To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner was you.

Lewis B Smedes

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The dictionary defines the verb “to forgive” as follows:


1.)  to grant pardon for or remission of

absolve (an offense, debt, etc.);      


2.) to give up all claim on account of;            

  remit   (a debt, obligation, etc.);


3.) to cease to feel resentment against;


4.) to cancel an indebtedness or liability. 


It is of extreme importance to note that everything about this definition implies that a debt is owed or an offence has been committed. 

To forgive is not to deny or minimize the damages caused by another’s actions or intent, but to absolve the guilty party from them.

It is interesting that one definition of “absolve” provided by the dictionary is

“to set free, or release”.

This is a profound truth, but when forgiveness occurs, who is really set free? 

When unforgiveness persists, who remains imprisoned? 

Let’s examine this from the perspective of the one in Scripture who talked most about forgiveness and unforgiveness and practiced the former perfectly. 

This, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ.

On at least two occasions Jesus spoke on forgiveness in a way that has brought many believers to grief.  They imply from these statements that the forgiveness of God is conditional and at any time they may remove themselves from that forgiveness by their actions, and once again be found guilty before God. 

This seems to fly in the face of the Gospel, which evangelical believers have been taught is the unconditional grace, mercy and forgiveness of God through our union with His Son Jesus Christ. 

What are these statements and what do they teach us? 

How are they reconciled with the evangelical view of the Gospel? 

Let’s look at these passages and hopefully answer these questions.

The first occurs in of all places in the Lord’s Prayer, given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  Virtually every child in Sunday school can recite this prayer, which contains the statement

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

(Matthew 6:12; NASB). 

What does this petition imply? 

That we are only forgiven by God to the extent we forgive? 

Notice two things

1) there are “debts” owed us, and

2) we are all also “debtors”. 

Consider that the purpose of this petition we make to God is to help us understand our own situation and that we are not

“debt free”.

This helps us keep things in the proper perspective and sensitive to the fact that we have been forgiven much, and God does expect us to show our gratitude by doing the same for others.

This point is emphasized in a parable Jesus told in Matthew 18.  Peter had somewhat sanctimoniously asked about the extent of forgiveness God expects of us.  To what was certainly his shock and dismay, the Lord said

“up to seventy times seven times”.

This was a Jewish idiom of the day that might be compared to our phrase

“forever and a day”.

Jesus was in fact saying there was to be no end to our forgiving.  He then told this parable to illustrate this.  Again this has cause some to see a contradiction to the unconditional forgiveness offered to us in the Gospel. 

The story involved a man who owed his king a vast sum of money, one that he could hardly repay in his lifetime.  The king felt compassion for the man and forgave all his debt.  After that, the forgiven man went out and encountered another man who owed him a much smaller sum.  He grabbed the man by the neck and demanded payment, and then had him thrown into prison until he repaid the debt.  The king heard of this and was furious.  He hauled the man in and said

“I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave,

in the same way that I had mercy on you?’”

(Matthew 18:32-33; NASB). 

What follows has disturbed many believers. 

“And his lord,

moved with anger,

handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 


My heavenly Father will also do the same to you,

if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.

(Matthew 18:34-35; NASB). 

Whoa, does this mean if one does not forgive he is damned of God? 

On the surface it may seem so, but let’s look further. 

The word


is legitimately often translated


While this word is often associated with physical brutality and pain, it can also mean

“to worry or disturb”, or to cause “anguish”.

In other parables, Jesus spoke of the unworthy as being

“cast out into “outer darkness”,

implying an eternal state with no option for restoration. 

This is NOT the case in this parable, and that is an extremely important point. 

There is a duration implied in the punishment, and ultimately a way out, albeit a difficult one! 

Please consider that the point of this parable is that if we do not forgive, God will allow us to be

“tormented and imprisoned”

until we come to our senses and forgive. 

The question was asked previously,

whom does unforgiveness imprison,

the offender or the unforgiving one offended? 


* * * * *

It would seem Scripture,

and life experiences,

would say the latter.


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Two Real Life Stories Illustrate This. 

Corrie ten Boom lived with her family in Haarlem, Holland during the Nazi occupation.  She and all her family were devout believers and horrified at the Nazi persecution of the Jews.  At great risk, they hid as many Jews as they could in a secret place in their home.  Ultimately they were betrayed and all sent to concentration camps where all the family but Corrie perished.  She was miraculously released and went on to have a decades long ministry.  On one occasion she was speaking on forgiveness, and after her talk a man approached her.  Suddenly her blood ran cold, for she recognized the man as one of the sadistic guards in the concentration camp where she had been imprisoned and her beloved sister had died.  Unbelievably, the man asked for her forgiveness!  Here she was, preaching and teaching on the love of God and His forgiveness, and how He expects us to do the same, and now she was confronted with the greatest challenge possible to test her faith in what she was saying.  She later recounted that only by surrendering to the Holy Spirit at that moment was she able to forgive, but she praised God for that, because she knew had she not forgiven, her ministry would have come to naught and she would have experienced the “tormentors”.


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Another true story involved a British man who had been a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.   The horror of these camps and the mistreatment the prisoners received from their captors is legendary.  The man survived and returned to England, married and appeared to be living a normal life.  Decades later a Japanese Christian lady living in England was led by the Holy Spirit to attempt a reconciliation between those who had been wronged during the war by the Japanese military and the Japanese people.  With much courage and persistence she was able to arrange for these men to go to Japan and work through what she knew were their resentments and even hatred.  The gentleman in this story was unwilling and particularly hostile to the whole idea.  He had a committed and persistent wife, though, and she finally convinced him to go.  Throughout the visit, he set his jaw and did not soften his stance.  Suddenly, while walking in one town a little Japanese girl came up and held his hand.  Unbelievably, he immediately burst out into tears and much like lancing an infected area and letting the poison out, the resentment and unforgiveness poured out of him.  His wife confided that in all the years after the war, he had been a closed and disturbed man, rarely experience a full night of restful sleep.  After that incident in Japan, he was able to forgive and was released from his prison and free from his tormentors. 

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Unforgiveness is an ironic thing.

It is a self-inflicted punishment by the victim of an offence while intended to hurt the perpetrator. 

Have you been offended?

Is a debt owed to you?

These offenses may be very real, and very severe.  Consider the two individuals in the preceding stories.  They were truly grievously offended.  Also consider, however, that not forgiving the offender does not erase the offence!  It remains, but by not forgiving the wrong is compounded by imprisoning and continuing to torment you. 

In a sense, your unforgiveness actually allows the offender to inadvertently hurt you further. 

Many sins contain within themselves their negative consequences, and unforgiveness is one of them. 


unforgiveness is a sin,

but with the help of the Holy Spirit you can be free from this sin and escape the clutches of the



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