As we have worked through the Sermon on the Mount, we have seen that Jesus, at this point, is addressing hindrances to surpassing righteousness (6:5–13). Hypocritical prayer is one such hindrance, but perhaps an even greater hindrance to surpassing righteousness is an improper relationship with others, manifest by unforgiveness. This is what Jesus addresses in 6:14–15.
Our horizontal relationships (with others) are directly related to our vertical relationship (with God). A proper understanding of forgiveness is essential to a proper relationship with God. These two short verses are packed with significance. As we consider them, and more broadly the subject of forgiveness, we want to consider at least five truths.
First, forgiveness is commanded. The exhortation in vv. 14–15 rests on v. 12, where we are taught that, in obedience to God, our prayers must express a commitment to forgive those who wrong us. The command to forgiven is stated explicitly elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 17:3–4, 10; Mark 11:23–26; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). There can be no debate that God’s people are commanded to forgive those who have wronged them.
Second, forgiveness is conditional. Jesus said, “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.” We might be tempted to immediately think about what these verses do not and cannot mean, but let’s pause for a moment to think about what they do mean. Plainly, Jesus says that we have no confidence that God will forgive us if we withhold forgiveness from others. These words were spoken to his disciples (5:1–2), not to the unbelieving world. To experience grace, we must exercise grace, which means that those who have experienced grace will exercise grace.
Have you ever considered that the exhortation in Hebrews 4:16 to draw near to the throne of grace is stated in the plural: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace”? When you draw near to that throne, you are not alone. You are there with your brothers in sisters in Christ. To seek God’s grace while withholding the grace of forgiveness from a brother or sister who is also at the throne of grace is utter hypocrisy. You cannot expect God to hear your prayer, forgive you, and restore your fellowship with him if you have broken fellowship another believer.
While the emphasis in the text before us is conditional forgiveness from the Father, it is helpful to note that our interpersonal forgiveness is likewise conditional. Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4). If we forgive as Christ forgives, we will forgive those who repent—without harbouring bitterness against those who don’t.
Third, forgiveness is a commitment. When you express forgiveness to someone, you commit to not bring up the matter again—to the person you’ve forgiven, to others, or to yourself. Forgiving and forgetting is a biblical category, but rather than wiping it from your memory banks, forgetting means to let the matter go once you have forgiven. There may be times when forgiveness demands restitution, and consequences are not always wiped clean, but if God commits to remember our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12), surely our forgiveness must carry the same commitment.
Fourth, forgiveness is countercultural. That is why it is commanded. We do not have to be commanded to do things that we already want to do. The fact that God commands forgiveness shows that it is something that is not natural.
If forgiveness is unnatural, how do we develop an attitude of forgiveness? We do so by experiencing God’s forgiveness (Matthew 18:21–35), by regular exposure to the Father, and by exercising faith (Luke 17:3–5).
Fifth, forgiveness is costly. Specifically, forgiveness is only possible because of the cross of Christ. Those who find themselves unable to forgive may not understand the cross. When we understand that Jesus died to make forgiveness possible, we will consider it virtually blasphemous to withhold forgiveness from those who seek it.
As you reflect on these verses this morning, ask yourself, is there someone I need to forgive? Don’t allow unforgiveness to hinder your walk with God. Don’t hinder your church by clinging to bitterness. Forgive, as God so graciously forgave you.