Through her actions, his life was changed forever—yet somehow he forgave. At the sentencing of his brother’s murderer, Brandt Jean sat before a full courtroom and publicly forgave Amber Guyger for taking the life of his brother, Botham. In some of the more poignant moments of his statement, Brandt plainly said, “I forgive you”, and, “I want the best for you and the best would be—give your life to Christ”. Amidst tears and audible cries from the courtroom, Brandt stood up and embraced Amber.
This interaction was shocking to a nation who observed and then grappled with the question of how this young man could so readily and freely forgive his brother’s murderer. The answer to that question can only be found in the Gospel.
In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus plainly states, “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 Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus’ statement here highlights the seriousness of one’s refusal to forgive—for surely one of the fruits manifested in a person’s life through the transformative work of the Gospel is a forgiving and forbearing spirit. Perhaps the professing Christian who is harboring bitterness in his life or is unwilling to forgive, should consider his heart’s posture towards Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Forgiver.
In the book of Philemon, the Apostle Paul demonstrates a beautiful template of what Gospel-centered forgiveness should look like. Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, has stolen some of Philemon’s possessions and fled from his master. In a plea for compassion and forgiveness, Paul pens a letter to Philemon and sends Onesimus on a journey of restoration and forgiveness. Through this small New Testament letter, we can gain some great insight as to how Gospel-centered forgiveness ought to occur.
1. Gospel-centered forgiveness flows from a heart of love (v. 7-9)
Paul, through his apostolic authority in the early church, could have simply commanded Philemon to receive Onesimus, but instead he compels him to do so for “love’s sake.” As the Gospel continues to change and sanctify me, my love for other people continues to grow as does my willingness to forgive those who treat me disdainfully. Granting forgiveness to those around us is a natural response of the Gospel’s work in our life.
2. Gospel-centered forgiveness seeks restoration (v. 10-13)
Just as we have been restored to a proper relationship to God through the death of His Son, we also ought to seek restoration through forgiveness, of those who have wronged us. Upon his departure, Onesimus had become unprofitable to Philemon, but now upon his return and subsequent forgiveness, he would be restored. The very name that he bore, Onesimus, means profitable. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we simply move past an offense, rather it restores and makes profitable a relationship that was once broken and futile.
3. Gospel-centered forgiveness must be granted willingly (v. 14)
Just as God would not force anyone into a relationship with Him, a person cannot be forced to forgive another. If he is coerced, true forgiveness has not been granted. Forgiveness is a matter of the heart that becomes an act of the will.
4. Gospel-centered forgiveness leaves room for God’s sovereignty (v. 15-16)
God, through the prophet Isaiah, communicates in Scripture, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”, Isaiah 55:9. Paul reiterates this very idea to Philemon in regards to Onesimus.
God, in His providence and sovereignty, has a way of doing things differently than we would do them, but garners much greater results. Because of His newfound relationship with Christ, Onesimus is now far more profitable to Philemon than he ever would’ve been before. Perhaps God is doing something in your life right now and you don’t understand why…let God be God and leave room for His sovereignty and transcendence to do its work.
5. Gospel-centered forgiveness does not negate consequences or restitution (v. 18-19)
Just because forgiveness is extended doesn’t mean that consequences disappear. Sin can have devastating effects that extend far beyond any one individual. When forgiveness is granted, restitution still must be made.
6. Gospel-centered forgiveness brings refreshment and restores fellowship (v. 20-25)
Where once existed brokenness, bitterness, and animosity, now exists peace, pleasure, and friendship. At its heart, Gospel-centered forgiveness is a beautiful picture of the sacrifice that Christ made for each of us. Our sin is a chasm that separates us from a loving, forgiving God—a God who grants us radical forgiveness and accepts us in spite of our numerous failures. Why not extend the same forgiveness which has been extended to you? Paul writes in Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”