Matthew 18:15–20 gives us the pattern we should follow when someone has sinned against us, but what does it mean to forgive in the first place? For an answer, let us look to God the Father, the One who has perfectly modeled forgiveness for us. When God forgives us, He no longer holds our sins against us. He no longer condemns us. Our fellowship with Him is no longer disrupted. This is because Jesus Christ has suffered sin’s full penalty for all those who trust in Him.
We forgive others because God has forgiven us. Jesus taught us to pray to the Father, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Like God, to forgive someone means to no longer hold sin against the person who has sinned against you. When we forgive someone, we are once again in a positive relationship with them.
Forgiving someone, however, does not mean that the offender experiences no consequences for his or her actions. When grievous harm is done, consequences ensue. We see this in our relationship with God. If, for example, we were to steal something, the Lord will forgive us if we repent. But that does not mean we will not have to suffer criminal punishment or pay back the person from whom we stole. God forgave David for his sin with Bathsheba, but that sin had severe consequences that followed him the rest of his life in the form of family turmoil (see 2 Samuel). We can and must forgive those who have sinned against us, but when criminal behavior is involved in the sin, it should be reported to the civil authorities, whom God gave to protect us from evildoers (Rom. 13:1–7).
Someone who comes to you and asks for forgiveness is showing a sign of repentance. We should never withhold forgiveness from someone who asks for it from us (see Matt. 18:21, 22; Luke 17:3). If we do not forgive someone who asks, we do not display the richness of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ (see Matt. 18:23–35).
Sin is a sad reality of life in a fallen world, and it has major consequences. Jesus Christ willingly gave His life for our sins. Our forgiveness came at an unimaginable price. The beauty of the Christian life is that we can forgive others in a way that God has forgiven us.