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“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15

These are challenging words from the Lord Jesus! Everyone has been hurt by someone. Everyone will be able to think of a relationship that has become fractured, tense and difficult. This relationship may be with someone in your place of work, your family or even in your church

And yet here, in his famous “sermon on the mount”, Jesus Christ stresses just how important inter-personal forgiveness is. Notice, he goes so far as to say that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Does he mean that our forgiveness from God is earned by us being forgiving of others? Is this salvation by works?

No. Why would God have sent his one and only Son to die on a cross if we could instead just earn salvation by being forgiving of others? We are forgiven and saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. In the words of William Temple: “The only thing we contribute to our salvation are the sins from which we have to be redeemed.”

What Jesus means in these verses is that those who have understood the nature and extent of God’s forgiveness will, in turn, be forgiving towards others. And, when you downright refuse to be forgiving towards others; when you shut out any consideration of attempting forgiveness, it is a very worrying spiritual sign. It may be that you have never have really opened your heart to God’s grace and forgiveness.

Just like gauges on the dashboard of a car tell you what’s going on under the hood, so someone’s willingness to forgive others tells you what’s going on in the heart. Of course, the car doesn’t derive its life from the gauges! But the gauges show the state of the engine. Our spiritual life emanates from our union with Christ, but when we show no forgiveness in our lives, it calls into question whether there is union with Christ at all.

So, if you are struggling to forgive someone (and it will never be easy!) the key starting point is to remember, reflect on and immerse yourself in God’s forgiveness of your sin, through Jesus Christ. Consider your own sins against God and the massive debt he cleared for you when he died on the cross. This debt far outweighs anything that anyone has ever done to you. This is what Jesus was driving at in his parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, the great puritan Thomas Watson puts it better than I ever could: “[Our forgiveness of others] is a sign of God’s forgiving us. It is not a cause of God’s forgiving us, but a sign. We need not climb up into heaven to see whether our sins are forgiven: let us look into our hearts and see if we can forgive others. If we can, we need not doubt but God has forgiven us. Our loving others is the reflection of God’s love to us. Oh, therefore, by all these arguments, let us be persuaded to forgive others. Christians, how many offences has God passed by in us! Our sins are innumerable and heinous. Is God willing to forgive us so many offences, and cannot we forgive a few? No man can do so much wrong to us all our life as we do to God in one day.”

We must also remember that God’s forgiveness through Christ does require repentance on our part, as the wrongdoers. We will only be reconciled to him if we repent and believe the gospel (Acts 2:36-39; Colossians 1:21-23).

So too, in human relationships, when the wrongdoer refuses to repent this will put a limit on our forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes we are not even able to speak to the wrongdoer (they have died) sometimes we don’t know who they are (an unidentified criminal has harmed you) or sometimes they just plain refuse to admit any wrongdoing. In these situations we will not be able to complete forgiveness and reconciliation. In his very helpful book “Unpacking Forgiveness” Chris Brauns makes this point: “Forgiveness is a figurative handshake. You cannot shake hands alone. For forgiveness to happen, you need to seek out the offending party (or the offended party if you are the offender), extend your hand, and pray that the other party will offer his or hers to you.”

Nevertheless, even in those situations where our forgiveness and reconciliation is limited, even in those situations where the other party does not “offer the hand”, as Christians we must still strive to be gracious and merciful. We must still be praying for and seeking out opportunities to heal the divide. Yes, God’s reconciliation with sinners is dependent on them turning and trusting in Christ, but consider God’s gracious and merciful activity in the first place: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

A few areas to consider:

  • As we celebrate twenty years of democracy in South Africa we may be reminded of the divisions that remain in our society. Thankfully, these divisions are no longer enshrined in the laws of the land but there may be lingering scars of apartheid in our relationships with people of different races. With this in mind, who do you need to forgive, or seek forgiveness from?
  • Patterns of confession, repentance and forgiveness should be a feature of Christian marriages. Tension, bitterness and distance creeps into marriage when couples refuse to forgive and reconcile. You may need specific counseling help in walking through forgiveness and reconciliation as a married couple.
  • In church life, Christians are sadly prone to withdraw or paper over the cracks when a relationship has gone bad. The Bible has excellent help for us in this area. It urges us to live as a united, open community in which sin is honestly confronted and, God-willing, genuinely dealt with.

One thing’s for sure, this is not an easy area. You’ll need to be asking God for his grace, spending time in his Word and seeking counsel and advice from other Christians around you.

As we strive to get this right we can be encouraged by the “beatitude” from Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). As we see the tension, division and rancor that is so evident in our society, wouldn’t it be great to be a truly distinctive, forgiving and loving community?

Written by Murray Anderson

St Peters Church,  Fish Hoek