“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15). Jesus’ teaching in this passage is tricky to understand. Is he saying that God forgives our sins only if we first forgive others? Doesn’t this attach conditions to God’s grace? Our church confessions state unequivocally that God’s grace “is free to save sinners who offer nothing ...” (Our World Belongs to God, 26). It does seem, though, that Jesus is saying the opposite: we must offer something—namely, forgiveness—to others in order to receive for ourselves God’s gracious forgiveness.
As a Reformed Christian, I cling to the unconditionality of God’s grace, by which my sins are forgiven. We love because we were first loved (1 John 4:19), and we can forgive only because we’ve already been forgiven. In our Reformed tradition, the “ought”—what I should do—follows the “is”—who I am through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s grace is not conditional. Rather, it creates the conditions by which we are able to forgive our friends and enemies. But while it’s not conditional, grace is costly and demanding, and probably nowhere more than in the matter of forgiveness.
For that reason we should be careful not to allow our theology to make a passage like Matthew 6:14-15 easy for us! No doubt about it, this is one of Jesus’ hard teachings. Here he insists that redeemed lives inevitably show grace. We must forgive as we’ve been forgiven. And if we don’t? Jesus’ warning is earnest. If we don’t show grace by forgiving others, then perhaps we don’t know God’s saving grace in the first place. Or perhaps, just as the law and prophets in the Old Testament warned Israel that covenant grace still demanded costly obedience (Deut. 15:12-15, e.g.), Jesus’ remarks are meant foremost to rattle those of us who’ve experienced God’s grace but balk at offering it to others because it is so difficult.
I was recently reminded of the costly, difficult nature of forgiveness in a conversation on campus with a thoughtful Muslim student. As we chatted, she raised the matter of forgiveness, which for Muslims is celebrated as an attribute of Allah and commanded for his followers. She had trouble, however, with the Christian teaching that God forgives sinners on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ—God is free, after all, and shouldn’t need a sacrifice in order to forgive. She also wasn’t comfortable with the teaching in the New Testament that forgiveness should be offered beyond our own community even to our enemies.
I pointed out to her that Christians grasp the concept of forgiveness through the cross, by which God forgave his enemies at enormous cost to God’s self (Rom. 5:10). Christians admit, then, that forgiving others, especially our enemies, comes at great cost to our honor and comfort, and it demands that we sacrifice our claims to personal retribution. I suggested that in a sense forgiving others “echoes” the costly grace by which God forgives us in Christ.
She wasn’t convinced, but she understood my point. When Jesus says, “if you do not forgive others … your Father will not forgive your sins,” he’s insisting that God’s children must forgive the wrongs and evil done to them, even by our enemies. This is a difficult act of discipleship. It echoes the astonishingly costly grace and sacrificial love by which God has forgiven us in Christ.
“Nothing comes cheap or easy to us that was costly to God,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic The Cost of Discipleship. Indeed, forgiving others as Christ commands us might very well be impossible except for the Spirit of the forgiving God dwelling in us.