“14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15
In Matthew 6, Jesus is continuing to deliver His powerful Sermon on the Mount as He establishes the foundation for the beginning of His earthly ministry. In verses 14-15, included above, He has just concluded the Lord’s Prayer when He gives this emphatic conditional statement. Jesus is saying “if” we forgive others “then” God will also forgive us, but “if” we do not forgive “then” neither will God forgive. We must ask, what is this saying? Is Jesus saying that we cannot receive forgiveness of our sins, and subsequently salvation, unless we forgive others? Doesn’t this fly in the face of justification by faith alone apart from works? Wouldn’t any conditional act or work required on the part of a person in order to receive salvation go against the Biblical stance of faith alone? In order to avoid misunderstanding, let’s look at some additional texts.
In Matthew 18:21 Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” to which Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” It’s important to note that in this passage Jesus is not setting a limit to the number of times we are to forgive one another, but He is simply placing it at such a distance that we’ve no business making record of offenses and forgiveness. Jesus follows up his reply to Peter with the following parable:
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
In this parable, the analogy is made between the financial debt incurred by the servant, with the debt of sin that requires payment from each and every one of us. In verse 26 we see the repentance of the servant that could not pay the debt to His Master, falling on his knees and begging for mercy. The Master releases the servant forgiving the debt that he owed. This is analogous to God’s forgiveness granted to us through His Son Jesus Christ when we too hit our knees aware that we cannot pay the debt of our sins. Through God’s grace He grants mercy to those who have repented and believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. The debt is cancelled just as we read in Colossians 2:13-14 “13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” When we trust in Jesus our sin is imputed, or assigned, to Him while His perfect righteousness is imputed to us and thereby we fulfill the requirements of the law cancelling our debt to it.
As Jesus continues His parable, we see that having been released from his debt the Master’s servant seeks out fellow servants that are indebted to him. Upon finding the first debtor, the servant begins to choke him demanding he be paid his outstanding balance. The debtor pleads and begs for mercy, but the servant refuses and throws the man in prison. Having just been granted clemency for his own debts the servant refuses to grant the same action to his own debtor. The other servants saw this and reported it to the Master. As we read, Jesus concludes His parable with the following rebuke from the Master: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Because the servant was unwilling to have mercy and forgive a fellow servant, having just received mercy and forgiveness himself, the Master cast him in prison until he could pay his debt. Jesus warns in the conclusion of this passage, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Just like the Master in the parable, God the Father will cast everyone in “prison” who does not forgive their brethren. Now consider this, who among you can pay your debt of sin owed to God? When cast in spiritual prison, namely eternal destruction in hell, for this debt, is there any hope whatsoever to repay the debt? Absolutely not. But you will say, “I’m forgiven! I was granted mercy by God and forgiven my debt of sin. How then can I be cast in prison, i.e. hell, for not forgiving others?”
The end statement from Jesus is the key to understanding this parable and likewise our introductory passage from Matthew, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” The heart is significant here because it gives evidence of true saving faith. English commentator Matthew Henry offers the following insight, “We must forbear, and forgive, and forget the affronts put upon us, and the wrongs done to us; and this is a moral qualification for pardon and peace; it encourages to hope, that God will forgive us; for if there be in us this gracious disposition, it is wrought of God, and therefore is a perfection eminently and transcendently in Himself; it will be an evidence for us that He has forgiven us, having wrought in us the condition of forgiveness.” What Henry is saying here is that the forgiveness mercifully granted to us by God has instilled within us grace that allows forgiveness to flow forth from our hearts. It is evidence that we have been forgiven, a fruit that works forth from our justification. Henry adds, forgiveness “will be a good evidence of the sincerity of our other graces” received from God and that “he that relents toward his brother, thereby shows that he repents toward his God. We must forgive, as we hope to be forgiven.” In Colossians 3:13 we read, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Forgiveness is evidence of the grace filled heart and conversely withholding forgiveness is evidence of a heart of stone.
In our subject text from Matthew 6:15, we read “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Here we have the dangerous statement laid forth by Jesus. Matthew Henry once again provides great insight into this threatening passage, “But if you forgive not those that have injured you, that is a bad sign you have not the other requisite conditions, but are altogether unqualified for pardon: and therefore your Father, whom you call Father, and who as a father, offers you His grace upon reasonable terms, will nevertheless not forgive you.” There is a stark warning in this passage and Henry points out that if you withhold forgiveness this is evidence that you may in fact have never received forgiveness yourself, in other words that you may not be saved from your sins. A heart of stone toward people is a heart of stone toward God. In 1 John 4:7-8 we read, “7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Withholding forgiveness from your heart, the source identified by Jesus earlier in Matthew 18:35, is a lack of love for one another. Again, this lack of love, as we read in the passage from 1 John, shows that a person does not know God. God promised to replace the heart of stone with a heart of flesh, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26 This new heart is a sign of the new covenant relationship with God to all who are true believers having their faith placed in Christ. Therefore, because of the unwilling heart of stone to forgive others, this new heart, and subsequently new relationship with God, is absent, i.e. nonexistent.
But let’s return again to Matthew Henry’s commentary in which he states, “And if other graces be sincere, and yet you be defective greatly in forgiving, you cannot expect the comfort of your pardon, but to have your spirit brought down by some affliction or other to comply with this duty.” Here Henry is pointing out that if you are truly sincere in your faith, if you are a genuine believer who has the new heart of flesh and are truly a new creation in Christ, but your heart has become calloused and cold in granting forgiveness, then you will be “brought down by some affliction or other to comply with this duty,” namely to forgive one another. God commands His true followers to obey Him. When we willingly disobey He has every right as a Father to punish us. He has given the command to forgive one another and has provided the guidance in His Word to do so. For a believer to ignore that is to incur the disciplining hand of God. Hebrews 12:6-8 “’6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” If you are willfully disobeying what God has commanded you to do, as a believer you will be disciplined, if not, then you were an “illegitimate” child to begin with.
Are you withholding forgiveness from someone today? Has your hard, calloused heart prevented you from extending to someone else the similar mercy and forgiveness that God grants? If so you are faced with 2 looming consequences. One, if you refuse to forgive then it’s likely you never received the grace of God in the form of a new heart and in turn your sins will not be forgiven and you stand condemned before God or two, if you are truly saved, then God will discipline you until you obey the command He’s given you. These are the only two options, but the response is the same. Hit your knees like the servant in the parable above who begged for mercy; repent of your sin and trust Christ for the forgiveness of those sins. Then in turn grant forgiveness to those who seek it of you and in doing so fulfill the will of God.
Luke 17:3-4 “3Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
James 2:13 13 “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”