As Christians, we like to give ourselves a lot of leniency. We claim boldly the wonderful offer of grace and forgiveness, yet sometimes forget the price that was paid so that we ourselves could be forgiven. We forget that it is only because Jesus humbled Himself to the point of becoming a man, taking on flesh, and suffering physical and Spiritual death that we can be forgiven and welcomed into the presence of God (Phil 2). And in that spirit of leniency, we allow room for ourselves to not offer grace to the extent that we have been shown. Jesus, however, gives the harshest and most terrifying of stipulations on that very point:
“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.”
– Matt 6.14-15
We must be diligent when we read Scripture to place it in the context of the Bible as a whole, and in the context of the passage. Otherwise we can distort the Truth and end up believing heresies. For example, we know that grace is a free gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to earn it (Eph 2.8-9, Rom 6.23). But this teaching of Jesus implies that we earn our forgiveness by forgiving one another. We will never and can never earn our salvation and forgiveness from God. What Jesus is teaching here is the sobering reality that anyone who has been forgiven by God will forgive others. We will prove that we have repented and been forgiven by forgiving others.
When we hear the Gospel, we must understand it in its fullness. We must grasp the reality that we have sinned (Rom 3.23), and that the just punishment for sin is death and damnation (Rom 6.23). We cannot repent and be saved until we realize our sinfulness and the penalty for it. The moment we realize that there is no hope for our souls, but then we see Jesus crucified and raised from the dead in our place, we receive that free gift of salvation and we repent. We die to our flesh. We allow the Spirit to lead us to quit sinning, and to confess our sins in brokenness when we do sin.
Ultimately, when we have been through that Spiritual process of grasping the weight of our own sin, confessing it, repenting from it and accepting God’s magnificent gift of forgiveness, there is no way that we can not forgive someone else when they sin against us. If you have been forgiven by God, you will forgive others. It is only by having not walked that path of repentance and confession that you can harbor a grudge. Because there is no sin that someone can commit against you that is greater than the burden of sins you have committed against God.
No one can sin against me more deeply than I have sinned against God.
And God forgave me.
Therefore I must forgive those who sin against me.
If I refuse to forgive someone, it proves that I have not been forgiven by God.
I am still lost.
Now, forgiveness is a tricky bird. There are people who have not been forgiven by God, even though He offers forgiveness to everyone. What is the determining factor? We must ask. We must confess.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
– 1 John 1.9
“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away…”
– Acts 3.19
Our sins are not forgiven us until we confess them. Our sins are not wiped away until we repent and return. If there were not a condition on forgiveness, then no one would go to Hell. Jesus’ death would cover everyone. But Jesus did not die for everyone, His death covers only those who repent and confess. Those who do not repent and confess their sins will go to Hell, because the wages of sin is death. Jesus will forgive anyone who asks. We have only to ask.
And not only that, Jesus gave us very clear (and difficult) instructions on how to handle someone who claims to be a believer but will not repent for his sins: He teaches us to kick them out of the church (Matt 18.15-18). Paul says we should disassociate with them to the point that we will not even go out to eat with them (1 Cor 5.5, 11). The reason for taking such an extreme approach here is because such a person knows the Truth. They can recite the Gospel. They even claim to believe it and to be a Christian. But the fruit of their hearts reveals them to be unbelievers, and thus they are wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7.15), they are false prophets (2 Peter 2.1), and they will destroy the Church by leading people astray (Matt 24.24). They will tell us what we want to hear so that we can live how we want to live with a false assurance of salvation (2 Tim 4.3-4).
As Christians we should continue to eat with those who are not Christians and claim to not be Christians, because these people need to hear the Gospel and these people might still be saved. It is still possible for the person who has been removed from the Church to be saved, too, and Paul teaches us that it is in fact for the hope of their salvation that they would be disciplined by being removed from the Church (1 Cor 5.5). Our ultimate goal in everything that we do is to exemplify the Gospel and to see people saved. For those who do not claim Christ through reasoning and prayer, and for those who falsely claim Christ by distance, discipline and prayer.
This is what separated many of the Pharisees from the penitent. This is why Jesus hung out with repentant people: both pharisees and what many considered sinners. And it is because of this reality that Jesus taught plainly:
“For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
– Luke 7.47
If you understand the weight of your salvation, you will forgive others. It is only by not understanding the forgiveness offered that one can harbor bitterness and not forgive.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
– Eph 4.31
Therefore, let our hearts and attitudes towards those who have offended us be a test by which we examine ourselves. We are instructed:
“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
– 2 Cor 13.5
It would be a terrible thing to think that we have been forgiven and to think that we are Christians, and arrive at the judgment seat to find out that we never were saved. And this is one test by which we can examine our salvation: Do we forgive others? Are we ready and willing to forgive others when they ask? Or do we harbor bitterness, and therefore set our righteousness and worth above Jesus’? An unforgiving Spirit fundamentally says, “this offense against me is greater than any offense that Jesus has forgiven”. And we all know that Jesus has willingly forgiven every sin under the sun, including murder, adultery, theft, deceit, abandonment, and anything you can name. Jesus said that if we are unwilling to forgive, we prove ourselves to have never been forgiven. Therefore let us become people of grace and forgiveness, let us prove ourselves to know God. Let us confess our sins to one another and let us forgive.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
– James 5.16