Open Matthew 6:14-15.
If you forgive, you will be forgiven? Jesus words do not sit well with the way we’ve understood the gospel in the last five centuries. We understand God’s forgiveness as unconditional. It is all of grace. It has nothing to do with our works. There’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation. So how can Jesus add an “If …” to the message? How can he make God’s forgiveness dependent on what we do?
Our problem is that we have too limited an understanding of sin, forgiveness, and salvation. We read Scripture individually, as if it’s all about me. I think “sin” means my sin, the list of bad behaviours of which I am personally guilty. Consequently, I think of “forgiveness” as God forgiving me personally for my bad behaviours. I think of myself as condemned on the basis of my personal sins. And since I cannot go back and undo the past, it’s entirely up to God to forgive me—to choose, in his kindness, to overlook my offences.
There is some truth in that story, but it’s a woefully inadequate way to understand the gospel. It’s not just about you. The conspiracy against God’s reign was underway long before you were born. The world you were born into was already enslaved by evil because it resisted God. Humanity was already in exile from our life-giving sovereign. You were born into a world under the power of sin. It makes no sense to say that a newborn is a morally culpable sinner before they’ve done anything. But it does make sense to grieve that each baby is born into a world that’s already under the power of sin.
Human beings are born in exile. From the very beginning, our heavenly ruler has been working to repatriate us. It’s what he means by “forgiveness” — forgiving the human rebellion against his authority, bringing us all back from exile to live under his governance where we belong. His vision for humanity is as a community that recognizes his kingship, following his instruction to care for each other and for his world.
God’s intentions for humanity have never changed. He designed us to image him, and that is still his purpose. When humanity turned against him and started killing each other to take control over each other’s lives, we dishonoured God and damaged each other. We can pray for God’s forgiveness, but in order to be restored as the community God intended we will also need to forgive each other. Our sovereign will not force himself on us; he will not force us to do right. Consequently, the restoration of God’s kingship over us depends on us being willing to forgive each other as well. The kingdom of God cannot be established if we hold out on each other.
If we refuse to forgive other people for the way they have damaged us, if we hold resentment and insist that they get what they have coming to them, the kingdom of God cannot be restored. God will not respond to our call for his kingdom to come while we wait to get our own back against those who have damaged us. God’s will cannot be done on earth as it is in heaven while we refuse to extend forgiveness to each other.
Matthew 6:14-15 (paraphrased)
For if you all released the people who overstepped the boundaries and demeaned you, your heavenly Father will release you all, 15 but if you did not release people, neither will your Father release you all from overstepping the boundaries of his authority.
This isn’t about your own personal salvation. That’s a recent individualistic mindset. The “you” in these verses is plural. Jesus is talking us as community, as the kingdom under God’s reign. We must grow beyond our short-sighted preoccupation with individualized sin and salvation so we can respond to the good news — the restoration of God’s reign over humanity and his world.
It may take time to forgive, but we must find a way. When we forgive each other, we enact God’s forgiveness for everyone to see. When we deny forgiveness to each other, we publicly deny that God restores us.
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 60:
There is, however, a condition, which remarkably enough is brought right into the prayer itself: we ourselves must be forgiving people. Jesus takes an extra moment afterwards to explain why. The heart that will not open to forgive others will remain closed when God’s own forgiveness is offered. Jesus will say more about this in chapter 18.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 253:
The stark simplicity of this pronouncement raises uncomfortable questions. First, how does this conditional forgiveness relate to the gospel of free and unmerited grace which Paul proclaims? Does our act of forgiving earn our forgiveness from God? The same problem arises elsewhere in Matthew, notably in 25:31–46, where we shall have to consider how far the salvation of the “righteous” is dependent on their behavior toward other people in need.
Chrysostom, quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 238:
Nothing so likens you to God, as to forgive him who has injured you.
[previous: The Lord’s Prayer]