“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6: 12
“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
“If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20:23
These Scriptures cause a lot of confusion and stress for Christians. The Bible is clear that when we we confess “Jesus is Lord” and believe in our heart which aligns our minds with His (this is repentance), we will be saved (Romans 10:9). Jesus also says in many places that when you repent, all your sins have been forgiven. Is God really saying that your forgiveness from Him depends on your forgiveness of others? The answer is NO! Our forgiveness of others is reliant on and evidence of His forgiveness of us.
The word for Forgiveness in the Bible means letting go, leaving alone, or sending away. Forgiveness is letting go of the debt they owe for the wrongs done to you by others. This goes for God or us. When God forgives us, we are free of the punishment for sin against Him. When we forgive others, we leave behind any retribution, revenge, or anything we feel they owe us for what they have done.
God is not saying that you have to, need to, or are required to forgive to be forgiven…He is saying that if you are forgiven you will forgive others. Forgiveness and many other commands God gives us are evidence of, not requirements for, your forgiveness as a follower of Jesus. Let me illustrate in a different way.
You are extremely poor and your family has no money for food. You are starving. The only place you can get food is from the garbage, but when you eat from it, it makes you sick. You know if you don’t get something good to eat soon you will die. In steps a very wealthy individual and says “I’ve paid for all your food for the rest of your life. It’s available to you and you can eat all the food you want. Don’t overdo it, be greedy or waste it, but eat what you need. Keep in mind, some food is better for you than others – so be wise and eat what is necessary for a healthy life. After you’ve eaten your fill, feed others. Share this food with anyone who needs it, I’ll provide it all. I have enough to feed everyone.”
This is what God does for us. We spend our lives trying to fill our needs on our own from unhealthy places. We’re settling for sin and it’s making us sick. At the root, we’re starving for a relationship with God. Then Jesus paid the price, forgave all our sin, and re-established our relationship with the Father. He also provides all our needs and fills us with his Power and directs us to spread His Message and Love everywhere we go.
Your life is now drastically changed. You’re very happy and grateful that your future is now safe as you know that everything you need yours when you need it. You would also live very differently in the way you approach eating. In the past, the idea of sharing what you had with other was unthinkable because you didn’t have much of anything, and when you did, you needed it for yourself. Now you know what fullness feels like. When you think about how you felt before and you see others who are in need, your heart initially breaks for them. But then it joyfully quickens with the ability meet their needs. There is no way you could not do for them was was done for you, especially when you know where your resources come from. Giving them never diminishes your supply.
So a better way to understand those Scriptures is since you already have been forgiven, you will instinctively forgive others. Forgiveness is not a natural thing to do without God. If you have not been forgiven, then you won’t be able to forgive others. If you are willing to forgive others, then it’s clear that you’ve already repented of your sins and God is working in you. You’re already forgiven of your sins. In Matthew 6:12 – When we ask God to forgive our debts (which is a different word than trespasses or sins…it’s talking about the payment or that which we owe as a result of our sins) we are asking God to step in and take care of the punishment or consequences of our sins. After our initial prayer of repentance, it’s not a saving forgiveness, but a request for everyone involved to be free to move on and learn from our mistakes. In Matthew 6:14-15 – The idea is that if you don’t forgive, then you’ve not truly experienced God forgiveness yourself. If so, your sins have not been forgiven. Again, if you forgive others, then you know God’s power is at work in you.
When you forgive others their sins (or what they owe you) then you are freeing them from the request that God act on your behalf for revenge. If we hold on to their sins, then they still owe us and we’re awaiting payment. God stands up for the righteous and will support those who love Him. God is just. But if we’re willing to forgive, then that frees us to love them with God’s love and He sees that we are becoming more like Him. With forgiveness, it’s not about being afraid that if we don’t forgive, then God won’t forgive us. It’s about if we don’t forgive, then we’ve not experienced His forgiveness…yet. While forgiveness is not easy, it’s unavoidable when you grasp how much you’re loved and forgiven. True freedom comes from being free from the punishment of all sin.