A life of forgiveness

By Simon Fry - 9 February 2024

This article from Si is part of the Somali Bible Society Journal: Volume IV, Issue 2


From the outset let me be clear that this is not an in-depth study on forgiveness, but just a short paper with some practical pastoral advice on, helping the church “maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace[1]” when there are relational tensions and genuine grievances that occur within it.  Much more could be added on this subject, but this is a little guide to help the growing Somali community of Christians deal with the inevitable fallouts and wrongs that will occur from time to time within the church of Jesus Christ. 

Forgiven in Jesus

Whilst the Christian thanks to Jesus is totally forgiven by God[2] and clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness;[3] this side of eternity, despite the all sufficient help of the Holy Spirit, believers will struggle with and commit sins against God and others. The Apostle John is crystal clear that,

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8-10.

So even with the Spirit’s sanctifying work within Christians,[4] as we live as a community together,[5] people will do things unintentionally and intentionally that wrong, hurt and even damage others – requiring forgiveness to be sort and given.  The New Testament encourages unity to be maintained within the Church despite these grievances.  

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Colossians 3:13–14 (NIV)

Forgiveness is a way of life in Christ

“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  Forgiveness should be a way of life for Christians because of the forgiveness they have received through Jesus.  “Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you.[6]” It is not an optional extra, but the fruit of true salvation.  John Stott writes, “Forgiveness is as indispensable to the life and health of the soul, as food is for the body.[7]” 

Part of our daily Christian walk with God is worked out by us imitating our Lord in extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.[8]” Mark 11:25 says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Luke 6:37 puts it bluntly, “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” John Calvin writes on this, “The forgiveness which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant others: but this … is put down simply as a mark, to distinguish the children of God from strangers.[9]” John Chrysostom said, “Nothing makes us so like God, as being ready to forgive the wicked and wrongdoers.[10]” William Hendriksen comments, “The power to believe and the power to forgive are from God.  At every step, beginning, middle and end, all along the way God is both present and active.[11]”  Our Lord and Saviour commands his disciples to forgive, and through the power of his Spirit at work in them enables all true believers to extend forgiveness to all; this not just a sign of them copying his example, but proof they are true children of their heavenly Father.

In Matthew 6:14-15 just after the Lord’s prayer, Jesus gives an even stronger warning to his followers, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Stott explains, “This does not mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven.  It is rather that God forgives only the penitent and that one of the chief evidence of true penitence is a forgiving spirit.[12]” Martyn Lloyd Jones says plainly, “If you are hard and unforgiving, there is no evidence that you have been forgiven.”[13]

The disciples wrestled with the practical outworking of forgiveness resulting in Peter seeking clarity. “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.[14]”  Jesus then goes on over the next 12 verses to tell a parable of a servant who had been forgiven a huge debt by the king, but rather than emulate the kindness he had been shown to someone who owes him a tiny debt in comparison, he brings punishment to the one in debt to him ensuring he will get back what he is owed.  When the King hears he is most displeased and says, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you.”  Then the King delivers his servant over to be punished until the debt is paid. Jesus concludes in Matthew 18:35 with, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Hendriksen commenting on this says, “the one and only main lesson of the parable is this: prompted by gratitude the forgiven sinner must always yearn to forgive whoever has trespassed against him.[15]” Richard France notes, “If the church is the community of the forgiven, then all its relationships will be marked by a forgiveness which is not a mere form of words, but an essential characteristic.[16]”  J.C. Ryle warns, “Do we want to give proof that we are at peace with God, washed in Christ’s blood, born of the Spirit, and made children of God by adoption and grace? Let us remember this passage. . . Do we want to grow in grace ourselves and become more holy in all our ways, words and works? Let us remember this passage.  Nothing so grieves the Holy Spirit and brings spiritual darkness over the soul as giving way to a quarrelsome and unforgiving temper (Ephesians 4:30-32).[17]” 

Part of the evidence of the sanctifying work of God’s grace in someone’s life is that they allow the Holy Spirit to produce forgiveness within their heart towards others who have wronged them, even in the most extreme ways.[18]  In reality by staying united as the Church of Jesus Christ then other people’s sins, unintentional and deliberate, from time to time will end up negatively impacting our life and vice versa.  Therefore, we have no right but to forgive as we have been forgiven in Christ.  However how this forgiveness is worked out practically day by day, is what we will focus on now based on some principles one can see in scripture.

