For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
There are people who think Matthew 6:14-15 is one of the scariest passages in the Bible. It seems in this passage God’s forgiveness is conditional. If we will not forgive, God will not forgive us either. Does this mean that if we do not forgive others, we will cease to be forgiven by God?
Such a sweeping understanding of Jesus in this passage cannot be the case, for the Bible clearly establishes that we are saved (forgiven) by grace alone. “God saved [forgave] you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Salvation is not dependent on what we do. In light of such passages as Ephesians 2:8, Jesus is teaching us that being willing to forgive others is a proof of our having been forgiven. God’s forgiving Spirit
creates a forgiving spirit in us. The forgiving of others is a fruit of our own salvation—our having received forgiveness, not the action that brings it about. God’s grace is the root that makes the fruit of forgiveness possible. The fruit of His grace includes a forgiving spirit.
In this way, the relation of our being forgiving and God’s forgiving us is similar to the relationship between faith and works. Good works do not produce or cause faith; but they will, they must, accompany true saving faith. God’s forgiveness grows a forgiving spirit in the believer.
This relationship between experiencing God’s forgiveness and our own desire and ability to forgive is very explicit throughout the New Testament. Many passages make a direct connection between the two such as Mark 11:25 (NIV) And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins, and Colossians 3:13, Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17). If we are not forgiving, we can have no real assurance that we have been forgiven. If we are forgiving, it is proof that we have been forgiven.
To pray the Lord’s Prayer while we continue to live by the rules and expectations of this world is in effect to show that we are not really sincere in asking that God’s kingdom come or that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Consider the following illustration:
A man sat down to supper with his family and said grace, thanking God for the food, for the hands which prepared it, and for the source of all life. But during the meal he complained about the freshness of the bread, the bitterness of the coffee, and the sharpness of the cheese. His young daughter questioned him, “Dad, do you think God heard the grace today?”
He answered confidently, “Of course.”
Then she asked, “And do you think God heard what you said about the coffee, the cheese, and the bread?” Not so confidently, he answered, “Why, yes, I believe so.”
The little girl concluded, “Then which do you think God believed, Dad?”
This was Jesus’ main criticism against the Pharisees—that their life did not reflect what they taught. Look for instance at Matthew 15:1-9 (NIV),
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”
The question we need to ask ourselves then is this: Do our lives show that we truly want what we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Or are we merely giving God lip service? When we pray that prayer and hold on to hurts, refuse to let go of grudges, and hold back granting forgiveness which do you think God believes?
- How can we claim God as our Father and want to see Him honored as holy if we do not act like His children?
- What message does it send to God when we pray for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven while refusing to forgive one another?
- Can we really ask for God to give us our daily bread when we refuse to give grace and mercy to those who need it from us?
- How can we pray for God to forgive our debts when we ourselves will not forgive our debtors?
- Do we really want God to keep us from temptation when we continue to run head long into it?
Do not hold back forgiveness! We all have our excuses for rationalizing why we don’t want to forgive or even try to forgive. But the reality is…
- It is no excuse to withhold forgiveness because the offender has not repented or apologized. There is no Scripture that teaches that confession must precede forgiveness. Jesus did say in Luke 17:3 (NIV) If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. But Jesus did not always wait for confession before he offered forgiveness; just ask Zacchaeus! And Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8 (NIV) that God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
- It is no excuse to withhold forgiveness because the offender does not deserve it. Forgiveness is a gift of grace. By definition it cannot be deserved. There is no such thing as deserved forgiveness.
It is no excuse to withhold forgiveness because you do not like the person who offended you. In this very sermon Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
What does Jesus mean by be perfect? How can we be perfect? I don’t think it would be misrepresenting the message if you exchanged the word perfect with the word love: “Be loving therefore, as your heavenly Father is love.” Forgiveness is an expression of love which is the summary of God’s perfection. We are to forgive even our enemies. It is no sign of divine love to forgive those who forgive us. Even the pagans do that. But when you forgive your enemies, that is a sure sign that the love being exercised is divine in its origin.
It is no excuse to withhold forgiveness because you cannot talk with the offender. True, unless the offender repents they will not have the benefits of your forgiveness. But unless you forgive you will never have the benefits of forgiveness either! Forgiveness is the key to your healing. When we forgive, we receive God’s healing for our wounded souls.
When we forgive, God’s Spirit gives us the assurance that our offense was paid for in full at the cross answering our cry for justice.
When we forgive, His Spirit draws the poison of pain, anger, and resentment from our hearts making it possible for us to live in joy and peace again and for our love to flow unhindered and unsullied.
When we forgive, we make another step towards Christlikeness and thus love Him more and grow our apprehension and appreciation for the forgiveness we have received from Him.
If we hold back our forgiveness, we are choosing to value our pain more than Christ.
Consider the seriousness of Jesus’ teaching here. God is replicating the life of His Son in us. If we do not see His life and character being replicated in us, can we have any assurance that we have in fact been forgiven? This was so important to Jesus that He made the point of telling Peter the parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18. The unforgiving servant was thrown into prison to be tortured by the king’s jailors for not replicating the king’s forgiveness towards his own debtors. And what does Jesus say to Peter at the end? This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
If you have been withholding forgiveness from someone, I want to encourage you to ask God to help you forgive that person or persons by next Sunday. If you need to ask for forgiveness from anyone, I want to encourage you to go to that person or persons and ask them to forgive you. Jesus taught in the previous chapter, Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24, NIV).
And when—not if, when—the opportunity to forgive presents itself, do it. Do it freely, humbly, and with joy. For in doing so you are hallowing God’s name and making His will done on earth as it is in heaven; you are acting as the hand of God in giving out His daily bread, you are forgiving as He has been forgiving to you, and you will avoid the temptation of letting the love of self and sin take the place of loving God and one another.