By Allen White
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
When I read these words, I honestly wonder if Jesus even knew Paul. Paul wrote to the Ephesians saying, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). While works are an expression of our relationship with God, no work is a condition on our salvation. But, if God requires us to forgive in order to receive His forgiveness, wouldn’t that be putting a condition on His grace?
When people are saved by grace through faith, they come into a new relationship with God. God’s former enemies (Colossians 1:21-23) become His children. “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). When God saves us, He saves us completely and forgives us of all of our sins.
No one who comes to Christ has his act together. In fact, it takes the Spirit’s work in our lives over time for us to resemble Christ. Some bad habits persist. Wounds need healing. Negative thinking needs renewal. Bad behaviors require repentance. Neil Cole puts it this way, “Sinful people produce great growth because there’s more fertilizer in their lives.”
While God saves completely, we cannot discount Jesus’ words. Forgiveness is a weighty issue. But, if unforgiveness doesn’t jeopardize our salvation, how does it affect us?
Think about the relationships in your life: your marriage, your children, your parents, your closest friends. There are lasting commitments that define these relationships. But, what happens when your spouse or a close friend offends you? Do you immediately part ways and end the relationship? Probably not, because more than likely we’ve also offended them.
Eventually, the offender will seek forgiveness, and we will forgive. We hope that they will change. They probably hope that we would change as well. Grace is required in any lasting relationship.
But, let’s say that your spouse offends you, but you don’t forgive. You decide instead to hold the issue over her head. How’s that going to play out? There will definitely be tension in the relationship. You will interpret what she says and does through her hurtful actions. She will interpret you through your stubbornness and lack of forgiveness. What initially happened, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad enough to cause a divorce, but the issue and the reaction have created a rift in the relationship. Unless you decide to work on forgiveness, the truth is that you and your spouse are slowly parting.
Now, think about your relationship with God. If you have trusted Him for your salvation and have committed your life to Christ, God has saved you. God has declared you as righteous (Romans 3:21-26) and has adopted you as His child (Ephesians 1:4-6). It’s a done deal.
But, let’s say that even though God has forgiven all of your sins and saved you, someone offends you. They hurt you deeply. You don’t want anything to do with them. And, you certainly don’t want to forgive them. You continue a relationship with God, who has completely forgiven you, yet you harbor resentment against another. Now what?
God isn’t going to revoke your salvation, but He’s also not going to overlook your lack of forgiveness for another. Sooner or later, you will sin against someone or in some way. You will feel convicted of your sins. The guilt will motivate you to pray and seek God’s forgiveness. And, according to Jesus’ words, God will hold out on you.
As long as you refuse to forgive another, God will refuse to forgive you. That doesn’t cause you to become unsaved, you just experience the tension in your relationship with God just like you would the tension with your spouse. In fact, Scripture tells us that if a man is at odds with his wife, God will not answer his prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
If you stubbornly refuse to forgive another, your stubbornness is nothing compared to God’s stubbornness. God is eternally stubborn. You don’t want to play that game with Him.
Does this mean that God has put a condition on His love for us? Absolutely not. Out of His love, God doesn’t want to leave us in such a miserable state. God doesn’t want us to be bound by bitterness and resentment. He wants us to be free. We can only experience freedom when we’ve exercised His grace and forgiven others their sins.
While our salvation is not in jeopardy, unforgiveness causes a miserable existence. Freedom comes through generously extending God’s grace to others. Jesus said, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
Who has sinned against you? Who do you need to forgive? If you feel that it’s impossible to forgive someone, ask God to help you.
The thoughts for today’s devotional were inspired by “The Issue of Forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount” by Greg Herrick on bible.org.
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