things I can do. I can seek forgiveness, or forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is the most tempting. I'd rather just forget the wrong I do. There are some people who never seem to let conscience come between them and a good night's sleep. The happiest such people are those with the poorest memories.

We believe in being forgiven, though we don't really want it. Why? Because being forgiven is so hard on the ego. That's why we tend to avoid those we hurt. We remember the wrong we did and suspect they do too. Hurt and shame combine like stones and mortar to build walls between the offender and the offended. Forgiving others leaves our self-esteem intact. Being forgiven is a blow to our vanity. That hurts. It hurts to sacrifice our selves, our pride, our indignation, our spirit of revenge, our self-righteousness.

I believe in being forgiven because I know how much I need it. God not only pardons, he forgives. Pardon is a legal thing; forgiveness is a personal thing. It has feeling in it. Sin is personal. It is done not just against a law but against a Person. It is a violation of His love. Pardon removes the guilt but not the pain our sin caused Him. He must be reconciled to us and we to Him. There must be a restoration of a warm personal relationship between us and God. The Judge must become our Father again, take us back into his family. That's forgiveness! "If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

Just because God forgives our sins doesn't mean our nervous system will. That's why I not only believe in being forgiven…

Forgiving is necessary. We have to forgive if we want to be forgiven. In the Lord's Prayer we say, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than that little word, "as." We dare to ask God to treat us the same way as we treat those who aggravate us. And to make sure we get the point Jesus adds these words after the Lord's Prayer: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). Only the merciful receive mercy (Matthew 5:7). Those who can't forgive burn the bridge over
which they themselves must pass.

Forgiving is difficult. It is hard because it is against human nature. Revenge, not forgiveness, is our natural response to offenses. To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine (Romans 12:17,21). It is an outrageous act — a voluntary forfeit of our right to fairness, a surrender of sweet revenge.

Forgiveness is difficult because it is dangerous. People take advantage those who forgive. That's why they sometimes have to do it seventy times seven times. It is risky. But on the other hand, if you choose to be safe and practical, you will never forgive and you will never be forgiven. And that's not very practical.

In January of 1990 after the fall of the Berlin wall Erich Honecker, the brutal and hated dictator of East Germany, found himself sick and homeless. So despised was he that no one could be found to provide him shelter. They contacted Pastor Uwe Holmer who directed a church-run convalescent center in the village of Lobetal. Pastor Holmer had bitter memories of Honecker and his regime. Honecker had personally presided over the building of the wall, the wall that separated Holmer's family and kept him from attending his own
father's funeral. He had even greater reason to resent Honecker's wife, who ran the East German ministry of education. Holmer's ten children had been denied admission to any university because of their faith. It would be easy for Pastor Holmer to turn Honecker away because the church's retirement home was full and had a long waiting list. But because Honecker's need was urgent, Pastor Holmer decided he had no choice but to shelter the couple under his own roof!

Pastor Holmer's charity was not shared by the rest of the country. Hate mail poured in. Some members of his own church threatened to leave or cut back their giving. Pastor Holmer defended his actions in a letter to the newspaper. "In Lobetal," he wrote, "there is a sculpture of Jesus inviting people to himself and crying out, 'Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' We have been commanded by our Lord Jesus to follow him and to receive all those who are weary and heavy laden, in spirit and in body, but especially the homeless… What Jesus asked his disciples to do is equally binding on us."

Forgiving is hard and forgetting is even harder. Resentments, like toxic waste, bubble up to contaminate the rest of life. The problem is not so much what we remember, but how we remember. We can remember with hate and vengeance, like the man who said, "I don't get mad; I get even." Or we can remember with grace and mercy, considering how much God has forgiven us. Forgiveness is difficult because we don't believe ourselves to be forgiven. Hence we need a defense. We need to see others as being at least as guilty as we.

But everything changes when we see the magnitude of the sins God has forgiven us. Then, we are set free to forgive others. God's mercy to us becomes a spring of mercy in us unto others. Jesus illustrated this with a story. "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

"But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

"When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt."

That's the story. Now here's the lesson: "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:23-35).

Forgiveness begins with a decision and ends with a feeling: "from your heart."

Two kinds of people need to believe in the forgiveness of sin: 

  • those who feel the burden of guilt because they have offended someone and 
  • those who feel the burden of anger because someone has offended them. 

To both I ask, "Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin?" If you do…if you really do…if you really, really do, you will no longer carry your burden of guilt or anger.

"I never go out to meet a new day
Without first asking God as I kneel down to pray
To give me the strength and the courage to be
As tolerant of others as He is of me."
(Ned Nichols)

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