Matthew 6: 12
"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 KJV). This petition of the Lord’s Prayer seems simple enough, but simple things can sometimes be very deep. Everyone agrees that this is a difficult word from the Lord. It is hard to understand and even harder to apply. Our basic problem is quite simple: It appears that the Lord has drawn something into this prayer that does not belong there. We would understand this petition perfectly if it read, “Forgive us our debts,” and just stopped right there. That would make sense. We all understand that we need to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. We know that confession and repentance are part of what prayer is all about. What makes this prayer so frustrating is that Jesus seems to drag in something that doesn’t belong when he adds the phrase “as we forgive our debtors.”
Grace or Works?
It seems as if Jesus is saying, “The way you treat other people is the way God will treat you.” On one level that thought is puzzling; on another it is profoundly disturbing. On still another level it appears to present a major theological difficulty. “Why does Jesus say that we should pray to be forgiven as we forgive others? Why would Almighty God tie himself to what we do on earth?” I think that’s a very good question.
Because it is difficult, let me state my conclusion at the very beginning. This verse means exactly what it says. Unless you forgive, God will not forgive you. There is nothing hidden here; there is nothing tricky here. Jesus is saying that unless you forgive, you will not be forgiven.
Signing Your Own “Death-Warrant”
Spurgeon, the great English preacher, said that if you pray the Lord’s Prayer with an unforgiving spirit, you have virtually signed your own “death-warrant.” During one period of his life, John Wesley was a missionary in America. There was a general by the name of Oglethorpe with whom Wesley had some dealings. General Oglethorpe was a great military leader, but he had a reputation as a harsh and brutal man. One day he said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” To which Wesley replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never sin.”
The Key Word
When we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we are asking God to forgive our sins according to the same standard we have used in forgiving the sins of others. There are 11 words in the text, but only one of them is important for our purposes. It’s the little word “as.” Everything hangs on the meaning of that word. “As” is the conjunction that joins the first half of the petition with the second half. When Jesus says “as,” he is setting up a comparison between the way we forgive and the way God forgives us. This text says that we set the standard and then God follows the standard. We establish the pattern and then God follows that pattern in the way he deals with us. When you pray this prayer you are really saying, “O God, deal with me as I deal with other people. Deal with me as I have dealt with others.” We are virtually saying, “O God, I’ve got a neighbour and I did some favours for my neighbour and my neighbour is ungrateful to me for all I have done. I am angry with my neighbour and I will not forgive him for his ingratitude. Now deal with me as I have dealt with my neighbour.” It’s as if we’re praying, “O God, that man hurt me. I am so angry I can’t wait to get even. Deal with me as I have dealt with him.” We set the standard and God follows our lead.
Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. To refuse to forgive someone else and then to ask God for forgiveness is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. You are asking God to give you what you are unwilling to give to someone else. The Lord’s Prayer tells us you cannot have it both ways. Do you want to be forgiven? You must forgive others.
A Serious Word to the Unforgiving
Does the Bible really teach that God’s forgiveness of us is linked to our forgiveness of others? Let’s go back to the words of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer is over but Jesus is still speaking.
Matthew 6: 14, 15 - Jesus has just given us the Lord’s Prayer and the only part that he singles out for additional commentary is this petition. All the others he leaves alone. I believe he offered further commentary because he knew that we would feel uncomfortable with this part of the Lord’s Prayer. He knew that we would try to wriggle out from under it. That is why he spells it out so clearly that no one can doubt it.
An “Unforgiven” Christian
As strange as it may sound, there is such a thing as an “unforgiven” Christian. This is not a statement about ultimate destinies. To be “unforgiven” in this sense means that the channel of God’s grace is blocked from the human side. In particular, it means that you have chosen to hang on to your bitterness and to forfeit your daily walk with the Lord. You would rather be angry than joyful. You have chosen resentment over peace. Your grudges have become more important to you than the daily blessing of God. You would rather live with the “hidden torturers” than experience the freedom of forgiveness. If you are a Christian—a genuine believer in Jesus Christ—unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. Why? Because God has already forgiven your sins 100% by the blood of Jesus Christ. How dare you, then, be unforgiving to someone who hurt you? That’s really the issue. How dare you be unforgiving after what Jesus Christ did for you on the cross?
What happens when we refuse to forgive? Here are 10 consequences of an unforgiving spirit.
