Recently, I’ve been reading a book on forgiveness by a Christian scholar whose work I appreciate and admire. His own experience of faithfully forgiving the perpetrator who inflicted trauma on him and his family is inspiring.
That’s why I was startled and dismayed by the clear and categorical statement that while we are commanded by God to forgive unconditionally, God’s own forgiveness to us is conditional. He cites the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as he taught his disciples to pray:
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:9-15, NRSV)
That last sentence is the stickler: Jesus seems to say quite simply that God will not forgive our sins if we do not first forgive others their sins. And he seems to make a similar point at the end of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:35).
Small wonder that this Christian author, then, takes Jesus at his word and teaches that we can’t expect God to forgive us if we don’t forgive others.
But is that what Jesus meant?
Let’s start with the spiritual problem. To state without qualification that we must forgive others before we can expect forgiveness from God can leave us in the grip of a merciless religion of works. What if there’s someone I’ve forgotten to forgive? What will happen to me? Imagine a person who believes this, and has the sensitive conscience of a Martin Luther: the Christian life would be one of anxious torment.
Then there’s the theological problem: how can one reconcile this view with a gospel of grace? God’s grace precedes our faith, just as his forgiveness should be the presupposition and not the result of our forgiving others. Paul, for example, teaches the Romans that they have no business standing in judgment over others’ sins, because they themselves are also guilty before God. They have already received God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience” — don’t they understand that “God’s kindness is meant to lead [them] to repentance” (Rom 2:4, NRSV)? Their repentance should be a grateful response to the prior kindness of God.
But how, then, should we understand Jesus’ words?
At the very least, we should note that forgiveness is the only part of the prayer to be highlighted for further emphasis. This is not an optional nicety, something to add on to the Christian life when we get around to it. And we should note the humility of the prayer itself, a penitent attitude in which one already forgives others habitually, but still asks for God’s mercy rather than claiming it as if it were the payment rightfully due for services rendered.
But I don’t believe it’s necessary to read Jesus as saying that we will receive God’s forgiveness if and only if we’ve succeeded in forgiving others. Look, for example, at the way Paul continues in Romans 2:
But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (vss. 5-8, NRSV)
God has already extended his grace and forgiveness to us; but only on “the day of wrath” will it be revealed who really took that forgiveness to heart. Forgiveness is not a reward for our spiritual efforts. We repent, and we forgive, because we “get it”: we deserved death, and God gave us life.