There are some compelling biblical, theological, and spiritual reasons why we are to forgive. Beyond the sheer virtue of it, beyond the sheer nobility of it, let me show you a few of the compelling motives for forgiveness.
It’s not murder only which is forbidden by the sixth commandment. The sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” involves much more than just the idea of murder. Jesus made that very clear in Matthew 5:21-22. If you are angry with someone, confess it as an iniquity. If you seek vengeance toward someone, confess it as a sin. Recognize that your lack of forgiveness is sinful, and that you must put your selfishness aside.
It’s hard to destroy a relationship if you continually forgive every offense. In your marriage, you are headed for major disaster if you continually accumulate hostility because of offenses — if you continue to allow those bitternesses to develop. But whenever there’s an offense and immediate forgiveness, it’s gone. That’s the key to any relationship.
Whoever has offended you has offended God more. If there has been sin in the life of that person who has offended you, it has offended God far greater than it has offended you. And if God has forgiven him the greater offense, can’t you forgive him the lesser? Whatever your spouse has done against you, he or she has done it against God. And God forgives fully, totally, freely, and completely.
The one who does not forgive will not enjoy the love of other Christians. When a marriage is severed without biblical grounds, there is the loss of Christian fellowship that comes. You’re on the outs with the church immediately, right? The church becomes your judge. You cut yourself off from the fellowship. You’re distanced from the body. The church doesn’t want you around if you’re going to behave like that. And alienation from others in the life of the church leads to more sin.
Failure to forgive results in divine chastening. As James 2:13 says, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” If you don’t have the mercy of forgiveness, God is going to turn you over to the tormentors, as in the parable of Matthew 18.
I’ve had several people in my life say to me, “I’m not going to live with this person anymore. I’d rather take my chances with God than live with this person.” Well, you’re not really taking any chances with God. It’s pretty guaranteed what’s going to happen: chastening.
The one who does not forgive will not be forgiven. Jesus makes this point in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
You say, “Is this saying you might lose your salvation and go to hell?” No, we have eternal forgiveness in our justification. When you get involved in prolonged sin as a believer, it’s not that you’re all of a sudden going to lose your salvation and go to hell. But you begin to be chastened, and you forfeit blessing.
If there’s anything I want out of life, it’s God’s blessing. To humble myself and accept some difficulty in order to have the joy of heaven is a simple choice for me.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1996, titled “The Key to Maintaining Family Unity.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.