"Forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."-Eph. iv, 32.
Under these words, "even as," and the relation or comparison they introduce, a very serious and high truth is presented; viz., that our human or Christian forgivenesses are to correspond with the forgiveness of sins by Christ himself; to be cast in the same molds of quality and bestowed under similar conditions. And that we may not fail of receiving such an impression, the principle or idea is made to recur many times over, and in such ways that we can not miss of it, or throw a doubt upon it. Thus we read again-"forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any; even as Christ forgave you so also do ye." Again, in the gospels, it is given us in Christ's own words-"forgive, and ye shall be forgiven"-"for if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses." He will not even allow us to pray for forgiveness, save as we ourselves forgive-"Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us." All this on the ground that there is such an analogy between the forgiveness of Christ to us, and ours to our brethren and our fellow-men, as makes them virtually alike in spirit and kind, though not equal of course in degree. The quality of the virtue, the greatness of feeling, and height of meaning, will be so far correspondent, at least, that the smaller will represent the larger, and, according to its measure, reveal the same properties.
I state the point thus distinctly, because, in the matter of forgiveness among men, a kind of lapse, or sinking of grade, appears to have somehow occurred; so that, holding still the duty of forgiveness, we have it in a form so cheap and low, as to signify little when it is practiced. "O, yes," says the brother, finally worn out by much expostulation, on account of the grudge he is holding against another who has greatly injured him, "I will forgive him, but I hope never to see him again." Christ does not say that to the man whom he forgives, and I suppose it would commonly be regarded among brethren, as a rather scant mode of forgiveness-such a mode of it as scarcely fulfills the idea. Another degree of it, which would probably pass, says-"Yes, let him come to me and ask to be forgiven, and it will be time for me to answer him." Probably a quotation is made, in this connection, of the scripture text which says-"If thy brother repent forgive him." And most certainly he should be thus forgiven, when the repentance appears to be an actual and present fact; but suppose that no such repentance has yet appeared. Is it then enough to say, "let him come and ask to be forgiven?" Many think so, and the argument appears to be conclusive, when they demand-"How can I be expected to forgive, where there is no repentance, and the wrong is just as stubbornly adhered to as ever? What but a mockery is it for me to forgive, when there is no forgiveness wanted, and my adversary has not even come into the right?"
Well then, suppose that Christ had stopped just there. Nobody is asking to be forgiven, all are in their sins and mean to be there. They love their sins. They have asked no release or forgiveness. They are not repentant in the least degree? What then is there for him to do? Is he not absolved from any such matter as the preparing and publishing of forgiveness, by the simple fact that nobody wants it, or asks for it?" "If they were penitent," he might say, "it would lay a heavy charge upon me. But they are not, and what is forgiveness thrust upon souls that do not even so much as care for it?"
Why, my friends, it is just here that Christ and his gospel begin-just here, in fact, that his forgiveness begins; viz., in for-giving, giving himself for, and to, the blinded and dead heart of unrepentant men, to make them penitent, and regain them to God. The real gist of his forgiveness antedates their. penitence; it is what he does, shows, suffers, in a way of gaining his enemy-bringing him off and away, that is, from his wrongs, to seek, and, in a true sorrow, find, the forgiveness that has been searching beforehand so tenderly after him.
If we are to understand this matter accurately, as it stands in the New Testament, we need to observe that two very distinct and, in some respects, dissimilar Greek words are employed here, to denote the virtue under consideration; both of which are translated by the single, very beautiful, but strangely dishonored English word, forgiveness. One signifies merely a letting go, a release of charges, an exemption from punishment, the merely negative good of not being held in condemnation; a word accurately translated here and there by the word "remission." The other signifies the very positive and operative matter of sacrifice and suffering to gain the heart of an adversary; that which not merely lets go, but prepares men to be let go. Literally this word means "to bestow grace." Thus in the text, where it is translated forgive, we may read-"dealing grace, one towards another, even as God for Christ's sake, hath dealt grace towards you." There is also this remarkable contrast between the two words, translating both by forgiveness, that one fixes on the very last point, or final effect of forgiveness, viz., the release, the letting go of charges, the absolution which says, "go in peace;" and the other finds its main idea in the first things of forgiveness, the love, the going after, the giving-for, by which the soul is taken hold of sooner than it asks to be; that which did not wait for penitence to come, that it might let penitence go, but which undertook to bring on penitence, prepare it, melt the heart into it, and so to execute the letting go of the soul, by making the sins let go of it.
