Probably the most familiar saying of Jesus on forgiveness that comes immediately to mind is the one contained in the Lord's Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)
How we understand this saying speaks volumes about what we think our relationship with God is like. Jesus taught men to ask God for forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer, and many Christians accept the saying without giving any further attention to its meaning and serious implications. The Lord's Prayer, as well as Christ's subsequent teaching on forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-15) is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. The way we think about the Sermon on the Mount will affect the way we think about the Lord’s Prayer and the matter of forgiveness. Many read the Sermon on the Mount without thinking very deeply about its meaning and implications also.
Leon Morris, who was one the great theologians of our time, commented on this problem: "There are those who suggest that the theologians are complicating life for ordinary Christians. 'All that is necessary,' we are told, 'is that people should live according to the simple teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.' Anyone who says this kind of thing has almost certainly not read the Sermon on the Mount, or, if he has, has not paid attention to it." (Glory in the Cross, p. 29-30)
How are we to think about the Sermon on the Mount (and thus the teaching contained therein on forgiveness)? What is the Biblical perspective we should have? Naively, some say, "You don't have to complicate things. Jesus is teaching us how to live as Christians, and the Sermon is what Christianity is all about. Enough said." But, as Morris points out, upon further reflection this doesn't hold true. The Sermon on the Mount, if taken seriously, should cause us great pause. If Jesus meant what He said (and He most certainly did), the Sermon condemns the hearer/reader, for it is evidently not a guideline for redeemed Christians on how to live the Christian life, nor a mere collection of wise moral sayings for anyone to practice at their leisure; but when we actively listen to what Jesus is preaching, we notice at once that He is preaching something far more frightening. Heaven and hell are in the foreground. Eternal blessedness and eternal destruction are His keynote. Jesus is laying down the law: the way to be eternally blessed or cursed depending on your behavior - and He isn’t joking but is perfectly serious. "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for one of your members to perish than to have your whole body thrown into hell." (Matt. 5:29) He urges the same regarding other parts: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. For it is better for you that one of your members perish, than to have your whole body thrown into hell.” (Matt. 5:30) The point is crystal clear: better to lose your body members and not sin, than to sin and go to hell. And what kind of horrible sin is Jesus talking about, that would merit such extreme measures? What had He just before stated? “I say unto you. That whoever looks upon a woman lustfully has committed adultery already with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:28) Again, "I say unto you, whoever shall say to another "You fool", shall be in danger of hell fire." (Matt. 5:22) His point is inescapable: call someone a fool... look with lust... and to hell you will go if you don’t cut it out. That is scathing. Does this sound like Christianity? No. There's nothing evangelical about it.
A.M. Hunter put it this way: "From time to time one hears people declare that they 'like' the Sermon on the Mount. It is in fact the most terrible indictment of human nature in all literature... Who is sufficient for these merciless moral demands? Who is able to fulfill them? Not Tolstoy or any other. If that is the ideal, God have mercy on us all, sinners." (The Unity of the New Testament, p. 84f)
The same is true when we examine carefully the Lord's Prayer. It is of utmost importance that we understand what Jesus actually said. He did not merely teach us that we should ask God to forgive us of our sins. He was teaching much more than that. What Jesus actually taught was that we should ask God to forgive us of our sins just as we forgive those who sin against us. Far from this being a prayer for mercy, it is actually a pray for justice. It is an appeal unto God to treat us in the way that we deserve; to give us back what we have been giving out; to recompense us for our forgiving. Jesus makes this explicit in the two verses immediately following the Prayer (which perhaps show us that this matter of forgiving is the main thing in the Prayer): "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." (Matt. 6:14-15) That is pure justice. It is strict and dreadful like the sayings above. If you do not forgive men their sins, God will not forgive you of yours, and you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You had better forgive men their sins so that God may forgive yours. Such is the Lord's Prayer. In fact, there is nothing exclusively evangelical in the Lord's Prayer at all - nothing that only a Christian can pray, or which a devout Jew could not.
