I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.
For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 4-7)
In this book, Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive the runaway slave Onesimus. And in this section of the letter, we see the spiritual character of one who forgives. Now, even though Paul doesn’t lay out a list of principles here, they are implicit to what he says here as he commends Philemon for his Christian character. Because the person who has this sort of character is the sort of man who will be a forgiver.
In essence, Paul is saying, “Philemon, I know you’re the kind of man that I can trust to forgive Onesimus.”
And what kind of man was Philemon? The first thing Paul says to describe him is this: “I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus.”
In effect, Paul says, “You are concerned about the Lord, you have a true saving faith, you’re a genuine Christian, and therefore you have the ability to forgive. You have the impulses of the new life. You have the prompting of the indwelling Holy Spirit. You experience the conviction of the Word of God. You are a true believer, and a true believer desires to do what is right and what honors the Lord, and so I can appeal to you to forgive.”
You see, we are those for whom much has been forgiven, and so we can forgive much. We are those, like the parable of Matthew 18, who have been forgiven an unpayable debt and should go out and forgive others.
We were once unbelievers, those described in Romans 3, where Paul uses various quotations from Psalms and Isaiah:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written,
“There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9-18)
Now, however, Christ has forgiven our sins and given us new life. We can now forgive from the heart. And we are motivated to do so because we love the Lord, we want to honor Him, and we are desirous of that which expresses our faith in the Lord. And because our faith is real, we have the capacity to forgive.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “The Characteristics of One Who Forgives.”
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