A question from Jason: “Pastor John, hello! As you know, in Matthew 18, the parable of the unforgiving servant ends with a dire warning to those who don’t forgive: ‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’ (Matthew 18:35). Verse 34 explains the ‘so’ of 35: ‘And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt’ (Matthew 18:34). I have a lot of questions about this passage, but the main two are: (1) Can I biblically forgive someone if they don’t ask to be forgiven, or can I just be disposed or willing to forgive them if/when they ask? What if I, or they, die before I can forgive them? (2) Can I biblically forgive someone if they think they’ve done nothing wrong to me?”
I hear at least three questions:
- Can we forgive a person who doesn’t think they’ve done wrong (and we think they have)? That’s really relevant to marriage, by the way. I think that happens a lot in marriage.
- If they don’t ask for forgiveness, can forgiveness proceed?
- What if I die before I forgive them or they ask?
“If you’re a merciless person, you meet a merciless God.”
Let’s start with Jesus’s teaching about forgiveness, because it really is as important as Jason shows it to be. Here’s what Jesus says. He says to pray like this: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Then he unpacks it in verses 14–15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That’s huge.
Then Jesus puts it in a parable, which is what our friend is referring to in Matthew 18. Peter had just asked the Lord, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or seventy times seven, as some translations have it (Matthew 18:22). Anyway, lots and lots and lots of times.
Then comes the parable. A king forgives a debtor who owes him a million, million dollars. It’s just an off-the-charts number. Then he goes out and strangles a friend who owes him $10. In other words, being forgiven has had zero transforming effect on this servant. He’s as selfish as ever. And the king hears about it, and that’s where we pick it up.
“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you” — you get thrown into prison — “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:32–35)
Then James says the same thing basically in James 2:13 where he writes, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” That means my mercy toward you, Tony, will be a triumphant influence at the judgment day, which is what Jesus said in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If you’re a merciless person, you meet a merciless God.
“Salvation is not payback for good works. Our good works are the fruit of union with Christ.”
From all this we are sobered to realize that no one is a true Christian, no one is born again and destined for heaven, who is an ungrateful, unforgiving person. Jesus would say, “You cannot genuinely receive my forgiveness and remain unforgiving.” You can’t. Jason’s question is — and they’re clearly important — it’s a matter of life and death. Let’s take them in that order.
First, what if I die before I forgive my adversary? The answer to that hangs on the way you see your forgiveness functioning — that is, your forgiving others functioning — in your final salvation. If you think that God looks at each deed of your forgiving and repays it with salvation, then if it’s missing when you die, you would lose your salvation. That’s the way you conceive it.
If you think that the deed of your forgiving is one of the fruits of your union with Christ, then if one of your fruits had not yet ripened into an act of forgiving, it would not necessarily prove that you’re not united to Christ for two reasons. First, because there are other fruits to show the reality of your union with Christ, and second, because the Lord himself could see the seed of your act even if you did not have time for the seed of forgiveness to grow into the deed of forgiving.
That is in fact, I think, how it works. That’s the way the final experience of salvation relates to our being forgiving people. Salvation is not payback for good works. The good works are the fruit of union with Christ, who is the all-sufficient ground of our acceptance with God. So, one good deed left undone is not a proof of our lostness. It will be covered by the blood of Jesus because of our union with him through faith. All of our other acts of forgiveness in our life are testifying to that reality, that we believed on him and his blood is covering us, which brings us now to Jason’s other question.
Can we forgive a person who doesn’t think he’s done wrong and we think he has, or if he doesn’t ask for any forgiveness? The answer is we can and we must. We must do our part in the forgiveness. This is what Jesus meant, I think, when he said, “Love your enemies . . . bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). They are still our enemies when we do that. They have not asked for any forgiveness, and they don’t think they need any, making life miserable for us — and they think they ought to. We are to bless them, and that blessing means that our part of the inward forgiveness has happened. The opposite of forgiveness is holding a grudge, but blessing is the opposite of holding a grudge, and so blessing is a kind of forgiving.
“One good deed left undone does not prove our lostness. It will be covered by Christ’s blood through faith.”
It is true — I suppose this is what he’s thinking — it is true that the full effect of forgiveness can only happen if the other person believes they need it and want it. That’s why it’s so frustrating when you want to forgive somebody and they don’t think they need any forgiveness. But we do not wait for that, right? We don’t wait for them to do their half before we do our half. We must be rid of bitterness and grudges right away. We do what Jesus did on the cross.
In 1 Peter it’s described so powerfully. This is how Christ set an example for us: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten,” — in fact, he prayed for their forgiveness; here’s what it says — “but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
We must renounce revenge and trust our cause to God and then return good for evil. That’s our part of forgiveness, and we can do it whether the adversary admits wrong or not. One great miracle has already happened in us. We’re not responsible for the other miracle of repentance in them.