“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NASB)
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NASB)
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32 NASB)
Most of the time I hear Christians preach or teach about forgiveness they quote the first verse above. The one where Jesus says, “If you don’t give forgiveness God won’t forgive you.” It seems to me we need to take another look at this subject from all three of these verses. For instance the first one is Jesus, living under the Law, prior to him going to the cross. The second one is of course Jesus speaking from the cross, and the third one is the Apostle Paul several years after the cross.
Everything before the cross of Christ was man’s responsibility before God by way of the Law. The Law of God requires certain things of man that God has known all along man could never actually accomplish. Man, on the other hand, thought if God tells me to do it I will try until I get it done. Of course that is a deception deeply ingrained within mankind since the Garden of Eden, but it isn’t until we try, try and try some more that we come to see this. Therefore God gives us things to do until we collapse under the weight of his commands and eventually cry out to him. Jesus telling us to forgive others or we won’t be forgiven, I believe, is just another one of those impossible for us independently to do, commands.
We see in the second verse Jesus crying out to God to forgive “them” meaning all of us because we don’t know what we are doing. God supplies the forgiveness for us so we are now able to forgive others. This is what Paul is telling us in Ephesians 4. He is on the other side of the cross and resurrection so he understands since we have already been forgiven we now are able to forgive others. Paul shows us, instead of thinking we have to forgive in order to be forgiven, we are to forgive just as we have already been forgiven. All this is to say, if we are required to forgive others before we can be forgiven, salvation depends on works.
We all know there is absolutely nothing we can do to be saved except simply receive what God in Christ has already done on our behalf. Yet, when it comes to being forgiven we somehow think it depends upon our forgiving others first. Wouldn’t this mean we have to obtain our forgiveness (salvation) by way of our forgiving others? This way of seeing forgiveness is like forgiveness being a requirement or work isn’t it?
Prior to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the command of forgive others or you won’t be forgiven, was absolutely proper. Living under “Law” means there are certain requirements placed upon us by God. Living this side of the cross in grace means those same requirements God commands of us he in fact will do in and through us. Now on the other side of the cross and Jesus crying out for our forgiveness, even in our ignorance, we are to forgive others with this same forgiveness. The reality is, we as an independent being do not have forgiveness to dish out or withhold, we are only passing along forgiveness that is ours by way of Christ or we are blocking the flow by refusing.
The Bible is basically telling us throughout that we humans are vessels and have absolutely no ability on our own to perform up to God’s perfect and holy standards. God is love and the only way we love others is by him loving them through us. In the same way we forgive others only by Christ in us forgiving them through us. We are never the originator of our godliness only Christ in us is.
The Law was given to drive out the deceptive idea within humanity that we are our own person and we can manufacture or obtain our own holiness, love, forgiveness, etc. When in reality it is only the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and we with him, that sets us free to see the reality of us being simple vessels to contain God’s Holy Spirit. If we are going to love, forgive or serve others it will only come about by way of his Spirit through us.