Did Jesus really mean that God would not forgive us unless we forgive others? And, if so, what does this do to the idea that salvation is by grace through faith, not by works? Join me as we look at this passage from The Lord’s Prayer today.
When You Pray: Forgive and Be Forgiven
Matthew 6:12, 14-15
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
In our journey through the Lord’s Prayer during this Lenten season, we have looked at the uniqueness of God as we pray “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
And, we have thought about the kingdom of God as we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Most recently, we have prayed that God would “Give us this day our daily bread…” which reminded us of God’s presence with Israel in the Exodus experience. Daily God fed the nation with manna which could not be saved (except on the day before the Sabbath), was always enough, was never too much, and had to be picked up each day.
Today we come to that part of The Lord’s Prayer which challenges us all. Our prayer today as we pray this prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is a two-fold prayer. First, we pray that God would forgive our debts (we usually say “trespasses” in our church), as we also have forgiven our debtors (or those who have offended or trespassed against us).
This instruction of Jesus is pretty obvious. We ask for forgiveness from God, while we are also extending that forgiveness to others. But Jesus thought this so important that he explains this particular passage in The Prayer.
That is significant because Jesus doesn’t explain any of the other passages in the Prayer. He doesn’t explain what he means by “Our Father” or by “who art in heaven.” I am sure the disciples would have liked to have had Jesus’ commentary and explanation of who God is and how it is that God is our Father, or where is heaven and what is it like. But in those and every other Prayer passage, we get no other comment from Jesus.
But in this line on forgiveness, Jesus deems it so important that he explains it. The Prayer itself only contains 12 words on forgiveness. But Jesus uses 34 words to explain it. His explanation takes almost three times as many words as the phrase in the Prayer itself.
And, to make matters worse, Jesus’ explanation raises even more questions when he says, “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
I have a book in my library where a pastor of a megachurch deals with this very passage. He’s disturbed by it because, after all, salvation is through grace by faith. If that is true, then why is Jesus adding the requirement that we have to forgive others in order to be forgiven by God?
This pastor’s conclusion was that because these words of Jesus were spoken before he was crucified and resurrected, then they no longer apply to us. God will forgive anyone who asks Him today, whether that person forgives others or not.
The only problem with that conclusion (actually there are several problems with it) is this — if the only words of Jesus that apply to us today are the ones he said after his resurrection, then we have to throw out The Lord’s Prayer, The Sermon on the Mount, all the parables, most of the teaching, and just about all of the earthly ministry of Jesus including the Lord’s Supper which we will take today.
So, that is not a very satisfactory approach to this passage and the questions it raises. So what did Jesus mean, and what does he mean for us to do with these words today?
First, I think Jesus meant what he said. Not even the Greek translation is in question here. We ask God to forgive us, while we in turn forgive others. That’s pretty simple. Not easy, but simple. There is a difference. The words speak for themselves, and they mean what they say.
Here’s why I think that. Let’s assume that love is the operative principle in the kingdom of God, which includes everything, and especially includes us. John 3:16, a verse we learn as children says, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son…”
In I John 4, the Beloved Disciple says, “7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
God is love. The Bible makes that clear, Jesus came as the in-person expression of God’s love, and John confirms that God is love. So, back to my point. Love is the operative, fundamental, foundational principle that energizes the kingdom of God.
But, what happens when love is rejected? What happens when God’s love is betrayed? What happens when God’s love is cast aside for power or fame or fortune? What happened to God’s people when they rebelled against God’s love?
Well, a lot of things happened. When God’s love is rejected bad things happen. When Adam and Eve chose god-like knowledge over God’s love, they were put out of the Garden. When Israel chose to worship other gods, they suffered the consequences. When love is rejected, its never a good thing.
But, and here’s where love comes in, God forgave them. God forgave the nation. Not just once, but dozens of times, through centuries of rebellion and return, God forgave Israel.
So, if love is the operative principle in the kingdom of God, then forgiveness is the grease that keeps things running. Okay, not the best metaphor, but you get the idea. Here’s why forgiveness is so important:
First, forgiveness recognizes a relationship that is valued. For instance, I’m not real concerned about forgiving the telemarketer who interrupted my dinner, or the stranger in the other lane who almost cut me off in traffic. I don’t know them, probably will never see them again, and have no relationship with them. I might need to pray for them, give them the benefit of the doubt, not get mad at them, and other things, but I don’t really need to forgive them, because we don’t know each other and don’t plan to. Forgiveness assumes that something has damaged a valued relationship.
Secondly, forgiveness stops the cycle of retribution. In the Bible retribution is most often thought of as “an eye for an eye.” Now that wasn’t a bad thing, because at least it made justice proportionate. In other words, if you put out my eye, I was not allowed to kill you. But, forgiveness goes several steps further. Forgiveness changes the game. Forgiveness stops the cycle of violence, revenge, and payback. Forgiveness resets the situation, reduces the conflict, and heals the resentment that cries out for satisfaction.
Finally, forgiveness restores the relationship. The point of forgiveness is to put this valued relationship back together. God’s forgiveness restores our relationship with God. Our forgiveness of others restores our relationship with them.
Jesus spoke of forgiveness in a couple of other passages. In all of them, the purpose of forgiveness was to restore the relationship either between individuals, or within the community.
In the future, you and I will be dealing with forgiveness because that’s the topic of my doctoral dissertation. And, of course, forgiveness is a complex subject. But today I want to keep our focus on the simplicity of Jesus’ words, and the purpose of forgiveness. Forgiveness is to restore relationships.
So, let’s go back to what Jesus is saying about it. We are to forgive others just as God forgives us. Or to put it another way, when we come to God asking for forgiveness, we are to have already forgiven those who have wronged us, those who are in our debt.
And, let’s revisit that problem about forgiveness. Jesus said that if we forgive others, God will forgive us. Then, he repeated it in the negative, If we don’t forgive others, God will not forgive us.
How do we reconcile that statement with the concept that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace?
Well, I think it goes back to the idea of community. God created Israel to be a community of forgiveness. Then, in the New Testament, the church became the new expression of forgiveness.
The church is constituted by those who have been forgiven by God. From the thief on the cross to the child who gives her heart to Jesus, the church is composed of those who have been forgiven. All enter through the doorway of forgiveness, and no one gets in any other way.
If you and I, who have entered our relationship with God by the doorway of forgiveness, and have joined a community constituted by forgiveness itself, cannot forgive others, then we do not really belong here.
It’s like visiting a foreign country. When I traveled to China, I knew I didn’t belong there. The people were nice, the food was amazingly good, and the trips were always interesting. But I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the customs, and I missed home after a few days. I was a stranger in a strange place.
So, I come at Jesus’ statement like this: If we have really experienced the forgiveness of God in our own lives, and experienced the miracle and freedom it brings, then we are eager to extend that same forgiveness to others.
If we are at home in the kingdom, we do not see this as some type of impossible requirement, but as a part of the new community in which we live. We forgive because forgiveness has changed our lives. We forgive because we know what it is to be set free from the guilty burden of having done wrong, and we want to give that same gift of freedom to others.
But mostly we forgive because we love God, and we love one another. Does that mean we get it right everytime, or forgive easily and quickly. No. We are, after all, not perfect. But we are forgiven, and forgiveness is the thing that makes love work in heaven and on earth.
John said it this way: 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” — 1 John 4:9-12