Why is God's Forgiving of Us Dependent on Our Forgiving of Others?1
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Continue reading . . .
Of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, none has created as much confusion as this one:
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
Of the six petitions in this prayer, this one alone is blessed with an extended commentary. At the close of the prayer Jesus returns in vv. 14-15 with additional explanation:
“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” (Matt. 6:14-15).
What does this mean? Some have tried to restrict its relevance to the OT, but salvation preceding the cross was no more conditioned upon obedience than it is now. Salvation always has been and always will be by faith alone.
Furthermore, this prayer is given to and is meant to be prayed by believers. It is our heavenly Father to whom we pray. This is not the prayer of a lost sinner seeking eternal pardon. The forgiveness in view here is not that initial remission of sins that inaugurates the Christian life. Jesus is not referring to that once-for-all forgiveness for which we pray but once. Rather, this prayer for forgiveness is one of confession on the part of a child who seeks from his/her heavenly Father, not the creation of a relationship but the restoration of it. The goal of this prayer is not salvation but the renewal of its joy and power and the spiritually reinvigorating experience of comfort and consolation.
We see this principle in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35) where a man expects forgiveness as a matter of course but refuses to extend similar mercy to those in his debt. The point, notes John Stott, was that “God forgives only the penitent and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling” (Stott, 149-50). In other words, how can I expect God to do mercifully for me what I callously refuse to do for my brother?
If you are truly born again and have been given a new heart and spiritual eyes with which to see and understand the depth of your sin and the greatness of God’s forgiving grace, you will forgive others who sin against you. How could you not? What are their sins against you in comparison with yours against God? So if God has fully and finally forgiven yours, it is a small and easy task for you to forgive others. Your refusal to do so is likely an indication that you, in point of fact, know nothing of God’s forgiveness of your own sins.
So, are we to forgive all those who sin against us, even those who abuse and manipulate and criticize us? Yes. So, are we to forgive those who seek our death and destruction by bombs and beheadings and other terrorist attacks? Yes. So let us pray: “Father, as we suffer at the hands of our enemies, remind us that the only thing we truly and rightfully deserve is eternal damnation, and because you have forgiven our sins through Christ we will never, ever experience it!”