Some would say that the idea of forgiveness was born in the bosom of Christianity. No other world religion makes the claim that Christians do: God is the first forgiver. And He proved it by becoming a man—God with us—getting His hands dirty and burned in the cauldron of human iniquity, yet ever loving and forgiving. That’s the claim that Christianity’s leading spokesman, the apostle Paul, makes in Romans 5:8: “But God shows his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (ESV1). That life-giving act of forgiveness casts its light of hope over a world caught up in all the dark workings of human frailty. As the Son of God and the Son of man, Jesus came to demonstrate the lengths to which He and the Father would go to restore us, through the healing work of forgiveness, to full citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
the Great Forgiver
One day, as Jesus sat on a grassy hill overlooking the fishing village of Capernaum, His eyes taking in the spectacular view of the Sea of Galilee, He began to lay down the principles of that kingdom. By this time, He was 30 years old; He had been baptized by His cousin, John the Baptist; and He had suffered physical, emotional, and spiritual privations in a critical encounter with Satan in the wilderness. That signal victory over the three temptations set the stage for the next important event: an explication of the underlying principles of His kingdom, including the principle of forgiveness.
In His sermon, He begins with a description of the character of those who belong to His kingdom. His blessing rests on men and women poor in spirit, battered by life’s challenges, but faithful; mourning losses yet comforted; meek in a power-grabbing world; hungering and thirsting for righteousness; and persecuted for living a God-directed life. These citizens of the heavenly kingdom that has its roots in the grind of everyday life on this earth were to be salt and light to a world darkened by the operations of the principles of selfishness, pride, and injustice. They were to rise above the temptation of self-serving and become other serving, demonstrating in their lives the characteristics of their heavenly Father and forming the family of God here on Earth. Within this setting, Jesus introduces His model prayer, the means by which the citizens of His kingdom will access the power to put into practice the high calling of a selfless life.
In the very heart of this prayer to the “Father in heaven,” the believer is to ask Him to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Forgiveness, as taught by Jesus, gains its potential for healing from this implicit connection between the believer and God. This principle is predicated on a simple formula: because we have been forgiven, we are obligated to pass that gift on to even the most undeserving. Like so much of Jesus’ understanding of the Ten Commandments, He sets the bar high enough so that it is clear that, without divine intervention, one can never forgive like that. Are we meant to take this command literally? Really? Forgive the one who killed all my family; forgive the one who betrayed me; forgive instigators of genocide? What could forgiveness in these extreme cases possibly look like or mean? But Jesus doesn’t back off from questions like these. He makes sure that the part of the model prayer about forgiving is crystal clear: “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 6:14, 15, ESV).
To further ensure His disciples’ understanding of this formula, Jesus explains this principle of genuine forgiveness through the parable of two debtors. The first debtor owed his master 10,000 talents. (A talent was the equivalent of about 15 to 20 years’ wages for a laborer.) There was no way this laborer could pay off such a monstrous debt. Even so, it was within the master’s rights to make this man pay it. But the master “out of pity for him” (Matthew 18:27, NRSV2) forgave him the entire debt. We can just imagine the wild sensation of relief that gripped this man’s soul! Released from a debt that he could never pay—what an incredible gift!
But Jesus goes on with the story. This same man, so immensely blessed and forgiven, runs into a fellow laborer who owes him 100 denarii or three and half months of wages. He grabs his debtor and begins to choke him, demanding immediate payment on pain of imprisonment. The poor debtor begs for mercy, saying the very same words the forgiven debtor had said to his master just moments before, but to no avail. Fortunately for the man now serving time in debtors’ jail, there were witnesses who reported all they saw and heard to the master, who called the forgiven debtor into his presence: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (verse 32, ESV). Then, to underscore this yet again, Jesus clearly states: “So also [as in the case of the ungrateful debtor] my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (verse 35, ESV). Nothing like lip service is acceptable; forgiveness must be genuine.
unfailing love urges us to forgive
Here Jesus brings judgment to bear on forgiveness. The harshest judgment is passed on the unforgiving debtor because he so brazenly scorns the one who paid the debt for him. Now he is condemned to pay for his own debt. Jesus is saying that this will be the fate of every Christian who does not forgive, precisely because to be a Christian is to be forgiven. We must forgive because we are forgiven! In the judgment scene presented in Matthew 25, the difference between the two groups of people lies in this truism: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (verse 40, ESV). This applies not only to good deeds but to forgiveness. When I forgive my undeserving offender, I am honoring the Great Forgiver whose act of love and mercy on the cross paid a debt that I could never repay.
In other words, Jesus’ understanding of the centrality of forgiveness points to the cross, where the true cost of forgiveness was incontestably demonstrated. And where, even as He willingly took on in His body and soul the horrendous load of humanity’s sin, He could say, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, ESV). Jesus was pushing the boundaries of forgiveness. What can humans not forgive if the Son of God was willing to forgive this?
So does this mean that God’s forgiveness is conditional on my willingness to forgive? The Message paraphrase of Matthew 6:14, 15 reads like this: “In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”3 The implication here is that, although God’s forgiveness may not be withheld because of our lack of mercy toward an offender, to refuse to an offender what has so generously been given to us places us at odds with a forgiving God. It presumes on His infinite grace and kindness and shows a kind of hard-heartedness that cannot exist in a person who continues to call him- or herself a Christian. Taking into consideration the Beatitudes where the meek and merciful and pure in heart receive a special blessing, it would be grossly out of character for a person claiming such a blessing not to confer forgiveness on an offender. The citizens of the kingdom of heaven forgive because they know they’ve been forgiven.
The relationship between my willingness to forgive others and God’s willingness to forgive me is contingent on my acceptance of and submission to His plan. On God’s side of the ledger, we’re told: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, KJV). The unfailing love that was demonstrated on the cross is available to anybody who accepts it—absolutely. On the other side of the ledger is my acceptance of that beautiful sacrifice on my behalf, the only condition for me to receive the full benefit of that sacrifice. God did not owe us anything when He gave it all to us through His Son, Jesus Christ. We owe Him everything, and yet, like the ungrateful debtor, we, too, can exercise our free will not to pass on to others that enormous generosity that has been given to us. When Jesus told us to forgive as we are forgiven, He underscored a uniquely moral responsibility that calls on the highest moral virtues of love and gratitude.
The real beauty of Christian forgiveness is that its myriad healing possibilities are guaranteed by the Creator of that powerful gift. When faced with the inevitable hurts, offenses, and violations that come with simply living on this earth, we are invited, through His strength, to cast a mantle of forgiveness over our offenders. In doing so, we affirm our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven that begins here and now, and we reap a rich harvest of peace—a peace that goes beyond understanding and keeps us focused on the great debt of love we owe to God and our neighbor.
Lourdes E. Morales-Gudmundsson presents a seminar titled “I Forgive You, But . . .” Her book by the same title was released by Pacific Press® in 2007.
1. Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Scripture quotations marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Scripture quotations marked The Message are from The Message, copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.