When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we are in part acknowledging the connection between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of others. Jesus makes that connection even more explicit—and perhaps more distressing—a few verses later in Matthew 6:14: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The Church proclaims that God’s gift of grace and forgiveness is a free, unmerited, unconditional gift of God, available to us through Jesus Christ—not on the basis of what we human beings do, but on the basis of what God has done. This is one overarching theme of all of the New Testament. Yet Jesus’ words, ripped out of context and taken very literally, seem to contradict this concept: If we forgive others, then (and only then) will God forgive us.
Is there a problem here? Yes. Potentially, we do have a problem. I don’t want to soft-pedal our need to forgive others even as I say loudly and emphatically—alongside the New Testament and the Church’s proclamation—that God’s forgiveness of us is a free gift. In his sermon on this petition, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham (Church of England), says that Jesus was telling his new band of Galilean followers that they were to be “forgiveness-of-sins people” for whom forgiveness was a way of life. Not to practice forgiveness, he says,
would mean they hadn’t grasped what was going on. As soon as someone in one of these Jesus-cells refused to forgive a fellow-member, he or she was saying, in effect, ‘I don’t really believe the Kingdom has arrived. I don’t think the Forgiveness of Sins has occurred.’ Failure to forgive one another wasn’t a matter of failing to live up to a new bit of moral teaching. It was cutting off the branch you were sitting on. The only reason for being Kingdom-people, for being Jesus’ people, was that the forgiveness of sins was happening; so if you don’t live forgiveness, you were denying the very basis of your existence. [N.T. Wright, The Lord & His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 54.]
If we understand what God has done in forgiving us, we will strive to be forgiving toward others. If our lives are characterized by a persistent unwillingness to forgive others, then we have obviously failed to grasp what God has done for us. Please note that Wright is saying that God’s forgiveness precedes our living out this forgiveness in our lives. Our forgiving others is a loving response to God’s gracious acceptance of us. It is not something we must do first. Jesus makes this point emphatically in his Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Matthew 18:21-35.
What Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15 (and parallels such as Mark 11:25-26), therefore, needs to be interpreted in light of not only this parable, which demonstrates God’s forgiveness preceding our own, but the rest of his teaching and preaching—indeed, his very life and the gracious and forgiving God he reveals. When the four friends lower the paralyzed man through the thatched roof of that crowded house, and Jesus says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” he does so without condition. He doesn’t say, “Your sins are forgiven if you first forgive others—or only inasmuch as you forgive others.” When he turns to the brigand on the cross next to him and says, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he doesn’t qualify it by asking if there’s anyone the man hasn’t yet forgiven in his life.
What does it take for our loving Father to forgive us? As I said in my sermon, if you doubt that God has forgiven you, hold the image in your mind of a loving father who has compassion on us, runs to us, embraces us, and throws a big party to welcome us home (see the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15). If you’re a parent, ask yourself what it takes for you to forgive your own children if they turn to you and ask forgiveness. Is God less of a loving parent than we are? Of course not! God is perfectly loving. God is love.
Notice also in the Parable of the Prodigal Son that the older son’s problem wasn’t simply that he couldn’t forgive his younger brother; it was also his seething resentment over the fact that his father could! He was like Jonah, who didn’t want to preach judgment against Nineveh because he knew in spite of his harsh words that a merciful God was going to forgive them. It was to people like the older brother and Jonah that Jesus was speaking when he said, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).
A part of what it means to be the forgiving people that Jesus demands is to celebrate that our God is so forgiving toward others. We should want God to show everyone the same mercy God has shown us. Otherwise, we will be like the older son, standing outside the party, arms crossed, disgusted and miserable, while everyone else is inside living it up. Make no mistake, as I indicated in my sermon, we bring that on ourselves: the problem is with us, not with God! If we’re tempted to begrudge God’s graciousness, then we risk falling under the judgment of Jesus’ uncompromising words of Matthew 6:14-15.
The good news is that there is grace. Faith is a journey, and none of us has already arrived at the destination of being made perfect (as far as I know). If we are struggling to forgive someone, let’s confess that as a sin and pray that God would give us the grace to do so. It may take time, but our willingness to do so is a step in the right direction.
“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.