Sisyphus is reading Mere Christianity for Lent and posted a portion dealing with forgiveness.
I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?
This concept is laid our for us in Matthew 6:14-15 most clearly:
"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Right before dropping off to sleep Wednesday night, (actually early Thursday morning), my thoughts returned to this passage, when it occurred to me, "How do I reconcile this with grace?" Thankfully, I'm usually tired enough that grappling with the big questions in life doesn't interfere with me passing out. So I did that and resolved to tackle the issue at a later time. Good Friday seems like the perfect opportunity.
If you're not familiar with the Christian lexicon, "Grace" can be loosely translated as "unmerited favor." All throughout the new testament, the believer is made aware that we are saved, forgiven, redeemed, through the grace of God, as explained in Ephesians 2: 8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
The idea is that the only requirement for salvation is to believe in Christ, most famously known by John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
The only action you or I can take is to believe in the Son. There is no scorecard of the good of the bad we have done. There is no way to "earn" our passage into to heaven. Salvation is a gift. This concept is like bedrock, a firm foundation of the faith. When we stand before God, there will be only one question asked, "Did you believe in my Son?"
So how do I reconcile salvation through grace, (unmerited favor), with the idea in Matthew 6:15 that if I do not forgive, I will not be forgiven? These two things seem to directly contradict each other, to require me to forgive others in order for God to forgive me.
I read the commentaries on this verse, and found their explanations to be lacking in meaty substance. Googling led me to The Issue of Forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount, by Greg Herrick Th.M., Ph.D., who unravels the mystery for us in a clear, understandable way.
First, through his study, he concludes that Jesus is talking to believers in this passage, demonstrated by the opening of the Lord's prayer, "Our Father." Jesus is instructing those who have already reconciled with God, and received "salvation through grace." By this we can conclude that when he says "neither will your Father forgive your trespasses", he is not talking about the forgiveness we receive through salvation. The bedrock concept of salvation through grace is not being addressed in these verses.
So, if He is not talking about a believer going to hell for not forgiving someone, what is Jesus talking about?
The author concludes that these verses describe a loving discipline from God. The "forgiveness" one loses when we refuse to forgive others is a withdrawal of God's fellowship. God allows us to continue in our stubbornness and ignores us in return.
We might take the same attitude with our kids. Let's say Johnny is told to pick up his toys, or he won't be able to play with them tomorrow. Johnny decides to ignore us. Tomorrow we withhold the toys he didn't pick up, allowing him to experience the consequences of his choices in the hope that he will learn in the future that he must care for his things in order to be able to enjoy them. In the same way, God allows us to experience the consequence of our sins that we might turn away from them.
The "Solution" from Mr. Herrick explains in detail:
The underlying ethic in Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is love: love for our heavenly Father and love for people. As we have seen God, in His love for us, allows us to come face to face with our sin, to be confronted by it. This of course is to bring about deep repentance and restoration of the love between the parties involved.
While all the commentators surveyed were quite consistent in saying that an unforgiving Christian does lose fellowship with God, they did not explicitly say what God is attempting to do by not forgiving the person. In answering this question we must remember, as I have just stated, that God's modus operandi is love. Therefore His unwillingness to forgive (and despite what the commentators say, the text explicitly says that He will not14 the person is an act motivated by love and a deep seated commitment to move toward His sinning child and not away from him. Therefore, when Jesus says that the Father will not forgive, what He means is that God will allow the person to walk in their sin (that is, He will not overlook it and embrace the person), to the necessary extent; until they come face to face with it and see it for what it is. In other words, if the person is unwilling to forgive, let him deal with a God twice as stubborn when it comes to forgiving. God will not give in and the sinning brother will have to deal with an unforgiving Father, from whom he depends for the basic necessities of life (6:25-32). God's intention, as the unforgiving brother goes his way in unforgiveness, is to expose him, to bring about legitimate shame and repulsiveness toward the sin. It is a rare blend of justice and mercy. He did this for Jacob, for Israel and as Paul declares, for us also. The result will often be Spirit-inspired, genuine repentance and love.
Good Friday and God's blessings to all.