Do I really have to forgive others?

By David A. Liapis

Thoughts on Matthew 6:14-15

Jesus makes a bold statement in these verses – “…if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This comes on the heels of verse 12, where Jesus makes the assumption in the Lord’s prayer that we have forgiven our debtors, and thus seems to make the Father’s forgiving us of our debts contingent upon our extension of forgiveness to others. The fact that Jesus reiterates this point in the immediately following verses cannot be ignored. The parallel passage in Luke 6:37-38 says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” (emphasis mine)

Does this make the forgiveness of our sins and, by extension, our salvation, dependent upon us and our ability to forgive? Does this not make the act of forgiving others a “work” and, therefore, make salvation not of grace alone through faith alone in the work of Christ alone? If the only Scriptures we had were Matthew 6:12, and 6:14-15, then, yes, it would seem clear our ability to be forgiven and saved is wholly contingent upon our willingness to forgive others. However, as with any difficult passage, we must interpret this passage in light of the whole of the Bible.

The first passage we should look at to help our understanding is also in Matthew – in chapter 18, verses 21 through 35. Here the Disciples ask Jesus about forgiveness (specifically, how many times must we forgive someone who sins against us), to which Jesus replies with a parable to illustrate His point that those who are forgiven should forgive. He concludes with another “if” warning that judgment will come to you “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” The most significant nuance to this particular narrative is that both the servants in the parable owed their master more than they could ever repay (which correlates to all of us), and both had their debts forgiven. It’s important to remember this as we try to understand Matthew 6:14-15.

Paul makes the same point in Colossians 3:12-13 where he says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another, and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” (emphasis mine) Paul said the same thing Jesus said, which is basically this: forgiven people should be forgiving people. Or, to put it more resolutely as Paul does, forgiven people must be forgiving people.

The answer to the questions above about whether these “if” statements result in a kind of “works salvation” is also a sober warning to us: If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven; if we are forgiven, we will be forgiving. It seems kind of like circular reasoning, but it’s not. Our ability to forgive is contingent upon our being forgiven, and our forgiven-ness is evidenced by our forgiving of others. Therefore – and here’s the dire warning – unwillingness to forgive on our part can be evidence that we are not forgiven. And, to solve the theological issue of works vs. grace, our forgiveness of others is not a means of our salvation. Rather, our forgiveness of others is an evidence of our salvation. Remember, “we love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). There is nothing I can find in the Bible, not even these passages about forgiveness, where we initiate any part of the salvation process which, as I see it, removes any possibility of attaining genuine salvation via works.

If God can (and He does) extend forgiveness to all who seek it from Him, then we “must” be willing to extend forgiveness as well. We must beware not to have a higher standard than God when it comes to what we are willing to forgive! We would likely never say we have a higher standard than God, but heart attitudes manifested by unforgiveness say otherwise. Think back to the parable in Matthew 18. The reason the first servant was thrown into prison (think hell) was because he was unwilling to forgive his fellow servant what amounted to a grain of sand on a beach compared to what the master forgave the first one of.

It’s very likely some of you reading this struggle greatly to forgive others for grievous and/or repeated (and unrepented) sins against you. You may have endured unspeakable wrongs, and forgiveness seems impossible. While it’s correct to say, “Well, the Bible says you must forgive if you want to be forgiven, so you’d better get over it and forgive,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks a deeper truth and comfort into these hard situations.

We are all broken and sinful, and sin and brokenness affects our vertical relationship with God as well as our horizontal relationships with others. The Gospel teaches us that we are all equally in need of forgiveness, and that God extends grace and mercy through Jesus Christ to repair our relationship with Him (reconciliation). Once our relationship with God has been fixed, we can then work on our relationships with each other (again, “we love because He first loved us”). This means what’s impossible in our own strength is possible through the power of Holy Spirit and the new life we are given in Christ.

If you’re struggling with being able to forgive someone today, pray for the Lord to help you. Unforgiveness doesn’t just affect our horizontal relationships, it affects our vertical one right here and now, and, if left unresolved, for eternity.

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