Is God's forgiveness conditional?

In Matthews 6:14-15, Jesus proclaims to his gathered disciples: "...If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (KJV). Does this statement contradict the key teaching of Trinitarian, incarnational theology that God, in Christ, has forgiven all people?

It's important to understand the context here. Jesus' statement is part of his Sermon on the Mount, (which spans Matthew chapters 5-7). In this sermon, Jesus is telling his disciples about life in his kingdom (life with him under God's rule). This context is helpfully addressed in studies on the Sermon on the Mount on the Trinity Study Center website (produced by Dr. Gary and Cathy Deddo):
Jesus begins [the Sermon on the Mount]...with a list [called The Beatitudes]. It is almost like a poem. Each of the first nine lines begins with the word “blessed.” Each of the first 8 lines has a second half that begins “for theirs is” or “for they shall,” thus giving a reason for why these people are blessed. If you study the first 8 lines, you notice that the first and the eighth end exactly the same: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is present tense, meaning that right now, these people have the kingdom of heaven. In all the lines in between these two, the second half begins “for they shall...” These are all future tense, meaning that they will be fully realized only in the future. What is the significance of this structure? Well, I think it means a couple of things. First of all Jesus is speaking about the kingdom as a present and future reality. We can truly possess the kingdom of heaven here and now on the earth. We can enjoy the truth of this, at least, to some extent. But the greatest fulfillment of having this kingdom will, for us, come in the future. It is a real hope that affects our lives profoundly now, but one we look forward to seeing completely fulfilled. [Emphasis added]
Because Jesus has come to dwell with humanity, the kingdom is a present reality on earth. What Jesus describes is how this reality may be experienced by his followers. Though their experience will be only partial now (due to human weakness), it will come to fullness in the age to come.

The Deddos note that in Mat 6:14-15, Jesus is addressing forgiveness while making a point about experiencing the kingdom in prayer. A superficial reading of Jesus' statement might lead one to conclude that what we do (or do not do) conditions the Father’s desire to forgive us. However, what we learn when we consider the full scope of the Sermon on the Mount (and as we examine the scope of Jesus' entire ministry) is that the Father's forgiveness toward us is NOT conditioned upon what we do or do not do.

Jesus' statement warns his followers not to succumb to the temptation to resist God's unconditional forgiveness, thus failing to experience in their lives its full benefit. Jesus' point seems to be that if we, as Jesus' followers, cling to a heart of unforgiveness (harboring ill will toward others) we will be unable to receive the forgiveness that God, in Christ, has extended to us already.

In short, hearts closed toward our neighbor are also closed toward God.

However (and this is a vital point derived from the whole of Scripture), our unwillingness (or inability) to forgive others has no power to change the Father's mind about us. His mind toward us is conditioned only by the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ, on our behalf. In Christ, God has made up his mind once and for all about us. He has forgiven us all.

Some will object, saying we should take what Jesus says "literally." After all, the statement reads like a cause and effect (tit for tat) equation: “If you do not forgive.... neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”  However (as noted by the Deddos), the grammatical construction of the statement (given as a warning) and the context of the whole Sermon and of Jesus' entire ministry, indicate that what Jesus is addressing here is not an action that God takes toward us, but the result in our own hearts of actions that we take (or fail to take). Note the following comment from the Deddos:
The purpose of this warning is to...prevent someone from not being/receiving forgiveness... Giving consideration to the larger biblical context as related to God’s forgiveness, whenever Scripture speaks from God’s side, and tells us directly of God’s character and purpose we see that God is not conditioned by us, and is of one mind and character towards us. He is gracious, forgiving, redeeming. It is clearly his purpose to save, not condemn.
So even though the result in this warning is expressed in the indicative, since it is set in the context of a warning, there is no grammatical reason to take it as purposive, revealing the aim and intention of God. The consequence should only serve to indicate a result and one that is contrary to God’s purposes. It should not initiate a reinterpretation of the character of God. Note that even here God is addressed as our heavenly Father. Whether we receive or somehow manage to refuse his forgiveness, God remains our heavenly Father because Jesus remains our heavenly Brother.

Comments

  1. Hi Ted,

    Well, I read the answer presented in this blog to the issue about Matthew 6:14-15, which passage says:

    Matthew 6:14-15 (KJV) 14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

    And I must say that I found the answer quite hard to understand. I probably should read it several times to get the drift. In the meantime, I have come up with several points I wish to add to the discussion. They are:

    1.) When Jesus said what He did in Matthew 6:14-15, He was apparently quoting a common law teaching of the time. An example of this teaching is found in the Book of Sirach as:

    Sirach 28:2 (KJV Apoc) 2 Forgive thy neighbour the hurt that he hath done unto thee, so shall thy sins also be forgiven when thou prayest.

