Starting in Philemon 10, we get into the nitty-gritty, if you will, of forgiveness. There are three actions involved in the act of forgiveness. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.
I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (Philemon 10-14)
The first element in forgiveness is to open up your life and take the person back. When the offending person seeks to be forgiven, the first thing you do in the act of forgiveness is to receive that person, demonstrating a willingness to close the gap, a willingness to cross the chasm, a willingness to heal the wound, to bring the person back into relationship.
No, that doesn’t happen in situations where you forgive someone and they don’t want to come back, and they don’t seek that forgiveness. But we forgive anyway, because it’s wrong to hold bitterness, and a grudge, and vengeance, and hatred, and anger in our heart.
It was clear that Onesimus had repented, because he was there in the presence of Philemon. The scene is very dramatic because as Philemon reads these words, there Onesimus stands in front of him. He has come back to face Philemon. And Paul was calling on Philemon to receive Onesimus.
For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. (Philemon 15-17)
Paul suggests that not only should Philemon open his arms and take Onesimus back, but that he should also put him back into service. He needed to put Onesimus back into function and ministry.
Paul effectively says, “Look, I’m not going to mitigate the guilt of Onesimus. But I just want you to consider that maybe God had a purpose.”
He’s saying, “Consider the providence of God. God is always triumphing over sin by His providential power and grace. Think about it. Onesimus became useless to you so that God could bring him back. And now he is not merely a slave able to minister on a temporal level and serve on a temporal level, he is a brother able to serve on a spiritual level. He is far more useful because of the powerful providence of God.”
But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). (Philemon 18-19)
Restitution is always the final component of forgiveness. Onesimus must show his genuineness by being willing to repay, willing to restore. The one forgiven must be willing to make restitution to make his offense right. Like the prodigal who came home and thought to himself, “I’ll go home and I’ll work for my father, and I’ll earn back everything that I took and wasted.” It never happened, because the father, you remember, embraced the prodigal in grace.
Onesimus didn’t have anything with which to make restitution. He too needed to be shown grace. In order to make this relationship complete, since Onesimus couldn’t pay, somebody had to pay in his place. This is a Christlike act, isn’t it, on the part of Paul. Christ paid the debt for us; Paul pays the debt for Onesimus. Here Paul offers himself as the substitute to pay Onesimus’ debt. This is Paul, in a Christlike way, bringing together the last part of the restored relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.
This is exactly what Christ does for us. We have a debt we can’t pay; He pays our debt to restore us to God. And like I said at the beginning of the series: you are never more like Christ than when you – what?– forgive. What a picture of Christ. And Philemon had the opportunity to say, “I know you were an ungodly, sinful man and I understand that behavior suited that kind of nature. Now that you’re a transformed person, I no longer hold you responsible for that which you did in your unredeemed status. I graciously forgive you.” But just to take that pressure off of Philemon, Paul offers to pay restitution himself.
Now, Scripture doesn’t tell us what Philemon did. But I am quite confident that he forgave, and that he charged nothing to the apostle Paul. And beginning in the next post, I will discuss some of the heart motivations that may well have driven Philemon to forgive.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “The Actions of One Who Forgives.”
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