1. Our fellowship with the Father is blocked.
2. The Holy Spirit is grieved.
3. Your prayers will not be answered.
4. God leaves you alone to face the problems of life in your own power.
5. The devil gains a foothold through your bitterness.
6. You force God to become your enemy.
7. You lose the blessing of God on your life.
8. You waste time nursing a wounded spirit.
9. You become enslaved to the people you hate.
10. You become like the people you refuse to forgive.
Our real problem at this point is not theological. Our real problem is personal. We don’t see ourselves as very great sinners; therefore, we do not appreciate how greatly God has forgiven us. But when your own sins seem small, the sins of others against you will seem big indeed. The reverse is also true. The greater you see the depth of your sin before God, the less the sins of other people against you will bother you. If you think you’re not much of a sinner, then the offences of other people are going to appear in your eyes as big. Don’t talk about repentance unless you are willing to forgive your brothers and sisters. Unless you are willing to forgive, your repentance is just so much hot air and empty talk. True repentance always starts with a change of mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to a change (in this case) in the way we view those who have sinned against us.
How do we know when we have truly forgiven? What does forgiveness look like? The answer will vary depending on the person involved and what they did to you. Here are a few helpful guidelines –
1. Face what they did and forgive them anyway.
2. Don’t keep bringing it up to them.
3. Don’t talk about it to others.
4. Show mercy instead of judgment.
5. Refuse to speak evil of others.
6. Choose not to dwell on it.
7. Pray for them.
8. Ask God to bless them.
9. Do not rejoice at their calamities.
10. Help them when you can.
In giving this list, I do not mean to imply that we must do all 10 things every time before we can say we have truly forgiven another person. The presence or absence of repentance plays a role as well. We would do well to take this list and think about it, pray over it, and ask ourselves some hard questions.
Needed: A Serious Moral Inventory
Jesus is telling us that there is a vital link between the way you treat other people and the way God in heaven is going to treat you. Let’s face it. We don’t like that. On one level we tend to think it would be good if we could hate someone for what they did to us and still have the blessings of God, still be filled with the Spirit, still walk in joy every day, still radiate the love of Jesus, and still have our prayers answered. We’d much prefer if we could just have our relationship with God insulated and encapsulated so we could treat other people any way we like. Jesus says, “No deal. You can’t have it that way.” Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven. This is a hard word, isn’t it? But it is a hard word of grace. Many of us desperately need to take a searching moral inventory and ask ourselves some serious questions:
Am I up to date on my forgiving?
Am I holding a grudge against anyone?
Do I harbour any bitterness against any person?
Am I talking too much about what others have done to me?
Have I forgiven those closest to me who have hurt me?
Someone says, “But I can’t forgive.” No, don’t ever say that. The word “can’t” is a cop-out. The issue is deeper than that. You won’t forgive. Don’t make excuses and don’t play games. If you are a true Christian, a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, if your sins have been washed away, then you can forgive. What God has done for you, you can do for others. There may be some people who won’t forgive. As long as you won’t forgive you’re better off if you never pray the Lord’s Prayer because unless you forgive you will not be forgiven.
And in all of this we have the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who when he was crucified—the innocent for the guilty—the just for the unjust—the righteous for the unrighteous—Jesus, who was murdered at the hands of wicked men, as he hung on the cross cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
A Place to Begin
Let’s wrap up this sermon with 3 simple statements of application.
1. You are never closer to the grace of Jesus Christ than when you confess your sins to him. Are you labouring under a burden of guilt because of foolish things you have said or done? A sense of your own sin is a sign of God’s grace at work in your heart. When you cry out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” you will find that the Father will not turn you away.
2. You are never more like Jesus than when you forgive those who have sinned against you. Do you want to be like Jesus? Become a great forgiver. Jesus was a forgiving Man. He came to create a race of forgiving men and women.
3. You will never fully enter into your freedom in Christ until you learn the freedom of forgiveness. The 2 freedoms go together. As long as you hold on to your resentments, you are still chained to the past. You only hurt yourself. By refusing to forgive, you block off the channel of God’s blessing in your life. Although there is freedom in Christ, the unforgiving Christian knows nothing about it. He is still in bondage to the remembered hurts from the past. Until those chains are broken by a decisive act of forgiveness, he will remain a slave to the past.
I have said several times that this is a hard word and indeed it is. But it is also a cleansing word that cuts through all our flimsy excuses and leads us to a fountain of grace where we can be healed, made whole, and restored to a right relationship with our Creator. Our God freely forgave us while we were his enemies. Can we not do for others what he has done for us?
The word of the Lord remains. Unless you forgive you will not be forgiven.
“Father in heaven, we thank you for the cleansing Word of God that cuts through all of our flimsy excuses. We praise you because that same Word of God is also able to make us whole and right in your eyes. O God, may we not fight against your work in us. Help us to become great forgivers that we ourselves might be forgiven, cleansed, and strengthened to walk closely with you this week. We ask it in the name of Jesus who made our forgiveness possible. Amen.”