The point of all these terrifying moral lessons is that Jesus is explaining to the people the law of Moses as it is in truth. Jesus states emphatically at the beginning of the Sermon that He "did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them." (Matt. 5:17) "Truly I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot nor one tittle shall in any way pass from the law, until all be fulfilled. Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men to do so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:18-19) Teaching the commandments in all their perfect glory is precisely what Jesus is doing. "For I say unto you, that unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall in no way enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:20) He goes on to explain the false way the scribes and Pharisees both teach and live the law, warning you that if you want to enter into life you must exceed what they are teaching and doing. How much better must you be? Just a little? Jesus tells us: "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48)
John Calvin saw clearly what Christ was doing. Christ was not delivering an evangelical sermon but rather was preaching to the people the law of Moses in all its glory, which had been obscured by the teaching and practice of the scribes and Pharisees. The law was therefore in need of re-exposition: "Those who have not perceived this, have pretended that Christ was only a second Moses, the giver of an evangelical [law], to supply the deficiency of the Mosaic Law. Hence the common axiom as to the perfection of the Evangelical Law, and its great superiority to that of Moses. This idea is in many ways most pernicious. For it will appear from Moses himself, when we come to give a summary of his precepts, that great indignity is thus done to the Divine Law. It certainly... leads us away from that one unvarying rule of righteousness. It is very easy, however, to confute this error, which proceeds on the supposition that Christ added to the Law, whereas He only restored it to its integrity by maintaining and purifying it when obscured by the falsehood, and defiled by the leaven of the Pharisees." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Ch. 8, Section 7)
The Sermon on the Mount, then, is Christ's re-exposition of the law of Moses, not a new and better evangelical law for Christians that transcends the law of Moses - as if it needed improvement! Such a thought is totally foreign to the Bible, which always speaks of the law of Moses with the highest possible reverence, as it is the greatest possible moral standard given to man by God. The essence of the law is love for God and for your neighbor. One cannot go higher than this (Mark 12:28-31, Rom. 13:8-10). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is showing the people what obedience to the law (which is love) actually looks like. It means not sinning against God and your neighbor in thought, word or deed... It means not being a hypocrite... It means not being unforgiving and unmerciful to others, etc... How could one claim to love God and their neighbor according to the law of Moses if they failed at these things? They could not, and that is the whole point. Jesus is not preaching the gospel or Christianity. He is preaching the law of Moses to show men their sins, so that they might look elsewhere for salvation. That is the purpose of the law (Gal. 3:21-24). Let me make this clear: I am not saying that what Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount was false. Far from it: it is true! Painfully true. And since it is true, we are hopelessly lost if that is all there is to be said. What I am saying is this: what Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount is the truth about the law of Moses, but there is much more to be said; indeed, much more that Christ did say. Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount (and many other teachings and sayings of Jesus) must not be carelessly taken as our guide for all things Christian, but we must learn to pay careful attention to the place and purpose of His teachings in the greater motif of law and gospel.
In light of this, I submit that Christ's teaching on "forgive in order to be forgiven" (Matt. 6:12, 14-15, 18:21-35) falls under the category of law, not gospel. As Christians, I think we get excited about the word "forgiveness" and forget that forgiveness is a concept just as relevant and important to the Old Covenant as well as to the New. Forgiveness has to do with sin, and sin and forgiveness are just as much an issue under law as they are under gospel. The law offers its solution to sin as does the gospel, and forgiveness is sought by legalists. Forgiveness is of absolute necessity for sinners under the law in order for them to be in right relationship with God. The following verse is typical in the law: "And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the Lord for his sin which he has done: and the sin which he has done will be forgiven him." (Lev. 19:22) They needed it. They were seeking it. The gospel is all about our sins being forgiven, but we must not therefore think that forgiveness is a concept exclusive to the gospel, and read "gospel" into every mention of "forgiveness".
"How may I receive the forgiveness of my sins?" This is the question every sinner must ask. What is the answer that the law gives? Quite simply, it says: "Do what is right, and you will be forgiven": "If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he has committed will not be mentioned to him: in his righteousness that he has done shall he live." (Ezekiel 18:21-22) This means much more than merely offering a sacrifice. Sacrifice was a part of it, but just a part. If a man did not turn from his sins and obey all the commandments of God, though he brought a sacrifice, that sacrifice would avail him nothing. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken better than the fat of rams." (1 Sam. 15:22) Jesus also remarks upon this in the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (Matt. 5:23-24) What the law requires is moral uprightness (love, as mentioned before), and only when that condition has been met can forgiveness be legally granted. "He that covers his sins shall not prosper; but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy." (Prov. 28:13) Such is the way of forgiveness according to the law.
Now it is obvious according to this way that if a person has not forgiven his neighbor, he justly should not receive forgiveness himself. Notice, again, that the issue is all about justice. An unforgiving person doesn't deserve to be forgiven. An unmerciful person doesn't deserve mercy. It wouldn't be just and equal. But where, I ask, is the gospel in this? There's nothing evangelical about it. And that is precisely my point: that Christ's teaching of "forgive in order to be forgiven" is not Christianity but law. The Pharisees taught that a person was not required to forgive an offender more than three times. They assured people that God, according to the law, would forgive those who don't extend forgiveness to others. Christ responded with a resounding, "No!" If you want to be forgiven, according to the law you must be righteous, and to be righteous you must love your neighbor, and to love your neighbor means to forgive him. And to top it all off, how can sinners think to be forgiven of their enormous offenses against God, and yet not forgive their fellow sinners of their comparatively small offenses against them? It doesn't make any sense, and more importantly, it isn't just.
