I have two goals for you, my reader, in this post:
- I would like to challenge you with Jesus' words on forgiveness. Jesus is not flippant or trivial on the topic of forgiveness and he attributes a weight and significance to forgiveness that is, I think, often lessened.
- I hope you will consider the practical implications of Jesus' words for your own life. In the words of Paul:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.1
I forewarn all readers that I am wrestling with questions of salvation. This is important when we delve into the topic of forgiveness because there are some passages that certainly sound as if one must forgive to be saved; and I will not lessen or dilute Jesus' words to support a theology that believes contrary to this.
Jesus on Forgiveness in Matthew
“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. ‘Give us this day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.'']
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
Notice Jesus is explicit about both the positive (if you forgive) and negative (if you do not forgive): “if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Clearly, whether or not we forgive has serious implications. So what does Jesus mean when he says that God will (or will not) “forgive”? I’m not exactly sure, but here are some possibilities:
Is forgiveness here referring to an ultimate forgiveness that indicates salvation? I don’t think so because the phrase “your Heavenly Father” and “your Father” is used. This seems to be speaking of people who have a relationship with God. So, is forgiveness here referring to the fact that God will not forgive us of certain sins? In the denomination where I currently reside, we believe that all our sins are paid for (past, present, and future) by Christ’s work on the cross. I’m not exactly sure why we believe this2, but my current theological position would deny that it is possible for a true believer to have such unforgiven sins because they are all covered by Christ. But, this passage could be interpreted in a way that challenges that axiom. Could this passage be referring to temporal forgiveness of temporal consequences? I’m sure it could be interpreted as such, but I’m not convinced that makes sense either. All this to say, I’m not sure what forgiveness in this passage is referring to.
No matter what is meant by forgiveness, however, is such forgiveness from God contingent upon our forgiveness? In other words, will God only forgive (in whatever sense is intended by the author of these verses) if I forgive? Everything in my denomination’s theology screams: “May it never be!”, but Jesus’ words seems to say: “Yes, absolutely!”. It certainly appears from this passage that forgiveness from “[our] Heavenly Father” is contingent on our forgiveness. “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Certainly something to think about.
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
Wow! “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” What does Jesus mean by “do the same to you”? From the parable, this means “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”. Combining the two, Jesus is saying something like:
My heavenly father will hand you over to the torturers until you should repay all that you owe Him, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.
There are serious consequences for unforgiveness! What are these consequences? Some suggest Purgatory, others suggest salvation3, others suggest Jesus is referring to temporal punishment4. I’m not sure, but clearly there are consequences for a lack of forgiveness.