The Issue of Forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount
We seem to get the distinct impression that nothing can separate us from God and His love if we have indeed trusted in Him.
The problem then with Jesus' words in Matthew 6:12, 14 and 15 is that they seem to imply that God does not forgive me unconditionally, but that He forgives according to the degree to which I forgive others (v.12) and indeed, if for whatever reason I cannot forgive another, He will in no way forgive me (14, 15). To put it another way: what Paul was so confidently telling me that I had received (i.e. forgiveness) unconditionally by the grace of God, Jesus was now telling me that I needed to do something to keep. Let me put a couple of texts beside each other to illustrate.
Jesus: Conditional Forgiveness
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgive our debtors...For if you forgive men when they sin against you , your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins (Matt , 14, 15).
Luke and Paul: Unconditional Forgiveness
All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name (Acts ). For all have sinned...and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans , 24 italics mine).
These passages seem to be saying contradictory things. Jesus says that one must forgive if one wants forgiveness. Luke says that all one needs to do to receive forgiveness is just believe on Christ and Paul says one has forgiveness freely by faith in Christ Jesus (i.e. His substitutionary death; cf. vv. 21-26). The question then is, "Which is it?" Do I need to forgive others to be forgiven or am I forgiven irrespective of my relation to others?
There is a basic answer to the problem of Matthew 6:12, 14-15. Jesus is not referring to the judicial state of forgiveness that God bestows upon a believing sinner at the time of conversion, but is referring here to forgiveness necessary for continued fellowship with God. In other words God does not grant forensic justification, if you will, on the basis of how we treat other people, but simply through trusting Jesus. Once in relationship with God, in order to continue that fellowship we must forgive men who sin against us.
Jesus is talking about is the forgiveness of a Father. Believers cannot know the parental forgiveness, which keeps fellowship with the Lord rich and blessings from the Lord profuse, apart from forgiving others in heart and word. Jesus' conditions apply to our sanctification not our justification. The sin of an unforgiving heart and a bitter spirit (Heb. ) forfeits blessing and invites judgment. Perhaps it can be understood as God's lack of forgiveness is the same thing as His not bestowing the blessing of fellowship.
Again, the forgiveness Jesus is talking about is not legal in nature, but for purposes of fellowship with God in an existing relationship. A Christian's forgiveness is based on realizing that he has been forgiven (cf. Eph. ). Personal fellowship is in view in these verses (not salvation from sin). One cannot walk in fellowship with God if he refuses to forgive others. If I, as a believer in Christ, live in sin (i.e. I am unwilling to forgive someone for an offense committed against me) I cannot have fellowship with a holy God.
Our plea for continued forgiveness as believers, requesting the restoration of fellowship with God following the alienation that sin produces, is predicated on our having forgiven those who have sinned against us. As v. 15 stresses, without this interpersonal reconciliation on the human level, neither can we be reconciled to God.
The key to interpreting verses 14 and 15 has to do with the immediate context, namely the Lord's prayer. What we thus have in Mt 6.14-15; 18.15-35; Mk 11.20-5; and Lk 17.3-6 is a connection between prayer--omnipotent prayer in all but Mt 6.14-15--and the forgiveness of one's brother, and it is this--surely traditional--connection which explains the placement of Mt 6.14-15. That is, God's unforgiving heart toward the sinner here, is demonstrated by the fact that when such a person comes to Him He refuses to listen to them (i.e. their prayers are in no way efficacious). This explanation seems to be the best thus far in our discussion, for a couple of reasons: 1) it relates the verses in question directly to the context of the Lord's prayer in an attempt to explain the kind of forgiveness God withholds from unforgiving people; 2) it begins to describe the kind of thing God does to someone who refuses to forgive his brother--that is, He treats them like they treat their brother--He simply will not talk to them.
For God to withhold forgiveness from someone, must be seen as a just (and as we shall see merciful) response to their unforgiving spirit. The issue must be seen in the light of Jesus' central ethic of love. This statement helps us arrive at an underlying reality in Jesus' teaching, namely, that His modus operandi was love.
