Several years ago a pastor went on a trip to England, where a Catholic priest told him and his wife a story about Lady Spencer, the mother of Princess Diana (who had been killed in a tragic car accident on Labor Day weekend 1997). Lady Spencer had battled a lot of demons in her life, including alcoholism. A couple of years before Diana’s death, Lady Spencer came to know Christ as her Savior, and she really began to grow in the Lord. Her pastor asked her to occasionally participate in services, by reading the scripture and the prayer for the day. But one Sunday she noticed that the prayer for the day was focused on praying for the Royal Family. (Some of you may know that after Diana’s death there was a lot of animosity between Diana’s family and the Royal Family.) So this was a real test for her. But she did read it, and she prayed for those whom many would consider to be her enemies. As she prayed, she wept — and she knew she had forgiven them, which was a huge milestone in her life.
Forgiving others who have hurt us is always an important spiritual issue. Some people never get past it, and it ends up crippling their spiritual life. That’s why Jesus took time aside here in the Sermon on the Mount to address “The Importance of Forgiving Others.”
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
I. THE CONTEXT
Now let’s put these verses in their context. We have pointed out a couple of times over the past weeks that in the first half of Matthew 6, Jesus is addressing hypocrisy. He is commanding us as His followers to beware of hypocrisy in the way that we give, and pray, and fast. But prayer is SO important, as we saw, “the highest activity of the human soul” (MLJ) that Jesus stopped and gave us some principles of prayer, and then gave us His great outline of prayer in the Model Prayer of :9-13. But following that Model Prayer, He “digresses” in a sense yet again; because there is another issue that is SO important that He feels he must address it before He moves on — and that is the matter of forgiving others.
As many of us will remember, the 5th petition of the Model Prayer is “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” That is a powerful and convicting segment of prayer. As we saw last week, that means that at least every day, we are to spend some time confessing our sins to God. But Jesus said this 5th request was not ONLY to be a time where we confess our sins to the Lord, but in which we also make sure that WE have forgiven anyone who has sinned against US. Remember the request says: “And forgive us our debts AS WE ALSO HAVE FORGIVEN OUR DEBTORS.” So we are asking God in this prayer to forgive US, the same way that WE are forgiving others.
That is quite a statement, isn’t it?! If you run by it real fast without thinking about it, you may get by it ok, but if you really stop and look at it, that is a strong and convicting prayer: you’re praying, God, forgive ME, the same way that I am forgiving others. The truth is, you’d better be careful when you pray a prayer like that! Someone said that a lot of people have basically called down a curse on themselves by praying that prayer, because they are NOT forgiving other people!
One of my friends on Facebook a couple of weeks ago said something to the effect of: “I shouldn’t have prayed for God to give me patience — just before I began a home improvement project!” Sometimes you need to be careful what you pray for, right?!
And the same thing is true with THIS prayer. You’d better be careful when you pray this! You are asking God to forgive YOU, in the same way that you forgive other people. Now that can be great if you forgive other people the way you should. But if you don’t, then you’d better careful what you pray for — because you are asking God NOT to forgive you, if you don’t forgive others!
And just in case we didn’t get it when He said it in the Model Prayer of :9-13, after He had concluded the prayer, Jesus made sure to add :14-15 here: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” It’s like He’s reminding us here: “Be sure you heard what I just said in the Model Prayer.” Be sure you got that part of the prayer right. You are praying that I will forgive you the way that you forgive others. And just in case you didn’t get it the first time, I am going to repeat it and clarify it again: if you do NOT forgive others, then YOUR transgressions will not be forgiven.
THAT is the context of these verses. They come right after He has talked about forgiveness in the Model Prayer, emphasizing and clarifying what He had taught us to pray in the 5th petition there.
II. THE MEANING
So this is a very striking verse. In fact it is so striking that many of us think it can’t possibly mean what it LOOKS like it means. I remember hearing about someone who asked our former pastor, Bill Elliff, one time what he thought this verse “really” meant. Bill looked thoughtfully and said, “Well, I think it means this: that if you forgive others for their transgressions, then God will forgive you. But if you DON’T forgive others, then God will not forgive YOUR transgressions.” In other words, Bill was saying, it means just what it says!
