Forgiveness runs in three directions. Two of those directions are easier for us to buy into than the third. Those directions are from God, from others toward us and from us toward others. In Ephesians 4:32 Paul dealt with at least two of those. “Be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God for Christ sake has forgiven you.” William Barclay notes that this could be translated, “Gracing one another even as God for Christ sake has graced you.”
The most obvious direction of forgiveness is from God for us. It is in God’s loving and graceful nature to offer full and free forgiveness. It is interesting that Jesus dealt with the same two directions of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer as Paul does here. “Forgive our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us.” God’s longing to forgive us is so great He was willing to pay the highest imaginable price to offer that forgiveness. God is not only graceful, He is just and righteous. In Romans 3:21-26 Paul said, “But now apart from the Law the Righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophet, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
No one is forgiven by God because they deserve it. It is an outpouring of grace that made it possible for God to forgive and be true to his nature. In the blood of Christ our sins can be cleansed and God so fully forgive that our sins and wrongs are never remembered against us again. The fact that God’s forgiveness is freely available doesn’t mean that it is unconditional. Even in the Lord’s prayer Jesus conditioned our forgiveness on our being forgiving toward others. In Acts 2:36-38 when Peter preached to the multitudes on Pentecost whom he convicted of sin, even accusing them of crucifying Jesus. They were cut to the heart and cried out what shall we do? Peter told them, “Let each of you repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The second form of forgiveness that we all appreciate and want to have offered to us freely. It is the forgiveness of us from others when we have done wrong. It isn’t at all unusual for any of us to hurt another person in some way. We don’t deserve such forgiveness. It can’t be earned. After all we wouldn’t need forgiveness if we hadn’t wronged someone else. It may not have been intentional, but it may have. It may not have been planned, but it may have. It may not have been when we were thinking straight, but it may have been. It is interesting that we expect others to forgive us of whatever wrongs we have done when we ask them to forgive us. As a matter of fact we tend to feel wronged, cheated when people refuse to forgive things that we have said or done that is wrong. But forgiveness is always a matter of grace, even when it is the other person forgiving us. If you say, “I deserve to be forgiven” you have misunderstood the nature of your wrong or the rights of the other person. Now I should point out that for one to refuse to forgive anyone, including us, would be to commit sin against God. Jesus in Luke 17:3-4 said, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” To be right with God it is necessary that we be forgiving. We can choose when and who we forgive but we can’t be right with God while doing so.
The third direction of forgiveness is the second one addressed by Paul and Jesus, that we forgive one another. Now we all want the other person to forgive us. But that isn’t in our control at all. The forgiveness that is in our control is our forgiving the person who has wronged us. You may hurt over the fact another person refuses to forgive you. But their failure is never an excuse for your failing to follow God’s will for you. If you have been forgiven by God you must be forgiving to others. It doesn’t mean that we can forget the wrong the way God does. But we can refuse to allow the memory to cause us to act with revenge or hate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we put everything back where it was before. If a husband cheats on his wife and turns to say “Forgive me” she must forgive but it doesn’t mean that she must accept him back to the place he had before. Sin has consequences every time, even when it is forgiven. If someone steals from me or refuses to repay a debt, I must forgive them, but that doesn’t mean that I would loan them money again.