There is something Jesus says quite clearly that often troubles us: In order for God to forgive us, we must be willing to forgive others.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15
This follows up what we commonly refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, which includes:
“And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.” 6:12
If you prefer a parable setting for this teaching look at Jesus’ teaching about the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35
There are a couple of things that can make us uncomfortable about this idea. One is that we might not want to forgive someone who’s hurt us.
Another big problem is that it doesn’t fit well with our theology.
Many Christians frame the good news in somewhat individualistic terms. Something like this: Jesus came to die for my sins so that if I have faith in him, my sins are forgiven and thus I’ll be able to go to heaven when I die.
The other part of that common belief is that our salvation (the term most used) is by faith alone and we don’t have to DO anything. Having to forgive others would be doing something, we might think.
So, how can it be that we have to forgive other people in order to be forgiven ourselves? That’s a pretty big caveat if faith is all that matters, isn’t it?
There are many facets here that we could explore, but here’s the big one.
I believe that we’ve not framed the gospel story correctly.
If we go back and read the gospels again, what would we see as Jesus’ core teaching priority?
‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”‘ Matthew 4:17
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15
‘Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”‘ John 3:3
Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is foremost a (re)new(ed) community of people living under the loving reign of King Jesus. This is the greatest invitation that we can ever receive. His offer is for us to live in peace (shalom) with God AND God’s people through the provision of God’s amazing grace shown magnificently in Christ.
This invitation comes with the free offer of forgiveness of sins and restoration of our broken relationship with God (salvation) as well as the promise of victory over death.
In this kingdom that Jesus invites us to live into (right now and in its fullness one day), we are learning to follow Jesus. To live every aspect of our lives the way he leads us to. (John 14:15, Matthew 28:19-20)
So, let’s return to the forgiveness question. Why does Jesus demand our willingness to forgive others?
Simply because that’s the way things work in his kingdom.
His kingdom runs on grace, forgiveness and agape love.
That’s the way of Jesus – by both teaching and example.
On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
Actually, forgiveness is only the beginning. He calls us to bear one another’s burdens and to lay down our lives for one another.
Simply put, we can’t live in God’s kingdom and defy one of the core aspects of his kingdom. In the kingdom of God, forgiveness flows.
That’s good news.
To say again: Jesus didn’t come just to save you from your sins. He came to reconcile people BOTH to himself AND to one another. Forgiveness of sins is a part of that.
As Paul reflects in 2 Corinthians 5:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”