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The Issue of Forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount

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I cannot help but express how close I so often feel to the Lord as I read the Sermon on the Mount. I think in many ways this Sermon of His most closely approximates the essence of His heart. In reality He is talking in one way or another about the themes that seemed to occupy most of His thinking during His ministry: loving God honestly and people deeply. Jesus talks about love in a way that makes me long for a taste of the kind of love He so freely offers to me and requires of me.

But, it cannot go without saying that while I have been extremely enriched by reading the Sermon and experiencing the ministry of the Holy Spirit as He marries the truths therein to my conscience and heart, there are nonetheless certain portions of the Sermon (if not in reality the whole thing) that have troubled me. There are certain statements that have caused me to think again about what Jesus is saying in order that I might comprehend it better. There are times when I just wish he had read Paul a little closer (if I may be so bold). His teaching regarding forgiveness, in chapter 6, verses 12, 14 and 15 have been difficult for me to understand. For this reason I chose this topic to research.

Statement of the Problem

If one were to walk into any Bible believing church in Dallas, or anywhere else for that matter, and stop the average Christian (making sure you were indeed talking with a Christian) and ask him/her how a person is forgiven by God they would probably say something like this: "In order to be forgiven by God, all one needs to do is to believe on Christ." And if you were to ask them another question, namely, "Is my forgiveness in Christ conditional or unconditional?" that is, "Is it based on my doing anything good or worthy?" they would probably say, "No! God forgives us when we simply trust in Christ." If you were to press them further and ask them one more question (providing they were still listening to you): "Does God condition my forgiveness before Him on how well I forgive others once I am saved?" And, "Will God send me to Hell if I die having not forgiven someone?" To this they would probably say "No" as well.

In the past when I read Paul I got the distinct impression that nothing could separate me from God and His love (Romans 8:38, 39) since I had indeed trusted in Him (5:1). The problem then with Jesus' words in Matthew 6:12, 14 and 15 is that they seem to imply that God does not forgive me unconditionally, but that He forgives according to the degree to which I forgive others (v.12) and indeed, if for whatever reason I cannot forgive another, He will in no way forgive me (14, 15). To put it another way: what Paul was so confidently telling me that I had received (i.e. forgiveness) unconditionally by the grace of God, Jesus was now telling me that I needed to do something to keep. Let me put a couple of texts beside each other to illustrate.

Jesus: Conditional Forgiveness

Forgive us our debts, as (wJ")1 we also have forgive our debtors...For if (eajn) you forgive men when they sin against you , your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if (eajn) you do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins (Matt 6:12, 14, 15).2

Luke and Paul: Unconditional Forgiveness

All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name (Acts 10:43). For all have sinned...and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23, 24 Italics Mine).

These passages seem to be saying contradictory things. Jesus says that one must forgive if one wants forgiveness. Luke says that all one needs to do to receive forgiveness is just believe on Christ and Paul says one has forgiveness freely by faith in Christ Jesus (i.e. His substitutionary death; cf. vv. 21-26). The question then is, "Which is it?" Do I need to forgive others to be forgiven or am I forgiven irrespective of my relation to others?3

The Procedure in the Study

The study will proceed along the following lines. First, various solutions to the problem will be discussed in the light of their strengths and weaknesses. Then a solution to the problem will be offered, with an examination and explanation of pertinent lexical, grammatical, contextual and theological issues that bear upon the passage.

A Survey of Selected
Commentaries on Matthew 6:12,14,15


As many commentaries and articles that I have surveyed all seem to point in the direction of one basic answer to the problem of Matthew 6:12, 14,15. They all steer clear of saying that Jesus is here referring to the judicial state of forgiveness that God bestows upon a believing sinner at the time of conversion, but is referring here to forgiveness necessary for continued fellowship with God. In other words none of the commentators are prepared to say that God grants forensic justification, if you will, on the basis of how we treat other people, but simply through trusting Jesus. But, they would say that once in relationship to God, in order to continue that fellowship we must forgive men who sin against us. The following is a brief overview of several commentator's thoughts on the passage.

