PRESENTED: 11-08-08


       As promised last week, we are going to devote a entire sermon to Matthew 6:12, 13-14 and discuss in some detail the matter of forgiveness.  In the sample prayer Jesus recites in the Sermon on the Mount, He speaks of forgiving our debts as we forgive those who become indebted to us and then makes the rather extraordinary remark that "if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

       The Greek word translated into the English word debts and sin in these passages means “that which is owed.”  Jesus is essentially saying we are to ask God to forgive what we owe and we are to do the same for those who owe us. 

        These statements have produced controversy in the Christian community as they imply God will not forgive us unless we forgive others.  This would appear to establish our forgiving others as a condition that must be met for God to forgive us.  Since many believe God’s forgiveness is unconditional, these statements by Christ appear problematical.  Others believe that while God’s love is unconditional, His forgiveness is predicated on our willingness to repent.  Repentance is seen as a condition of God’s forgiveness, including repenting of our failure to forgive others.

       Unconditional means with no conditions attached.  To say God loves us unconditionally is to say He loves us regardless of what we do or don’t do. To say God forgives us unconditionally is to say God forgives us regardless of what we do or don’t do. Is God’s love and forgiveness unconditional?  Let’s begin by looking at God’s love.

       In the Old Testament God’s love is seen as enduring forever.  The Psalms repeatedly speak of God’s unfailing love and that He abounds in love.  While mention of God’s love is often tied to obedience to His law, God is also seen as loving Israel despite Israel’s repeated violation of God’s commands.  In the New Testament God is actually defined as love. God’s love is seen in His provision of a way to escape the consequences of sin which scripture identifies as eternal death or perishing.

        Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”       

         It appears from scripture that God’s love for us is unconditional in so much that He has facilitated escape from eternal death and He did this while we were in our sins.  To love someone is to look past their faults and provide for them and help them regardless of what they have done, are doing or will do.  We love and provide for our children in this manner.  Scripture shows God makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous.  The love of God for humanity appears to be unconditional.  He provides for us despite our failings.  If love is to be defined as expressing out going concern for others regardless of what they do, then God’s love for humanity is unconditional.

       Is the forgiveness of God unconditional?  Does God forgive us regardless of what we do or don’t do?  Some equate unconditional love from God with unconditional forgiveness from God.  Is this the case?  Let’s begin to examine this issue by first looking at an Old Testament event.

       In 2 Samuel we have the account of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his arranging the death of her husband.  When the prophet Nathan brings this sin to David’s attention, David clearly recognizes his sin and repents.

        2 Samuel 12:13-14: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’' And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.’''

       Under the Old Covenant, physical death was required for adultery and murder.  We know from the Psalms that David bitterly repented of his sin and was reconciled to God.  God forgave David’s sin which removed the death penalty and David was not required to die.  David still had to pay a tremendous physical price for his sin in losing the child and having continuous trouble in his family and kingdom. But he didn’t have to die.  God bestowed mercy upon David and voided the death penalty. 

       This example involving David brings up several questions relative to the whole matter of forgiveness.  If David would not have repented, would God have forgiven him?  Is repentance a condition of forgiveness?  Does God forgive unrepentant sinners?  Are we required to forgive unrepentant sinners?   What does it mean to forgive?

       Many look at the word forgive and believe it has to do with our release of anger, bitterness and hard feelings toward someone who has wronged us.  The Greek words translated forgive in Matthew 6:12 and 6:14 mean to cancel, remit or pardon.  When God forgives us, He cancels the death penalty we have incurred because it has already been paid by Jesus.  To forgive is to cancel debt as seen throughout the scriptures. 

       As already stated, the Greek word translated debt means “that which is owed.”  When we ask God to forgive us, we are essentially asking God to forgive what we owe Him.  What do we owe God?

       Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

       We owe God death.  We have all sinned and incurred the death penalty.  To be forgiven by God is to have God do away with the penalty associated with sin. To be forgiven by God is to have the death penalty removed and be given the gift of eternal life. Being forgiven by God is synonymous with being granted eternal life.  The question before us is simply this: Is God’s forgiveness of the death penalty we all have incurred unconditional?  After all, the penalty has already been paid by Christ.  

       The forgiveness of God is equated with God exchanging death for life.  God forgives us because His Son has paid our death penalty.  The death penalty for sin was not just dismissed by God. It was paid in full by Christ. God didn’t just cancel the death penalty.  It was paid as an act of love by Christ Jesus.  It is a free gift.  Nothing we can do, including the required forgiving of each other, can earn us this gift.  Does this mean this gift is unconditional?  Does being a free gift equate with no conditions attached to receiving it?  Does this mean that regardless of what we do or don’t do, God applies the sacrifice of Christ to us and grants us salvation?  

