Following on from the post about daily bread, I want to look at another line in the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:12 says this (all passages from the NLT):
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
In Matthew 6: 14-15, following immediately from the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns us:
“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.
This is not saying that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our forgiveness of others: rather to accept His forgiveness we must first acknowledge our own need for it, and that we hold that need for forgiveness in common with all people. God does not forgive us because we forgive others: He offers forgiveness to all of us. But accepting His forgiveness requires that acknowledgement. In the Gospel of Mark we see this message reinforced (Mark 11:25):
“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
God’s forgiveness of us is not the reward for our forgiveness of each other, but to accept His forgiveness our hearts must be open to it.
Paul takes up this theme of “forgive because you were first forgiven” in his letter to the Ephesians, where he writes (Eph 4:32):
Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
The emphasis is on the forgiveness that we should extend to others as a response to what Christ has already extended to us. Similarly, writing to the church in Colossae, Paul says (Col 3:13):
Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.
Note how these passages turns our human perspective of justice on its head. We are not told to forgive others so that God will forgive us, we are rather told that God has already forgiven us. We have done nothing and can do nothing to deserve God’s forgiveness, but he offers it before we can even ask. Our response must be to forgive others – not because they deserve it, but because God has shown us greater mercy and forgiveness.
This is intensely humbling. In the midst of our feelings of anger and indignation at wrongs done to us, we are reminded that we have all equally fallen short of God’s standards. We are reminded of how far He was willing to go to forgive us and seek reconciliation, even though it meant sending His only son to his death.
Expanding on this theme, Jesus told a parable which is recorded a few chapters later in Matthew 18:21-35:
Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”