“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
There it is. A compelling red-letter statement by Jesus Himself. These verses seem to completely be contrary to other verses in the Bible that clearly state God’s forgiveness is unconditional, and not something that can be earned through any action of a human. So how do we reconcile this obvious paradox?
Let’s first of all be clear about the implication here in Matthew 6:14-15. If a person’s sins are not forgiven, then hell is the only destination for you. Forgiveness of sins is absolutely critical in allowing a person to enter a place of eternal righteousness. Some have minimized the impact of this verse by saying that our unforgiveness of others puts us in a state of relational disconnect with the Father. Like we are unable to relate to him because we are in a state of unforgiveness. But I think that is downplaying the implications here. It’s straightforward…you don’t forgive, then you won’t be forgiven by God.
But how do we reconcile that with other verses that clearly state a forgiveness from God that is not based on our actions? Verses like:
This verse says that WE HAVE redemption…something we possess as believers, through (by means of) the blood of Jesus. Not by something we do or don’t do. Then Paul clarifies what “redemption through his blood” means, “the forgiveness of sins”. (Ephesians 1:17 “ In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins”).
Hebrews 10:17 clearly says that there will be a time where God chooses to remember our sins no longer. How could that be possible if His ability to forgive is based off of our forgiveness of others? (“Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”)
Jesus Himself explained how forgiveness of sins would be made possible…by his blood. If there was another way to achieve this forgiveness, it seems he would have mentioned it here. Or if there was something that would disqualify a person, (like unforgiveness) it would be mentioned here. (Matthew 26:28 “This is my blood of thecovenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”)
How about when John the Baptist saw Jesus? He said in John 1:29 “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”.
And actually, this verse especially gives us a clue to how we need to understand Matthew 6:14-15, and so many other conflicting verses on forgiveness. When would Jesus, as the “Lamb of God”, take away the “sin of the world”? Well of course we know that it would be when Jesus died at the cross. This means that sin would be handled in a way that it never had been handled prior to the cross, which included the time while Jesus was alive and was teaching.
What this means is that Jesus could not teach about sin before the cross in a way that would have been different from how sin had been addressed throughout the Old Testament, under the old covenant. The “new covenant” Jesus spoke of at the last supper would not be put into effect until he laid down his life. It was this act that allowed for us all to have “redemption through his blood” as Ephesians 1:7 says.
This perspective is critical in interpreting the teachings of Jesus as well as the entire Old Testament. Israel was under the Mosaic covenant for around 1500 years, and much of the Old Testament narrative unfolds under that covenant. This of course was the case when Jesus came on the scene. As we know, Jesus was sent by God to Israel, to forgive sins by his sacrificial death, and offer new life through his resurrection. In order to be received as their Messiah, He also had to fulfill the many Old Testament prophesies related to the Messiah, while living and teaching under the existing covenant perfectly.
This perspective is essential in interpreting the life, actions and words of Jesus. He was a Messiah to the Jews, who were under the law of Moses. It would not be until after his resurrection,just prior to his ascension, that redemption would be possible for people outside of the Mosaic covenant, the gentiles.
We know from the inspired scriptures following his death and resurrection that the law had a very specific purpose, it was to reveal humanity’s inability to keep God’s perfect standard. This was to push everyone to the cross, where they could receive forgiveness of sins by no works of their own, but by the simple act of faith and trust in the work of Jesus.
Certainly Jesus would have been in on this plan of God in relation to the law. But the time in which Jesus was ministering was filled with hypocritical religious leaders who used the law as way to condemn and oppress the weak, needy and poor. We know that Jesus intended to provoke those very leaders by calling them out on their double standard. They would accuse the masses of not keeping the law, when in fact they themselves did not keep the law, either in word, deed or intent.
That’s what brings us to our text, which is found in the context of what we call “the sermon on the mount”. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus is clear about his relation to the law of Moses, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” He would then go on to cite specific references to the law, but increase the requirements of those laws by exposing the intents and motives of the heart. The Pharisees and teachers of the law thought they were doing so well with their external observances of the law, but Jesus revealed that even more was required…an inward righteousness, not just outward obedience.
Jesus would conclude Matthew 5 with a command that took it to an entirely new and impossible level, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (v48).” Just when these new followers of Jesus didn’t think the standard could get any higher, Jesus makes a statement that would have been utterly discouraging and confusing. By raising the bar of righteousness to such impossibly unattainable heights, Jesus “fulfilled” the law and the prophets, both in word and intent.
The entire sermon on the mount is not the new ethic under Jesus. It is Jesus fulfilling his role as the long awaited prophesied Jewish Messiah, who would lead people to the forgiveness of sins offered by His sacrificial death. But in order for Israel to see their need for a Savior, they had to once again be reminded of their own inability to keep the righteous requirements of the law.
This is what the Apostle of the risen Jesus meant when he said, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin“ Romans 3:19-20.
So the law made Israel woefully aware of sin and just how far they all fell short of God’s glory. Another plan for having a relationship with a righteous God had to be implemented. But what exactly could remove sin from the heart of a person, fundamentally changing their very nature?
Paul addressed that as well, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” Romans 3:21-22
It is only after the dramatic events of the death, burial and resurrection do we see clearly the brilliant plan of God. We must stand on the other side of the cross, with the Apostles of the new covenant, to have the proper clarity of perspective so that we can read much of the Bible, especially the gospels. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ created a new covenant entirely, that is completely different from the old covenant in every way.
This means that even the words of Jesus must be evaluated in their proper context. So passages like Matthew 5, where it is obvious Jesus is reiterating the requirements of the law in a more stringent manner, must be interpreted as part of a redemption story that is still unfolding throughout the gospel narrative. The story is not complete until Christ’s redemptive work is done, and the Holy Spirit is sent to all who believe.
Ok, so what about our little verse we began with? “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. We need to look for verses written by the apostles on the topic of forgiving others. How is that topic treated after the death and resurrection of Jesus?
“Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you” Colossians 3:13 And again in Ephesians 4:32 “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Notice what’s changed. We forgive not get forgiveness from God, but rather in response to being forgiven by God.
This is similar to the words Jesus said to his disciples following the last supper, right before his crucifixion “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another“ John 13:34. Notice how the standard for loving our neighbor before was ourselves. But now, in response to the sacrificial love of Jesus freely given and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we love others as HE has loved us .
God has forgiven our sins through the death of his son, Jesus Christ. By faith, we receive that forgiveness as a gift, which allows us to receive the Holy Spirit and become new creations. We are forever changed by the once and for all sacrifice of the lamb of God. As born again, new creation saints, we can now forgive others as the Father has forgiven us!!