Survey of the Commentaries

John MacArthur in his commentary on Matthew states that what Jesus is talking about is the forgiveness of a Father. He says that, "Believers cannot know the parental forgiveness, which keeps fellowship with the Lord rich and blessings from the Lord profuse, apart from forgiving others in heart and word (italics mine)."4 Thus He sees Jesus' conditions applying to our sanctification not our justification. However, he does go on to say, commenting on verse 15 that, "The sin of an unforgiving heart and a bitter spirit (Heb. 12:15) forfeits blessing and invites judgment"5 but he does not explain the extent or nature of the judgment or how that really relates to God not forgiving the one so judged. In short he really doesn't explain what it means when Jesus says, ejavn. . . oujdeV oJ pateVr uJmw`n ajfhvsei taV paraptwvma uJmw`n (6:15). Perhaps Dr. MacArthur means that God's lack of forgiveness is the same thing as His not bestowing blessing. Although this may be true with regard to God's forgiveness, I am not so sure that is exactly what Jesus had in mind. Thus, for MacArthur these verses may indicate not only a loss of fellowship with God, but also his judgment in some way.

Louis A. Barbieri says the same thing as MacArthur, stating more clearly though that the forgiveness Jesus is talking about is not legal in nature, but for purposes of fellowship with God in an existing relationship.

Though God's forgiveness of sin is not based on one's forgiving others, a Christian's forgiveness is based on realizing that he has been forgiven (cf. Eph. 4:32). Personal fellowship is in view in these verses (not salvation from sin). One cannot walk in fellowship with God if he refuses to forgive others."6

Again one could say that Barbieri's comments fall short of a clear explanation of Jesus' words in verse 15. He too, like MacArthur, does not really answer the question of what Jesus means when He says that the Father will not forgive us our sins. No one would disagree that if I, as a believer in Christ, live in sin (i.e. I am unwilling to forgive someone for an offense committed against me) that I cannot have fellowship with a holy God. But the question still remains, in what way has God not forgiven me while I remain in this state.

Craig L. Blomberg in his commentary on Matthew goes, it appears, a step further in answering this question. He says,

Our plea for continued forgiveness as believers, requesting the restoration of fellowship with God following the alienation that sin produces, is predicated on our having forgiven those who have sinned against us. As v. 15 stresses, without this interpersonal reconciliation on the human level, neither can we be reconciled to God.7

From this statement it seems clear that to Blomberg Jesus is simply talking about fellowship with God and how to be reconciled when there is sin. So far he has gone no further to explain verse 15 than our other commentators. However, he does go on to say that "Jesus is not claiming God's unwillingness to forgive recalcitrant sinners, but disclosing their lack of capacity to receive such forgiveness."8 To this statement I must disagree, at least, in part. While it is true that "recalcitrant" sinners are not capable of receiving forgiveness (cf. Matt 23:37), it is precisely the thought of Jesus, in contrast to Blomberg's statement, that God is indeed unwilling and will not forgive such people. Jesus says very clearly, "your Father will not forgive your sins" (italics mine).

Davies and Allison say that the key to interpreting verses 14 and 15 has to do with the immediate context, namely the Lord's prayer.

What we thus have in Mt 6.14-15; 18.15-35; Mk 11.20-5; and Lk 17.3-6 is a connexion between prayer--omnipotent prayer in all but Mt 6.14-15--and the forgiveness of one's brother, and it is this--surely traditional--connexion which explains the placement of Mt 6.14-15. The right of the eschatological community to utter the Lord's prayer depends, as does the efficacy of the prayer, upon communal reconciliation (italics mine).9

From their statement it appears that the thrust of verse 15 and Jesus' comment that the Father will not forgive the unforgiving brother is that God will not answer his prayers. That is, God's unforgiving heart toward the sinner here, is demonstrated by the fact that when such a person comes to Him He refuses to listen to them (i.e. their prayers are in no way efficacious). This explanation seems to be the best thus far in our discussion, for a couple of reasons: 1) it relates the verses in question directly to the context of the Lord's prayer in an attempt to explain the kind of forgiveness God withholds from unforgiving people; 2) it begins, though quite inadequately, to describe the kind of thing God does to someone who refuses to forgive his brother--that is, He treats them like they treat their brother--He simply will not talk to them. The problem with this explanation though is that it does not go far enough, but more on this later.

