The Sermon On The Mount
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses. your heavenly Father will also forgive you But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
Matthew 6:14, 15
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (vv. 14, 15). These verses have received scant attention from most of those who have written on the Lord's prayer. This ought not to be, for they form a most important appendix to and round off the teaching of our Lord begun at verse 6. It is significant to observe that the fifth petition in the family prayer is the only one singled out by Christ for specific comment-probably because the duty enforced in it is the most painful of all to flesh and blood. But however distasteful the contents of these verses may be to our sinful hearts, that is no reason why they should be virtually shelved by most of the commentators.
Timely indeed are the brief remarks of Matthew Henry thereon: "If we pray in anger, we have reason to fear that God will answer us in anger. What reason is it that God should forgive us the talents [huge sums] we are indebted to Him, if we forgive not our brethren the pence they are indebted to us? Christ came into the world as the great Peacemaker not only to reconcile us to God, but to one another; and in this we must comply with Him. It is a great assumption and of dangerous consequences for anyone to make a light matter of that which Christ lays great stress upon. Men's passions must not frustrate God's Word." Far too weighty and momentous are these solemn and searching declarations of the Lord Jesus to be summarily dismissed with only a brief and light notice of them.
It was the comparative failure of Christian expositors in the past to adequately explain and enforce the teaching of Christ in the verses now before us which made it so much easier for modern errorists to foist their evil perversions on the uninstructed and unwary. For example, take the following footnote from the Scofield Reference Bible: "This is legal ground. Compare Ephesians 4:32, which is grace. Under the Law forgiveness was conditioned upon a like spirit because we have been forgiven." This is a fair example of the vicious method followed by "Dispensationalists" who (under the pretence of "rightly dividing the Word of Truth") delight in pitting the Old Testament against the New, and lowering the standard of Christianity, presenting a fictitious ''grace which does not '' reign through righteousness (Rom. 5:21). Let us briefly examine this statement of Scofield's, which has misled thousands.
By saying that because our receiving Divine forgiveness is dependent upon our forgiving those who wrong us is "legal ground," attempt is made to set aside the Lord's positive declaration. In the added statement-"Compare Ephesians 4:32, which is grace"-we are asked to believe that Matthew 6:14, 15, pertains not at all to this Christian era. This is made quite plain in what follows where this "renowned Bible teacher" opposes the one to the other. "Under the Law forgiveness was conditioned upon a like spirit in us, under grace we are forgiven for Christ's sake, and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven." Such a declaration betrays the mental confusion of its author. Under no dispensation has God bestowed mercy upon any who maintained a vindictive spirit, nor does He now: were He to do so, it would not be "grace," but a disgrace to His holiness. Throughout the whole of the Old Testament economy penitent souls were pardoned for Christ's sake, as truly as believers are today. There is no conflict between the Law and the Gospel: the one is the handmaid of the other.
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." What analogy is there between our forgiving of others and God's forgiving us? Let us begin with the negative side. First, it is not because our forgiving those who wrong us is in any sense or degree a meritorious act which deserves well at the hands of God. The meritorious ground on which God pardons our sins is the atonement of Christ, and that alone. Our best performances are imperfect, and in no way proportionate to the mercies we receive from God. What proportion is there between God's pardoning of us and our pardoning of others, either with respect to the parties interested in the action, the subject matter, the manner of performance or the issues of the action? God has laid a law upon us that we should forgive others, and compliance therewith is simply discharging our duty, and not something by which we bring the Lord into debt to us.
Second, it is not a rule so that our forgiving others should be a pattern of forgiving to God. "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven" does denote a conformity of the one to the other; but "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" is not a pattern or rule. We are to be imitators of God, but He does not imitate us in pardoning offenders-it would fare ill with us indeed if God were to forgive us no better than we forgive one another. God is matchless in all His work and all His ways. Let it be duly noted that when He declares, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8, 9), it is specifically said in connection with His "abundant pardon" (see v. 7).