       John 3:16: 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.  

       Here we see a condition attached to avoiding perishing and receiving eternal life.  We must believe in Jesus.  To believe in Jesus is to not only believe that He is and in what He did on the cross but to believe what he stood for and what he taught.  If we believe in what He stood for and what He taught we follow what he stood for and what He taught.  There is another word for that.  It’s called repentance.  Repentance is committing to change. Believing in Jesus presupposes repentance.  

        When David came to a recognition of the sins he had committed, he humbled himself before God and repented bitterly and God granted forgiveness.  We see this forgiveness involved the removal of the death penalty for David.  Nathan told David he would not die.   

       The scriptures are quite clear that God, through Christ, has granted us forgiveness.  The scriptures are also clear that application of God’s forgiveness is predicated on our turning from sin.  The gift of life is there for the taking but there is a condition. It’s called repentance.  A simple word study of the word repent and repentance will show that Christ constantly spoke of repentance in relation to God forgiving our sins. Christ always tied repentance to forgiveness.  After the resurrection Jesus told his disciples:

       Luke 24:46: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 

       In his first sermon Peter said the following:

       Acts 2:38, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

       Peter also made this statement:

        1 Peter 3:9:  “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” 

        Here we see Peter associating repentance with the avoidance of perishing.  Christ made the same association.

       Luke 13:1-5: There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." 

       Apostle Paul had to do some correction of behavior in the Corinthian Church and he told the Corinthians that the sorrow they were experiencing over the realization that they had been sinning was Godly sorrow that would produce a change in their behavior which would lead to salvation.

       2 Corinthians 7:10:  Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

       It should be clear that repentance is a required dynamic relative to the granting of salvation.  Salvation is the avoidance of perishing.  It is escape from eternal death. God, in His love for us while we were yet sinners, sent Christ to pay our death penalty which is the same as saying He provided for our forgiveness.

       Upon our repentance God applies the forgiveness that has already been established through the Christ event. We must respond to that forgiveness and we do that through repentance.  While God’s love is unconditional, His granting of forgiveness is predicated on our willingness to accept His offer of forgiveness.  We demonstrate such willingness by repenting of our sins. Our repentance doesn’t save us. Our repentance is our response to the grace of God that leads us to repentance. It is, however, a necessary response, without which salvation is not granted.

       1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

        Because God’s love is enduring and unfailing as is repeatedly rehearsed in the Psalms, He will always forgive a repentant sinner.   Unwillingness to forgive others is one of the things we must repent of.  A willingness to forgive is at the very heart of a repentant attitude.  It is a dynamic that is very important to God.  Since he is willing to forgive us, he fully expects us to forgive others.  Forgiveness of the penalty of our sins requires sincere repentance and a willingness to forgive others 

       Matthew 18:23-35: "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  "The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,' he begged, `and I will pay back everything.'  The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.  He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.  "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'  "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,' he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." 

       In this illustration, Christ makes it very clear that God will forgive a repentant sinner and remove his indebtedness. The servant owned more than He could ever pay back.  He thought he could pay back the debt but the king knew he could not and so the king had mercy on him and forgave him the debt.  This only happened, however, after the servant humbled himself before the king and showed contrition.  And because the king extended grace to the servant and forgive him the debt, he expected the servant to do the same to his fellow servants.  When he didn’t, the king withdrew his grace from the servant. Jesus makes it very clear that if we don’t do the same toward others as God does toward us, He will not forgive us.  In this illustration Jesus is affirming what He said in the Sermon on the Mount.

       Matthew 6:14-15:  For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (NIV).

       In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying that if we cancel the debt associated with wrongs committed against us, God will cancel the debt we have incurred for wrongs we commit against Him.  If we don’t cancel the debt incurred by wrongs committed against us, neither will God cancel our debt to him. The scriptures show, however, that God releases our indebted in response to our acknowledgement of our sin and our resolve to do better.  With God, repentance is a condition of forgiveness which is the cancellation of our indebtedness.  

       This leads us to the next question.  How are we to forgive?  It is apparent God predicates forgiveness on repentance.  Are we to forgive in the same manner?  Are we to forgive as God forgives?   Does God hold us to a different standard than He, Himself, employs regarding forgiveness?  This actually is a much-debated question. 

       If a person beats me up, robs me and leaves me half dead in a dark alley, and that person is apprehended and shows absolutely no remorse for his actions, has spent the money he stole from me and has no intention of paying the money back or paying the costs associated with my healing from the injuries he caused, am I obligated to forgive that person, no strings attached, which essentially means to unconditionally dismiss his debt to me? 