Now both of these words are names, we have said, of the same grace; viz., the grace of forgiveness; only one names it from a last incident or effect, and the other from the initiative movement of love and operative goodness, in which it took its spring-just as one might name the dawn, as a mere effect, or call it the sunrising, as denoting the cause or spring of the returning light; where of course the names are coincident, though inherently different from each other. In the present case, there is an immense difference between the two words employed, as regards the dignity and the real amount of their meaning-all the moral greatness, or high beneficence, appears to lie in the grace-dealing of love and sacrifice that prepares the remission; and yet when the lower, feebler word is used, as it is in a majority of cases, all that is in the other word is supposed to pass into its meaning, and keep along with it. Nothing is further off from Christ and his apostles, than to suppose, in any case, that the forgiveness they speak of is nothing but the simple letting. go of charges against the penitent. They have it understood always that the grand reality of the forgiveness preached is that which went before, in the putting by of so much injured feeling, the going after them that want no forgiveness, the giving for, and suffering for, by which they may be drawn to God;-just that which is described historically and transactionally, when the apostle says, "Who gave himself a ransom for all," "who gave himself for me." For it is precisely this which goes into the higher word "grace-dealing" and composes the reality of its meaning. This is the grace, that Christ gives himself for us, and so works in us, by his sacrifice, that we are transformed, reconciled, covered in with God's feeling, in one word, forgiven.
Do not understand me to say that the higher Greek word is made up of the verb to give, with the preposition for, like our English word. It is not; it signifies literally and simply "dealing grace," or "doing grace upon;" which is represented by the genius of our tongue, in the word "for-giving;" and, what is remarkable, the Latin and all the principal modern tongues, [as in con-dono, par-don, ver-geben,] make up their word signifying remission in the same way, by compounding their verb to give with a preposition answering to for; giving it, as it were by vote, and declaring it as their inward sense or conviction, that the true forgiving of wrong and evil is that which has its beauty and greatness and the spring of its operative power, in a giving-for the sinners and the sins to be forgiven.
And lest this might seem to be scarcely better than a suggestion of the fancy, or a curiosity of speech, let us glance a moment at the practical, or practically Christian, import of forgiveness when it is received. What is it practically to us, or in us? What does it do for us? What internal changes of position, or experience, does it bring? Answering these questions, we shall find that forgiveness, when ascribed to Christ, has suffered a lapse or fall in our understanding, much like that which it has suffered when applied to men. For the word is taken by multitudes, including even teachers of theology, as if it had no reach of meaning above the lower and more negative of the two words just referred to. Thus we say that Christ first prepares a ground of forgiveness, by suffering before God (penally or not penally) in a manner to even the account of our sin; and then, having magnified the justice of God, he is able to let go, remit, release the charge of, in that sense, forgive, our sin. Well, suppose the absolution is passed and we are let go, declared to be let go, as I let go verbally my enemy when I forgive him. What does this signify, that God has let go, taken off all charges against, his enemy? Just nothing but a most barren mockery, unless he has somehow got into the man's bosom and executed his pardon, by making the sins let go of him. And precisely here is the stress, the struggle, the wonder and glory of the forgiveness; that Christ, going before, has gotten him away from his sin; and, in all this previous grace-dealing, the reality of the letting go, otherwise nothing but empty words, is accomplished. Why, the man to be redeemed had a hell of retributive causes tearing in his disordered nature, and the mere letting him go only lets him have that hell to himself! No, the grand effort of forgiveness begins farther back, in what is undertaken for the sinner to win upon him, change him, get him loose from sin, loose from retribution, and then the letting go is only the ending off, or completion declared. And so the real forgiveness is that Jesus came, to be for his adversary and execute the great release in him. Long ages ago, before the foundation of the world, his mind of love began to grapple with the wrong and bitter woe of his adversary. He was not saying, "let him come to me, in his day, and ask it if he will, and then I will forgive him;" as little was it in him to say, "let him be a better man and by-gones shall be by-gones." But he was the Lamb slain already. He was contriving how to get beforehand in his forgiveness, postponing his just indignations, laying himself into the case of his adversaries to gain them back, planning a descent into the flesh and a suffering life-giving himself for, in a word forgiving, in all profoundest reality of feeling, ages before they arrive, and of course before they come to ask forgiveness. And when they come along in their day, and say for their scanty testimony in