The Virtue of Forgiveness

Christian virtues reflect the awesome character of God. He has purposefully designed that his glory be displayed through believers in Jesus Christ whose lives reflect their new hearts. God’s attribute of forgiveness is beautifully imaged whenever Christians imitate the gospel of God’s gracious forgiveness to others. It is also crucial to enjoying intimate fellowship with God. That is why Jesus tells his followers to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He closely links a Christian’s forgiveness from God with forgiveness of others. As necessary and vital as it is, C. S. Lewis regards the virtue of forgiveness as the most unpopular: “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”1 Perhaps it’s because Christians tend to forget the enormity of their own sin that has been so freely forgiven. Luke records an incident that reminds us of our tendency to self-righteousness in the face of God’s abundant forgiveness.

An inquisitive Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to a dinner party. People from the nearby area begin to gather and enjoy his hospitality. The guests are reclining around the serving table with their soiled feet at the outer edge of the circle. Suddenly, a woman of less than honorable reputation approaches Jesus, dining near his host, and attracts everyone’s attention. What surprises Simon particularly is her audacious action – she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears of joy and pours out a jar of expensive perfume on them. Although the use of perfume was common in a world where lack of hygiene normalized foul smelling odors, her act was extraordinary because this costly perfume was valued at 300 denarii – about a full year’s wages! The woman uses no words. Her action needs no explanation. In the sight of guests and for Jesus alone, this woman spills out her life’s investment in an act of utter devotion.

Simon, self-respecting religious leader that he is, inwardly objects to Jesus’ seeming ignorance of the woman’s sinful reputation.2 Jesus responds as a prophet to this unspoken criticism. Using an illustration from the marketplace, Jesus addresses Simon by describing debtors unable to pay their loans. One loan was for about two years’ wages, while the other owed only two months’ wages, a mere ten percent of the former. Both were at the point of bankruptcy and unable to pay their debts, yet they were shown an unexpected measure of grace – the lender “canceled the debt of both” by zeroing out their balances (Luke 7:42). (The Greek word for “canceled” can also be translated “showed them grace” or “forgave” them,3 indicating that in the heart of forgiveness lies the disposition of free grace.)

At this point Jesus seeks to draw the hardhearted Pharisee to see his need of forgiveness as a debt to God that he cannot pay. Jesus asks him, “Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:42). Simon correctly responds by answering that the one with the larger debt has a greater reason to love the one who forgave him. At this Jesus chides him for not extending the expected first century courtesy: “You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:46-47). Simon thinks that he had much less to repay than the sinful woman. In fact, he had just as much! Self-righteousness is a far greater barrier to true righteousness than blatant sin. The woman acknowledged her utter sinfulness and inability to achieve right standing with God. By faith she trusted Jesus for divine forgiveness, and he responded, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).

This woman’s example becomes the paradigm for every Christian. Only when we continually remember our spiritual bankruptcy before a holy God and persistently embrace his free gift of forgiveness by faith alone will we truly forgive others. This difficult yet beautiful display of our own salvation overflows to others in need of God’s grace. This is why we must “preach the gospel to ourselves every day.” The joy we experience when we realize again and again that our sin debt is wiped out by the cross of Christ will continually soften our hard hearts. Then we can exhibit the virtue of forgiveness, offering to those who wrong us that very same heart of forgiveness that God shows us.

Do the words of this Puritan prayer, “The Broken Heart,” reflect your heart?

O Lord … I am guilty, but pardoned, lost, but saved,
wandering, but found, sinning, but cleansed.
Give me perpetual broken-heartedness,
Keep me always clinging to thy cross,
Flood me every moment with descending grace,
Open to me the springs of divine knowledge,
Sparkling like crystal, flowing clear and unsullied
through my wilderness of life.4

William Krewson, PhD, is the Chair of the Undergraduate Programs in Philadelphia Biblical University’s School of Bible and Ministry [now Cairn University’s School of Divinity]. He has taught at PBU since 1996. He can be reached at bkrewson@cairn.edu. 

Notes:
1C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952), 115.
2The woman is unnamed.  She is not Mary Magdalene who is introduced in Luke 8:2. Although Christian tradition considers her to have been a prostitute, this is nowhere stated or implied.
3The verb is used extensively by Paul (Rom. 8:32; 1Co. 2:12; 2Co. 2:7, 10; 12:13; Gal. 3:18; Eph. 4:32; Phi. 1:29; 2:9; Col. 2:13; 3:13; Philem. 22).
4The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayer and Devotions, Arthur Bennett, ed. (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1975), 150-151.