If I Fail to Forgive Others, Will God Not Forgive Me?
Welcome to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. We open with a question from Nick who writes in: “Pastor John, I have been reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. I know that the sermon given by Jesus is meant to reveal the extent of our heart sickness and desperate need for his righteousness. There was one part that really threw me for a loop. Jesus says in Matthew 6:14–15, ‘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.’ Can you elaborate on what Jesus intends for us to take by saying this? My biggest concern is in my struggle to forgive others. Does this mean that anyone who does not forgive others cannot receive salvation from God?”
Before I say what I think that warning means — that you won’t be forgiven by God if you don’t forgive others means — let me make sure that Nick realizes that if those verses about the unforgiving being unforgiven “threw him for a loop,” which is what he says. If those words throw him for a loop, there are others in the Sermon on the Mount that are going to throw him for more loops.
For example, Jesus says in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” So receiving mercy comes to us through our being merciful. That is almost the same as Matthew 6:15, which is throwing him for a loop. We receive mercy at the judgment if trusting Christ’s mercy has made us merciful.
James puts it this way: “Judgment [by God] is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). That is, if we show mercy, our judgment will not be condemnation, it will be mercy. That is the same problem, the same issue that he is raising.
Or consider Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell,” which means that failure to make eye-gouging war on lust will result in hell. It’s the same issue.
Fruit and Root
Consider Matthew 7:16–20, where Jesus says that we will know the false Christians by their fruit:
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
So, again, he says that the absence of good fruit in our lives means fire. But be sure to look at the words carefully here. Bearing fruit doesn’t make you a good tree. A lot of people quickly jump to the conclusion that if there is some kind of conditionality at the judgment — namely, that you have to bear good fruit, you have to fight lust, or you have to be forgiving — then we are somehow making ourselves into a good tree and earning salvation by those fruits. Well, that is insane.
The text says, “A good tree bears good fruit.” If you have fruit, you are a good tree, not the other way around. We are not saved by good fruit. The good fruit shows that we are a good tree of faith in Jesus.
Matthew 7:21–23 says,
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
So ascribing lordship to Jesus doesn’t save anyone. We show his lordship by doing the will of his Father. Without this evidence in our lives, we hear the words, “I never knew you.” And then he says, “Everyone . . . who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock [so he doesn’t get swept away at the judgment]” (Matthew 7:24). And then he says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matthew 7:26). And at the judgment he gets washed away.
So, in other words, what threw Nick for a loop in Matthew 6:15 is everywhere: “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus is simply saying what he is saying everywhere else.
The way I would put it is like this: If the forgiveness that we received at the cost of the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is so ineffective in our hearts that we are bent on holding unforgiving grudges and bitterness against someone, we are not a good tree. We are not saved. We don’t cherish this forgiveness. We don’t trust in this forgiveness. We don’t embrace and treasure this forgiveness.
We are hypocrites. We are just mouthing. We haven’t ever felt the piercing, joyful wonder that God paid the life of his Son. I mean, how in the world could I hold a grudge against somebody when I have not been offended nearly like God has been offended — so highly that he has to pay the life of his Son in order for me to be forgiven?
That is exactly the point of Matthew 18 with the parable of the unforgiving servant — which is like a parabolic form of Matthew 6:15 — where the servant owes the king a billion dollars; it is just off the charts what he owes. And he gets forgiven freely. But then he goes out and he feels it so little; it means so little to him that he strangles his fellow servant for ten dollars. And when the king hears about it, he sends him to jail. And Jesus concludes that parable like this: “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).
This is not unique to Jesus. It is everywhere in Paul. He is talking to Christians when he says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Then he adds: “Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
In verse 10, Paul identifies a reviler as an example of unrighteousness. What is a reviler? Somebody who hates and holds grudges and is unforgiving and bitter. People like that don’t go to heaven, not because kindness earns heaven, but because kindness is the fruit of the Spirit, which is given to those who have been broken by the love of Jesus and have embraced the sweetness of being forgiven even though we have reviled God.
God Settles Accounts
So when Nick asks, “Does this mean that anyone who does not forgive others cannot receive salvation from God?” the answer goes like this: Struggling to forgive is not what destroys us. As long as we are in the flesh, we will do our good deeds imperfectly, including forgiving and loving others. Jesus died to cover those imperfections. What destroys us is the settled position that we are not going to forgive, and we have no intention to forgive, and we intend to cherish the grudge and fondle the wrong that someone did to me and feel the bitterness. It feels good. I like to go to bed with my wrath at night because he legitimately wronged me. I am going to hold this against him the rest of his life.
If we think we can be indwelt by the Spirit of Christ and not make war on that attitude, we are deluded. So Nick, if you have settled in with bitterness and anger and grudges and you are not fighting this by faith in the mercy of Jesus to you, I hope this episode will unsettle you and give you the freedom in Christ to let it go. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). He will settle accounts, Nick. You don’t need to.