Q: Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15 that if we aren’t willing to forgive others, He won’t forgive us. Aren’t we already forgiven by faith in Christ alone?
A: Regarding Matthew 6, Jesus is speaking temporally, not eternally. Notice the context:
Matthew 6:14-15 (NKJV)
14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Jesus said if we forgive someone, then the Lord will forgive us. Jesus equates the two types of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of us is contingent on our forgiving others. As we try to understand Jesus’ words, we must first remember that we have no power over the eternal fate of another person, for Christ alone is our Judge:
Acts 10:42 (NKJV)
42 And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.
We know Jesus wasn’t asking us to forgive someone from the penalty of their sin in eternity for only God can do that. The only kind of forgiveness we can extend to another person is the restoration of our earthly fellowship with that person. So when Jesus asks us to forgive another, He must be speaking in terms of earthly relationships, not eternal outcomes.
If a believer forgives in this way, Jesus says God will forgive us. From the context, the proper interpretation is that God will forgive us in the same way He asks us to forgive others: by restoring fellowship with us. Once again, Jesus is speaking in terms of earth consequences and earthly forgiveness. The Lord will forgive us from the earthly consequences of our sins provided we are willing to show forgiveness to others (which is a part of our mission to show the love of Christ to the world).
The Bible teaches that our sins after faith may still bring us earthly consequences. The Lord may choose to bring discipline against us for our sin, which the Bible calls the discipline of the Lord. Discipline is intended by God to drive us back into a godly walk with Him:
Hebrews 12:7-11 (NKJV)
7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
The means of obtaining earthly relief from the Lord’s discipline is confessing our sins and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness, which the Lord will grant us as John promises:
1 John 1:9 (NKJV)
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
When we repent and confess our sins (as a believer), the Lord will grant us relief from His discipline, but Jesus says in Matthew 6 that if a believer is so hard-hearted that he or she withholds forgiveness in earthly relationships, then the Lord will withhold His forgiveness for that person’s sins as well, which means the Lord will visit earthly discipline against such a hard-hearted believer.
The believer’s eternal salvation is not impacted, for Jesus isn’t speaking of the eternal forgiveness that comes by faith alone, nor is Jesus giving the Church a recipe for maintaining our salvation, for no believer can sin his or her way out of salvation. God’s grace is greater than our sin:
Romans 5:20-21 (NKJV)
20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The believer is forever forgiven the eternal consequences of sin (i.e., the Second Death) from the moment of his or her faith in Jesus Christ, and this can never change.
Therefore, Jesus is speaking about earthly relationships and earthly consequences. If we desire the Lord to forgive us of our daily missteps and to withhold His discipline, we must be prepared to extend our forgiveness to others for their missteps against us.
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