    2.) The Sermon on the Mount (along with its companion Sermon on the Plain found in Luke) was meant to elicit a reaction. To that end, Jesus said things that would cause His hearers to sense in some way just how far short they fell in trying to get the salvation job done. With this in mind, it is instructive to see what the centurion's self-deprecating "I am not worthy" reaction to Jesus was right after the sermon was given. The interchange between the centurion (a man of power and who would have needed to know what Jesus said in the sermon) and Jesus is key to see in this regard:

    Matthew 8:5-13 (KJV) 5 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, 6 And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. 7 And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. 8 The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. 9 For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. 10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 13 And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

    3.) Well, not everyone was so positive as the centurion towards Jesus. So those who had a negative reaction to what Jesus said with the sermon and elsewhere had Him killed. But Jesus then stood in resurrection to deliver us all into God's love. With that, a new reality came into place for all who believe in which we are completely forgiven. Paul puts it this way as we reflect on what Jesus did for us:

    Ephesians 4:32 (KJV) 32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

    So my resulting question is: Does the cross have any bearing on understanding Matthew 6:14-15?

    All the best!

    J. Richard Parker

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  2. In my view, Jesus' principal point in giving the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples has everything to do with the cross. Why? Because that point has to do with our inclusion in and thus sharing in Jesus' love and life .

    That inclusion and thus open door into this sharing is in and through Jesus alone, via his substitutionary/representative incarnation, life, ministry, death (cross), resurrection, ascension and continuing intercession (including sending of the Holy Spirit).

    As we share in Jesus' love and life, we share in his heart, thoughts and actions, which Jesus (in rather startling fashion) sets forth in this sermon. Indeed, we are "not worthy" - our sharing, on this side of glorification, even as devoted followers of Jesus, is partial and thus imperfect. But Jesus is the perfect human in communion with God for us. And, glory to God, he shares his (human) perfection with us. Indeed, the fullness of our humanity resides with and is thus "hidden with Chris in God" (Col 3:3).

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  3. I've edited the original post to make it (hopefully) a bit clearer.

    As I was doing this editing, I remembered an event from several years back. I was counseling two young men who, though lifelong friends, had come to a point where that friendship was falling apart. One of them had offended the other, and the offended party was unable to forgive. When I asked why, he replied that he did not have to forgive the friend who offended him until that friend repented of the offense and asked for forgiveness.

    In essence, he was following a mis-reading of Jesus' warning in the Sermon on the Mount concerning unforgiveness. He thought that God would not (actually *could not*)forgive his friend until he repented; therefore (in his way of thinking), he need not forgive (and, really, should not forgive) his friend until that friend repented.

    The principal error here is assuming that God does not forgive us until *after* we repent. But that is not the gospel. The gospel proclaims the good news that God has forgiven all sinners and is keeping no record of their sin because of what Jesus has done. In Christ, God has reconciled the whole world (sinners all) to himself.

    Through our response of repentance, we are enabled to experience this unconditional forgiveness. Our repentance does not cause God to forgive us.

    In like manner, our inability (or refusal) to be forgiving toward others, blocks (in our minds and hearts) our full experience of God's forgiveness for us (and for the one who has offended us). As we forgive, we are experiencing with and through Jesus the depth of God's forgiveness for all humanity (ourselves included).

    A heart entrained with the heart of Jesus, is able to say with him, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing"(Luke 23:34).

    Are we perfect in being forgiving? Not now, but we are growing in that perfection (our sharing in Jesus' perfect and complete forgiving), and in the world to come, we will experience it to the full. Hallelujah!

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  4. Hi Ted
    Thanks for the conversation and the progressive thought processes. I think this is one where we all see dimly! The reason I say this is that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit as God is the only one who intrinsically forgives because He is love. Galatians 2:20 show this, His faith life, is an abundant fruit life, given to us to participate in. As participants our life becomes a forgiven cross life!
    All of humanity has been placed by the Father in union in Jesus! We are all forgiven, made right and do not need to judge others anymore, an objective reality from the heart of God. (John 16:8-11). It is part of our new spiritual DNA.
    The Spirit is in the process of convincing us of this in Father’s timing, a subjective participation in the here and now as living human beings, souls. So until we trust this “Good News” knowing that we have it all, we will remain in unknowing darkness, even though signs of His life may bud through. Unbelievers are able to forgive, love etc, where does this come from except Him.
    In our darkness we do not know we are forgiven and have been made right and therefore continue to judge others. It is Jesus who in prayer and right standing for us as vicarious god and man stands in our stead. This is also tantamount in our forgiveness. We just need to trust in Him! It will take me a lifetime!
    I believe that forgiveness has a lot to do with having the Spirit renovate our minds from the right and wrong camp of perilous judgment to just resting in Him. It is Jesus by the Spirit revealing the Father who has forgiven all, now will all participate in this life of the dance! Like I said I see these things dimly through battles between my own “flesh and Spirit.” May the Holy Spirit shine into our darkness to further reveal the testimony of His finished work! Just a few thoughts! John

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  5. Beautifully and helpfully stated John. Thanks so much!