       When we express forgiveness toward someone, what are we actually doing?  We are letting go, cancelling, remitting or pardoning a debt.  That is what the Greek word means that is translated forgive throughout the New Testament.  When God forgives us, he is removing the ultimate penalty for sin.  There still may, as in the example of David, be consequences to pay, but God’s forgiveness reconciles us to Him and eliminates the separation that sin produces.  When we forgive our brother for sins committed against us, what is actually happening?   Often our forgiveness does not remove physical penalties that may naturally flow from the sin or indiscretion that occurred. A fine or a jail sentence, for example.  So what does our forgiveness of a brother accomplish?

       What our forgiveness does is to facilitate reconciliation.  Therefore, the real question is not whether we should practice unconditional forgiveness (forgiveness without repentance) but can reconciliation take place without repentance.  It apparently doesn’t with God.  The scriptures clearly show that repentance is a condition of being forgiven which in turn reconciles us to God.  The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation.

       You may say it is faith in the sacrifice of Christ that reconciles us to God.  That is true.  But that faith assumes repentance.  Repentance is the conscious choice to turn from sin, which is what necessitated the sacrifice of Christ.  To express faith in Christ is to also turn from sin. That is how we become reconciled to God.  I submit that is also how we become reconciled to our brother.  

      In the example of the person who robbed and beat me and showed absolutely no remorse, no sorrow or repentance, reconciliation cannot take place.  A key to understanding this matter of forgiveness of our brother is found in the following passages:

       Luke 17:3-4:  "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him."

        Matthew 18:15-17:  "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

       This instruction appears to require that we forgive our brother in the same manner that God forgives us.  God forgives us when we repent.  We follow the same model that God has established for forgiving us in forgiving others.  Christ ties our forgiveness of our brother to his willingness to repent.  The illustration in Matthew 18 shows that if he doesn’t repent, he is to be treated as an outsider.  It would therefore appear that God does not expect us to unconditionally forgive. 

       On the other hand, if the person that beat and robbed me demonstrates genuine sorrow for what he did but has little or no ability to atone for the sin he committed against me, am I obligated to forgive him under such circumstances?  Yes, I am.  Remember, forgiveness involves a willingness to remove the penalty for transgression.   

      Let’s look at another example.  Suppose someone enters your house and murders your wife.  That person cannot repay the debt he owes you.  He can’t bring your wife back to life.  That person has violated the law of God in having committed murder and deserves eternal death.  Now that person comes to you and expresses sincere repentance for what he did to your wife. Are you to forgive him the debt?  Yes, you must.  Repentance has taken place and we must set the wheels in motion for reconciliation by providing genuine forgiveness.

       Can we unconditionally forgive if we choose to do so?  Christ asked God to forgive those involved in His crucifixion. Was Christ asking God to unconditionally forgive them?  Was Christ asking God to waive the requirement to repent?

        Luke 23:34: “Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

        There is no evidence that those involved in the crucifixion were repenting of their actions.  On the other hand, Christ did say that they did not know what they were doing. A person that does not understand what he is doing can’t repent of what he does not understand.  Christ knowing the purpose of God in having Him die may have been simply expressing grace toward those who in ignorance were crucifying Him.  On the other hand Christ may have been thinking in terms of God granting repentance to His murderers which would lead to forgiveness. Look at what Peter said in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

        Acts 3:17-19: "Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.  Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,

       It should be noted that Peter, while acknowledging that those responsible for Christ’s death did it in ignorance, they were still told to repent in order for their sins to be wiped out. They, being now enlightened as to what they had done, were expected to repent. Their repentance was still a condition of God’s forgiveness.  Since all evidence points to God forgiving upon repentance, I believe the same conditions applied to those responsible for Christ’s death.  Christ on the cross did not say, “I forgive you.”  Christ asked God to forgive them.  I believe God did forgive them upon their repentance as God will always do and as we should always do with our fellow man. 

       There is one other scriptural example of an expression of seeming unconditional forgiveness.  We find it recorded in Acts seven.

        Acts 7:59-60:  “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.”

       Here we find Stephen seemingly asking God to forgive his unrepentant killers.  By asking God to not hold their sin against them, was Stephen asking God to absolve them of the death penalty associated with their sin even though they had not repented? 

       Stephen asked God to not hold the sin of his killers against them.  There is no evidence that these killers had repented.  Seeing how scripture ties forgiveness to repentance, I would have to conclude that Stephen, in requesting God to not hold their sin of murder against them, was in essence asking God to bring them to repentance so they could have their sin wiped out just as Peter was calling for the repentance of those who crucified Christ so their sins could be wiped out.

       1 Peter 3:9:  “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” 

       Forgiveness is tied to repentance.  The whole of the gospel is focused on repentance as the pathway to forgiveness and reconciliation with both God and man.