But this is not all that can be said, nor all that Jesus did say, about forgiveness. The gospel is all about God's gracious forgiveness toward sinners who don't deserve it, and one cannot point to these sayings of Jesus and ignore everything else that Jesus said about the forgiveness of sins. He said a world more, and everything depends on it. To the man lowered through a roof Jesus unconditionally and spontaneously declared, "Man, your sins be forgiven you" (Luke 5:20), upon which hearing, the Pharisees sneered, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" This moment was an earth-shaking disclosure of that full heart of forgiveness that Christ, who is the exact image of the Father, abundantly has toward men. The glory of the Son of man is being displayed here: “The Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins" (Luke 5:23-24); an authority that amazingly transcends the restrictive conditions of the law. This power He has because He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Another example of Christ's authority to forgive sins over and against the authority of the law is the profound incident of the woman caught in adultery. The law was stacked against her, and the words of Jesus themselves on this occasion show that there was no case to be made for her defense. She was guilty, and the law required her to be stoned to death. There was no disputing it; no way of escape by law. Jesus concedes that the crowd’s demand is just: she should be stoned indeed. "He that is without sin, cast the first stone." (John 8:7) The green light is given, but no one in the crowd is worthy to execute the judgment of the law upon the sinner because all are sinners themselves. It would not be just for them to condemn her. We are reminded here of Christ's teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: "Judge not, that you be not judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven." (Luke 6:37) We see here vividly that the teaching of "forgive in order to be forgiven" and "he that is without sin, cast the first stone" is fully in accordance with the law; but it is not the gospel. To see the gospel here we must see what happens next. The one person in this moment who is able to cast the first stone is "He who has no sin": Christ Himself. Jesus has every right to stone her, and if there was no authority greater than the law, then it was incumbent upon Him to do it, and to not do it would be lawlessness. But what does He say? "'Woman, where are your accusers? Has no man condemned you?' She said, 'No man, Lord.' And Jesus said to her, 'Neither do I condemn you..." (John 8:10-11) No man can condemn her, but the Lord Jesus, who is not like other men in that He is sinless and thus can justly condemn her, does not condemn her either! His reason is entirely different from the crowd: they could not stone her because of the law, but He would not stone her because of grace. By what greater authority can He do this, and seemingly disregard the just demands of the law? It is by the power of the New Covenant, which transcends (yet satisfies) the authority of the Old Covenant in the very person of Jesus Christ, for He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Christ is the revelation of the grace and true forgiveness of God toward men, which flows freely and abundantly unto undeserving sinners thanks to the blood of His cross. Grace is the final authority, not the law; and although the law is a true revelation of the justice of God, it is Christ who is the true revelation of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Doubtless, the greatest and most important teaching on forgiveness ever given by Jesus on earth was at the Last Supper. Here, immediately before His Passion, He discloses in prophecy the meaning of His death to His disciples, and shares with them the secret of His wonderful forgiving life. Taking the cup that represents His blood about to be offered up to God, He solemnly pronounces over it: "This is the blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matt. 26:28) Here is the true teaching of Christ on forgiveness. It is not to be found in His exposition of the law of Moses on the Mount, as correct as that was, but in His explanation of His blood shed as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. This love-sacrifice for sin reveals to men the free, unconditional and overflowing heart of forgiveness that God the Father has for undeserving sinners. Through Christ, God's love for sinners has overcome the obstacle of His justice, which alienated sinners from Himself. This is what the New Covenant is all about, and what distinguishes it from the Old Covenant. It is through the blood of Christ, not through the law of Moses, that we draw near unto God. "For the law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No one has seen the Father at any time, but the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made declared Him." (John 1:17-18) The demonstration of this love of God - and therefore the forgiveness of God - toward sinners is to be seen in that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) That means that while we were yet lawbreakers, unforgiving, hateful and hating one another, Christ died for us. His blood was shed for all of our sins, including our unforgiveness and unmercifulness, and there is therefore no legal conditions that keep men from being reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, but only their unbelief in this almost unbelievable message about God.