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  6. Greg T.12/19/2012

    Jesus said:
    Matthew 7:21  Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; BUT HE THAT DOETH THE WILL OF MY FATHER WHICH IS IN HEAVEN.

    What is the will of Jesus' Father?
    Matthew 17:5  While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; HEAR YE HIM.

    What does Jesus say in regard to which of His teachings are applicable to who?
    Matthew 28:18  And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
    19  Go ye therefore, and TEACH ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
    20  Teaching them to OBSERVE ALL THINGS whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

    What else does Jesus say about conditional forgiveness?
    Matthew 18:21  Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
    22  Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

    The parable of the unmerciful servant follows and concludes with...
    35  So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

    What does Jesus say about His followers?
    John 10:4  And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: FOR THEY KNOW HIS VOICE.

    I am just curious as to why you can't simply acknowledge the written words of Jesus? That would seem to be a prerequisite before you start following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

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  7. Dear Greg,

    In understanding what Jesus' words *mean*, we must, as with the exegesis of any words in Scripture, apply sound principles of biblical interpretation. I've outlined those on this blog under the "principles of biblical interpretation" tab--you can go there directly at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/p/principles-of-biblical-interpretation.html

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  8. Greg T.12/20/2012

    Question: Will God forgive me for my sins if I refuse to forgive my fellow man?

    Jesus:
    Matthew 6:14  For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
    15  But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

    Ted Johnston:
    God's forgiveness is unconditional, therefore forgiving your fellow man is not a condition for receiving forgiveness.

    Ted, you are in disagreement with Jesus, can you not comprehend this?

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  9. Dear Greg. Are you suggesting that Jesus is saying that we "earn" God's forgiveness of our sins, by forgiving other people? If that is the case, what then of the teaching of Paul in the epistles that salvation (which includes forgiveness of sin) is by grace alone?

    In Matthew 6:9ff, Jesus is addressing his followers (and also perhaps the crowds) concerning public prayer. He advises that in such prayer God be petitioned to meet our spiritual needs, which includes forgiveness. The point is that our sins, which here are viewed here as moral debts, reveal our many shortcomings before God, and so in prayer, we embrace God’s forgiveness, which we know is already given (v12). Sadly, some do use (misuse)v12, together with vv14-15, to teach that God does not forgive us until we forgive those who have sinned against us. This is the mistaken idea that we somehow earn God’s forgiveness. See, however the parable of the unmerciful servant in Mat 18:21–35, where the link between forgiving and being forgiven is more clearly set out. Indeed, the word debts in 6:12 reminds us of that parable. Though God’s forgiveness of sin is not based on forgiving others, our experiencing of God’s forgiveness is based to some degree on us having a forgiving spirit (and see Eph. 4:32). The issue here is fellowship with God, not how we are given the forgiveness that is a fundamental aspect of God's gift of salvation, which comes by grace alone (not by our works or personal merit). Jesus point is that we don’t walk in intimate fellowship with God when we refuse to forgive others.

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  10. Greg T.12/20/2012

    Well Ted, when are you going to explain to me how my $1 million gift illustration is wrong? Or are you so above me spiritually that you won't come down to my level to reply?

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  11. Hi Greg,

    Sorry not to have responded earlier. I had a bad case of the "creeping crud" that kept me down for over a week. We truly are gifted by a generous God of all grace. We don't earn such gifts through our obedience, however we are called to obediently use his gifts in order to participate in the work he is doing in our own lives and in the lives of others.

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  12. Most often, Mt 6:14-15 is interpreted in one frame of reference, that of reward-for-compliance / threat-for-noncompliance mode.

    However, in the Greek we notice that the Lord uses a category word, "men" (anthropoi, anthroupous in the accusative). This will cause you to ask the question, is he deliberately pointing at a category there, not just using the word for others, allelous? This will bring out the "wisdom-side" of the meaning of this famous saying, the only comment Jesus makes on His prayer.

    As a wisdom-saying (categories behaving according to their category), we can state the background assumption to this verse this way: two things are true of you. You have a heavenly Father, and you are humans (anthropoi).

    If you (being children of your heavenly Father, and being anthropoi) forgive anthropous their debts against you), it follows that your heavenly Father (whom you imitate in doing so) will also forgive you (being men yourselves).

    It is a wisdom statement, about the consistency of children to their father (Father), and what must therefore be true of Him! And the next verse reinforces the assumption of consistency, by stating the converse:

    If you (being children of your heavenly Father, and being anthropoi), do not forgive anthropous their debts against you), it follows that your heavenly Father (whom you imitate in not doing so) will also not forgive you (being anthropoi yourselves).

    ReplyDelete

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