Ulrich Luz takes us yet another step further in finding an answer to the question of what it means for God to withhold forgiveness from someone, as a just (and as we shall see merciful) response to their unforgiving spirit. Luz raises the issue in the light of Jesus' central ethic of love. He says,

In distinction from the logion vv. 7f., stressing the nearness of God, which points to the Lord's Prayer, the issue in this logion, which concludes the Lord's Prayer, is to safeguard the connection of prayer with action. . . The command to forgive corresponds in content to the center of his ethics, the love commandment.10

This statement helps us arrive at an underlying reality in Jesus' teaching, namely, that His modus operandi was love. This is no doubt going to be central in the formulation of an answer to the question raised by the verses, but Luz does not really press on to explain the connection between Christ's underlying ethic of love and God's refusal to forgive. All we can say is that he has surely alerted us to a central piece for putting the puzzle together. Let us look at one final commentary that differs slightly from the others.

Carson, in his commentary on the Sermon itself, asks some helpful questions:

Is Jesus giving us some tit-for-tat arrangement here? Do I forgive Johnny and then the Lord forgives me—indeed, so that the Lord will forgive me? But what then do the very explicit conditions of verses 14 and 15 mean?11

To these very direct questions he gives the following reply,

There is no forgiveness for the one who does not forgive. How could it be otherwise? His unforgiving spirit bears strong witness to the fact that He has never repented.12

Carson's answer requires some comment. First, he needs to clarify, in light of his second statement (i.e. His unforgiving spirit bears strong witness...) what kind of forgiveness he is talking about. It appears from his argument that he is referring to the judicial forgiveness a sinner receives at conversion, the kind of forgiveness we often associate with Paul in the book of Romans. The problem with this is that it is surely not the kind of forgiveness Jesus is speaking of. Jesus assumes that His listeners are saved and can therefore refer to God as their Father (v. 9), the One who specially takes care of them (v.11). Jesus already envisions them in relationship with their heavenly Father.

Second, it does not follow, as his answer seems to suggest, that an unforgiving heart in the present has never repented and known forgiveness from God at any time. If this were the case, there would be no need for such a warning to believers in the first place. That is, according to Carson, if you are a believer and by extension forgiven, you will never struggle with forgiving others. I don't think anyone is prepared to say that. It appears that Carson wants to make the issue of forgiveness as stated in Matthew 6:14, 15 a litmus test for salvation.


The commentaries surveyed communicated the following four ideas or answers to the question being studied: 1) God not forgiving an unforgiving person is akin to Him withholding blessing from him/her in the context of fellowship with Him; 2) God simply refuses to listen to the prayers of another who stubbornly refuses to forgive his brother; 3) God's unforgiving spirit relates to Jesus' ethic of love and 4) Jesus is saying that God will condemn the unforgiving person (i.e. to hell) as long as they are in this state because it demonstrates that they have never repented in the first place. There is some helpful information here with respect to formulating an answer to the question of God's conditional forgiveness. That is the subject of the final section.

A Possible Solution to and Interpretation of
the Problem of Forgiveness in Matthew 6:12,14, 15.


The purpose of this, the final section, is to: 1) relate the teachings of Jesus in Matthew to that of Paul and 2) to propose an interpretation, based upon God's dealings throughout history, to the question of what it means when Jesus says that God will not forgive an unforgiving person.

The Relation of Jesus to Paul

Let us return for a moment to our discussion with our unsuspecting friend/theologian at the Bible church. "Does God condition my forgiveness before Him on how well I forgive others once I am saved?" And, "Will God send me to Hell if I die having not forgiven someone?" To this they would probably say "No" as well. Having actually done this exercise myself (with my wife) I can tell you that one person's answer to the questions was, "How are you defining forgiveness in these questions?" And this is really the issue at stake with Paul and Jesus. Are they talking about the same kind of forgiveness or a forgiveness of a sort different one from the other. The way to answer that question is to consider the state of the audience to whom the forgiveness is addressed or denied.

