The most frightening words Wesley ever preached

wesley01In my sermon tomorrow, I’m preaching on forgiveness—namely the petition from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and Jesus’ commentary on it in vv. 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.” And no sermon on these words would be complete without at least glancing over to the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:23-35.

I feel like tomorrow’s sermon needs to be a do-over. While I’ve preached on forgiveness before, I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’ plain words: If we are unwilling or unable to forgive others, our souls are in jeopardy. The connection between the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive is unmistakable.

Could it be clearer?

Yes, I know that we interpret scripture with scripture—and believe me, I want to flee to Romans and Galatians to find reassuring words about justification by faith alone. But Jesus’ words in the gospels are hardly less inspired than Paul’s! (While I sympathize with our Dispensationalist brothers and sisters who teach that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really apply to the time in which we currently live, I know they’re wrong.)

But if I can’t find refuge in Paul, maybe my commentaries will offer me wiggle room? No luck. Modern commentaries only underscore how difficult Jesus’ words are. Worse, in one of John Wesley’s “Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount,” I may have found the most frightening words he ever wrote or preached:

“As we forgive them that trespass against us.” In these words our Lord clearly declares both on what condition, and in what degree or manner, we may look to be forgiven of God. All our trespasses and sins are forgiven us, if we forgive, and as we forgive, others. First, God forgives us if we forgive others. This is a point of the utmost importance. And our blessed Lord is so jealous lest at any time we should let it slip out of our thoughts, that he not only inserts it in the body of his prayer, but presently after repeats it twice over. “If,” saith he, “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.” (Matt. 6:14, 15.) Secondly, God forgives us as we forgive others. So that if any malice or bitterness, if any taint of unkindness or anger remains, if we do not clearly, fully, and from the heart, forgive all men their trespasses, we far cut short the forgiveness of our own: God cannot clearly and fully forgive us: He may show us some degree of mercy; but we will not suffer him to blot out all our sins, and forgive all our iniquities.

In the mean time, while we do not from our hearts forgive our neighbour his trespasses, what manner of prayer are we offering to God whenever we utter these words? We are indeed setting God at open defiance: we are daring him to do his worst. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us!” That is, in plain terms, “Do not thou forgive us at all; we desire no favour at thy hands. We pray that thou wilt keep our sins in remembrance, and that thy wrath may abide upon us.” But can you seriously offer such a prayer to God? And hath he not yet cast you quick into hell? O tempt him no longer! Now, even now, by his grace, forgive as you would be forgiven! Now have compassion on thy fellow-servant, as God hath had and will have pity on thee!

What do we make of this challenge? How do we reconcile it with the doctrine of justification by faith alone?

[†] John Wesley, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2014), 129-30.

7 thoughts on “The most frightening words Wesley ever preached”

  1. Yes, it could be clearer.

    Here’s my problem:

    There are a few folks who have wronged me badly. What they did not only hurt me, it hurt my family. They are not sorry they did what they did, and they would never ask for forgiveness, or even understanding.

    Doesn’t God require that we repent, and ask for forgiveness?
    If I sin against man and God and have no shame, or sense of a need for forgiveness, and deny that I have done anything wrong, what should I expect when I come before the judge?

    The best I’ve been able to do is to “put away” my anger. I no longer wish for revenge. And, if I found this fellow injured on the side of the road, I’d take him to a doctor. I think I would respond to a need. But, isn’t forgiveness is something that should be sought?

    1. You’ve put your finger on one age-old problem: Does our forgiveness of others require repentance on their part? In Matthew 18, for example, when Jesus talks about forgiveness within the church, that seems to be the case. I would say—based on what I’ve read and thought about—that forgiveness isn’t “complete” until it’s received by someone. But whether the offending party “receives” it or not (which they can only do, as you imply, by admitting their wrong, etc.) doesn’t affect what we must do. What does Paul say? “Inasmuch as it depends on you, live at peace with one another…” It seems clear that God wants us to do our part to forgive.

