Jesus taught his disciples to pray in this way, “forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others” (Matt 6:12). Jesus will go on to explain the reason behind these instructions in verses 15 and 16, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”. While forgiving one another doesn’t trump the need to obey the gospel plan of salvation, it is also true that someone who believes, repents, confesses, and is baptized will not go to heaven without forgiving others. We are talking about a salvation issue.
There is a quick point to be made. God has given us explicit instructions about what we must do to be forgiven of our sins by Him. But these instructions for salvation/forgiveness from God do not all apply in forgiving each other. For example, we are supposed to confess that Jesus is our Lord (Rom 10:10). We do not require someone to confess us as their lord in order to be forgiven by us. We are to be baptized to “wash away our sins”(Acts 22:16) and “for the forgiveness of sins”(Acts 2:38). But we do not baptize people every time they sin against us.
The Bible teaches about God’s attitude toward forgiveness. We need to apply these to ourselves in forgiving one another.
God is not an enabler.
Romans 6:1 says, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!”. Sometimes people have an attitude of forgiving people for their perpetual offenses. A woman’s husband may abuse her, and she is in such a state of misery that she forgives him every time. Or a child may forgive their dad for neglecting them without their dad ever making a lasting change. Sin must be stopped in order for forgiveness to take place. This is called repentance (Jonah 3:10).
However, God shows patience in the growth of the sinner who has repented. Some sins are deep rooted and there may be slip up from time to time. It is not good and it is not ok, but it is also not a sign that the particular sin is not being repented of. God forgives the Christian so long as they are “walking in the light”(1 John 1:7). We shouldn’t put an unnecessary burden on the shoulders of someone into thinking that if they mess up again, that’s it. Peter asked the Lord if forgiving someone seven times was sufficient. Jesus told him to forgive them 490 times (Matt 18:21-22).
God doesn’t condemn us before conviction.
To many people, judgement is the cardinal sin. But it is obvious that not all judgement is wrong. If it was, life would be impossible. We wouldn’t be able to decide to wear a jacket in zero degree weather because that would require judgment. The judgement that is wrong is condemning someone, or “writing them off” hypocritically (Matt 7:1-4).
Judging someone is not wrong depending on the sense in which we are using the word. And there is even a place for removing your association from someone (2 Cor 6:14, Acts 13:46). But there is no place for what I often see in our community. What I see more than anything is a condemning judgement before conviction.
John 12:46-50 teaches us that all of us will stand in judgement one day. On that day, we are going to be judged by the word of Christ. In this particular context, he is using the word judgement to speak of determining whether one will go to heaven or hell. Condemning judgement. But Jesus makes the point that this condemnation/judgement was not his purpose at that point. His purpose was to deliver the words by which they would be judged.
A few chapters later in 16:8 he says that these words are to “convict” us. Conviction is a type of judgement as well. It is a realization that we have broken the law, that we are guilty and that we are going to be condemned. But conviction precedes the condemnation. Conviction is the best type of judgment because it puts us in a position to receive the forgiveness that God offers in Christ.
The Lord’s process is this:
1. Convict the sinner with the word,
2. Judge the sinner with the word
3. Condemn or declare righteous by the word.
Most of us jump to judge or condemn without ever convicting the person. Jesus says if someone sins against you “go and show him his fault between you and him alone: if he hears you you have gained your brother”(Matt 18:15). Give the chance for someone to face the reality of their sin!
God convicts the sinner with the hope of forgiveness.
This point goes along with “convicting” the sinner. But it speaks to the attitude that we possess in speaking to the individual. Ephesians 4:15 says we “speak the truth in love”. Both aspects of this need to be emphasized.
We speak the truth. The word of God is truth (John 17:17). The Pharisees put heavy burdens on people with their traditions. Our society does the same thing. Right and wrong is not based on our opinions, tradition, or culture. It is based on the word of God.
But we speak it in love. This is love that has the best interest of the person in mind. It is the same type of love that God possesses. It is a love that will do the hard thing. It is the love that will sacrifice self for the good of the individual. It is the type of love that truly seeks reconciliation.
God displays commentary on this verse by sending The Word (John 1:1,14). God speaks to us through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). The Bible is God speaking to us the Word by which we can be saved. It is God speaking the truth to us in love. Is it always enjoyable for us? No, sometimes it will cut us deep. But God delivered it with an attitude to forgive every possible soul (2 Peter 3:9).
What about us? So often, we “tell it like it is” out of our own pride, caring nothing for the soul of the individual. That helps nothing. In fact, it just puts us in danger of spending an eternity in hell. Our minds must always be focused on “how do I gain this person back”.
To the person who has fulfilled the obligations to be forgiven (Acts 2:38), God forgives them. That lie you told, that item you stole, your infidelity, your substance abuse, or any other sin under the sun, God forgives. He doesn’t hold it against you. He doesn’t harbor resentment. He forgives. And if you stumble and fall, if you confess your sins and repent, God forgives (1 John 1:5-10).
The greatest challenge in forgiving will come down to simply forgiving. We don’t want to let things go. We like to be victims. We like to gossip about what people have done. People love drama. It is why social media is so popular. We get social currency out of projecting our victimhood to the world. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that you may be sons of your Father in heaven… for if you love them that love you what reward have you?”
God’s children seek forgiveness, and God’s children forgive.