receiving such a grace, "Christ has let us go, Christ has remitted our sins," he will himself have a deeper solution, in the consciousness of having long ago given himself for them, and had the enjoyment of their forgiven state. Neither will he ever think of it as any fit summation of his work in the world, to say that he has first prepared a ground of forgiveness, and then that having made forgiveness safe in that manner, he is able to release or let go, or in that sense forgive sins. No, but he will understand that he was lifted up to draw men away from their sins, and be the release in them; that, by showing how God suffers in feeling for sinners, he has gotten a power in their feeling; in a word, that, by giving himself for his adversaries, in such burdens of sympathy, and fear, and care, and against such tempests of murderous and bloody wrong, he has slid himself into the secret place of their sins and made them all let go-in that manner executed the release; so that now he can say, with real truth in the words, "thy sins are forgiven thee."
We go back now from this excursion, to the subject-matter at which we began; viz., the duty of forgiveness between brethren, or. fellow-men. And we carry back this very important principle or discovery; that the reality of forgiveness, or the grace of a forgiving spirit in us, lies not so much in our ability to let go, or to be persuaded to let go, the remembrance of injuries, as in what we are able to do, what volunteer sacrifices to make, what painstaking to undergo, that we may get our adversary softened, to want, or gently accept, our forgiveness. If it is in us to forgive, in any real and properly Christian sense of the term, it will not be that we can somehow be gotten down to it, by the expostulations of brethren, nor that we only do not expressly claim a right to stay in our grudge, or the hurt feeling raised by the wrongs of our adversary, till he comes to us in a better mind. Perhaps he ought to come, or to have come long ago, but that is nothing as regards our justification. If we know how to forgive, we shall be like Christ our Master, we shall be giving ourselves for our adversary, circumventing him by our prayers, contriving ways to reach his tenderness and turn the bad will he is in, taking pains, even to the extent of great loss and suffering, that we may get him into the right again; thus to accept our remission, and be joined to us openly for Christ our Master's sake.
But this, it may be objected, carries the obligation too high-Christ was a peculiar being, in a very peculiar office, and it can not be expected of us to follow him and be like him, in what belonged rather to his official work, than to the merely inherent principle of personal excellence in his character. Now it may be very true that we are not called to work out the same problems of divine government, but we are required to have, in our degree, exactly the same modes of character, and all that he did was the simple coming out of his character. He had no good ways, or qualities, that were more than good, no merits of character that were superlative and above all the known standards of merit. On the contrary one of the great and blessed objects of his mission was to consist, in the true unfolding of God's feelings, graces, perfections, so as to draw us into the same, or impregnate our fallen life with the same. No matter what relations he may have filled, or solved, in the great mystery of government, still every thing he undertook and bore was for forgiveness' sake, and: he had precisely the same reasons of feeling for withholding himself that we have, when we withhold from our adversaries. He had his personal indignations against the wrong of transgressors, he had his disgusts towards their character, he had feelings wounded by the sense of their wrongs, and if he could have let a little pride play among his passions, he would have had his bitter, invincible grudges against them; so that when he thought of them he would have said, "I want no more to do with them. Perhaps I will consider them, if they come to me in a better mind, but until they. do, I shall let them take the wages of their sin, giving myself no farther trouble." The only reason why he did not do this was that he was too perfect in excellence to do it. He must dispense forgiveness. He must go before, and give himself for, and watch, and wait, and suffer, and sue, at the gate of his adversaries. And w1ly not we? Because, says the objection, Christ was peculiar, and could do things out of his peculiarity that are too high for us. No! no! his great peculiarity was that he could be right. "Faithful and just," says an apostle, "to forgive us our sins." He could not be faithful to his trust as Creator and Lord, could not be consciously just or righteous, (for that is what the term here means,) if he did not prepare and offer the forgiveness of sins. If there be some kind of rectoral, or public, justice that required to be maintained by some fit compensation, or compensative expression, that is another matter, but there wanted nothing in him better than that most solid justice, which is everlasting, immutable, righteousness, to make him a forgiver of sin. And in all that you distinguish of a nobler and diviner life, in his bearing of his enemies and their sins, he is simply showing what belongs, in righteousness, to every moral nature from the Uncreated Lord down to the humblest created intelligence. Forgiveness, this same Christly forgiveness, belongs to all; to you, to me, to every lowest mortal that bears God's image.
