The Forgiving Spirit of the Lord’s Prayer
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The FORGIVING Spirit of the Lord's Prayer.
"just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us." Matthew 6:12
To forgive, it has been remarked, is divine. If the forgiveness of sin is the sole prerogative of God, the highest and most gracious gift of heaven, then, man's forgiveness of the wrong done him by his fellow bears a close resemblance to the divine. It was only by God that this precept of forgiveness of injury could be revealed, and it is only beneath the cross of the incarnate God it can be properly learned. It is in the region of our own forgiveness by God, that we learn the Christian precept of our forgiveness of others. As believers in the Lord Jesus, we stand before men discharged bankrupts. Passing out of God's court of justice, released from a debt of "ten thousand talents," we, perhaps, confront upon its threshold a fellow-servant owing us a "hundred pence." The line of conduct towards our debtor is obvious and imperative. A pardoned sinner, all whose transgressions against Jehovah are fully and eternally forgiven, the great debt wholly cancelled, my duty to my fellow-sinner is written as with a sunbeam. Instead of grasping him by the throat, exclaiming, "Pay me what you owe me!" I am to deal with him as my Lord has dealt with me--fully releasing him from the claim. Forgiven, I am to forgive. How can I justly, or with any degree of assurance, put in a claim to be forgiven myself of God, while cherishing in my heart the spirit of unforgiveness towards man? This is Christian logic, Christian precept, yes, it is Christianity itself. Such is the spirit of the petition we now consider.
That there exists a great and wide necessity for the exercise of this godlike precept of forgiveness is obvious. Our Lord forewarned us of it when He said, "It must be that offences will come." The present admixture of good and evil, the imperfect state of the Church, the existence of so much that is totally unrenewed in the unbeliever, and of so much that is but partially renewed in the believer, presents a wide field for the exercise of this divine grace. In the various Christian communions, in the domestic circles, in the social communion of life--among fellow-Christians, friends, relations, and neighbors--these sad sins between man and man are constantly occurring; misunderstandings arise, offences are given, injuries are inflicted, breaches are made, hearts are alienated, friendships are forfeited, demanding a perpetual recurrence to the divine precept, "Forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us."
Such a state of things is one of the most lamentable occurrences of life. One-half of its beclouding and its bitterness, arises from the existence of this element of evil. What perpetual sweetness, what undimmed sunshine would there be in many a domestic home, in many a social circle, in many a Christian community, were there more union of heart, concord of judgment, outflow of sympathy and love! To cite but one illustration of this--the FAMILY circle. How many families are there which, like the sweet apple, has a worm feeding and fattening at its core! The domestic is the most important, as it is the sweetest, earthly constitution. And yet, where you expect to find love on its loftiest throne, charity in its sweetest flow, confidence in its firmest hold, sympathy in its tenderest exercise, we often find nothing but weakened ties, alienated affections, divided interests, and even anger, animosity, and litigation. No spectacle presents our humanity in a more painful and humiliating aspect. To see brothers, dandled on the same paternal knee, nourished at the breast of the same fond mother, divided in their tastes, dissonant in judgment, alienated in affection, and even confronting each other in hostility; to see sisters possessed of the pure sentiments, the tender sensibilities, the deep love and gentleness of their sex, regarding each other with coldness of affection, unsympathizing manner, living in secret irritation of mind, if not in open ill-will and animosity, presents a spectacle at which strangers are shocked, and over which angels might weep. Surely in such a sphere the Christian grace of forgiveness finds its proper and its noblest exercise!
