In conclusion to Peter’s question, “Lord, how often should I forgive?” Jesus said: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18.35). It seems to imply a “works” salvation – if you forgive others (a work), you will be forgiven.
Some say, “Jesus did not mean what He said.” Some regard the parable as simple an exaggerated statement given for its emotional effect. “Jesus did not mean to say,” that God would send us to hell if we do not forgive our debtors, but only that forgiveness is an extremely important matter and that we really ought to forgive. We should forgive others just as God has forgiven us, but if we do not, we are not to suppose that we are not saved or that we will lose our salvation.
Others say that Jesus’ words apply to someone else. According to this view, Jesus meant what He said, but His words do not apply to people living in this age. Jesus’ teaching was for Jews living under the law, and therefore it does not apply to us. We are justified by faith apart from works. God’s forgiveness does not depend in any way on our forgiveness of others and is, in fact, not even linked to it. Such an approach is like speeding down a highway and then, when you see a police car coming with lights flashing, you hope it is going after someone else. That will not work. It is not to other people but to us that Jesus is speaking.
The first two explanations are found in evangelicalism, but the third is not. The third evasion is that of liberalism, which instead of trying to get around Jesus’ teaching actually emphasizes it by sacrificing the New Testament. The liberal says, “Here we are getting to the heart of the simple Gospel that Jesus actually taught. He is not teaching the later Pauline doctrine of justification by faith in a so-called work of atonement. This is merely that beautiful teaching of doing to others as we would want them to do to us. Since God forgives us, we should want to forgive everyone.”
Jesus is not repudiating Paul, of course. In fact, we can tell from even the most casual reading of the verse that if we do not forgive others, God is going to send us to hell. That is not the Gospel of liberalism! Another way of understanding these words is needed.
What we need to recognize is that Jesus is not giving the whole of the Gospel message in one story. What He says is true enough, that there is an unbreakable connection between God’s forgiveness of us (judicial forgiveness) and our forgiveness of other people (paternal forgiveness). Such a word is intended to jolt us out of our lethargy and confront us with the life-changing power of the Gospel. But it does not mean we are saved by forgiving others or that salvation, once acquired, can be lost. Jesus is only saying that, whatever else is involved (and a great deal more is involved), forgiveness must be part of what it means to be a Christian.
Here is the explanation. Although we are justified by faith apart from works, being justified is not the only thing that happens to us in salvation. In fact, it is not even the first thing. Justification is by faith, so faith at least comes before it. And since, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, we cannot “see” or “enter” the kingdom of God unless we are born again, regeneration or the new birth must come before entering or believing. No one believes on Christ and is justified who has not already been given a new nature. This new nature is the nature of Jesus Himself or, as we could also say, it is God’s own forgiving nature. Thus, although the new nature does not manifest itself entirely at once, if we are justified, that nature will increasingly and inevitably express itself in our forgiveness of others, just as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us. We will be able to pray, as Jesus instructed us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have already forgiven our debtors.”
The Lutherans say, “We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith which is alone.” Faith comes first, but our new nature will express itself after that – in what we do. The conclusion is, if we do not forgive others, we are not forgiven. We are not behaving like justified people. We are not God’s children.
The parable of the forgiven but unforgiving debtor makes three points. First, a judgment is coming. Jesus did not pass over that teaching. He spoke of forgiveness, but He also spoke of what happened to the wicked man in His story. He was cast into prison until he should pay back all he owed (a debt he could never satisfy). That judgment hangs over everyone who has not experienced God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ.
There is forgiveness. God does forgive. God sent Jesus to make forgiveness possible.
Finally, the best proof that a person has received God’s forgiveness through true faith in Jesus is a transformed heart and changed life. How do we get that down into the practical areas of our lives so that we actually begin to treat others as we have been treated? By standing before the holy God and seeing ourselves as the sinners we are – vile and yet forgiven through the death of God’s Son. We must know that we have been saved solely because of the undeserved mercy of God. That awareness should humble us so that we simply have no other option but to forgive others and to do it from the heart.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org