Follow-up on last Sunday’s sermon… more on “forgive us our debts”

February 13, 2015

Last Sunday, in my series on the Lord’s Prayer, I preached about the petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that makes reference to something that we’re supposed to do—forgive the debts (or sins) of others. And this has caused distress among some interpreters over the centuries.

Is God’s grace conditional? Does God’s forgiveness of us depend on our forgiveness of others? If we don’t or can’t forgive someone, are we therefore unforgiven—excluded from God’s kingdom, bound for hell?

I hope not! 

These are important questions, made even sharper by Jesus’ postscript to the prayer, in verses 14-15:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I confess that I am extremely Reformed in my outlook on these words: In my mind, Jesus can’t be saying that we have to forgive first in order to be forgiven. For one thing, that would make forgiveness a kind of meritorious work, a contribution that we make to our salvation, which cuts against the grain of so much else in the New Testament (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather, our forgiveness of others is a response to God’s prior forgiveness (or justification) of us.

As Bruner writes in his commentary, Jesus already assumes that within the lives of his disciples—the ones to whom he’s addressing these words—a “prior massive forgiveness” has already taken place, as seen in their answering his call to discipleship and being baptized. This prior forgiveness “precedes and makes possible disciples’ praying the Lord’s Prayer at all.”

We would not even be able to address God as Father if we had not first been given the Father through Jesus and then authorized to ask the Father for the several gifts of this prayer. Only the Father’s forgiveness mediated here through his Son makes it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer at all.[†]

He then quotes Augustine: “For what will He not give to His sons when they ask of Him, who has given them that first that they should be sons?”

Nevertheless, as in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), if we have an unforgiving spirit, such that we’re chronically unable or unwilling to forgive others, then it proves that we haven’t understood the enormity of our own sin, and God’s costly forgiveness of it. In which case, our inability or unwillingness to forgive may be a symptom of the fact that we remain unregenerate, that we still need to receive God’s justifying grace.

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 310-11.

2 Responses to “Follow-up on last Sunday’s sermon… more on “forgive us our debts””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that part of not “earning” salvation means we don’t have to forgive others as a prerequisite to obtaining salvation. However, obviously Jesus meant something by tying our forgiveness of others to God’s forgiveness of us. Aside from your valid point that not forgiving may be indicative of no salvation, in that a life that does not show conformity with God’s laws is indicative of one not being God’s offspring, there is still separate weight to “no forgiveness” as well. Particularly, in my estimation, as relates to rewards and “punishments.” We can expect that consequences will follow our lack of forgiveness, in particular God’s punishing us for our own transgressions MORE SO than he might do had we forgiven others. Hence the parable of the unforgiving servant that you reference. And in eternity, not forgiving will be something “weighed in the balances” for ascertaining what eternal rewards we will obtain. IMO

    • brentwhite Says:

      Good points! Rewards or punishments will follow as a consequence of faithfulness or unfaithfulness, including our failure to forgive.

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