       Luke 15:4-10: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

       Why this great rejoicing over one repentant sinner.  If forgiveness is a done deal irrespective of what we do or don’t do, what difference does it make that the sinner repents?  There is rejoicing because of the realization that by repenting, the sinner has chosen to accept God’s forgiveness and is thereby reconciled to God.

       Because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, God has forgiven us.  He has removed our indebtedness to Him.  But God has willed that we must choose His forgiveness.  And He rejoices when we do.  We choose God’s forgiveness through the act of repentance.  David would not have had the penalty for his sin removed if he had not repented.  He would not have been forgiven.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the father never stopped loving the son.  He was always ready to forgive.  Forgiving his son was a foregone conclusion in the father's mind.  The father’s forgiveness, however, could not be facilitated until the son chose to return and express repentance for having squandered his inheritance.  This is how forgiveness was facilitated.

        God is always extending forgiveness to us.  He gives us the choice of accepting it or rejecting it.  We accept it through repentance.  We reject it through a refusal to repent.  We must always extend forgiveness to our brother.  He can accept it through repenting or he can reject it by not repenting.  In order for forgiveness to be truly facilitated there needs to be a giving and an acceptance of forgiveness.

       I mentioned earlier that some argue that we need to forgive others even though they don’t repent because forgiveness clears the conscience of animosities, anger, and bitterness toward a brother who has sinned against us.  Remember, however, we are always to love our brother.  If we have animosities, anger and bitterness toward our brother who has sinned against us, we are not loving our brother.  We need to repent of that.  If we love our brother there won’t be animosities, anger and bitterness.  There will instead be a constant exploration of ways to identify a pathway to reconciliation so forgiveness can be facilitated. 

       Christ instructed us to love our enemies, even to do good to those that hate us.  Loving our enemies, however, does not equate with unconditionally forgiving them.  We should always be ready to forgive them just as God is always ready to forgive us.  The scriptures show, however, that forgiveness takes place when repentance is involved.  Without repentance, forgiveness becomes a moot point because reconciliation cannot take place. Scripture shows reconciliation is tied to forgiveness and forgiveness is tied to repentance. While God always loves us, we become reconciled to God when we repent.  God could apply His forgiveness to us without repentance on our part.  But that is not the protocol for forgiveness He has established.

       Say I loan my car to a neighbor and he has an accident and causes damage to my car but refuses to pay for the repairs and ignores all attempts to resolve the issue and refuses to even talk to me. He expresses no remorse whatsoever over what he did.  Would I be expected to forgive him for what he did without there being contrition on his part?  That is not what the scriptures appear to teach. On the other hand, I would be expected to love that neighbor.  I would be expected not to harbor feelings of anger and resentment toward him.

       If that same neighbor falls off his ladder while working in his yard, would I be expected to run over to see if he’s hurt and if I can be of assistance?  You bet I would. This would be an example of unconditional love being activated even though there remained an unresolved issue involving repentance and forgiveness between my neighbor and me.  Remember, God causes His sun to shine on the just and unjust. God wishes that all should come to repentance so eternal life can be facilitated.  God will not, however, force eternal life on anyone. We must choose to repent and be forgiven. 

        What about the situation where someone murders your spouse and then kills himself.  Can you forgive that person even though he has no opportunity to repent?  After the Columbine and Virginia Tech murders, where the murderers committed suicide and were not available to express repentance, students were seen carrying signs saying they had forgiven the perpetrators of the crime. 

        If forgiveness is to be seen as facilitating reconciliation, then forgiveness in such circumstances becomes a mute point.  There is no opportunity for reconciliation to take place in such circumstances.  What those students were really implicitly saying was that they loved these murderers despite what they had done and therefore didn’t hold a grudge against them and didn’t hate them or have animosity toward them.  They were in essence saying that given the opportunity to forgive them they would.

       God loves us regardless of what we have done.  There is no hatred or animosity in love.  It is the love of God that leads to repentance as Apostle Paul indicates in Romans 2:4. It is our love of our brother that can bring our brother to repent of sins committed against us. We should be always looking for a way to facilitate forgiveness.  We should always be in an attitude of forgiveness toward our fellow man.  God wishes that all humanity come to repentance so forgiveness can be facilitated and reconciliation can be accomplished. God extends forgiveness continually.

      Will there be expression of God’s forgiveness beyond this physical life?  Will there be opportunity for reconciliation with God and man beyond the grave?  The scriptures don’t explicitly address this issue.  Implicitly there is indication that all humans will have opportunity to repent and be reconciled to God.  Some may see this as universal salvation.  Others may see this as universal opportunity to repent in order to receive salvation.  This issue needs to be studied and addressed. After all, the majority of the billions of humans who have lived and died have never believed in Christ.  Are these billions of individuals nothing more than throwaways?  This is a significant issue that most Christians think little about. However, discussion of this issue must remain for another time.