In our familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer, we can easily pass over the fact that in praying for forgiveness, we ask that we would be forgiven “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” After the prayer, it is this phrase and this phrase only that Jesus takes the time to elaborate on. In Matthew 6:14-15, he explains, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will you Father forgive your trespasses.”
If God’s forgiveness is by grace alone, if it is a free gift through Christ, then why does Jesus seem to teach that God’s forgiveness of us is based upon our forgiveness of others?
We can begin to make sense of this apparent tension by considering the parable of the unmerciful servant that Jesus tells in Matthew 18:21-35:
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, Jesus puts in stark relief the necessity of forgiveness for those who have been forgiven. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of mercy, and those who lack mercy show that they have no part in his kingdom.
Do I need to forgive others before God will forgive me? In this parable, the king does not expect everyone to show the same forgiveness he has shown. Rather, only the servant who has been shown mercy is expected to show mercy. Our forgiveness of others is not a condition of God’s forgiveness but a consequence of it. Encountering God’s forgiveness in Christ transforms us. He enables us to forgive. He gives us the desire to forgive. Thus, we are not forgiven because we forgive others, but we forgive others because we have been forgiven by God through Christ.
Forgiving others is a necessary part of the Christian life. Those who have received forgiveness must show forgiveness.
Forgiving others is rarely easy. It requires God’s grace flowing through our lives. When we’re faced with the hurt and the pain of someone who has wronged us, we should do what the unmerciful servant didn’t do. We should remember what we have already been forgiven. Any wrong we suffer—and people can be incredibly cruel—pales in comparison to our sin against God. And yet, “Out of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy made us alive in Christ” (Eph. 2:4). God has forgiven his people on the basis of the shed blood of Christ. If you faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins and the hope of eternal life, you have no choice but to forgive others “just as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
John is a member of Lakewood who is a PhD candidate in Church History and Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While awaiting graduation, he is serving with Lakewood’s Missions Ministry.