Do we, then, undertake to say, that there is no salvation, out of this same Christly forgiveness-has no mana right to expect salvation, whose soul hangs fire at the point of such forgiveness? must he forgive, in this Christly manner, going before and giving himself for, his adversary, if he is to be forgiven? What then does the Saviour himself say to this? When he has taught you to pray-"forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," and has added, "but if ye forgive not men. their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses," what does it mean, or to what does it bring you? Can you turn off the bad conclusion, by contriving a sort of forgiveness that is lower, such barely as can manage to choke down a grudge, or not choke down an adversary, when he comes to ask a reconciliation? And was that Christ's meaning? was he saying "forgive in your own sense, or else I will not forgive in mine?" O, these niggard forgivenesses! He would even make you repent of them! He wants you to be with him in his own! He wants such a feeling struggling in your bosom, that you can not bear to have an adversary, can not rest from your prayers and sacrifices and the life-long suit of your concern, till you have gained him away from his wrong, and brought him into peace. This in fact is salvation; to be with Christ, in all the travail of his forgivenesses.
Besides, there is another answer to this question of salvation. As we just now said that Christ was simply fulfilling the right in his blessed ways of forgiveness, so we may conceive that he is simply fulfilling the eternal love. For what is right coincides with love, and love with what is right. Now Christ is in this kind of forgiveness-unable to stand for the relenting of his adversaries, going before them, and giving himself for them-just because it is in the nature of love to do so. For it is a vicarious principle and must insert itself into whatever sorrow,, sin, suffering, danger, it looks upon; and, for this most affecting reason, can not rest till it has either gotten its adversary to its bosom, or discovered the impossibility that he ever should be. Are we then to look for salvation, when we are out of this- love? What do we most readily believe and most commonly hold, but that our salvation lies in loving God and having his love upon us. The being in heaven's love is, we all agree, the bond of heaven's perfectness, the very life and constituent beatitude of heaven itself. And what will this love do in us but just what it does in Christ? If it keeps down all grudges and hard judgments in him, if it makes forgiveness his dearest opportunity, if it puts him into the case of his adversary, bearing his wrongs, and contriving only how to prepare him to forgiveness-if, I say, the love so works in him, what will it do and how will it work in you? Let it not be disguised from you, that there are many kinds of mock love, and but one that is true, even that which works so sublimely in the self-sacrificing ways of Jesus our Master. Thus there is a theologic love, a state that is tested by merely defined contrasts of feeling, apart from any effects in the practical sacrifices of the life. There is also a sentimental love, taken with God's beauty. And again there is a philanthropic love, which is caught with great expectations for man, coming out of its own prodigious, better than Christian, reforms. Now the test of all these mock species of love is that there is no forgiveness in them. You may be in this, or that, or all of them, and they will not help you to bear one enemy, or put you into any tender ways of seeking after an adversary. Could there be any more damning evidence against your love, whether it be the defined evangelical, or the sentimental, or the philanthropic, than that there is no Christly forgiveness in it? That being true, how is any salvation to come out of it? No, my friends, this is the love-the only true-"Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."