Now, we need to remember that it means just what it says IN ITS CONTEXT: Jesus was just talking here about our praying for forgiveness of our DAILY SINS in our morning prayer time. He is not talking about the forgiveness that we receive in salvation.
I’m going to digress here for a minute, but this is important to clarify. See, in a sense there are two kinds of “forgiveness” we can experience from God:
— First, there is the overall, “once and forever” kind of forgiveness we receive when we are saved. There is a sense in which, the moment you are saved, you are forgiven for every sin, past, present, and future, that you ever commit. You are forgiven, saved, forever. That is once for all.
— Then there is the forgiveness we experience every day for our daily sins.
See, when we are saved, just as I said, it is once for all. But we do not stop sinning when we get saved — none of us will ever be perfect until we get to heaven — and so we still commit sins every day. If we are honest, we will all admit that we do.
Well these daily sins do not make us “lost” again. That’s a misunderstanding that a lot of people have. They think that when we are saved, that all our PAST sins are forgiven, but if we sin again we have to get saved again, or keep them confessed up or we will be lost.
Earlier this year I read a biography of Augustine of Hippo Regis, who lived about 300 years after Christ. He was a bishop in North Africa. In his day, people had gotten the idea that baptism washed away all your sins, but that you were responsible for whatever sins you committed after your baptism. So as a result, people would PUT OFF being baptized for as long as they could. Peter Brown, the author of the book, said that the Emperor, Constantine, who professed to be a Christian, put off being baptized until his death bed, so that all the sins of his life would be washed away in his baptism.
But of course this is wrong on so many levels:
— the first, of course, being that baptism doesn’t wash away our sins. It is faith in Jesus that does.
— But besides that, our salvation is NOT dependent upon our confessing every single sin we commit. This is a total misconception.
That’s why many people think that a person who commits suicide can’t go to heaven, because they couldn’t have confessed that sin. But that is a totally WRONG understanding of salvation. That makes our salvation dependent upon our confessing every sin that we ever commit — but how many people can really DO that? How many of us who DON’T commit suicide confess every sin? How many of us go to bed at night and have all kinds of sins we’ve committed that either we either didn’t realize we committed, or we didn’t confess? Listen: if our salvation depended upon us remembering every single sin we ever committed, and confessing it specifically to God, NONE of us would ever be saved! There is not ONE of us who can recall and confess every sin. And that would really be a “work”, wouldn’t it? — if you were good enough and faithful enough to remember every single sin, then you could be saved. It would be a “good work” if we COULD do it — but none of us could!
But thankfully that’s not how it works. When we are saved, we are washed by Jesus, and as I John 1:7 says: “The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from ALL SIN” — “ALL sin” — past, present, and future. Thank God that our salvation does not depend on us remembering every sin we ever committed, and specifically confessing it. When we have Jesus as our Savior, ALL our sins are forgiven, and we can KNOW that we are eternally saved — and we are not going to lose it.
Now: having said that (and that was a little bit of a digression, but I think we needed to clarify that) that does NOT mean that our daily sins don’t matter. They do. As I said last week, sin always puts a “cloud” between us and God, because God is a holy God. You can’t sin without it putting a distance between you and your fellowship with God. He is holy.
A lot of us saw the eclipse last Monday; but we took precautions against the rays of the Sun. My eyes are not the greatest anyway, so I didn’t want to look directly at it, even with protective lenses; I just didn’t want to take the chance. The sun is so strong. I saw where someone on Twitter wrote last Tuesday after the eclipse: “The Sun will burn your eyes out from 92 million miles, and you expect to casually stroll into the presence of its Creator.” That’s a great truth. God is a HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God, and sin cannot stand in His presence. Hebrews says “Our God is consuming fire.” So sin always puts a “cloud”, a “distance” between us and God. You don’t lose your SALVATION when you sin as a Christian, but you can lose your daily FELLOWSHIP with God when you sin. It distances you from Him.
