Forgiveness is difficult for one simple reason – sometimes we just don’t want to forgive. We are angry, we are hurt, and we are not ready to let that go. We feel justified and want to stay right where we are. Forgiveness challenges us because sometimes we simply don’t want to do it!
Jesus teaches that in prayer we are to ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). The first problem some have with this text is the need to ask for forgiveness at all. A person may believe that since he is “justified” there is no sin to forgive. Another comes to the same conclusion based on his understanding of sanctification, believing that he can no longer sin at all. These instructions on prayer are offered to Jesus’ disciples, those who have the right to call on the name of the father. John illustrates this point clearly in his first epistle. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10). Throughout his teaching on prayer, Jesus focuses on the attitude with which we approach God. The aspect of forgiveness, both asking for and the offering of, ought to originate from a pure and humble heart. John acknowledges the truth behind the attitude of one who believes he has no sin which needs forgiving. This is the attitude of the Pharisee who prays to God, giving thanks for what he is not. Juxtaposed to this Pharisee is the tax collector who possess the attitude Christ desires for us to have, “forgive me, a sinner.” A humble request made to God.
Another problem that some have with this text is that it predicates God’s forgiveness on our forgiveness of others. It is argued that this is legalistic and belongs to some Old Testament mentality. Some suggest that it seems to forget the atonement of Christ and sounds like works. Jesus does not say that forgiveness is caused by our forgiveness of others. Jesus is not negating his own redemptive sacrifice for our sins. Jesus is pleading for his disciples to have a proper attitude when making this request to God. The forgiving of sins is no simple matter, nor is it cheap. Our forgiveness only comes at the hands of God – the hands of God’s only Son being nailed to the cross. The humble heart understands the cost of this forgiveness and freely extends the same grace to others.
A third problem that some have with this passage is that they do not believe they must forgive others, especially without extensive penance and apology. This text is really not specifically addressing that question, but it gets close. Will God forgive sins that are not repented of? No. But God does stand ready to forgive. This is often our real difficulty with forgiveness. As I said earlier, sometimes we don’t want to forgive. That is the heart that God never has – and that is the heart we must strive to remove from our lives.
Hear the words of Jesus again: “…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Most all of our English Bibles translate the word here as “debt.” It means something owed, a due – morally speaking, a fault. This specific word is only used in one other place, i.e. Romans 4:4. “Now the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” Now let’s address specifically the phrase, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. First, consider another passage in which Jesus addresses this topic: Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus is responding to Peter’s question, “How many times should we forgive?” How patient is forgiveness supposed to be? Some wonder. So, Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving servant. Notice the end of the story. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). There is a condition placed on forgiveness here, and Jesus put it there himself.
Secondly, remember that this is a prayer. We are asking God to forgive us as we forgive others. So we are talking about attitude, and the condition of our heart. God doesn’t ask us to do that which he will not do. God asks us to be like him, to be holy, to take on his character. This is his character. God is represented with an outstretched hand in Isaiah 59. He is the father who runs to meet his son in Luke 15. This is who God is – this is who God wants us to be. A third aspect to consider here is Matthew 6:14-15, which says, “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.” These verses use a different word, “trespass” instead of “debt”. It means a side-step, an error, a transgression. It is not the main word used for sin, but it is translated “sin” in Ephesians 1:7, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace…” It is translated as “offenses” in Romans 4:25, “who was delivered up for our offenses and raised for our justification.” If we miss the conditional nature of Matthew 6:12, we cannot miss it in these verses 14 & 15. Why? Repentance is not just about words spoken, but about a heart revealed.
Consider one more thought on this issue of forgiveness. We were close to it a moment ago in Matthew 18. To consider this last thought, notice what is stated in verses 15-20.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault. Why? So that you may be reconciled. Why? So that he may not be lost. This is what Jesus lays on us as our duty in the situation. It shows the heart of God. In teaching us to ask for forgiveness, Jesus teaches us how to forgive. Do you have someone you are unwilling to forgive? Understand that by extending forgiveness, we demonstrate the very character of God. May we pray with a pure heart, “God, forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”