Does unforgiveness negate our justification before God?
Question: Pastor John, in Matthew 6:14, 15, Jesus said, "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."
Is it not the plain reading of the text to interpret these words to mean that our forgiveness from God depends on our forgiving others? If this is the case, is not our ultimate salvation contingent upon our works in some measure? Do these verses teach that a genuine Christian can lose his salvation because of the sin of unforgiveness?
Answer: Thank you for your question. It is a very important one.
We are all prone to read into the text concepts that are not stated by the text. The technical term for this is 'eisegesis.' In contrast, what we need to be engaged in is called "exegesis" which is the drawing out of the text what is actually in the text. A failure to do this results in much confusion.
Some have gone as far to say that there are definitely texts that teach what we would call Reformed or Calvinistic theology but that other verses teach Arminian doctrine and therefore the biblical position is somewhere in the middle between the two. The problem with this view is that we are then left with a Bible full of glaring contradictions. Contradiction is not the hallmark of truth but of falsehood. Though there are definite mysteries in the Bible, I do not believe there are any genuine contradictions.
Here's one example of what I am describing. I believe that the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:30 makes it clear that all truly justified Christians will endure to the end and be saved. The text reads, "those whom he justified he also glorified." The justified end up glorified (justification being God's declaration that a person is right with Himself; glorification being the final permanent state of salvation). In contradiction to this is the view that a passage such as the one you quote above means that justified people, if they then refuse to forgive, will be finally and permanently damned.
Which of these concepts is true? Both concepts cannot possibly be true because one is a total contradiction to the other.
Here as elsewhere, rather than choosing one concept over the other, the good student of God's word seeks to find a harmony between all that God has revealed. Because the Bible is not contradictory, the harmony is there, we just need to seek to find it. This often requires much prayer, thought and study, but the Lord has told us elsewhere to do exactly that. Paul instructed Timothy, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." (2 Tim 2:7 - see also 2 Tim 2:15).
A vital principle of interpretation is that on any given subject, we should find the passages that are clear and start our thinking there. Then after having ascertained what is clear, we should then move to passages which at first glance are seemingly unclear.
Using the example of Romans 8:30 (above) on the issue of a person declared justified before God, it is clear that he/she will end up glorified (those whom he justified he also glorified). Knowing this, we then take a closer look at the Matthew 6 passage and ask the question, "what does the text actually say?"
Does the text actually say that justified people will lose salvation or be unforgiven by God? No, it does not say that at all. It simply says that the one who does not forgive will be unforgiven.
Here's what we know. Justification is not by faith plus works. Justification is by faith alone, apart from works (Romans 4:4, 5; Eph 2:8,9). Justification is not by faith and then there is something like a probation period between being declared right before God and then the end of the lifetime, with the hope that no unforgiveness occurs which would forfeit salvation. To teach that would amount to a complete violation of the biblical gospel and would affirm salvation by works, after all. It would place the sinner in the very precarious position of being justified but on probation.
As Christians, we should believe all that Scripture teaches, including Jesus' words in Matthew 6. Jesus said what He meant and He meant what He said. Those who do not forgive will be unforgiven.
But let us ask this question, "who will forgive?"
When we ask that question, light begins to shine where there was darkness in our understanding. It is the recipients of mercy who will likewise extend mercy to others. Those who are unwilling to forgive, may well not be partakers of mercy themselves. In contrast, those who have received mercy will likewise be merciful.
Scripture is clear that works have no basis in our justification. Works (such as extending forgiveness and mercy to others) are the fruit not the root of our salvation. We are not saved by the fruit of salvation.
Nothing we do contributes to our justification before God. Forgiving our neighbor is one of the fruits of true faith. A refusal to forgive indicates that there is a definite hardening of heart taking place. Is someone in that condition therefore unsaved? Well it could mean that if a person has never first come to faith in Christ. However, if this person is a genuine Christian, it does mean that this sin of unforgiveness needs to be repented of and the attitude changed.
As in this case, when we ask the question, "who will repent of unforgiveness?" the clear answer is that God's elect will. Just as all the elect will at some point come to faith in Christ (John 6:37; Acts 13:48), all the elect will dispense with unforgiveness. And just as God uses means to achieve His ends with the proclamation of the gospel being the means by which the elect believe, so God will use the strong warning of Matthew 6 in the lives of God's people as a means to that end.
Who will heed the warning? Who will forgive?
Oh that's easy. The elect will.
That is not to say that the elect will always walk in love and forgiveness to others all the time. This side of heaven, all the elect are still fallen sinners with a fallen nature. The war between the flesh and the Spirit will rage on until the day we die. However, just as an elect person might hear the Gospel numerous times before he/she responds in faith to the Gospel (irresistibly drawn by the Holy Spirit), so eventually, the same Holy Spirit will so work in the heart of God’s children to cause them to forgive.
Think about this Scripture: “Therefore having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
The peace we have with God is the fruit of our being justified by God. This peace is no mere temporary ceasefire. The true child of God is not put on probation but is accepted in the Beloved, adopted into the family of God and sealed for the day of redemption. What mercy we have received!
Child of God, if you are struggling to forgive someone, think for a moment about how much you have been forgiven. Doing this will allow you to see that what someone else has done to you pales into insignificance compared with what you have done before God. Your sins were like scarlet, yet He has washed them white as snow. Think about that. Ponder that. Think of the great mercy He has shown you. Now hear the word of the Lord:
Eph 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.