In general Paul emphasizes forgiveness in a legal and final way that is once for all bestowed upon a believer at the time of his conversion (cf. Eph. 1:7; Col 1:14, 3:13). Jesus is not talking, however, to those who are needing initial, first time forgiveness for entry into relationship with God. As was discussed, these people were already clearly believers in Jesus' mind. These are people that possess the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10), who hunger and thirst after righteousness (6), who are called the sons of God (9), who are the salt of the earth (13) and the light of the world (14) and who have God as their personal Father in a relational way (cf. the "your Father" 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9 and in verses 14 and 15). From this it is clear that Carson's view is incorrect and that MacArthur's view, though incomplete, is right in so far as he and others have seen the forgiveness to relate not to salvation, but to a Father's discipline. This then is how Jesus' use of forgiveness is different from Paul's forensic use of the term elsewhere. Let us now move to a further explanation of what it means when it says, "your Father will not forgive your sins."

The Design of the Father in Withholding Forgiveness From His Child

The Sermon on the Mount is a penetrating discussion about relationships—between God and people of faith in God. God, through Christ our Savior, is teaching His own (for the most part) what it means to be in relationship with Him and with others. With this premise in mind, perhaps we need to look at God's dealings with His children throughout the Scripture as we formulate an answer to our question. Let us look at a few examples that demonstrate to some degree how God deals with errant children to see if that has any bearing on the words of Jesus. Let's take a very brief canonical look. Then, we will bring this to bear on Matthew 6:14, 15.

    The Story of Jacob

Jacob's name means "supplanter" or more loosely translated as "deceiver" and according to the texts in Genesis (and most commentators) he lived up to his name with a special note of accuracy. God responded in different ways to the patriarch that help us understand how our Father relates to us when we sin. Perhaps the single best example of how God dealt with him was to permit him to run into uncle Laban—a deceiver in his own right.13 In this situation Jacob comes face to face with his own kind of sin. Ouch! Jacob had, in the sovereignty of an incredible wise God, met his match. The apple does not far fall from the tree—let's look at Israel.

    The Nation Israel

The nation of Israel provides us with yet another example of what our Father does to correct his erring children. The Israelites were given to idolatry, despite the express prohibitions in the Torah (cf. Ex. 20:3) condemning it. When decided that the curses of Deuteronomy 28-30 had run their course he decided to give them exactly what they wanted: a land flowing with. . . idols—Babylon. It is as if God said, "If it's idols you really want, then have your fill. . . that should cure you." As God rightly spoke through Ezekiel, "I judged them according to their conduct and their actions" (36:19).

    The Nature of the Christian Life

Paul says explicitly in Galatians 6:7, 8 what our Old Testament examples anticipate. God will permit us to be ruined by our sin, if we so desire it. This is not referring to a loss of salvation, but certainly a loss of fellowship with God and perhaps eventually physical life. The point is this: He allows us to walk into our sin and experience as much of it as we really want.

    The Underlying Principle

The principle that is driving God's decisions in these various relationships (that He has sustained over time with those who are His own), is the principle of love. This must be true for God loves us at all times and love is the essence of the relationship he carries on with us. He moves into our lives to care for us deeply and permit us to experience Him firsthand—joy of joys! Therefore, it was the most loving thing to do, to allow Israel, His own people, to go into captivity where many of them perished. They were wandering from His intimacy and He sought to bring them back by means of therapeutic measures. Love may be defined as a steadfast commitment to always be and do what is right for the objects of that love—to faithfully do what is in their best interest. The term right may be understood to mean: whatever brings a person closer to God either now or is working toward that end. Well, how does this relate to the Sermon on the Mount?

A Solution

The underlying ethic in Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is love: love for our heavenly Father and love for people. As we have seen God, in His love for us, allows us to come face to face with our sin, to be confronted by it. This of course is to bring about deep repentance and restoration of the love between the parties involved.

