Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15 NIV). Many believers today, perhaps even a majority of Christians, find this verse difficult to understand. What does Jesus mean?
To understand what He is saying here, we need to consider His words in its proper context, using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
When Jesus said this, He was teaching on prayer. More specifically, He was teaching His disciples (believers) how to pray in power and sincerity.
Jesus had just given His followers a wonderful model of prayer after one of the disciples asked, “Lord, teach us to pray, Just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). That model prayer has since become known as, “The Lord’s Prayer.” That title can be somewhat misleading however, because it’s more an example for a “disciple’s prayer.”
“The disciple’s prayer” exemplifies someone seeking deeper intimacy with the Lord. “Give us today our daily bread” makes it clear that this is a prayer for someone who is continuously seeking the Lord’s familiarity and favor. It speaks of an ongoing desire of one who yearns to know the Lord more deeply, and to experience more of His presence in their daily life.
Further, we can be sure it was for the disciples’ behalf because Jesus said, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). But Jesus himself didn’t need to be forgiven of his debts (sins) because He was without sin. Rather, it is people who need forgiveness of their sins and it is people who struggle with forgiving others.
Jesus was speaking to believers who are seeking closer fellowship with the Father. He was giving a prayer model for someone who is now a child of God and yearns to align his heart with that of his “Abba Father.” It is a prayer of someone who is seeking the heart and face of the Lord.
With that, Jesus next elaborated on expectations for His followers in regards to forgiveness.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Taken out of context, Jesus’ words here could raise the question, “If a believer fails to forgive another person who sins against them, will that stand against them in eternal condemnation?”
Confidently, we know the answer to that question is a certain and absolute, “No!” We can stand in complete assurance of our salvation, for we are standing on the truth of His Word.
Christ, “forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14, italics added). Our sin debt is erased. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Believers “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . . by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:2). “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14).
Our righteousness is in Christ alone, and our relationship with the Father is sealed by the Holy Spirit. Salvation isn’t conditional—it’s eternal.
In Matthew 6:15, Jesus is emphasizing the necessity of forgiving our brothers. And, He affirms that a lack of forgiveness in our heart hampers our prayer life and affects our fellowship with the heavenly Father.
Let’s view this from a different angle. I don’t want to sound irreverent but, hypothetically, would you pray, “Lord, I absolutely will not forgive my brother for what he has done. I refuse to forgive him! He has hurt me too often and too deeply. I know that is wrong. But I will not forgive him. So, Lord, I ask You to forgive me for my refusal to forgive him”?
Would you ask God to forgive you for your refusal to forgive someone else? That would be hypocritical. And, in Scripture, Jesus is very critical of hypocrites.
Yet, while we might not say it outright. If we knowingly have a heart of refusal to forgive someone, while we are asking God for forgiveness. . . that is what we are actually doing in practice.
If we willfully keep a sin of unforgiveness in our heart, should we expect God to honor prayers offered out of a hypocritical heart? No. If we have a hypocritical heart, there will no sincerity in what we pray.
Should we expect to have an uninhibited intimacy with the heavenly Father when we are knowingly holding in our hearts what is contrary to His Word? No.
In that, “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive yours sins.” For there would be a blockage in your heart—the blockage of unforgiveness—that would affect your fellowship with the heavenly Father.
But it’s hard to forgive what has been done to us, or against us. Many times, we can offer what seem like just reasons for refusing to forgive someone:
- Maybe I can forgive someone who hurts me—but not so much if they hurt my family.
- I’ve been abused or victimized by that person.
- I’m innocent. Yet, because of the other person’s actions, I’ve suffered from it.
- What if the other person doesn’t show remorse? What if they seem to gloat over it?
- What if someone attacks my character with lies or half-truths? Those cuts are deep and painful.
Many times, it’s difficult to forgive people because of the horrendous things done against us, or things done against someone we love.
Forgiveness goes against strong human tendencies to retaliate or, at the very least, hold grudge against those who’ve hurt us or our loved ones.
But we are called to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every from of malice . . . forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians4:31-32). More than simply called to forgive, we are commanded to forgive. With that, we know the Lord will never give us a command that He will not also give us empowerment for.
People are prominent in Jesus’ heart! So, if our heart is aligned with Christ, our love for others will be magnified, and we will become increasingly people oriented.
How precious to you is the gift of God’s salvation and forgiveness? Salvation is a gift undeserved, but given in the Lord’s grace. Forgiveness is a gift undeserved, but given in His mercy.
If you are immeasurably grateful for God’s forgiveness, shouldn’t there an overflowing desire to emulate Christ in your interactions with others? And, when we don’t forgive others, we are denying our common ground as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.
Certainly, there will be spiritual battles between the spirit and the flesh, because the flesh is weak. As you struggle with forgiveness, know that while it is hypocritical to ask God to forgive you if you refuse to forgive someone else; it is absolutely acceptable, and appropriate, to acknowledge your struggles with unforgiveness, and ask the Lord for His strength to empower you to forgive someone. The difference lies in your want and willingness to forgive another.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have a Savior who is able to “empathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). But he didn’t end there, he continued that thought with the following verse: “Let us approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
We need the Lord’s grace to help us forgive others. Things that are impossible for us, are doable for God. That includes forgiveness. Through Him, we are able. For, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” (Romans 8:11).
This is an excerpt taken from Chapter 11 of: Grow in the Grace: Spiritual Growth Lessons from Peter’s Walk with Jesus
Forgiveness isn’t learning to cope with wrongs. Forgiveness allows people to overcome past hurts. The wounds are not forgotten, but they are healed and cease causing pain. Forgiveness brings release, restoration, and liberty.
But how can you forgive when the wounds are deep? When you’ve been treated cruelly or unjustly, and your hurt is intense, forgiveness seems impossible. How can that type of pain be overcome?
. . . Jesus told His disciples, they were to “forgive your brother from the heart.” Not only is this His expectation of how Christians are to forgive, it’s also the answer of how it is possible to forgive. Forgiveness comes from an overflow of a heart that is attune with the Lord. Perfect forgiveness is generated and granted by the Holy Spirit . . .
As believers, we have the Holy Spirit within us. There are depths of forgiveness that are only possible through God’s Spirit. Just as man can only survive a short time underwater because of lack of air, we need the breath of the living God to sustain us when we are suppressed under grave offences or violent attacks done against us.
In Christ, it is possible to truly forgive even horrific wickedness done against you. Actually, forgiveness doesn’t have to come about as an intentional act. If you allow the Spirit of Christ to fill you with His goodness, He forces out whatever is spiritually impure and fills your thoughts and emotions with the goodness and purity of Christ.
However, the choice is yours as to whether you allow the Spirit to accomplish His work in your life. Therefore, “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:15). Scripturally, the “heart” is speaking of a person’s innermost thoughts, motivations, beliefs, emotions, commitments, and secret desires.
If you allow the Lord His rightful reign over your heart, bitterness and pain will give way to love and compassion. If your heart is fully given to the Lord, what room is then left to nurse anger over wrongs committed against you? When the heart is filled with the things of God, hurt and anger dissipate as our impure, entrapping impulses are displaced with the purity of love and the serenity and release of forgiveness.