In one way or another, I’ve said this before: there are teachings in the Bible that are difficult to understand and there are others that are difficult because I understand. While I’d like to place the following teaching in the first category, I’m afraid that it actually belongs in the second.
I’ll paraphrase: According to Jesus, if we want God to forgive us of our sins, we must forgive the sins of other people. Or we can word it in the negative and say: If we don’t forgive people when they sin against us, God will not forgive us when we sin against Him. (Read Matt 6:13-15, Matt 18:21-35, and Luke 6:36-38.)
Recently, I listened to a sermon by a guy out of Texas whose response to this teaching was, “Did Jesus really mean that?” That’s what I’d like to know. I mean, what about being saved by grace through faith; what about removing my sin as far from me as the east is from the west; what about no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Does Jesus really mean that God’s forgiveness of my sin is contingent upon my forgiving others? It certainly sounds that way, doesn’t it?
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, so he gave them a model to follow. Matthew’s version shows Jesus finishing the prayer and then adding an aside, so to speak, as if to say: “By the way, you need to understand that before you ask God to forgive you of your ‘debts’, He expects you to forgive the ‘debts’ owed to you.” The idea being, of course, that our sin creates an imbalance in God’s moral economy. When we sin, we owe God something, namely our lives. (Rom. 6:23) I taught this
model prayer to my sons and to this day my four-year old still says, “Forgive us of our sins if we forgive those who sin against us.” Textually inaccurate, but theologically sound…right?
Jesus capitalizes on the debt concept again later in Matthew 18 when he tells the story of a servant who owes the king and insurmountable debt. The king mercifully forgives the servant who then goes out and prosecutes a fellow servant for a miniscule loan the man owes him. When the king hears about this, he revokes his forgiveness and requires the first servant to repay the massive debt. At the end of the story, Jesus spells it out; “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Jesus is telling God’s chosen people, the one’s with the Law and the sacrifices to atone for their transgressions of that Law, that God will do exactly as the king in the story: revoke forgiveness and require payment, whenever they do not sincerely forgive their brothers.
Before we get distracted by a discussion of who those brothers are, let’s take a look at what Jesus said about praying in Mark 11:24-26. Jesus tells Peter and company as they’re heading into Jerusalem together for the last time, that when they are praying they must forgive “anyone” for “anything” that they have against them. In this way, Jesus makes it clear who these brothers are. He also gives the reason they must forgive; “so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Since we are also his disciples, isn’t Jesus talking to us too? Yet, weren’t our sins forgiven when we believed with our hearts and confessed with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord? Weren’t we told that when God forgives us of our sins, He forgives ALL of them, past present and future? Doesn’t that include the sin of withholding forgiveness?
I don’t want to be disingenuous and leave the impression that my questions indicate that I’m afraid of “losing my salvation”. (I don’t believe we lose it but rather that we repudiate it, but that’s a post for another time…or not.) It’s just that as someone who has been churched almost my whole life, and a Christian almost as long, I often blow right by bits of Scripture without a thought. When that Texas preacher paused and asked if Jesus really means that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven, I thought that it’s an important question to take the time to think about, especially since my thoughts and prayers focus so heavily on receiving forgiveness, as opposed to giving it.