Now it is clear from this petition taught us by the Savior, that God's forgiveness of us is to be the rule and the measure of our forgiveness of others. We cannot for a moment suppose that there exists anything like equality with, but simply conformity to, God's forgiveness. Still less does our forgiveness of man involve any meritorious plea why God should forgive us. Nor does this exercise of forgiveness suppose the existence of insensibility to injury. Never was Jesus so sensible of the injustice and the wrong done Him by man than when impaled upon the tree for man He prayed, "Father, forgive them!" "It is the glory of a man to pass over a transgression"--that glory beamed around the dying head of Jesus when from the cross He breathed this prayer. And yet, as I have remarked, God's forgiveness of us is to be the rule of our forgiveness of others. No rule less divine, no model less godlike, is to govern and guide us in this Christian duty. Our forgiveness of an offending yet repentant brother may not be equal, yet it must be like, God's forgiveness of our offences. How, then, does God forgive?
God forgives us IMMEDIATELY--so ought we to forgive those who have trespassed against us. "You are a God ready to forgive." Is there any demur, any, the least, hesitation on the part of God in remitting the sins of the penitent, in canceling the debt of the contrite sinner? None whatever! Listen to the language of David, already quoted, "I said I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and You forgave." Not a moment's hesitation! The royal penitent but acknowledged his sin, and immediately the sin-forgiving God pardoned it. Moses prayed, "Pardon, I beseech you, the iniquity of this people." "And the Lord said, I have pardoned." As if God had anticipated His servant's request. To cite once more the case of David. In the matter of Uriah the Hittite, how did God deal with him? By the same messenger who told him of his sin God sent the message of His forgiveness. "And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die." Not a moment's agonizing suspense intervened between the indictment and the pardon.
And shall we not deal thus with our fellow-men? Shall we demur, hesitate, and debate in our minds the question of forgiveness, and then go to God and ask Him to forgive us as we forgive others? Hesitate to forgive a brother, and then, if you can, ask God so to pardon you. Remember God forgives at once!
God forgives FULLY--so must we forgive our fellows. A partial forgiveness of sin would be no real forgiveness to us whatever. Were the ten thousand talents, but one, all paid, and that one were left for us to pay, we would be forever exiles from the land of the blest. All the demands of the law of God must be met, and the full penalty of justice must be endured either by ourselves or by our Surety, if ever we are saved. In default of our utter inability to meet these claims, the Lord Jesus, on behalf of His Church has, "by one offering perfected forever those who are sanctified." On the cross the Son of God paid the bond, and at the grave the Father ratified it. "He was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." And now Jesus saves to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him. Nothing stands between the greatest sinner and his full and eternal salvation. Believing in the Lord Jesus, he passes out of the court of Divine justice not simply protected from arrest, but fully, honorably, eternally discharged, Christ having done all.
Believer in Jesus! realize this to be your present standing before God. Your great concern is, not with your sins, but with the Atonement that has put them away; not with the debt, but with your obligation to Him who paid it. Oh, see into what a blessed state the atoning blood of Christ places you! It has put away your sins from God--oh, how far!--but it has brought you near to God--oh, how near! "Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near by the blood of Christ." Such must be our forgiveness! It must be like God's--full, complete, unreserved. How can we repair to the throne of grace, and pray, "Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who have sinned against me," while we have refused an offending brother or sister a full, frank, honest forgiveness? The offence must be entirely forgiven, the debt wholly cancelled, if we would deal with our fellow-servant as his Master and ours has dealt with us.
God's forgiveness of us is a HEARTY forgiveness--so must be ours--sincere, cordial, hearty. Oh, there is no coldness, nothing begrudged, in God's pardon of our sins. It is, as I have said, with all His heart. And remember that the heart of God is infinite! What, then, must be the sincerity, the love, the cordiality with which our heavenly Father has forgiven us all sin! Let this whole--heartedness be seen in the forgiveness which we extend to a sinning brother. Let him see that our hand is not outstretched reluctantly, half-way only; but that, with our heart in our hand, we extend to him a like forgiveness God has extended to us--the forgiveness of the heart!
God FORGETS, as well as forgives, our sins. So entirely are the sins of His people effaced that, speaking after the manner of men, God says, "I will remember them no more forever." And again He says, "I have blotted out your transgressions as a cloud, and your iniquities as a thick cloud." Blotted from the book of His justice, and of His law, and of His remembrance. This same truth comforted Hezekiah, "You have cast all my sins behind Your back." How like our God is this--magnificent, stupendous, divine! Can God forget? He cannot. And yet so entirely has He cancelled out our debt; at so infinite a distance has He cast our transgressions, they are to Him as things out of mind, buried in the fathomless depths of Divine oblivion.