And those daily sins are the sins that we are confessing every day in the Model Prayer. Jesus told us to confess our sins every day, NOT so that we would be saved again every day, but to clear out the “clouds” of sin that would separate us from our daily fellowship with God.
AND THE POINT IS: THOSE are the sins which in context here Jesus says He will not forgive if we don’t forgive others. Those daily sins that “put a cloud” between you and God, will NOT be taken way from you, unless you are willing to forgive others. This is just what Jesus said here: “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, then your Father will also forgive you (implied: for your daily transgressions against Him). But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive YOUR (daily) transgressions.” He is not speaking about the forgiveness of salvation, but about forgiveness of the daily sins we confess to Him, to keep our relationship with Him close. That is what these verses mean.
III. So here we see THE COST OF UNFORGIVENESS
So Jesus’ point here is, if you do not forgive people, then your daily sins will not be forgiven. There is a COST to not forgiving people, and unfortunately many of us experience those costs personally every day.
We all know that American Christianity is not all that it should be. Too many of our churches are plateaued, or dying. Too many of our members are just kind of “drifting” spiritually; with no power in the Holy Spirit; no prayers being answered. Why is that? I think there are several reasons:
— One is that many people who claim to be Christians are not Christians at all; they have filled out a card or whatever and joined a church, but they were never really saved; the Holy Spirit is not in their life — some of you may be in that very position today. Nothing is going to change for you until you genuinely repent of your sins and follow Jesus as your Savior.
— Another reason is that so many people who ARE really Christians are not taking the time to walk with God every day in prayer and His word like we talked about last week. Jesus said in John 15 that we must abide in Him, or we can do NOTHING. Many of us are living illustrations of how true that verse is: we are NOT abiding in Him, and as a result we are doing nothing in our spiritual lives, and we never will until we learn to walk with Him every day.
— But I think a third reason so many people, and so many churches are powerless and ineffective today has to do with the issue we are looking at today: the lack of forgiveness towards other people. If you do not forgive someone, then as Jesus said here your daily sins cannot be forgiven, and a “cloud” builds up between you and God, so you can’t see Him; you can’t hear from Him; you have no power; the Holy Spirit can’t use you. AND IT WILL STAY THAT WAY IN YOUR LIFE UNTIL YOU FORGIVE!
See, it costs YOU to not forgive someone. That’s not the way we usually think of it working. The devil tries to get us to think that we can “really get someone back” who hurt us, by not forgiving them. We think: “I’ll show them; I’ll be mean right back; I’ll keep them at arm’s length; I won’t forgive them” — and you think you’ll really get them back that way.
But the problem is; that is a LIE from the devil. It doesn’t work that way. When you don’t forgive someone, it doesn’t hurt THEM; it hurts YOU!
— Not forgiving hurts you mentally and emotionally. One counselor said THE #1 reason for emotional problems they see in their office is the lack of forgiveness. The bitterness of unforgiveness just wrecks you emotionally.
— Not forgiving someone can even hurt you physically — I have read physicians who said that a number of the physical illnesses of their patients are caused by bitterness and unforgiveness, that just ate away at their health. Not forgiving affects you physically.
— But most importantly, not forgiving hurts you spiritually. Jesus said: “If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions”, so it cuts you off from fellowship and power and answered prayers from God.
— THAT is why so many of us have no spiritual power
— THAT is why so many of us don’t have the answer to your prayers
— THAT is why so many of us don’t “feel close” to God.
AND YOU NEVER WILL — UNTIL YOU LEARN TO FORGIVE. You are not hurting that other person by not forgiving them; you are hurting yourself: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Emmet Fox, back in the 1930’s, wrote that hoping to hurt someone by hating them is like drinking a gulp of acid and saying: “This is for them!” It’s not going to hurt them; it is going hurt you. In fact, like acid, it can kill you: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — it won’t not destroy THEM; it will destroy YOU! If there is someone in your life today that you are not forgiving, it is costing you right now, more than you probably realize.
