The Mandate to Forgive

Peter came up and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (vv. 21–22).

- Matthew 18:21–35

When we pray, we must think carefully about what we are saying so that prayer does not become a rote exercise. In so doing, our praying can be used of the Spirit to change us. Thinking through the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer as we ask our Father to forgive us is particularly important, for in this prayer Jesus explains that God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others are connected. We ask Him to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Moreover, our Savior goes on to tell us that “if [we] do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will [our] Father forgive [our] trespasses” (vv. 14–15).

This text seems difficult at first reading. Does Jesus mean that our forgiveness earns the Lord’s pardon? If God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others, is salvation not all of grace? The answer to both questions is no. Christ does not speak of the manner by which we merit or even receive forgiveness, but He teaches us about the redeemed person’s disposition in light of God’s grace. As fallen people in Adam, we have nothing good in ourselves to bring before the Lord. Our only hope is to abandon all pretense of our own goodness—to reject any thought that the Father owes us pardon and favor—and throw ourselves on God’s mercy (Luke 18:9–14). When we do this, leaning solely on the grace of God, we see that we must likewise have a merciful disposition toward those who have wronged us. It is arrogant indeed to withhold our forgiveness from those who ask for it sincerely. Since our infinitely holy Creator forgives the repentant, how can we who are unclean apart from God’s mercy in Christ dare to refuse others our pardon?

Simply put, if we do not forgive, we are setting a higher bar than God does. We are exalting ourselves as better than other sinners in the Lord’s eyes, revealing that we have likely not understood the grace of God at all. We show that we are not relying on the Father’s promises alone but are instead trying to bring something before God to earn His favor. We are depicting an attitude that says, “I deserve God’s forgiveness, but others do not.” In sum, if we persist in withholding our forgiveness from repentant people, we reveal that we do not know Christ. Thus, as John Calvin writes, “Those who refuse to forget the injuries which have been done to them, devote themselves willingly and deliberately to destruction, and knowingly prevent God from forgiving them.”

Coram Deo

Calvin also comments, “No one may presume to approach God and ask forgiveness, who is not pure and free from all resentment.” If we are withholding forgiveness from those who have truly and humbly sought our pardon, then we are claiming rights for ourselves to which we have no title. We are saved only by God’s grace, and that reality must show itself in all our actions. If we have been forgiven by the Lord in Christ, we will forgive others.

Passages for Further Study

2 Chron. 7:14
Psalm 130
Luke 7:36–50
Colossians 3:12–14

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