I think that this truth supplies an argument in favor of another--that THE SINS OF THE BELIEVER WILL NOT BE JUDGED IN THE LAST DAY, as the sins of the ungodly. The saints will already have been judged and condemned in the person of Jesus their Great Surety, and in Him punished to the utmost extent of the demands of Divine Justice; their sins, therefore, will have been sunk into the fathomless depths of the sea of His blood, never more to come into remembrance. "You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea." I cannot but conclude, therefore, that the trial of the saints in the great assize will be nominal rather than actual; that they will be appear--not for trial, but for discharge; not for judgement, but for acquittal. Remember that their Substitute will be the Judge! What a shadow upon His own finished work would be the same judicial process of the saints as that through which the ungodly must finally and inevitably pass! The great debt of the Church once paid will not a second time be brought into court.
Such should be the spirit of our forgiveness, which is the spirit inculcated by our Lord in His prayer taught the disciples. But, universal as is the belief and adoption of this prayer, is the forgiving spirit which it breathes equally so? Alas! that it should not be! "I can forgive, but I cannot forget," is too frequently the haughty and sullen language of an offended brother. But what does this rankling of the offence in the heart, this hoarding of the injury in the mind betray, but that, though you have professedly forgiven the wrong, you have secretly embalmed its memory! Is this like God? Will you in this spirit repair to the mercy seat, and ask God to forgive you as you forgive others? No; you dare not. All the while that your mind broods over the wrong done you by a fellow-sinner, you are harboring "hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness;" and with this leaven of evil fomenting in your heart, with this fretting leprosy of sin tainting your prayers in the closet, at the domestic altar, and in the public sanctuary, you daily pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Oh, be like God-generous and magnanimous--forgiving and forgetting. Such is the teaching, and such was the example of Him whose disciple you profess to be. "I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you; that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven."
With regard to THE SINS THEMSELVES, the schedule is an extended one--for offences must come--"in many things we all offend." To what extent we are to include the FINANCIAL debt which a brother may honestly have incurred at our hands, must be left to God and the conscience. At the same time, if the obligation presses upon my brother, and he, through no fault of his own, is unable to meet it, and the thought of its existence and of his own powerlessness to cancel it occasions him misery and distress, shall not the love of God, shall not our obligation to Him who became our Surety constrain us to say, "The financial debt my fellow-servant owes me, and which to him is a running sore, shall be buried in oblivion. My Father has freely and fully forgiven me all my sins; I as freely and fully forgive my brother this." God grant that in this matter these terrible words may never vibrate on our ear–"O you wicked servant, I forgave you all that great debt, because you desired me; should you not then have had compassion on your fellow-servant, even as I had pity on you?" Look at this question in the tender light of the cross; look at it in the solemn light of eternity--and then act!
But the sins more specially referred to by our Lord are those MORAL offences, injuries, and wrongs inflicted by man upon man, by brother against brother, which prevail in our present but imperfectly-sanctified state; and which God wisely and graciously overrules for the exercise of that grace of forgiveness which, both in its letter and in its spirit, the Divine Father enjoins and the Divine Savior illustrated. Oh what pain, what deep, lasting injury, may be inflicted by an unkind word, an unkind look, an unkind action; by a wrong judgment, a misinterpretation, an unjust suspicion, a malicious and false report; by violated confidence, by evil-speaking, idle gossip, and harsh insinuation--how much may spring out of all this affecting the peace, reputation, and usefulness of a child of God!