      So yes, for you that would mean not carrying a grudge, no longer wishing for revenge. Per Matthew 5’s words about reconciliation, it might also mean taking some action, if possible, to make reconciliation possible.

      When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” I don’t interpret that to mean that all the people who put Jesus on the cross—Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, the Roman soldiers, et al.—had their sins forgiven (without repenting)! By no means!

      But Jesus had done his part to make forgiveness possible. They still needed to do theirs. That’s all Jesus could do. Perhaps that’s all we can do. But that’s enough.

  2. Oh, I did my part to “live at peace”. Even reached out. It wasn’t a pretty thing. So, I just moved on. But, I wouldn’t say that I have forgiven either………

  3. Interesting discussion. Concerning requirements for forgiveness, is there any scripture that would indicate that forgiveness on our part would involve anything more than letting go of our anger, resentment, and any feelings on our part that the other party must do something to rectify the situation? I think we agree that we should treat the other person with kindness and love (e.g., Matt 5:44), but I don’t see this as requiring any action on the part of the one we are forgiving (even if they continue to sin against us, cf., Matt 18:21-22).

    Continuing deeper on this, if someone has shown a pattern of cheating or theft, I would argue that it is possible to truly forgive them, but still warn and advise others to be wary in dealing with the individual. I don’t think that forgiving requires resetting the clock or pretending the actions never took place (except perhaps where the individual has expressed and exhibited sincere repentance).

    Concerning your final question about reconciling Christ’s words on forgiveness with the doctrine of justification by faith, I would argue that that is part of what it means to be a Wesleyan Arminian. Justification by faith is true, but true faith requires obedience which is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith without obedience to Christ’s commands and without true hungering and thirsting after holiness and righteousness is a false faith (or at best a very immature faith). As Christians, we are not under the law, but we are required to live holy and righteous lives following the law written on our hearts. While we are justified by faith, what we do in this life will determine our rewards (or lack thereof), and even, in the most extreme case, potentially the loss of our salvation. Sobering thoughts indeed.

  4. While I feel the brunt of what Jesus says here about forgiveness (and the parable), and while it certainly challenges me to forgive, aren’t there other admonitions in scripture about things we have to do, or stop doing, on pain of dire penalties? For example, Paul says with respect to a list that, if I am honest with myself, I sometimes probably fall in, that, “be not deceived, for such will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Also, “for God will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” A whole lot of people say, “Oh my God!”, which appears to me to fall in that category. So, while I profess no expertise or authority on the issue, it seems to me that this admonition is like others which go to “the overall tenor of our life” in obedience as being indicative of whether the Spirit does, indeed, reside within us (i.e., whether or not we are saved). Perhaps these statements as to forgiveness makes it “high on the list” in that regard. But I personally do not think that personal forgiveness in and of itself determines whether the are saved or not. Rather, I think it primarily affects the “closeness” of our relationship with God. God can “hold it against us” if we won’t forgive others insofar as his “blessings on our lives” are concerned.

    With respect to forgiveness being dependent on repentance, we know that is the case with respect to the biggest issue of all–eternal salvation versus damnation. As you indicate, the Sanhedrin will not be going to heaven unless they (like Paul, for example) repent, despite Jesus’ “Father, forgive them.” (I liked a guest piece in Christianity Today eons ago where the author interpreted this to mean, “Father, don’t strike them dead right this minute–give them a chance to see the error of their ways and repent.”) Jesus also indicated that a lack of repentance could be a basis for kicking the miscreant out of the congregation. So, what may be being required of us is that we must be “willing to forgive if they repent.” Thus, in the parable, the “second servant” “begged for mercy,” but the first servant still would not forgive him, though he had just been forgiven when he begged for mercy. So, I am not sure that we actually have to forgive a recalcitrant offender. “If your brother sins against you seven times, AND SEVEN TIMES COMES AND ASKS FORGIVENESS (understood to be doing so “in good faith”), you must forgive.”

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