Most of you are familiar with the parable in Matthew 18 about the unforgiving servant.
Matthew 18:32-35 “…Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This passage becomes controversial when placed in a New Covenant context. The message of the New Covenant claims that we have been forgiven of all our sins past, present, and future. Our salvation is contingent on us being forgiven. We are righteous and justified. If we put this scripture into the new covenant, then it implies that if we are not merciful God can change his mind and hold our sins against us.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I am not advocating un-forgiveness. It goes against the fabric of everything that Jesus did for us. And even the new testament makes forgiveness a matter of importance.
Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
However, the difference between this passage and the other one at the beginning of this article is that the first leaves room to believe that you will cease to be forgiven if you do not forgive while the other implores you to out of respect and gratefulness but not with the threat of suddenly being unforgiven.
Let’s examine for a second that the first example is new covenant, that if we fail to forgive we won’t be forgiven. What are the implications of this? Our relationship with God comes into question. We may no longer approach him with peace and confidence. We would no longer be called righteous and holy. The curses of disobedience would come upon us and a greater question arises: Could a person who is not forgiven go to heaven?
You may think these are silly implications, that it doesn’t need to be taken that seriously. But I have meet a few people who were deeply worried they would not go to heaven for this reason. They prayed that God would not let them die before they could forgive everybody. They lived their lives in fear and worry. Are they being illogical? Or do we lesson the intensity to make it doable for christians. Christians still go to heaven and are called righteous, but God still sends curses on them in this life?
Forgiveness for the unforgiving
I initially though that the new testament didn’t have much to clarify on this topic but it turns out it does in Romans 2. If we compare Paul’s words to the words of Jesus we see that Paul is saying the same thing Jesus was.
Romans 2:1-5 “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”
Notice that Paul goes a little further than Jesus to explain what kind of punishment awaits those who do not forgive. It does not involve a curse from Deuteronomy but rather a storage of God’s wrath against you on the day of judgement (a pretty chilling prospect).
But what is the point Paul eventually makes with this? This is not the conclusion of his argument, but rather he is setting up a backstory on which to release the full power of the gospel. The backstory is that the gentile, who was sinful by nature, and the Jew who judges the sinful gentile were both guilty before God. In Romans 3 Paul wraps up his point, that everyone, including the judgmental have fallen into sin and are accountable to God, some, held there accused by the law. Is the command to forgive part of the law?
Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
James uses this same law to convict his jewish audience
James 2:8-10 “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
If you read through Romans you will find that Paul eventually comes back to the situation he wrote about in chapter 2.
Romans 3:22-24 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Romans 5 also opens with
Romans 5:1-2 “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
How can we have peace with a God who is holding wrath for us on the final day of judgement? If this is not clear Paul spells it out for us later.
Romans 5:9-10 “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
What wrath is he talking about? Is it not the same wrath spoken of in chapter 2?
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”
You see, Paul has not singled out un-forgiveness as the one sin that cannot be forgiven, rather he has included it in the list of every sin that would result in divine wrath and the list of sins we were all completely forgiven for in Christ. I dare say in Paul’s mind un-forgiveness is just as forgivable as coveting.
James says the same thing.
James 2:12-13 “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What is the law that gives freedom? Some people speculate it refers to the gift of no condemnation coming from the gospel.
Romans 8:1-2 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
This would be the law or “principle” that gives freedom, compared to the law in leviticus which gives death. So what is James point? Speak and act like people who are going to be judged by grace and not the law. How? By showing people the grace you yourselves are receiving. Why? Because under the law, judgement without mercy will be shown to everyone who is not merciful. But under grace, mercy triumphs over judgement.
So what does this mean to believers?
God still wants us to forgive, to forgive just as we have been forgiven. It is the proper and natural response to the amazing grace we have been shown. And though the new testament does encourage christians to forgive in this way, it also provides forgiveness for those that struggle to forgive others. In that way, forgiveness is motivated by gratefulness not fear.
Now you may be asking, why would Jesus have said those things and aren’t they important? And that’s worth a full article by itself and is more in-depth than I’ve studied for. But for what I can say, it is important for the purpose it was serving. If I had to say it briefly it would be this: Jesus had to put the law into it’s proper place to convict people’s hearts, especially prideful, self-righteousness people. To the humble he showed his grace, but to those who thought the law was doable he always implied, “Still one thing you lack!” He did this to convict the world of sin and hold people accountable to God, showing that it’s not enough to obey the law in action only, but it must also be obeyed in the heart. If man wanted to live by the law, it was Jesus’s job to show him just how hard he must work. The hope is that, people realizing the extent to which they were fallen would turn to Jesus and seek his mercy which would be given in full measure at the cross.
Do not take this article as an end all to the discussion, but rather take it as another perspective and argument in how we should interpret the scripture. I would encourage you to research and come to your own conclusions on the subject.