What a field for the exercise of forgiveness, that Christian act of which it has been remarked, "It requires more grace to forgive an injury than it does to suffer martyrdom." A man requires less grace to endure the hardest toil, to carry the heaviest cross, and to submit to the severest suffering, than to hold out his hand to an offending brother and say, "I freely and fully forgive." The greatest display of grace in God is in the pardon of sin; the greatest exercise of grace in man is to forgive and forget an injury. But this grace Jesus can and is engaged to give.
But nothing more strongly invalidates the fact of our own forgiveness by God, than an unforgiving spirit towards man. Upon no scriptural warrant whatever can we put in the claim of filial relation to God, no valid evidence can we adduce that we are partakers of divine grace while under the influence of a lack of forgiveness. We may imagine we are pardoned, may speak of our spiritual raptures, and boast of our Christian experience; we may frequent the Lord's table, and respond loudly to the Lord's Prayer, but all the while we are woefully cajoled by Satan, are fatally deceived by our own hearts, and are passing to eternity with a lie in our right hand. We have asked of God in solemn prayer to be forgiven as we forgive. What if He should take us at our word?--"You wicked and unmerciful servant, I will!" might justly be His indignant and withering reply.
No Christian precept did our Lord enforce with greater minuteness and solemnity than that of forgiveness of our enemies. Thus He speaks concerning this duty--"If you forgive men their sins, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you forgive not men their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins." "Forgive, and you shall be forgiven." Equally explicit is His instruction respecting the FREQUENCY of our forgiveness. Peter, recognizing the duty, inquires, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? until seven times?" This was the utmost limit of the disciple! But Jesus, putting a definite for an indefinite number, "says unto him, I say not unto you until seven times, but until seventy times seven." Such are the forgivenesses of our God! "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts--and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly [margin, multiply] pardon."
How often, my reader, has your God forgiven you? Suppose He had dealt with you as you in your heart have dealt with your brother, or, perhaps, in reality are dealing with him now--limiting His forgiveness of sin to the seven offences--perhaps to the one! Where and what would you now be? But, countless as the sands that belt the ocean have your sins against God been! And yet, the ocean of His love has again and again tided over them all, and still it flows, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Where your sins have multiplied, exceeded and abounded--His rich, free pardoning grace has much more abounded. Oh, if your Lord should deal with you as you now may be dealing with a fellow-servant--and why may He not?--you would be cast into prison, and by no means come out until you had paid the uttermost farthing.
Closely connected, also, is the overcoming of enmity and the exercise of forgiveness, with our WORSHIP. We cannot worship God with a clean and true heart, with an approving conscience, or with a service acceptable to Him while an unforgiving spirit towards an offending brother is rankling within us. How pointed and impressive the injunction of Christ. "Leave you your gifts before [not upon] the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." With what freedom or hope of response can we penetrate within the Holy of Holies and commune with that God whose sweet, delightsome property is mercifully to forgive, while there is a secret reserve in our hearts of ill will and unforgiveness towards an offending brother? Can you honestly comply with the exhortation, "You people, pour out your heart before Him," while some deeply-shaded cloister of that heart you cannot pour out before God--you dare not place in the light of His countenance? How solemn are the words, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me."
But be honest! Look at the matter, however distasteful and painful it may be, fairly, fully in the face. Has any relation, Christian brother or sister, offended, injured, wounded you? Have you been evil spoken of? Has unkind defamation rested upon you? Have you been unjustly suspected, wrongfully accused, coldly slighted, cruelly slandered and spoken against? Are there any with whom you are not upon good and friendly terms? Do you meet in society, pass each other in the street, worship in the same sanctuary, and approach the same sacred table of the Lord's Supper without friendly recognition, or Christian communion? In a word, associating, worshiping, and even assembling at the Holy Communion, as total strangers?Yes, what is infinitely more offensive to God, meeting as bitter and unreconciled enemies! What a scandal to Christianity! what a dishonor to Christ! what a tainted spot upon your love feasts! what a lamentable spectacle to the eyes of the world!