Let love cover a multitude of sins

If we do a true evaluation of our own life, it becomes obvious that we are not always consistent.  There are days where sometimes we are just grumpier than others and this may in turn lead us to be oversensitive to what people do or say, or, say/do things we on a better day would not say/do.  There are days that we are so focused on one thing that we may unintentionally ignore or appear rude to others, and of course, what is true for us is also true for others.  

Therefore, as we live in community, we should be generous hearted towards one another and freely forgive these types of grievances.  Reminding ourselves of the Apostles Peter’s words to, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8.  Wayne Grudem writes, “Where love abounds in a fellowship of Christians, many small offences, and even some large ones, are readily overlooked and forgotten.  But where love is lacking, every word is viewed with suspicion, every action is liable to misunderstanding, and conflicts abound- to Satan’s perverse delight.[19]

In fact, 1 Peter 4:8 is quoting Proverbs 10:12 which makes clear that it is hatred that loves to stir up strife between people, love does the opposite.  So, as we give ourselves to love one another in this way we play our part in fulfilling Romans 12:16 encouragement to, “Live in harmony with one another.” 

Don’t assume people motives, choose to think, and speak well of them

In addition to letting love cover a multitude of sins, we must allow love to transform our heart and mind so that we aren’t looking for another’s faults or presuming that they are deliberately acting with wrong motives. 

Philippians 2:3 says, “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” NLT.  Ralph Martin notes, “True biblical humility was frowned upon in the ancient world as despicable … it was through the teaching of Jesus that it came to be seen as a virtue.[20]”  Gordon Fee adds, “Humility is a uniquely Christian virtue, which as with the message of a crucified Messiah, stands in utter contradiction to the values of the Greco-Roman world,[21]” and in truth our own sinful nature. 

Paul is also encouraging us to choose to think well of people, to look for the best in them, not focus just on their faults.  Too often we think better of ourselves than we should and are far harder on others than we are on ourselves.  Calvin wisely writes on this verse that the Godly person should, “Employ himself in correcting and detecting his own faults and he will have abundant cause for humility.  In others, on the other hand, he will in honour regard whatever there is of excellence, and in love bury their faults.  The man who observes this rule will have no difficulty in preferring others before himself.[22]” God calls us to humble ourselves and think better of others.  Hendrikson concludes, “It is a happy condition which arises when in a church each member counts the other to be better than himself.[23]

The truth is God has made us very complex beings and we don’t know what is going on in another person’s heart and mind.  We may be able to have a good guess, and of course the Holy Spirit may reveal things to us from time to time.  However, the Apostle Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 it is hard for us to be truly sure about what is going on in our own heart, let alone someone else’s.  “Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.[24]”  So guard your heart and mind around negative thoughts about other people’s motives and intentions. God knows and sees all, you do not.  Charles Hodge comments on this verse, “God alone can bring to light people’s secret acts and motives. . . He will exercise the prerogative of judging the heart and conscience – a prerogative that none but an omniscient being can rightfully claim or possibly exercise.[25]”   It is better to be wrong because we were being obedient in trying to think well of another believer and yet they were in fact concealing something, than be wrong because we were thinking less well of them when in fact their heart and motives were in a much more Godly place.  The former will not result in you being rewarded by God, whereas the later will result in your discipline!

Please note I am not saying we naively just view everyone as doing everything out of a good heart, we have to make judgements and set appropriate boundaries in place to protect ourselves, our family and if we are a leader the believers God has made us responsible for.  What I am addressing is a judgemental and critical heart attitude which so readily seeps into our lives, especially with people who think differently or are different from us.