Taking now this high view of the Christian spirit as related to Christ, it would not surprise me, if there should be a feeling of special revulsion, or repulsion, rising up in some of your hearts, to thrust away even farther than ever the claims of religion. "I could not be a Christian after this kind," you will say, "and I never can be. If I must forgive all the wrongs I meet, after this manner, I must give up any right to be a proper man. Such a volunteering of forgiveness before it is sought, and even when smarting under the bitter wrongs of an enemy, is too spiritless and weak in the look of it-I could not endure being held down to any such forgiving way." All this, my friends, may be very true, regarding only the present key of your feeling and life-I presume it is. But it may be equally true, at the same time, that your judgment is a false one, and that this very impossible looking forgiveness, when you are once really in it, by the grace of God, will be such an element of dignity, and rest, and strength, and conscious superiority to all wrong-doers and wrongs, that you will even seem to be raised by it in the relative grade of your nature itself. Why, my friends, instead of being humbled, and tamed, and put in mortification, by this entering into forgiveness with Christ, you will ascend rather into greatness and conscious sovereignty with him, and will then, for the first time, begin to conceive what it is to be. free and a king! No, the forgiveness you so much distaste is probably not the forgiveness I describe, but the low, false kind of your old associations; that niggard, misnamed forgiveness that cheapens the grace by putting all sacrifice out of question, and makes it distasteful by reducing it to so low a figure, that pride can be just goaded into it. Sticking fast in its bitternesses, resentments, and grudges, and contriving how little and late to forgive, it is only dogged into some verbal letting go, which is the more certainly cross to self-respect, that there is no genuine meaning in it, and nothing genuine but the fit mortification. Not so is it, but far otherwise, with the really Christly forgiveness. Here the soul has a really great feeling to begin with, and the moment it undertakes for its adversary, it goes above him. No matter what his power and the dignity of his station, the humblest peasant puts him under, when he begins to pray for him, and contrive and labor for his sake. No matter what, or how great, the wrong you have suffered, the way to make it greater is to hug it fast in grudges and blistering resentments. Pride, passion, hate, will make a great wrong out of a very small one; but in the true forgiveness, you ascend to a range of feeling so high, so immovably serene, that the greatest wrong looks small under you, and quite as truly the greatest wrong-doer. O, there is no greatness possible to man, none that lifts him so nearly out of the world, and above it, as the true Christly forgiveness. This was the greatness of Christ himself. Did any being ever tread the world in such majesty as he? And his wrongs were bitter enough, and his adversaries high enough, and, what is quite as conspicuous, he keeps the true sense always of their wrongs, and hates the hateful in their sins, and feels a fit disgust for what is disgusting in their character, holding all his judgments level and true, as if he were going to proceed entirely by them; yet giving himself, as it were out of majesty, for the wrongs he condemns and the enemies he is obliged to pity. Do you call this an humble, mortifying key to live in? Must you shrink from this? Why, my friends, the moment you are born into this high consciousness you will feel that your heads strike heaven rather.
Brethren in Christ, let me also turn the lessons of this subject specially towards you; for it was specially Christian brethren, even those of Ephesus, that the apostle was addressing when he exhorted-"forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."
You have seen what this forgiveness means, what a volunteering there is in it, how the true Christian works in it, long before.the forgiveness is wanted, works in sacrifice and patience, even as all love must. What I want therefore to know, my brethren, is whether you find this forgiveness in you? Can you give yourself for your brother, or do you hold off in the stiff pretense, that he must come to you first and right himself? Can you be the Christian towards hirn, or can you more easily hug your injury, as a wound bleeding internally, and hold yourself aloof? Let me tell you then how very bad the sign is, when a Christian is slow to forgive. It does not show, it is true, that he is a vicious, or viciously depraved, man, as other kinds of fault, or deviation would, but it shows a great amount of unsanctified nature in him-none can tell or guess how much. For it is our proud, wild nature, just that in kind, though not in degree, that is observed to burn so inextinguishably, in the bloody resentments of savages, which makes it so hard for us to forgive. Therefore, if any one finds it more easy to stay in the savage feeling, than to go after his adversary in the Christian, the indication is fearfully bad. Nay, it is even a very unpleasant and doubtful sign, when one has an adversary long to forgive; for when a true Christian goes after his adversary, in such temper as he ought, tender, assiduous, proving himself in his love, by the most faithful sacrifices, he is not like to stay by his enmity long. As the heat of a warm day will make even a willful man take off his overcoat, so the silent melting of forgiveness at the heart will compel it, even before it is aware, to let the grudges go. Still a really good man may have enemies, all his life-long, even as Christ had, and the real blame may be chargeable not against him, but against them, and it would be too much to make their obstinacy a certain proof against his fidelity. Enough that he follows his Master, and allows them no reason for their obstinacy, by the stint of his own affectionate and self-sacrificing endeavors. Commonly the wrong-doer of two parties will be the most unforgiving, and, for just that reason, the wrong sufferer will be readiest and most forward in forgiveness.
