The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7, ESV)
God forgives sin, and expects us to do the same. “Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:2). Colossians 2:13-14 says that God has forgiven all our trespasses in Christ, cancelling the record of debt that stood against us. For those who enter into the new covenant, God will be merciful toward our iniquities, and will remember sins no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Sin is lawlessness or iniquity (1 John 3:4). It creates a debt against us. It’s like causing damage to someone as in an auto accident or having your bull gore someone else’s (Exodus 21:28-36). It’s not hurting someone’s feelings, though hurt feelings might be a part. It’s not violating what someone else thinks is right or wrong. Sin goes against the life and love of God. We always incur a debt to God for sin, and we owe people we sin against too. Sometimes the sin is private or internal, meaning no other people were harmed (sin always hurts), but we still owe a debt to God. Forgiveness comes when we confess that we’ve sinned and repent or change direction away from the sin and towards righteous behavior God expects from us.
We see some examples of forgiveness in the monetary sense in the laws of the Sabbath year (Deuteronomy 15 “you shall grant a release…every creditor to his neighbor”), collateral (Deuteronomy 24:10) and the above mentioned ox. These laws help illustrate for us the concepts of forgiveness and restitution.
My take on forgiveness then is to dismiss the debt. When someone has sinned against me, I forgive when I relinquish my claim to payment. In other words, forgiveness means I am not owed anything. When I think of the debt again, I have to remember that the person doesn’t owe me anything. I can only dismiss the debt against me, however. I cannot dismiss the debt that others might have with each other, nor can I dismiss any debt for others that is owed to God. Only Jesus can do that, and only on the basis of believing in Him. Believing doesn’t mean just to acknowledge His existence. It means to abide in His Word, trusting and obeying in all things, especially in forgiveness.
Sometimes I forgive a person, but I still don’t want anything to do with them. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I have to hang around them. There are stories that make the rounds in different forms about rattlesnakes or scorpions getting carried out of danger, and they always end up biting or stinging the person who helped them. The moral of those stories is, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.” So just because I forgive someone, doesn’t mean I don’t know what they are. I might forgive the poisonous snake, but I don’t hang around waiting for them to strike. I know what they are, and don’t even stay in their neighborhood.