God’s Forgiveness and Our Forgiveness
A passage that often evokes discussion between Christians and Mormons is Matthew 18:35: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” What Jesus is referring to with the “this” is the punishment the king exacted on his unforgiving servant. Many wonder if this passage says that God conditions his forgiveness on our being forgiving? That he doesn’t forgive us until we are forgiving? That is how it first sounds. And that is what Mormonism teaches.
But that is only how it sounds. That is not what God does. As is so often the case, so also here – the order things happen is terribly important. What is the order here? Does God forgive us and then we forgive others? Or is it that we forgive others and then God forgives us? The order in which you put these two things makes a huge difference.
The context of this passage clearly shows that the order is that God first forgives us. That then enables us to forgive others. This conversation started with Jesus speaking to Peter, who had already experienced God’s forgiveness. He already was a disciple. Peter had asked Jesus how forgiving should he be – see v. 21. Basically Jesus told him to have limitless forgiveness.
To illustrate that point Jesus continued by telling one of his most striking parables. In the parable the king unconditionally forgives the enormous debt of his servant. The servant hadn’t even asked for forgiveness – he just had asked for more time. But the king forgave him everything. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
It’s vitally important to see that the king’s forgiveness of the debt came first. The king didn’t wait to forgive him until the servant had demonstrated forgiveness. Neither did he make it conditional on the servant being forgiving. The servant’s desire or ability to forgive is not even in the picture. It’s only after the servant was forgiven and then showed an unforgiving spirit that the king became angry.
The point is that people who have tasted of God’s forgiveness are changed! One thing that changes is that they now have a forgiving heart. (It’s important to remember that because we still have a sinful nature, we won’t be able to forgive perfectly. But one sign of genuine faith is not being content with having an unforgiving spirit.) Our forgiving others doesn’t merit God’s forgiveness. It is a result, not a cause, of God forgiving us. It is an outward evidence of an inward change. Therefore when the outward evidence is lacking, it indicates that the inward change worked by faith hasn’t taken place.
God forgives us – without waiting to see if we will be forgiving. In fact, without first experiencing God’s forgiveness we don’t have the ability to be truly forgiving. It’s impossible. Therefore God forgives us just as the king forgave his servant. He forgives us completely and freely because Jesus has already paid our debt in full. That forgiveness then changes us – a fact that is seen in our being forgiving.
The true miracle of forgiveness is that God acts first. When we were still sinners, Christ died for us. When we were dead in our sins, God made us alive in Christ. When we are unforgiving of others, God forgave us. And in the process, a forgiving spirit was created in us – a forgiving spirit that marks us as his new creation.
To God be all the glory!