In addition to our internal state, we must be careful about how we speak of others too.  Titus 3:2 “Remind them . . . to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Calvin writes about this verse, “Paul now lays down the way in which they can promote peace and friendship with all.[26]” If here Paul is applying this more generally to those outside of the church, how much more relevant should this be for us to apply to those we call brothers and sisters.

If the Church of Jesus Christ did this with its thoughts and words towards other Christians, so many conflicts, causes of offence and fall outs would be avoided; and thus, the need for forgiveness to be extended to others would be massively reduced.  This is something that through the power of the Holy Spirit we can all do better in, as we strive to be obedient to Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

The Matthew 18 principle for those within the church

Even with more people thinking and speaking well of others, this side of eternity we all fall into sin,[27] therefore there will be times due to the seriousness of the sin or it being frequently repeated, that whilst we continue to extend forgiveness personally, scripture also makes it clear that certain corrective measures should take place.  

Additionally, we must not be ignorant to the fact that within the church are those who Jesus described as “Wolves in sheep clothing.[28]” The Apostle Paul writes about them, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised.[29]” Jude v4 says, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”  The Apostle John notes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.[30]”  So some people are amongst us claiming to belong to Christ but they are there for their own ends, or due to the devil’s schemes, or a mixture of both; and thus, their behaviour must be dealt with not ignored for the protection of the Church. 

Matthew 18:15-17 tells us how to live a life of forgiveness, whilst not allowing people to continue unwillingly or willingly to treat you badly

“If your brother sins against you, go, and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”   

This process of dealing with the issue between you and another, in reality should be enough for two people whose heart desire is to please God, to resolve the problem and it often is.  It also as Calvin points out, “Prevents shame being brought on the brethren.[31]” Robert Leighton adds, “Love does not delight in the undue disclosing of a brothers failings,[32]” thus this is also part of letting love cover a multitude of sins.  However, if this still does not resolve the issue then raise the matter before others, most appropriately those in leadership within the church who have the authority to bring the issue to the whole church if things continue to be a problem.  Then you get the wisdom and input of others into the situation.  On a personal level forgiveness is still to be extended, but on a practical level, things have to change. 

If they don’t change it needs to be brought to the church’s attention and may result in the person causing the offence being put out of the church.  This discipline is of course done in the hope that they come to their senses, repent, and would seek to be restored back into the fellowship[33].

Forgiveness to those outside the church, boundaries, and the ongoing relationship

For those outside of the church the issue is slightly more nuanced and not really within the focus of this paper, other than to say the Lord’s prayer and his instructions on how to deal with our enemies shows clearly that forgiveness from the heart must be extended to them.  However, this does not mean that appropriate boundaries are not put in place to protect us from their mistreatment where possible.  If unlawful or criminal activity is being conducted by them towards us, then the appropriate authorities should be informed.  In fact, as good citizens we have a duty to inform the authorities not only for ourselves but for the future protection of others too.  However, our heart attitude and prayer for them should be one that extends forgiveness and desires that they too come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, so that they can be forgiven and transformed by the redeeming love of Christ.

Refocusing on the church: as we live this life of being forgiven by God and offering forgiveness to others, there are those because of their weaknesses (or yours) that this side of eternity that we may have to have certain relational boundaries in place for a time. These boundaries can help prevent the continual cycle of conflict over issues that are not serious enough to require church discipline.  These situations are not ideal and are best discussed with the leadership of a church for their input, but sadly they are the reality we must sometimes face before Christ returns.  To maintain unity with some, there may need to be some healthy boundaries between you for a season.  However, in these cases it is especially important that we watch our heart, mind, and mouth as stated above; and our prayer should be for increased unity and God’s blessing on that person you struggle with.  For in God’s sovereignty he may be allowing their weakness to produce greater Christ like character in you!


Having been forgiven so much by God through Jesus sacrificial death on the cross, we are once for all forgiven our great debt of sin by God, and instructed by him to forgive everyone who has sinned against us.  Jesus encourages all who follow him to pray “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.[34]” The Holy Spirit’s power is at work in all Christ’s followers to transform us to become more like Jesus[35], and a key part of becoming Christ like is to offer forgiveness to all who wrong us. 

