“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32). These inspired words of Paul come in the midst of a series of exhortations regarding how Christians should conduct themselves in this world. Having earlier spoken of the unity that Christians enjoy in the Lord (Ephesians 4:1-16), Paul opened this section on Christian behavior with the word, “therefore” (Ephesians 4:17) and he did so for the purpose of drawing a contrast between the body of Christ (the church) of which he had just spoken and the world. “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind.” (verse 17). In other words, you were in the world but now you are in Christ. Don’t act like the world anymore. Be Christ-like. In verse 20, after commenting on the ungodliness of worldly-minded people, Paul said, “But you have not so learned Christ.” The ensuing verses describe what they had learned in Christ. Don’t lie; tell the truth (verse 25). Don’t be sinfully angry; settle your differences (verse 26). Don’t steal; engage in honest work (verse 28). Don’t use corrupt language; say things that edify (verse 29). Read on at least through Ephesians 5:16 and you will find many more exhortations.
In essence, the deeds that Paul forbade were those commonly practiced by people in the world while the deeds that Paul commanded were those that were NOT commonly practiced by people in the world. Christians are to come out from the world and be separate (II Corinthians 6:17) in all of the aspects noted by Paul, including the matter of forgiveness. The worldly mind prefers to hold a grudge. It loves to exact vengeance. It will take its owner to his or her grave in anger and hatred for those who have crossed it. In contrast, the Christ-like mind is focused on forgiveness.
The Greek word used by Paul in Ephesians 4:32 is not the one most commonly translated, “forgive” in the New Testament. In the context, this word means, “to grant forgiveness, pardon.” Its root word is the one that is typically translated, “grace.” That being the case, the word should bring to the mind of every Christian all of the glorious thoughts of God’s grace and cause us to reflect on the grace that the Lord has extended to us in forgiving us of our past sins (Romans 6:3-7) and the grace that He continues to extend to us on a daily basis as He forgives us as we walk faithfully with Him (I John 1:7-9).
Not only does the word translated, “forgiveness” make us think of God’s grace, but the final phrase of verse 32 zeroes in on the connection between the forgiveness God gives us and the forgiveness we are to extend to one another; “forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” At the very core of our forgiveness of one another is the recognition of the fact that we have been forgiven by God. Upon every temptation to hold a grudge and withhold forgiveness, our minds ought to hasten back to the cross and see the angry mob boiling with hate and hear the sinless Son of God praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). With the picture in our minds of the blood-covered Jesus speaking words of forgiveness for those who tortured Him, mocked Him, and murdered Him, how can we even think about refusing to forgive anyone of anything they might do to us?
While the broad subject of forgiveness is multi-faceted and worthy of much study, this particular passage in Ephesians concentrates on Christians’ forgiveness of one another. What are some particular reasons why one Christian would need to forgive another? Participation in any of the ungodly deeds mentioned in chapters four and five would be reasons. In the parallel passage in Colossians 3:13 Paul adds, “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” Basically, we Christians can hurt each other just like non-Christians can hurt us. Even something so seemingly simple as a disagreement can cause one Christian to turn his or her back on a brother or sister in Christ. Volumes could be written about the petty things that God’s people have allowed to come between them. And, yes, a Christian who offends must repent before God will forgive him or her, but that doesn’t keep God from loving that Christian any less in the meantime. Sometimes we get caught up in discussing whether or not we should forgive the person who does not seek forgiveness. Let’s not forget that, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). We should also remember that even when we are dealing with a hard-hearted fellow Christian who will not repent and who has even been withdrawn from that we are to “not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (II Thessalonians 3:15). Our attitude must always be one of forgiveness. We must want souls to be saved, no matter what they have done. This attitude is so critical that Jesus even said, “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” (Mark 11:26). The unforgiving spirit will do nothing to help someone who has offended them to return to God. The mindset of forgiveness, on the other hand, has us longing for, praying for, and pleading with the offender to humbly turn back to the Lord.
Our willingness to forgive one another is Christ-like, it is necessary for our own forgiveness from God, and it makes a powerful impression for good on the world. Paul warned the Galatian Christians about devouring one another (Galatians 5:15). When the spirit of grudge holding and mercilessness enshrouds God’s people, not only do Christians hurt each other, they turn non-Christians away from God. Where the spirit of forgiveness exists among Christians, brothers and sisters are built up and the world sees the light of Christ and wants to know more about the God these people serve (John 13:34-35).
Forgiving one another is an essential element in the life of a Christian. Let’s think about how the Lord has forgiven us. Let’s think about the horror of not being able to receive God’s forgiveness if we refuse to forgive one another. Let’s think about the souls we can lead to Christ through a forgiving spirit shared by those who are unified in the Lord through His written Word (John 17:17-21). Let’s stay soul-conscious and not allow any worldly temptation to distract us from living more like Jesus.
Written by Mike Gifford