Christ says to the unforgiving man these shocking words: "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more". We are not forgiven because we are forgiving. God's forgiveness comes first and comes freely, and our forgiving others follows afterward. This is the same pattern regarding every sin. It must be, or the gospel is not true. If the sin of unforgiveness were some kind of exceptional sin so that Christ could not say these words to that kind of sinner, then law, and not grace, would be the final word. We would be left with a Christ who is not far above but far beneath the principalities and powers, who does not have "all power in heaven and earth" to forgive sins (Matt. 28:18). Only certain kinds of men would be within His ability to graciously save, while others would not be, rendering Christ impotent to save them before the demands of a broken law. In that case we don't have good news to preach in "all the world". In a world like that, law, not grace, reigns - having the final word.
But that is not the world of the New Covenant. Jesus declared immediately before ascending into heaven that "the forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:53), and we find this exact thing being proclaimed in the Book of Acts by the apostles: "To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believes in Him shall receive the forgiveness of sins." (Acts 10:43) Through the name (authority) of Jesus, all who believe in Jesus Christ are forgiven, and all means all - not the deserving forgiving kind of believers, but the undeserving kind of believers (which is the only kind there is). Can you conceive that God the Father would ever say to someone in the hereafter: “I’m sorry... I know that you were relying upon the grace of my Son Jesus Christ for your salvation, but unfortunately you did not forgive your neighbor his sin against you, and Jesus’ blood doesn’t cover that one. You don’t deserve to be saved... you weren’t the right kind of sinner”? Unthinkable.
This is why when we turn to the entire corpus of the New Testament letters, from Romans to Revelation, we cannot find the teaching on "forgive in order to be forgiven"; no, not anywhere. If Christ's teaching on "forgive in order to be forgiven" was not His exposition of the law but was in reality His ultimate evangelical message to Christians, then we most assuredly would find it in apostles' letters. It would be too important not to be included and to be omitted. The apostles are fully occupied with the doctrine of forgiveness, and they are fully committed to Christ's teaching about it, but when it comes to the teaching of "forgive in order to be forgiven" they are absolutely silent. This can only mean one thing: that the teaching of "forgive in order to be forgiven" was not ultimately Christ's teaching, but Moses'. Christ had put it in its proper place. What we do find in the apostles, however, is quite the opposite: "And be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you." (Eph. 4:32) "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man has a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye." (Col. 3:13) These beautiful sayings are but echoes of Christ's "neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more": that is, now you forgive, because you are forgiven. They are beautiful because they are evangelical and full of grace - not the conditions of law - void of all notions of deserving. And how has God forgiven us, that we might imitate Him? Not for the law's sake, but for Christ's sake. Not because we deserved it, but freely and abundantly without condition. This is how we are to forgive too. For the Christian, forgiveness is no longer a requirement he must meet in order to be forgiven, but forgiveness is rather an experience of love he has received from God the Father through faith in Christ, which inspires him to forgive others. This is the difference between the Old and New Covenant - for what the former strictly requires, the latter graciously provides. In the gospel forgiveness has found its proper place.
It is from Jesus, then, that we learn the truth about forgiveness. Jesus came into the world to show us the Father, full of grace and truth. By teaching the law, by exemplifying unconditional forgiveness, and by His sacrificial death on the cross, Christ has brought the light of heaven to earth and dispelled the darkness. It is not by ignoring the teachings of Jesus on forgiveness and by setting the apostles' doctrine against His, but by taking His teachings seriously, and by considering them in their fullness, that we come to understand forgiveness. What we then see is that the apostles' doctrine of forgiveness is nothing more than Christ’s own doctrine of forgiveness.
The good news which Jesus Christ has for the world is that God is a forgiving God toward undeserving sinners, and that grace, not law, is the final word. No matter what kind of sinner you are, no matter how tangled up in sin you may be, no matter how badly the Sermon on the Mount condemns you and exposes you to be a wicked sinner, the message of God's forgiving heart is true for you, and you may take refuge in Him. Whoever trusts in the blood of Christ will find a sure Deliverer from all condemnation. As the old hymn goes,
Trusting in your own forgiveness of others and appealing to God to forgive you for that reason may seem like the sweetest frame, but it is nothing more than the sinking sand of self-righteousness. To seek refuge in the law always at first glance appears right, but it turns out to be the broad road that leads to condemnation and destruction. God has provided the sacrifice for all of your sins, and with outstretched arms He lovingly beckons you to come to Him through the power of Jesus Christ. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be whiter than snow. What are you waiting for? There is no reason to delay. The law surely condemns you, but God's word to you in Christ is not a word of condemnation. It is the word of salvation! It is the word of grace! Believe even now. Stand upon the Solid Rock of the name of Jesus Christ.