Reader Question: Does My Forgiveness Depend on Forgiving Others?
One of my readers has asked this very good question, which comes from the following Bible passages:
Matthew 6:14-15; Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 18:21-35; Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
Mark 11:25; Teaching on Forgiveness
Luke 6:37; Sermon on the Plain
The first passage is most direct and harsh. It follows immediately after Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord's Prayer, in which He states that Christians will forgive even as they are forgiven. Forgiveness of sins is so central to the Christian life that it is a matter of our relationship to God, daily prayer, and our relationship to one another.
The confusing thing about Matthew 6:14-15 is that Jesus seems to make our forgiveness dependent on forgiving others. In other words, He makes it sound like we have to forgive before God will consider forgiving us. In view of the potential confusion about the passage, I would note a few things to keep matters clear:
1. Jesus assumes that the person forgiving is already a believer, a person who has repented and asked for his Father's forgiveness (Matthew 6:9, 12). The point about forgiving others (vv. 14-15) is an added note of warning, not about the conversion of the one praying, but about how that person will live his Christian life.
2. In other passages, Jesus teaches that there are times when forgiveness should be withheld from someone who will not repent (cf. e.g., Matthew 18:15-18; John 20:23). So Jesus is not saying absolutely in Matthew 6:14-15 that anytime someone withholds forgiveness it means that the Father won't forgive him. He has a special situation in mind where a person who has received God's forgiveness wrongly refuses to forgive someone else.
3. The special situation Jesus has in mind is explained in His "Parable of the Unforgiving Servant" (Matthew 18:21-35). In the parable, a servant is forgiven by his lord and received his lord's forgiveness. However, when a second servant pleads for the first servant's forgiveness, the first servant refuses to forgive. In other words, even though the second servant is truly repentant and pleading for mercy, the first servant KNOWINGLY WITHHOLDS FORGIVENESS. The first servant fails to forgive as God has forgiven him. Based on the broader context in Matthew's Gospel and in Jesus' teaching generally, this is the problem He is addressing in Matthew 6:14-15.
So what is happening here with the first servant or the one knowingly withholding forgiveness, as Jesus describes in Matthew 6:14-15? His unwillingness to forgive becomes a sign that his faith is either weak or failing---he is at a point where he cannot even appropriately pray the Lord's Prayer without ending up in a personal contradiction over "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (v. 12). Like the servant in the parable, hearing someone else pleading for forgiveness, "He refused and went and put him [his fellow servant] in prison" (Matthew 18:30). And this is the point where the heavenly Father steps in with His condemnation (18:32-35; cf. 6:14-15), withholding forgiveness in an effort to drive the unforgiving servant to repentance.
Jesus' teachings, taken in whole from through the Gospel of Matthew, hang together very well and are consistent. The difficulty is that we encounter the hard saying of 6:14-15 before we get the rest of the teaching. Jesus probably taught this way to stir His first hearers to repentance as they experienced the Sermon on the Mount. At times, the Lord in His wisdom comes forward harshly with the Law so that He may later come to us gently with the Gospel, calling us to simple trust in His mercy and in His ways (Matthew 11:25-30).