Therefore, a life of forgiveness is just part of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in Christ’s disciples and is a genuine sign that God’s grace is at work in one’s life.


All bible quotes are from the ESV unless stated otherwise.

Barclay W. The Gospel of Matthew Vol 1, Saint Andrew Press, 1979

Barclay W. The Gospel of Matthew Vol 2, Saint Andrew Press, 1977

Barclays W. The Letters of the Philippians, Colossians & Thessalonians, Saint Andrew Press,1993

Calvin J. Commentaries: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Part 1, Forgotten Books, 2007

Calvin J. Commentaries: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Part 2, Forgotten Books, 2007

Calvin J. 2 Corinthians and Timothy, Titus and Philemon, Eerdmans, 1996

Calvin J. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Eerdmans, 1996

Calvin J. Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter, Eerdmans,1994

Davids P. The first epistle of Peter – NICNT, Eerdmans, 1990

Fee G. Paul’s letter to the Philippians – NICNT, Eerdmans 1995

France R. Matthew -Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, 1992

France R. The Gospel of Matthew NICNT, Eerdmans, 2007

Grudem W. 1 Peter – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, 1999,

Guthrie D. The Pastoral Epistles – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, 1989

Hendriksen W. The Gospel of Matthew, Banner of Truth, 1982

Hendriksen W. The Gospel of Luke, Banner of Truth, 1979

Hendriksen W. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, Baker Academic, 2007

Hendriksen W. & Kistemaker S. Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews, Baker Academic, 2004

Hodge C. 1 Corinthians, Crossway Classic Commentaries, 1995

Kistemaker S. James, Epistles of John, Peter and Jude, Baker Academic, 2007

Leighton R. & Thomas G. 1 and 2 Peter, Crossway Classic Commentaries, 1999

Lightfoot J.B. Philippians, Crossway Classic Commentaries, 1994

Martin R. Philippians – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, 1993

Nichols S. ESV Church History Study Bible, Crossway, 2023

Ryle J.C. Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries, 1993

Ryle J.C. Luke, Crossway Classic Commentaries, 1997

Stott J. The Sermon on the Mount BST, IVP, 2008

Stott J. The message of 1 Timothy and Titus BST, IVP, 2002

Towner P. The letters to Timothy and Titus – NICNT, Eerdmans, 2006

Wilcock M. The Message of Luke BST, IVP, 1979

[1] Ephesians 4:3

[2] Romans 5:9, Ephesians 1:7, Hebrew 8:12, 1 John 2:12

[3] Hebrews 10:14, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 1:30, Romans 10:4

[4] 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Corinthians 6:11

[5] Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 1:10, Hebrews 10:24-25, John 13:34-35, Acts 2:42-47

[6] Ephesians 4:32

[7] Stott 2008:p149

[8] Matthew 6:12

[9] Calvin 2007: Part 2 p303

[10] Nicols 2023:1423

[11] Hendriksen 1982:p335

[12] Stott 2008:p149

[13] Nicols 2023:1794

[14] Matthew 18:21-22

[15] Hendriksen 1982:p709

[16] France 1992:p278

[17] Ryle 1993:p166-167

[18] Acts 7:60

[19] Grudem 1999:p173-174

[20] Martin 1993:p97

[21] Fee 1995:p189

[22] Calvin 1996:p246

[23] Hendrikson 2007:p101

[24] 1 Corinthians 4:5

[25] Hodge 1995:p78-79

[26] Calvin 1996:p377

[27] 1 John 1:8-10

[28] Matthew 7:15

[29] 1 Corinthians 11:19

[30] 1 John 2:19

[31] Calvin 2007:Part 2 p317

[32] Leighton 1999:p201

[33] 2 Corinthians 2:5-11

[34] Luke 11:4 NLT

[35] 2 Corinthians 3:17-18