“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
In his model prayer, Jesus had us promise to forgive those who sin against us. Now he reinforces that message with a strong warning. These verses frighten some Christians. Can we really lose the forgiveness of God by refusing to forgive another person?
These verses are spoken within the context of the higher expectations Jesus has for us. He says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” He expects us to do these things; he does not make them optional. In the same way, Jesus assumes that because we are forgiven, we will forgive. His blessings have changed our lives; they are making us more like Jesus.
When we refuse to be like Jesus, forgiving the trespasses of those who sin against us, we block the flow of forgiveness through our lives. When a river is dammed, the water behind the dam often stagnates. Jesus warns us of a similar thing that happens in our spiritual lives. When we are unable to forgive as Jesus forgives, we can cause our own spiritual lives to become stagnant and to die.
However, holding a grudge is not the unforgivable sin. Jesus died to rescue us from that sin as well as from all our other sins. We do not earn forgiveness from Jesus by forgiving others. His forgiveness is a blessing; it is a gift. It is not earned. Yes, we can lose that forgiveness by continuing to sin without wanting to change. When we prefer our sins to our Savior, we lose that Savior; he becomes, instead, a Judge. But saying we can lose his forgiveness does not imply that we can earn his forgiveness. In the matter of God’s forgiveness and our obedience to his commands, God always makes the first move. God always goes first.
In the prayer, Jesus employs this order: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God forgives first, and then we imitate him. God does not limit himself to our level, our ability to forgive. He forgives first, setting the standard, and then he invites us to be like him, offering us the strength to follow his lead.
Let’s imagine that someone has done something dreadful that hurt you. How can you forgive? Not from the goodness of your own heart, but only from the power of God’s gift. Jesus suffered and died on the cross to pay for all sins, including sins that hurt you. When you forgive the sinner who hurt you, you are sharing the promise of Jesus. When you refuse to forgive, you are keeping secret the life-changing promise from Jesus, a promise that every sinner needs to hear.
We cannot make ourselves more forgiving by trying harder to forgive. That road leads nowhere but to despair. We become more forgiving by drawing closer to Jesus, by remembering what he has done, and by believing his promises. When we remember that we are forgiven even for our failures to forgive—since forgiveness is a gift and not something we earn—then we become able to forgive those who sin against us. J.