Owen is co-teaching a class on The Sermon on the Mount at church this semester. It has been wonderful and I’ve been able to see his teaching abilities blossom and grow. Recently, someone in the class asked for some more thoughts on Matthew 6:14-15 so Owen and I worked together on an email to her. It was a good exercise for both of us. It taught us a bit about working together as a couple and also helped us to think through that verse…which can be a bit tricky. I’ve posted most of the email below in the hopes that it would be helpful to some of you also.
So here’s our text (with a little context) from Matthew 6:
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
First of all, verses 14 and 15 are in the context of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ right before them. In verse 12, Jesus teaches us to pray that God will forgive us our debts AS WE ALSO HAVE forgiven our debtors. It assumes that we are forgiving those who sin against us. And then in verses 14-15, he tells us that if we’re not forgiving others, then we’re in trouble. So, here’s an important principle which Jesus seems to be assuming: God disciplines those he loves (Heb 12:4-11), and one of the ways he does that is through hindered prayer. In 1 Pet 3:7, husbands are encouraged to treat their wives well so that their prayers are not hindered, and in the Old Testament there are several passages which teach that sin blocks our prayers (Ps. 66:17-18; Isa. 1:15;59:1-3; 58:4, & Micah3:4). Thus, when we are living in unrepentant sin, God in some sense does not hear our prayers. He hides his face. So, if we don’t repent of our unforgiveness (or some other blatant sin), then over time our hearts get hardened and calloused by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb 3:13) from not heeding the conviction of the Holy Spirit. And if that happens, our relationship with the Father suffers because of it.
The forgiveness Jesus is talking about in this passage is not the same as the forgiveness that we receive at initial salvation. When we believe in Christ, his blood covers us and we are forgiven our sin in such a way that our standing in Christ–that is, our ultimate salvation and relationship to God as His child–is secure. So, the passage in Matthew cannot mean that God withholds forgiveness so that true disciples would “lose their salvation.” This is impossible, because other parts of Scripture say that our ultimate salvation is secure (1 Pet 1:3-5). But, our sins do grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30) and can give Satan a foothold (Eph 4:27), which is also mentioned in the prayer prior to our verses (“deliver us from the evil one” v. 13). So, our legal standing as God’s children is never affected by our sin of not forgiving others, but the quality of our relationship with the Father is affected. To maintain an unhindered Father/Child relationship with God, there has to be confession and repentance of our sin (1 John 1:8-9).
Here’s a few more things worth remembering, also: We receive forgiveness from a Perfect God who calls us to be perfect as He is perfect. When we compare ourselves to others, we don’t seem so bad, but when we compare ourselves to Christ…we fall far short. Our sins start adding up—every unkind thought, word or deed, every missed opportunity to do the good we should have done, every thought of envy or covetousness or discontentment, every worry. All those “respectable”sins. When we see our hearts as wicked as they are compared to God’s standard of perfection, then in our brokenness we can cry out to God for forgiveness. He will accept us every time. We don’t deserve the forgiveness of this Holy and Perfect God, and yet he freely offers it to us. How can we possibly withhold forgiveness from someone when we have been forgiven so much? Therefore, as His people, we should be marked by being extravagant forgivers.
There is a cyclical pattern of being forgiven by God and offering forgiveness to others. It seems like in the Scriptures our forgiveness of others is based on the forgiveness that we have received from Christ at our salvation. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32; see also Col 3:13). I think that goes along with the verses “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19-20) and “[God] who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1:4). If we open our hearts to the Lord in humility, he will fill our souls by the Holy Spirit with love, comfort, forgiveness, etc. (our deepest needs) so that we can offer those same things to those around us. We can bear the image of our Savior to others by offering the love, comfort, and forgiveness that we have already received in Him.
I hope that helps at least a little bit. Those are my (our) thoughts on those verses and forgiveness in general. If you’re interested in some more practical conflict/reconciliation management tools, the “Peacemaker” book by Ken Sande is really good. He’s done some really good work in that area. Peacemaker ministries have helped a lot of people and churches through some tough times. They have some great resources on their website.