Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Christians must no longer live in the futility of disobedience that characterizes those who are not in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:17-19). Christians are those who are to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, living in a manner that accords with the righteousness and holiness they possess now in Christ (Ephesians 4:20-24).
God’s people are to put off falsehood, ungodly anger, theft, slander, and all the other vices that define those in Adam and not those in Christ. Christian living also consists of more than mere behavior modification or certain behaviors. Sure, there are positive behaviors we are to model, such as telling the truth, engaging in honest labor, using edifying speech, and more (Ephesians 4:25-31). Staying away from sin is insufficient. Paul teaches us, for we need to cultivate righteous living because of the gospel, we profess as God’s people. John Chrysostom, an early church father, acclaimed for his preaching skills, writes that “to be free from a bad habit does not mean we have formed a good one. We need to take the further step of forming good habits and dispositions to replace what we have left behind” (ACCNT 8, p. 171).
Our passage today describes another habit that should define Christians- the practice of kindness and forgiveness. Such a calling is integral to our salvation in Christ. Jesus in Matthew 6:14-15 says that our forgiveness of others is tied directly to God’s pardoning of our sins. Jesus does not mean that we merit divine forgiveness by extending grace to those who offend us. Forgiveness is a gift of God, and we do nothing to earn it (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those whom the Lord forgives understand the depth of their depravity and that they are wholly undeserving of the mercy of God. They also realize that since the Lord forgives them, they who are imperfect people can do no less.
Genuine forgiveness is a natural overflow of what we believe about forgiveness and protrudes from the fount of God’s grace to other sinners. God, Himself is kind to His covenant people, maintaining His steadfast love to His children when they go astray (Jeremiah 33:10-11). When we have this similar kind of love for fellow Christians, we will always be quick to forgive others.
The steadfast love and kindness for fellow Christians should make Christians eager to forgive one another. Forgiveness should mark and define God’s people. 1 John 2:9 says, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” Do you love your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? If you do, then you long for their restoration and are eager to forgive them when they ask for your pardon. Such an attitude will be present whether they sin against you once or repeatedly.
In Ephesians 4:31-32, we have an explanation, example, and encouragement about forgiveness. Occasionally you hear Christians struggle over whether they need to forgive if someone who has sinned against them has not yet repented or repented well enough. The problem with such an approach is that it confuses pardon and forgiveness. This passage places forgiveness in the context of putting malice aside: “Get rid of … every form of malice …, forgiving each other” (Eph. 4:31d, 32).
One does not have to remove all consequences for sin (i.e., to pardon) to forgive. It may be just and necessary for an offender to suffer consequences for wrong, but the motive of the one imposing or requiring the consequences cannot be malicious. We are not permitted to desire the ultimate harm of the offender. The gospel always provides hope, always seeks restoration. Even when the criminal is sentenced, and we properly rejoice to see justice done, the Christian also desires to see the offender recognize the sin, repent, and know spiritual restoration. Forgiveness does not require pardon from consequences; it requires an absence of malice (i.e., no desire for the person’s spiritual harm) even in the application of those consequences. We may well desire justice, but desires for personal revenge or spiritual damage are not our right as Christians.
We are given the example of Christ to remind us why we who represent him are to forgive (Eph. 4:32). He died for us while we were yet his enemies. He calls us his own and covers us with the benefits of his own blood when we abuse his grace and continue to sin against him. His example tells us the nature of true forgiveness. But who can express such forgiveness, perfectly or fully, when we have been grievously sinned against?
For such a question, we also have the encouragement of Christ. Even when your forgiveness is not all that he requires, remember, “God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). He even forgives your lack of forgiveness that dishonors him. When we see the irony of this and the sweetness of it, we are made more willing to forgive—to reflect the Christlikeness that is our own hope that, when expressed, makes him more real in our life and for those people in our life.
The refusal to forgive, in all its forms and manifestations, is fundamentally contrary to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who testifies of the Savior who gave himself for us while we were yet his enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). This is why the apostle culminates his positive instruction of being “kind and compassionate” (Eph. 4:32a) with the imperative to “forgiv[e] each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32b). This is more than simply a dull obligation to do to others as Christ has done to you because we can never as fully or perfectly love as Jesus does. If this were all that is in the requirement, then we would be burdened rather than helped. Rather, the apostle lifts our heads to see what our commitment to forgiving attitudes and actions accomplishes. By forgiving, we do become Christ to others. By bearing in our bodies the weight of unjust accusation, undeserved pain, and unretaliated harm, we are the Holy Spirit’s message of Jesus to others. By the practice of forgiveness, we have the privilege of being a living witness to the One we most love, and who has loved us eternally and sacrificially. This is the ultimate motivation that gives us joy in our suffering, strength for obedience, and love for his commands. My life will never deserve his love, but my life can reflect his love; and because I love him, I will live for him in what I say and think and do.