This is why we must forgive. We have all been hurt and disappointed by people; I have too. Someone has said that life experiences can make certain parts of scripture “come alive” to as we go through them, and that has happened to me. And sadly there are some parts of scripture I’ve wished HADN’T come alive for me: I was reading a Psalm a couple of months ago, which talked about how being betrayed by those with whom he had fellowship in the house of God — and I read in my notes where several years ago I had written that now I knew what this was like.
And I know it’s not just me. Most of us who have been in the church — or in business, or in a family, or who relate to people in any way — have had this happen to us. It happens to all of us. And when that happens, we’re tempted to be bitter against the people that did that; to hate them; to hold something against them, and not forgive. Still to this day, when I think of some of these people, I am still tempted to hang to bitterness. But I know I cannot. I cannot, not forgive these people. If I don’t, I will have no power with God; I will have no insights into His word; I will have no answers to prayer. And the only one I would be hurting by not forgiving them, would be ME. So when those thoughts come, I know I must forgive, and I give them back to God, and let it go. And don’t you see; you must do the same thing too. Don’t “drink the poison” of unforgiveness and think it’s going to hurt that other person. It’s not going to hurt them; it’s going to kill you.
IV. THE GOSPEL AND FORGIVENESS
But the greatest reason for forgiving others comes from the gospel: the fact that God has already forgiven YOU, and because of that, He asks you to forgive others. That’s the big motivation we see in the New Testament:
— Ephesians 4:32 commands us as Christians: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another — just as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
This is the big thing: if you are a Christian — which is the “big IF” — IF you really are genuinely a Christian; that means that God has freely and graciously forgiven you for everything you have ever done. And now He asks you, because of the grace and forgiveness He has shown you, to turn around and share that same forgiveness you have received, with those who have sinned against you.
See, when we hate someone and won’t forgive them, we are doing it because we want them to “pay” for what they did to us. But the real Christian person knows that we can’t talk about making people “pay” for their sins; because we didn’t pay for ours. If you are a Christian, it is because you have admitted you couldn’t pay for your sins, and you trusted Jesus to pay for them instead. You didn’t deserve it; but He was gracious to you, and forgave you anyway. And so because of the gospel, you know you must forgive others, in the same way that you have been forgiven.
And in fact one of the surest ways that people will know that you are a Christian, is by the way that you forgive. When Jesus hung on the cross He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When the deacon Stephen was stoned by the Jews in Acts 7, he said virtually the same thing: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” How could he pray that, about the very men who were stoning him to death? See, he didn’t want any sins held to THEIR account, because HE didn’t want any held to HIS either. He forgave them, because God had forgiven his. And everyone who saw and heard, knew that Stephen was just like Jesus, because he forgave, just like Jesus did. Stephen “got it” — he knew he had been forgiven by the grace of God in the gospel, so he was willing to forgive others in that same way.
You know, a lot of people claim to be Christians in America, but many of them have never really understood what real salvation is. But there are a number of things we see in people’s lives that show us that they really “got it.” Many of you know heard our son Michael sing here in church a couple of weeks ago, and you may have seen on Facebook that he got to sing it at the big talent show at North Greenville University last Monday night as well. After Michael sung here that Sunday, I posted on Facebook the video of him singing, and said something about him writing the lyrics. If you are familiar with Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”, the original lyrics Cohen wrote are kind of “spiritual”, but not really “Christian” per se. But Michael re-wrote them, with lyrics that talked about God’s creation, but how we fell into sin by tasting the devil’s sweet temptations, and how Jesus died on the cross to be the sinner’s “Hallelujah!” One of my friends in Louisiana read Michael’s lyrics on Facebook and wrote a note to me and said you can tell from those lyrics he wrote that Michael really “got it;” you can tell he understands what the gospel is all about. And I am very thankful for that.
But listen: I think one of the best ways you show that you really “get” the gospel of Jesus, is not by anything you write or say — but by the way you forgive others. When you are gracious, and forgive those who have hurt you deeply, just because you know that God has been gracious to you, and has forgiven you; it shows that you “get it.” It shows that you understand what salvation by grace, and what forgiveness is all about. But if, on the other hand, if you say “I can’t do that; I cannot forgive them” — then it shows that you probably never really “got it” yourself in the first place.
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