The gospel that Jesus revealed declares that God loves you like a father, he holds nothing against you, and he longs for his sons and daughters to come home. It’s the good news an orphaned world desperately needs to hear.
So why did Jesus say this:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14-15)
This sounds like bad news, as though you must earn God’s forgiveness through works of forgiveness. How are we to read these words? I’m going to give you three interpretations, and then you can choose.
1. Jesus is preaching law
As many grace preachers have said (including me in this post), Jesus was preaching law to those who lived under law.
Jesus was the greatest law preacher of all time. He preached law so the self-righteous would see their desperate need for grace.
The old law-keeping covenant has gone but the self-righteous who remain need to hear the harsh words of Jesus. The truth is you cannot earn God’s forgiveness. The measure of forgiveness we need is infinitely greater than any forgiveness we could show to others.
Did Jesus put price tags on forgiveness? In this passage, he does! But on the cross he paid that price on our behalf. The very condition for forgiveness that Jesus preached on the Mount, he fulfilled on the cross. Only in Christ do we receive the Father’s forgiveness.
2. Jesus is describing the fruit of grace
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Taylor Swift sang “Haters gonna hate,” but the lyrics are from John. Haters gonna hate because hate is in their heart. The fruit reveal the tree. But if you have been apprehended by the love of your heavenly Father you won’t be a hater anymore. You’ll be a lover and a forgiver.
Paul wrote, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3:13) and that’s the proper order. God acts, we respond. But if we don’t respond it’s as if God never acted. Do you see the connection? If we don’t believe God has forgiven us then Christ died for nothing. That’s what Jesus is saying here:
In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part. (Matt 6:14-15, MSG)
Unforgiveness is a form of bondage. It’s a grace killer. If you are unable to release forgiveness to others, you’ll have trouble experiencing the forgiveness that God has given to you.
It’s not that God will become unloving and travel back through time and stop Jesus from carrying your sins on the cross. God never changes! But if you don’t respond to what he has done, it’s as if he’d never done it. Grace without faith is worthless.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus tells the story of a king who forgives an indebted servant (Matt 18:23-35). But the servant is unchanged by the king’s grace. By choosing to remain graceless and unforgiving the servant reveals his contempt for the gift and the giver. He does not, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Instead he scorns grace and ends up miserable.
And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses. (Mark 11:25-26)
Again, there are two ways to read this: (1) as a law the self-righteous must obey if they are to keep up their charade, or (2) as an exhortation to walk in the grace of a Father who has already forgiven you in Christ.
“Paul, how can you say God has forgiven you when Jesus says he may forgive you?” Because I’ve seen the cross! To forgive is to send your sins away and Jesus did that already. He will never do it again and you cannot undo what he has done (Heb 9:26). Because of Jesus God is no longer counting your sins against you (2 Cor 5:19).
The issue is not “what can I get God to do?” but “what God has done and what can I now do because of what he has done.”
Has someone hurt you? Are you the victim of an unforgiveable crime? By the grace of God you can be free from that wound! Don’t hold onto the sins of others like the unforgiving servant. You’ll be miserable. The flow of grace will be poisoned by the bitter root. Let go of sin and take hold of grace. Be better, not bitter. See the cross. See what Jesus did for you them forgive them in Jesus’ Name and be free!
3. It’s both, for Jesus speaks to all of us at our point of need
What you look through determines what you see. If you are trusting in your own performance, you will read Jesus’ words as law. “I must work to earn God’s forgiveness.” You cannot succeed! When life hurts you this law will condemn you as a law-breaker in need of grace, and the sooner that happens the better.
However, if you are trusting in Christ’s righteousness, you will read his words as an exhortation to walk in grace. You want more grace? Then give from the abundant supply he has given to you. Let no bitter root grow that causes you to fall short of grace (Heb 12:15).
Jesus spoke words the whole world needs to hear. The genius of Jesus was that he could speak to crowds of people and meet everyone – the self-righteous and the hungry – at their point of need.
It’s a mistake to dismiss the words of Jesus as irrelevant or old covenant or pre-cross. If it’s in the Bible it’s useful for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). The words of Jesus either reveal the self-righteousness that leads to death or the Christ-righteousness that causes you to reign in life!
The followers of Jesus still know that he has the words of eternal life!
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