Third, nor do these words "For if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you" signify a priority of order, as though our acts had the precedency of God's, or as if we could heartily forgive others before God had shown mercy to us. No, in all acts of love God is first: His mercy to us is the cause of our mercy to others. In the great parable on forgiveness (Matthew 18:23-35), which forms the best commentary on the verses now before us, God's forgiving us is the motive of our forgiving: "I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desirest Me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?" (vv. 32, 33). So again, "Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32)-in that manner, according to that example.
Turning now to the positive side. "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." Very searching indeed are these words, constituting a severe test of discipleship, a test which excludes from the ranks of God's children those professors who cherish a spirit of malignity and revenge, refusing to forgive those who injure them. Unless our pride be truly broken by a sense of sin, so that we are not only willing to forgive others, but also rejoice in those opportunities for exercising (in some small degree at least) that loving kindness which we ourselves stand in such sore need of from God, then we are not really penitent in heart and therefore cannot be pardoned ourselves. If our prayers are to be acceptable unto God we must "lift up holy hands, without wrath" (1 Tim. 2:8).
First, our forgiveness of others is a condition or necessary qualification if we are to receive the continued pardon of God. "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you": these two are definitely joined together and must not be sundered by us. Divine forgiveness always presupposes our repentance: it is not bestowed on that account, yet it is inseparably connected with it. Unless we forgive those who injure us we are in no moral condition ourselves to receive the mercy of God. We have no scriptural warrant whatever to expect the Divine pardon while we refuse to pardon those who have trespassed against us. It is quite wrong to limit this by saying that we cannot expect the comfort of God's pardon: so long as we indulge implacable resentment it is presumptuous for us to hope for Divine mercy.
Second, as intimated above, our forgiveness of others is a mark or sign that we ourselves have been pardoned by God. "Hateful and hating one another" (Titus 3:3) was our condition by nature; but if by grace we have drunk of the blessed spirit of the Redeemer then shall we like Him (Luke 23) pray for our enemies. Said the beloved apostle, "Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering" (1 Tim. 1:16). Where the grace of God has wrought a miracle in the human heart graciousness is the inevitable effect. Reconciliation with God is made manifest by a conciliatory spirit to our fellows. If God has softened our hearts, how can we be hard and mercilessly exacting toward others? "There is none so tender to others as they which have received mercy themselves: that know how gently God hath dealt with them" (Thomas Manton).
Third, the joining together of our forgiving of others with God's forgiving of us is in order to show this is a duty incumbent upon those who are pardoned. God has laid this necessity upon us. Every time we beg His pardon we are to remind ourselves most solemnly of this duty and bind ourselves to it in the sight of God. So that when we pray "Forgive us our debts," we are required to add, "as we forgive our debtors." It is a definite undertaking on our part, a formal promise which we make to God: His showing of mercy to us will incline us to show mercy unto others. In all earnest requests we are to bind ourselves to the corresponding duties. In asking for our daily bread we pledge ourselves to labour for it. In asking that we may not be led into temptation, we agree not to place a stumbling-block before others.
Fourth, it is an argument inspiring confidence in God's pardoning mercy. We who have still so much of the old leaven of revenge left in us find that the receiving of a spark of grace enkindles in our hearts a readiness to forgive those who injure us, what may we not expect from God! Clearly this is what is urged in "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone that is indebted to us" (Luke 11:4): if we who have so little grace find it possible to be magnanimous, how much more so shall the God of all grace exceed the creature in this! Christ employed the same kind of reasoning in His "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father, which is in heaven, give good things to them that ask Him?" (Matthew 7:11). Since fallen man is moved with affection toward his weak and needy offspring, certainly the Father of mercies will not be indifferent to our wants.
We must next inquire what is meant by our forgiving those who trespass against us. Before answering this question in detail it should be pointed out that we can only forgive those injuries which are directed against ourselves, for none but God can forgive those which are against Himself-He alone can remit that punishment which is due to the transgressor for the violation of His Law. It should also be premised that we are not required to forgive those injuries done to us which constitute a flagrant violation of the laws of the land, whereby the offender has committed a serious crime, for it belongs not to a private person to condone evil-doing or to obstruct the course of justice. Yet if we have recourse to human courts for the redress of wrongs, it must not be in a spirit of malice, but only for the glory of God and the public good.
