Freely Forgiven, Freely Forgive
In the adult Sunday School class at our church, we're studying Jesus's parables. This week's parable was “The ungrateful servant” from Matthew 18. The topic is, of course, forgiveness. The passage begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he had to forgive someone. In response, Jesus tells the parable of a servant who was forgiven an unimaginable debt and who immediately refused forgive the much smaller debt he was owed.
The meaning of the parable is found in verse 33, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” Jesus's answered Peter's question by telling him that he should forgive his brother as freely as he himself had been forgiven by God. The passage then ends with a warning:
"And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:34-35, NASB).
This warning coupled with the warnings that follow the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6 have often troubled me. In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says:
"For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions."
How are we to understand the very real warnings that Jesus gives in his teaching on forgiveness? How do we reconcile them with the truth that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Our salvation, which includes the forgiveness of our sins, does not and can not depend on us. This is good news. We know we can't save ourselves or maintain our own salvation by our works. If it were up to us, none of us would be saved. So, the point of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6 and 18 cannot be that we must earn our forgiveness by forgiving. If that is not the meaning of those passages, then what is?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism answer helped me better understand the passages and resolve the tension that I felt:
"In the fifth petition, which is, And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, we pray that God, for Christ's sake, would freely pardon all our sins; which we are the rather encouraged to ask, because by his grace we are enabled from the heart to forgive others" (WSC, question 105).
The Westminster Larger Catechism goes into even greater detail and ends by teaching us to pray that God would,
"continue his favor and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness; which we are the rather emboldened to ask, and encouraged to expect, when we have this testimony in ourselves, that we from the heart forgive others their offenses" (WLC, question 194).
According to both the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, the phrase “as we forgive others” is there to nurture our assurance. We are encouraged to ask God to forgive us and to believe that He has and will forgive us because we have the evidence of the Spirit working in us when we forgive others. This is such an encouragement!
Calvin, in his commentary on Matthew 6, comes to the same conclusion:
"The forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others: but the design of Christ was, to exhort us, in this manner, to forgive the offenses which have been committed against us, and at the same time, to give, as it were, the impression of his seal, to ratify the confidence in our own forgiveness...Christ did not intend to point out the cause, but only to remind us of the feelings which we ought to cherish towards brethren, when we desire to be reconciled to God (Calvin's Commentary on Matthew 16:12).
Like all of the other fruit that God produces in believers, forgiveness is an evidence of our salvation. Because we have been justified and declared righteous before God, the Spirit is at work in us sanctifying us. As Philippians 2:13 says, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” The Spirit makes us willing and able to do obey, to do the good works God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). And we can trust that He will complete the work He has started because He is faithful (Philippians 1:6).
We can see the evidences of our salvation and the forgiveness of our sins in our lives by seeing the fruit of forgiveness towards others. This is one of the proofs that the Spirit is working in us, because we know that on our own, we would never forgive others.
But what about the warnings in Matthew 6 and 18? Aren't those real warnings? They surely are. Just as our forgiveness of others is evidence of our living faith, our unwillingness to forgive others is very well a demonstration of the fruit of a dead faith--that is, that we have no true, saving faith. If we have no saving faith, we have not been forgiven, and we do not extent forgiveness to others. Eternal destruction is the end result of that path.
As sinners, none of us is going to be as forgiving of others as we should be. We will all fail miserably at times. But even that failure is sin that God has forgiven. As believers, we have nothing to fear. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39), not even our failures to forgive. God has promised to forgive our sins and remove them “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Unlike us, He actually can and does forgive freely and fully.
Every believer struggles with different types and levels of indwelling sin. Not everyone will demonstrate the same amount of forgiveness all the time. Our growth in Christ and in holiness will not always look the same or be on the same “growth curve.” But, if we've been forgiven and the Spirit is at work in us, then the overall tenor of our lives should be one of forgiveness towards others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We can pray the Lord's Prayer with full confidence and without fear. The forgiveness of our sins is secure in the work of Christ. And since we've been freely forgiven by God, we should stand ready to freely forgive others.
"Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. "(Ephesians 4:32)