There are many verses in the Bible that command Christians to forgive one another. Jesus himself emphasized the importance of interpersonal forgiveness in order to restore relationships and demonstrate the spirit of Christ to one another (see, for example, Matthew 6.14-15, Luke 6.37, Matthew 18.21-22, Mark 11.25, etc.). Moreover, the New Testament is full of commands to members of the early church to be characterized by a spirit of forgiveness. But perhaps the most important verse in the entire Bible when it comes to forgiveness is Hebrews 9.22: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” While this verse does not command forgiveness in any particular context, nor does it expound on the peace and wonder of having been forgiven, it is foundational when it comes to our own thinking on forgiveness.
Hebrews 9.22 reveals to us that in order for there to be forgiveness of sins, something else has to happen: blood has to be spilled. In the Old Testament, God’s people achieved temporary forgiveness through the shedding of the blood of animals. In order for them to be forgiven by God, something had to die as a penalty for their sins. New Testament believers find themselves in a similar situation. They likewise have sinned against God and need to be forgiven, and as it was with Old Testament believers, blood still needs to be shed in order to obtain forgiveness. Except in the case of New Testament believers, the blood that is spilled is not the blood of animals, but the blood of the Son of God himself. He sacrifices himself; he sheds his own blood; he receives the punishment for sin that is required in order for forgiveness to be possible. And so, Christians rest in the security of the forgiveness of their sins because atonement has been made through Christ – the perfect God-man sacrifice. And his atonement is made permanent because he is alive eternally.
This is the glorious truth of Hebrews 9.22: blood has been shed and we can be forgiven on account of that shed blood. But this is not the end of the implications of this reality. Additionally, Hebrews 9.22 explains the means by which we as believers can forgive one another, thereby fulfilling the commands of Jesus and the apostles.
Usually when we are offended, our first response is to desire vindication – revenge. This is a natural inclination. After all, Hebrews 9.22 says that in order for there to be forgiveness, blood has to be spilled – there has to be some kind of justice served for the wrong that has been done. So when we are wronged, we want to get the person back as good as they got us before we consider things to be even between us. Forgive someone who has wronged me? Not until I level the playing field; not until they get what’s coming to them. Then, once we’re even, then I can forgive. The glorious truth of the gospel, however, is that blood has already been shed so we don’t need to exact vengeance or seek justice when we are wronged. Rather, we can and should simply forgive because justice has already been satisfied through the cross.
For example, when my wife sins against me, my natural inclination is to get her back in some way – to make her pay for how she has wronged me. Whether I use harsh words, lose my temper, or just avoid her and give her the silent treatment, what I am doing is punishing her for her sin against me. I want her to feel bad because she has made me feel bad. The cross, however, instructs us that her sin is already paid for. God has forgiven her for the sin that she committed against me. So any punishment I inflict on her not only implies that the punishment that Jesus suffered for her sin wasn’t enough (it implies that I need to give her a bit more), but it completely forgets the reality that instead of being bound to justice, I am free to forgive. Blood has been spilled – Jesus’ blood – and so forgiveness is possible. I am free to forgive her because her sin has already been paid for – justice has already been satisfied – when Jesus suffered for her sin on the cross. Therefore it is not necessary for me to exact justice from her in order to give her forgiveness, and in fact, to demand more punishment for sin that was already paid for by Jesus on the cross would be sinful and wrong, and incredibly short-sighted. The question now becomes: since justice has been satisfied on the cross, why wouldn’t I forgive? It is in this sense that the justice-satisfying sacrifice of Christ on the cross gives us the freedom to forgive.
If you think about it, the Christian freedom to forgive is an utterly counter-cultural, revolutionary thing. Think of how strange the command to “turn the other cheek” sounds on its face. “But Jesus, that guy slapped me! I need to get him back!” Jesus’ response: “No you don’t. His sin has already been paid for. Blood has been spilled. So now, you are free to forgive.”
And this is why the unity of the church is a witness to the unbelieving world: not only can we forgive those who have wronged us, but we desire to forgive because Christ has forgiven us through his shed blood, and we forgive others through that same blood.