“Forgive us our trespasses” and conditional forgiveness

“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
“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 6:12, 14 & 15 (English Standard Version)

This remarkable prayer request in The Lord’s Prayer asks God to liberate us from one of the greatest human burdens—“How can I be forgiven for all the wrongs I have done?” These wrongs are summed up in the confession of The Book of Common Prayer, “We have not loved [God] with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

The request to be forgiven is not a free “get out of jail” pass. It places an obligation on the person praying. We are asking God to forgive us up to the level of our willingness to forgive others. It would be hypocritical of us to ask God to do more for us than we are willing to extend to others. So the prayer obligates us to forgive even as it beseeches God to grant us forgiveness. (Read a powerful story Jesus told on this point in Matthew 18:23-35.)

American Evangelical Christianity widely teaches that forgiveness should be unconditional. * “As soon as someone wrongs you, immediately forgive that person in your heart.” The point is, forgiveness is something you do for yourself (a therapeutic act so you will feel better), rather than something you do for others (a relational act so reconciliation may occur). Look at these slogans, which are posted as Bible thoughts on forgiveness for goodness sake:

The slogans and their “therapeutic forgiveness” have an important point to make. Why let someone’s wrong against you tear you up inside and fill you with bitterness? Why give this person a double victory?

Scripture addresses this:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” – Ephesians 4:31

This indeed must be done, for these negatives can ruin us. But to deal with them is different from forgiving others. Forgiving others is done so relational “shalom” might occur—interpersonal healing, restoration and peace.

Forgiveness is discussed in the next verse (Ephesians 4:32):

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

God forgives us “in Christ”. In this dynamic God’s forgiveness is very conditional—dependent on the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world, and dependent on our embracing of God’s offer of forgiveness.

“The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.” – Jesus (Luke 18:13-14)

Here’s what Jesus said about conditional forgiveness of others:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” – Luke 17:3-4

God’s conditional forgiveness is taught later in the New Testament (1 John 1:9):
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”

What reasonable steps of contrition should we expect to see before forgiveness can be granted and a wholesome situation of “shalom” restored? I suggest at least these four signs if someone is serious about being forgiven:

1. Remorse – “I am truly sorry.”

2. Repentance – “From the heart I confess to you that I did wrong.”

3. Restitution – “I am willing to do what I must to make things right.” (This point should be kept flexible—it is as much an accountability lesson for the offender as it is a payment to the person wronged.)

4. Resolve – “By God’s strength, I will not do this again.” (Fact is, we may. That’s what requires the “seven times a day” forgiveness Jesus taught. But the resolve needs to be sincerely made.)

* A “forgiveness” quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “”Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

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