The real issue at stake in the Jesus/Paul dichotomy is the following question: "How are you defining forgiveness?" Are we talking about the same kind of forgiveness or a forgiveness of a sort different one from the other? The way to answer that question is to consider the state of the audience to whom the forgiveness is addressed or denied.
In general Paul emphasizes forgiveness in a legal and final way that is once for all bestowed upon a believer at the time of his conversion (cf. Eph. 1:7; Col 1:14, 3:13). Jesus is not talking, however, to those who are needing initial, first time forgiveness for entry into relationship with God. These people were already clearly believers in Jesus' mind. These are people that possess the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10), who hunger and thirst after righteousness (6), who are called the sons of God (9), who are the salt of the earth (13) and the light of the world (14) and who have God as their personal Father in a relational way (cf. the "your Father" 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9 and in verses 14 and 15). This then is how Jesus' use of forgiveness is different from Paul's forensic use of the term elsewhere.
Let us now move to a further explanation of what it means when it says, "your Father will not forgive your sins."
The Design of the Father in Withholding Forgiveness From His Child
The Sermon on the Mount is a penetrating discussion about relationships—between God and people of faith in God. God, through Christ our Savior, is teaching His own (for the most part) what it means to be in relationship with Him and with others. With this premise in mind, perhaps we need to look at God's dealings with His children throughout the Scripture as we formulate an answer to our question. Let us look at a few examples that demonstrate to some degree how God deals with errant children to see if that has any bearing on the words of Jesus.
Let's take a very brief canonical look. Then, we will bring this to bear on Matthew 6:14, 15.
The Story of Jacob
Jacob's name means "supplanter"
or more loosely translated as "deceiver" and according to the texts
in Genesis (and most commentators) he lived up to his name with a special note
of accuracy. God responded in different ways to the patriarch that help us
understand how our Father relates to us when we sin. Perhaps the single best
example of how God dealt with him was to permit him to run into uncle Laban—a deceiver in his own right. In this situation Jacob
comes face to face with his own kind of sin. Ouch! Jacob had, in the
sovereignty of an incredible wise God, met his match. The apple does not far
fall from the tree—let's look at
The nation of
The Nature of the Christian Life
Paul says explicitly in Galatians 6:7, 8 what our Old Testament examples anticipate. God will permit us to be ruined by our sin, if we so desire it. This is not referring to a loss of salvation, but certainly a loss of fellowship with God and perhaps eventually physical life.
The point is this: He allows us to walk into our sin and experience as much of it as we really want.
The Underlying Principle
The principle that is driving God's decisions in
these various relationships (that He has sustained over time with those who are
His own) is the principle of love. This must be true for God loves us at all
times and love is the essence of the relationship he carries on with us. He
moves into our lives to care for us deeply and permit us to experience Him
firsthand—joy of joys! Therefore, it was the most loving thing to do, to allow
Well, how does this relate to the Sermon on the Mount?
The underlying ethic in Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is love: love for our heavenly Father and love for people. As we have seen God, in His love for us, allows us to come face to face with our sin, to be confronted by it. This of course is to bring about deep repentance and restoration of the love between the parties involved.
Therefore His unwillingness to forgive the person is
an act motivated by love and a deep seated commitment to move toward His
sinning child and not away from him. Therefore, when Jesus says that the Father
will not forgive, what He means is that God will allow the person to walk in
their sin (that is, He will not overlook it and embrace the person), to the
necessary extent; until they come face to face with it and see it for what it
is. In other words, if the person is unwilling to forgive, let him deal with a
God twice as stubborn when it comes to forgiving. God will not give in and the
sinning brother will have to deal with an unforgiving Father, from whom he
depends for the basic necessities of life (-32). God's intention, as the unforgiving brother
goes his way in unforgiveness, is to expose him, to
bring about legitimate shame and repulsiveness toward the sin. It is a rare
blend of justice and mercy. He did this for Jacob, for
It appears that what Jesus is really saying is that God, with a view toward loving the unforgiving child, refuses to forgive him in an attempt to get the child to come face to face with His sin of an unforgiving heart. The person who is unwilling to forgive will soon meet his Equal. The goal of this is to re-establish the broken relationships between God and the people involved.