Sometimes the alienated, or aggrieved parties, will both of them be Christian brethren; and how very sad a sight is it, and how much to be pitied when two brethren fall into an enmity! How frightfully fallen is their look when you look at them! How much worse their internal look. to themselves! When they go to pray in secret, how are they choked in their prayers! How very likely are they also, to be even choked off soon from prayer itself. How certain are they in this manner, even against much endeavor, to go down in their piety. The warm heart they once had, or seemed to have-where is it? If they beamed in rich feeling once on every body, and it was a, blessing to meet them and be warmed in the glow of their faces, the blessing and the glow are soon gone, and we may almost say the faces too; for there is scarcely any but a negative meaning left in them. O, ye pitiable and sad pair of disciples, that are paired in your enmity! How easily and beautifully paired might you be in your forgiveness! Go apart and think of this! go apart and pray over it! Nay, come together and pray over it! Pray especially, as you most need, that God will forgive you, even as you forgive each other-thus or-never.
Sometimes it will happen that a whole brotherhood of disciples will be scored and scorched by disaffections, jealousies, wounded feelings that are akin to enmity, in the same manner. There is much talk and a general talking down of course, and as a family quarrel brings down family respect, so it is when brethren are set to the work of diminishing each other's worth and character. Believe them and they are all no better than they should be, If they once loved each other, and were firmly locked together in their common cause, so much the worse now, for the dishonor falls on their tendernesses and prayers, and all the good things that seemed to be in their love. The Holy Dove flies their assemblies, or only hovers doubtfully over them, unable to light where there is no peace. When they come to pray together, it is only locally together, and not in spirit that they pray. There is a dreary chill in their assemblies. Neither the prayers appear to go up, nor the preaching to come down. There is no savoring element for the word, and of course there is as little due sense of savor from it. It is neither fire, nor hammer, but a chill made audible rather, like the ripping, rifting noises of some ice-clad lake or river in a silent, freezing night. The power is all gone, fatally benumbed. The power of the word, the power of the living epistle, that of the prayers-every sort is gone, and there is no fire of heaven left.
What then shall they do? Some of them perhaps will finally begin to say, let us take the counsel of Lot and Abraham-go to the right, and go to the left. Yes, but there is a difference; these friends, Abraham and Lot, parted because they were agreed, not because they were at variance; parted to save their agreement and not to comfort their repugnances. Have then Christian brethren, under Christ's own gospel, nothing better left, than to take themselves out of sight of each other?-going apart just to get rid of forgiveness; going to carry the rankling with them, live in the bitterness, die in the grudges of their untamable passion? What is our gospel but a reconciling power even for sin itself, and what is it good for-cross, and love, and patience, and all-if it can not reconcile? No, there is a better way; Christ lays it on them, by his own dear passion where he gave himself for them, by his bloody sweat, by his pierced hands, and by his open side, to go about the matter of forgiving one another even as he went about forgiving them. O, it is a short method, and how beautiful, and one that never failed. When they are ready to go before all relentings, and above all grudges, and be weary, and sick, and sad, and sorrowful, and so to give themselves for their adversaries, weeping on their necks in tender and true confession, they will not be adversaries long, but they will be turning all together to the cross, and joining in the prayer-forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. They had much to say before of forgiveness, they were all ready to forgive, but they could not find how much, or when, or how, because they took forgiveness in too light a key. Now they take it in Christ's meaning, and how shortly are their troubles ended. They can not forgive enough, or soon enough, or with half as much love as they would. The bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, are put away, with all malice. They are kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven them.