To Forgive or to be Forgiven...That is the Question
When I reflect on this section of the Lord's prayer, I can't help but notice the ordering of the words that Jesus uses, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." It struck me that we are commanded here to ask for forgiveness for ourselves in the same way that we have already extended forgiveness to others. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Doesn't the Bible typically teach us to extend forgiveness to others because we have, in Christ, received the ultimate forgiveness from God???
That seems to be the message of passages like Colossians 3:12-13, Ephesians 4:31-32, 1 John 4:10-11, and Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35. At the same time, here in the Lord's prayer and elsewhere in scripture, we see the order reversed. Passages like Matthew 6:14-15, Luke 6:37, Mark 11:25, and Matthew 5:7 seem to teach that our ability to forgive others is a prerequisite for receiving forgiveness ourselves. Is there a contradiction here? Is this a classic case of the age old question of the chicken or the egg??? How should we make sense of this?
When we encounter tensions such as this in scripture, it is helpful to start with what we know to be true about God and work from there. One thing which is abundantly clear throughout the entirety of God's word is that we, as sinners, are helpless to reconcile ourselves to God through any work of our own doing. In other words, the forgiveness we receive from God is gracious in nature and therefore is not dependent upon anything within us, including our ability to forgive others. Ephesians 2:1-10 states this truth so explicitly that no doubt about it can remain. So, that solves it then, right??? Case closed!
Unfortunately, if we look no further then we have stopped short of dealing with the question of why Jesus is teaching us to pray in such a way that seems contradictory. What I know about God is that he has a plan and a purpose in all things. He doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't contradict himself. So, when he teaches us that our ability to forgive flows from a heart that has experienced gracious forgiveness AND that our ability to receive forgiveness is dependent on our ability to forgive others, I want to pay attention there and dig in to his word to understand how those two truths somehow relate to one another.
I think the question that we need to ask is, are there different types of forgiveness...or, in scripture, is all forgiveness the same??? I think we have to say, in light of what we see in passages like we have already looked at, the answer is, when the Bible speaks about forgiveness, not all forgiveness is the same. In other words, are we talking about forgiveness in an ultimate, saving sense (the way God has forgiven sinners through the finished work of Christ on the cross) or are we talking about forgiveness in a practical Christian life sense (the way we seek daily forgiveness from God and others for our sins, and the way we extend that same forgiveness to others)? So, is it a question of salvation/justification or sanctification? How are they different and how are they related or the same?
In an ultimate, saving sense, as we already discussed, forgiveness is gracious in nature. It is not, nay, it cannot, be earned through any merit of our own. However in a practical, day-to-day, continuing sanctification sense; we are called to take ownership in our lives for the way we both pursue forgiveness for ourselves and extend it to others. Both forms begin and end with God and both flow from a heart that has been transformed and is being renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I think the heart of this section of the Lord's prayer, and scriptures like it, is that when we pursue daily forgiveness from God, we are doing so from a posture of humility. In other words, we see our own brokenness in and through the brokenness of the world around us. Perhaps the best way for me to illustrate what I mean is through a practical example.
Each and every day, as a parent, I am confronted with my own sinfulness in the sinfulness of my children. I see glimpses (or maybe it is better stated as glaring examples) of my shortcomings in them. When I see them show a lack of patience or contentment, I am reminded of the ways in which I display impatience and discontentment. When I see them get angry or frustrated, I see myself in them. When they are lazy, disrespectful, unkind, prideful, etc...yup, you guessed it, I see those things in me too. Does this mean that I am to blame for every sin my children commit? No. They, especially now as they grow older, need to take ownership of their own sinfulness as well. But, what it does mean is that I can see, like a mirror into my own soul, all the ways in which I struggle with those same sins.
When I forgive my children, it is an act of love and compassion, because I understand the struggles they are experiencing and the daily fight they are in between their spirit and their flesh. This is true of all of us. When we forgive others, we are, in a sense, preaching the gospel of grace to them and to ourselves. In an ultimate sense, all of our sins, past, present and future; have been nailed to the cross with Christ. In a practical sense, I am daily waging war against the lingering effects of those sins in my life and struggling to pursue obedience and holiness for the glory of God.
Jesus commands us to seek first the grace of Godly grief that leads to genuine repentance and reconciliation. When we come to our Heavenly Father in that posture of brokenness and humility, with a heart that is willing to extend grace to others, then we find ourselves with a heart that is fertile to receive the grace we so desperately need. The two are so intimately and intricately connected.
I think this is why Jesus taught his disciples to drop everything, even in the midst of their worship, to go and seek reconciliation with a brother or sister (Matthew 5:21-24). It's not that our horizontal relationships are more important than our vertical one; on the contrary, the more well aligned our lives are in our primary relationship with God, the better all of our secondary relationships with others will function. However, anger, bitterness, and contempt for others will always foul our hearts and produce rocky soil that doesn't produce the good fruit that God desires for our lives. We can't expect our relationships with others to be healthy if we neglect our relationship with God, but we also can't expect to be in a place to commune with God when our hearts are stewing with bitterness towards others. So, as sin begets sin, so also does forgiveness beget forgiveness.
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Part 4 - Forgive us our debts
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Why should we ask for forgiveness in prayer if we have already been saved from the wrath of God through Christ?
2. How do I know if I've truly forgiven someone who has sinned against me?
3. What enables me to forgive?