What is meant by our forgiving others? First, forbearing ourselves and withholding revenge. "Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me: I will render to the man according to his work" (Prov. 24:29). Corrupt nature thirsts for retaliation, but grace must suppress it. If someone has slandered us, that does not warrant us to slander him. "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city" (Prov. 16:32): we rule our spirit when we overcome our passions. "Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21), for this will shame the offender if his conscience be not utterly calloused. When David had Saul at a disadvantage and forbore any act of revenge against him, Saul acknowledged, "Thou art more righteous than I" (Sam. 24:17).
Second, Christians are required not only to forbear the avenging of themselves, but actually to pardon those who have wronged them. There must be the laying aside of all anger and hatred, and the exercise of love toward my neighbour, remembering that by nature I am no better than the offender (Gal. 6:1). If we have genuinely pardoned the one who has injured us, we shall earnestly desire that God will pardon him too, as Stephen prayed for his enemies, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:60). This forgiveness must be sincere and from the heart. When Joseph's brethren submitted themselves to him, he not only remitted their offences, but "comforted them and spake kindly unto them" (Gen. 50:21).
Third, we must be ready to perform all the offices of love unto those who have wronged us; if the offending one be not a brother in Christ, yet is he still our fellow creature. Nor must we so magnify his faults as to be blind to his compensating virtues. We are required to do good unto those that hate us (Luke 6:27) and to pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Though Miriam had wronged Moses, yet he prayed to the Lord for her forgiveness and healing (Num. 12:13). And surely it is fitting that we who need mercy ourselves should show mercy unto others. It is a general rule that we should do as we would be done unto. How we need to pray for more grace if we are to be gracious unto others!
But are we required to forgive offenders absolutely and unconditionally, whether they express contrition or no? Certainly not. A holy God does not require us to condone evil-doing and countenance sin. The teaching of our Lord on this point is crystal clear: first we are bidden to seek out the offender, privately and meekly, and expostulate with him, endeavoring to make him see that he has displeased the Lord and wronged his own soul more than he has us (Matthew 5:23, 24; 18:15). Second, "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him" (Luke 17:3, 4). But suppose the offender evidences no sign of repentance? Even then, we must not harbor any malice or any revenge, yet we are not to act as freely and familiarly as before. Third, we are to pray for him.
"But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Unspeakably solemn is this, and each of us needs diligently to search his heart in the light of it. Let us bear in mind that other declaration of Christ's, "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:2). God's government is a reality, and He sees to it that whatsoever we sow that we do also reap. The same truth, in principle, is enunciated in "Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard" (Prov. 21:13). Many an earnest prayer is offered which never reaches the ear of God. Why is it that such a verse as, "For He shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy" (Jam. 2:13), has no place in the preaching of our day? How much that is distasteful to flesh and blood is withheld by men-pleasers! Such will never receive the Master's "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
It will be seen, then, that the passage we have been considering presents a very real test of discipleship. On the one hand it shows that if we are merciful to others we shall ourselves "obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7). On the other hand it teaches that if we retain malice and hatred against those who injure us, then is the hypocrisy of our Christian profession plainly exposed. How necessary it is that we diligently examine our hearts and test ourselves at this point. As a guide therein, ponder before God the following queries. Do I secretly rejoice when I hear of any calamity befalling one who has wronged me? If so, I certainly have not forgiven him. Do I retain in my memory the wrongs suffered and upbraid the transgressor with it? Or, assuming he has repented, am I willing and anxious to do whatever I can to help him and promote his interests?
It is abundantly clear from all that has been before us that God's pardon of our sins and the reformation of our lives go together: the one can only be known by the other. The more our hearts and lives are regulated by a Christlike spirit, the clearer our evidence that we are new creatures in Him. It is utterly vain for me to believe that I have received the Divine pardon if I refuse to forgive those who injure me. True, it is often difficult to forget the wrongs we have forgiven, and the injuries we have received may still rankle with us. The flesh is yet in us and indwelling sin mars all the actings of grace Yet if we honestly strive to banish ill will and seek to cherish a meek disposition toward our enemies, we may comfort ourselves that God will be gracious unto us, for His love is infinitely superior to ours. If our hearts condemn us not, then do we have confidence toward Him.