While all the commentators surveyed were quite consistent in saying that an unforgiving Christian does lose fellowship with God, they did not explicitly say what God is attempting to do by not forgiving the person. In answering this question we must remember, as I have just stated, that God's modus operandi is love. Therefore His unwillingness to forgive (and despite what the commentators say, the text explicitly says that He will not forgive)14 the person is an act motivated by love and a deep seated commitment to move toward His sinning child and not away from him. Therefore, when Jesus says that the Father will not forgive, what He means is that God will allow the person to walk in their sin (that is, He will not overlook it and embrace the person), to the necessary extent; until they come face to face with it and see it for what it is. In other words, if the person is unwilling to forgive, let him deal with a God twice as stubborn when it comes to forgiving. God will not give in and the sinning brother will have to deal with an unforgiving Father, from whom he depends for the basic necessities of life (6:25-32). God's intention, as the unforgiving brother goes his way in unforgiveness, is to expose him, to bring about legitimate shame and repulsiveness toward the sin. It is a rare blend of justice and mercy. He did this for Jacob, for Israel and as Paul declares, for us also. The result will often be Spirit-inspired, genuine repentance and love.


The purpose of this study was to attempt to provide a clearer explanation of the conditional clauses in Matthew 6:14,15. Several commentaries were surveyed, providing some help in addressing the problem. However, when one considers the question in the larger picture of God's recorded dealings with His people throughout time, a better answer emerges.

It appears that what Jesus is really saying is that God, with a view toward loving the unforgiving child, refuses to forgive him in an attempt to get the child to come face to face with His sin of an unforgiving heart. The person who is unwilling to forgive will soon meet his Equal. The goal of this is to re-establish the broken relationships between God and the people involved.

1 Most commentators agree that the implicit condition expressed in verse 12, through the wJ", is brought out more clearly with the use of eajn in verses 14 and 15. See D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), 69.

2 The literary relation of this section in Matthew to Mark 11:25 really does not help the question at hand. Mark simply emphasizes the difficulty we have in forgiving people and the tremendous faith it requires. According to Mark we must forgive others in order (iJvna) for God to forgive us. This is basically the same as Matthew's positive affirmation in verse 14. Cf. D. A. Carson, "Matthew" in The Expositors Bible Commentary, v. 8, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984), 175. For an excellent treatment of the question of Matthew's placement of the verses (i.e. as opposed to Mark and with the idea of Markan priority) see W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, v.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Limited, 1988), 616, 17.

3 Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1960), 65. McArthur says that "Matt. 6:12 has always been difficult to subordinate to the standard Church theology."

4 John F. MacArthur, Jr. The New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 397.

5 Ibid, 397.

6 Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., "Matthew" in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, v. 2 (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1983), 32.

7 Craig L. Blomberg, "Matthew" in The New American Commentary, v.22 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992), 120.

8 Ibid., 121.

9 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, v.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Limited, 1988), 617. Cf. also, David Hill, "Matthew" in The New Century Bible Commentary, eds. Ronald Clements and Matthew Black (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972), 141: "The verses should be understood in the sense of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35); the community that prays with power must be a forgiving community." Cf. also Carson's Exposition of the Sermon where he deals with the relation of the forgiveness spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 6:14, 15 and that to which He refers in the parable of chapter 18.

10 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), 389.

11 D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), 69. For other similar interpretations see Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1953), 168: "Unless we forgive those who injure us we are in no moral condition ourselves to receive the mercy of God." Cf. also W. Clyde Tilley, The Surpassing Righteousness: Evangelism and Ethics in the Sermon on the Mount, (Greenville, SC: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1992), 133, 34.

12 Ibid, 69.

13 For the sake of space I will not even begin to repeat the story of Genesis 29ff.

14 The commentators confuse love and grace. Just because He is gracious does not mean He has to be willing to forgive an unforgiving person. This could be the most unloving thing to do, confirming the person in their sin, rather than releasing them from it.

Related Topics: Forgiveness

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