And must this painful state of things exist? Is there no kind and skillful hand that will seek to cauterize and heal the fretting wound? Perhaps the offer of mediation is made. Some mutual friend undertakes the holy yet self-denying office. But you decline! Your injury, resentment, and pride are too deep, persistent, and unbending even to listen to the proposal; or, if the attempt is made, the concessions you demand are too imperious and humiliating, and so all effort to effect a reconciliation and restore peace falls to the ground, and you are left to a judicial spirit of revenge, malice and unforgiveness accompanying you to the grave, and upward to the judgment-seat.
But this lamentable state of things need not and must not continue. In His Name who, when we were sinners, loved us; who, when we were enemies, died for us; who, when we were rebels, overcame our evil by His grace, truth, and love--I beseech you, before the sun shall go down upon your wrath, seek out the brother or the sister whom you have offended, or who has offended you, and hold out your hand of reconciliation. If he is in the wrong wait not for his acknowledgment--God did not wait for you!--but make the first advance; and if that advance is repelled, make it again and yet again, for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head which may melt down his proud, unrelenting spirit into contrition, forgiveness, and love.
Or if you are in the wrong, go at once and honestly and frankly acknowledge the wrong, and seek the forgiveness and reconciliation of the brother you have injured. Having done this--then bend together, the offended and the offender, before the mercy-seat, and together pray--"Father, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." Happy reconciliation! Blissful moment! How many a heart thrills with joy, how many a home is radiant as with a new-created sun at the touching spectacle. The alienation of years is reconciled. The congealed affection of long dreary winters of discontent is melted. Misunderstandings are explained, differences are adjusted, acknowledgments are interchanged; relatives long estranged, families long divided, friends long alienated meet once more beneath the same roof; within the same sanctuary, and around the same sacramental table, and joy pulsates through every heart, and music, like a whisper from the celestial choir, breathes from every soul. Methinks I see the white-haired father, the venerable mother, the aged minister who had long prayed for the arrival of this hour, clasp the hands in thanksgiving, and exclaim, "Now, Lord, let you your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation!"
Reader, it may be in your power to create a scene like this! By the pardoning mercy of God towards you, by the redeeming love of Him who died for you, by the dove-like peace of Him who dwells in you, by your hope of forgiveness at the last great day, I beseech you, I implore you, yes, in the name of Christ I command you, to lose not a moment in securing its accomplishment. The blessing of the peace-maker will then come upon you, and a faint reflection of the joy that brightened the Savior's heart when He reconciled us to God will brighten your heart, and gild the clouds that cast their shadows upon your homeward path.
But God the Holy Spirit, the Author of peace and lover of concord, shall speak--"Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking, be put away from you, with all malice--and be kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you." Whenever any may have sought to injure your fair name, to lower your influence, to impair your usefulness--wilfully, wickedly, slanderously--imitate Jesus, and render not evil for evil, and when reviled revile not again. Revenge not yourself, but commit the matter to God, and by a silent spirit and a holy life live down the venomous slander. Your good may be evil spoken of, and your evil may be magnified and exaggerated--nevertheless, by a meek and quiet spirit, by a consistent walk, and by well-doing, you may put to silence the strife of lying tongues and the ignorance of foolish men, and thus glorify your Father who is in heaven.
"Should envious tongues some malice frame,
To soil and tarnish your good name,
Grow not disheartened, 'twas the lot
Of Christ, and saints exempt are not.
Rail not in answer, but be calm,
For silence yields a rapid balm.
Live it down!
"Far better thus, yourself alone
To suffer, than with friend bemoan
The trouble that is all your own.
Live it down!
"What though men evil call your good,
So Christ Himself was misunderstood--
Was nailed upon a cross of wood;
And now shall you for lesser pain
Your inmost soul forever stain,
By rendering evil back again?
Live it down!
"Oh! if you hope to be forgiven,
Love your foes, the bitterest even,
And love to you shall flow from heaven.
And when shall come the poisoned lie,
Swift from the bow of calumny,
If you would turn it harmless by,
And make the venomed falsehood die,
Live it down!"
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
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