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Is God’s forgiveness conditional?

The reaction of many Christians will definitely be a firm “no”. How could I make such a claim? The Bible so clearly says that eternal life is a gift from God (Rom 6:23), and that if anyone confesses with his mouth and believes in his heart that Jesus is Lord, he will be saved (Rom 10:9). Of course, you could say that it is conditional on us in accepting His forgiveness by placing our trust in Jesus, who dies for our sins. That is correct I suppose, but the passage that really challenged me to think about this was from said by Jesus Himself.

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 6:14-15

Now the question we really want to ask is: If we do not forgive others, will we be forgiven by God? What if as a Christian who has received God’s grace through faith, I find it unable to forgive someone else? Will I still be justified, or condemned for my unforgiveness?

Now if we take a look at the context of this message, Jesus was speaking to a crowd on the mountainside, and these were people who presumably were going to be saved. How could we know this? Well, Jesus directly addresses them a couple of times, implying that they are already children of God.

“Blessed are you when people insult you… because of me”.
Jesus foretold that some of them were going to be persecuted for His sake.

“You are the salt of the Earth.. You are the light of the world”.
Again, Jesus refers to the people as representatives of God, or of the Kingdom of God.

Also, when Jesus taught them to pray, He addressed God as the Father, implying a relational role of God to His people. So we are quite sure that Jesus was talking to a people who were going to be saved. How is it then, that He could tell them that God’s forgiveness was dependent on their forgiveness of others? There is even a hint of this in verse 12:

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:12

Is God’s forgiveness of our debts dependent on how much we have forgiven those indebted to us?

As I reflected on this issue, the first thing that God revealed to me was that unforgiveness is not just any other normal sin. It works differently. If let’s say, I curse and swear at somebody in my anger, I would later on be convicted by the Spirit that I have sinned. Then, I would confess my sins and seek God’s forgiveness, which has already been extended to me by grace. However, if my heart is in unforgiveness to another person, I would not be able to go through the same process. Because my heart is bitter and unloving, I am still in the process of sinning, and will not be able to confess my unforgiveness, simply because I have not forgiven that person yet!

Now does this mean that God’s forgiveness is withheld from us because of our sin? Definitely not! I believe that God’s grace surpasses our sin, and even the sins we are committing and the sins we have yet to commit. Now it seems that the previous paragraph was written for nothing, but I want to emphasize that the basis of Christianity is grace, forgiveness, and acceptance. Therefore as a people who are greatly forgiven by God, we are transformed into His likeness, wanting to also extend our forgiveness to others. The Bible makes this very clear in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Therefore as Christians, we forgive others, or at least make an effort to decide to forgive others, because of the love that God first showed us in forgiveness. And God will give us grace to forgive even the people who are hardest to forgive.

And now we may ask, “What was Jesus talking about then?”

I have come to believe that Jesus was talking about the forgiveness of God as a decision to extend and withhold grace and blessings to us. What this means is that forgiveness is not justification. Justification comes from the fulfillment of the law, through the blood of Christ. Forgiveness in this passage however, talks about the relationship between God the Father, and us. As we have agreed earlier, Jesus was speaking to a group of people about to be saved, and He was most likely not talking about justification in the way the book of Romans put it. In fact, Jesus was talking about it in the context of prayer! After teaching the people about how to approach God the Father in prayer, as part of a relationship that we have received by grace, He warns us that not forgiving others will harm this relationship. It will affect out prayers.

When we choose not to forgive others, even after receiving God’s forgiveness, our relationship with God is strained. Have you ever tried going to church after a conflict or argument? It’s terrible, the bitterness in my heart blocks off the love that God is trying to fill me with. I believe that is good reason for what Jesus said earlier about conflict.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Matthew 5:23-24

While we are justified, unforgiveness strains our ability to receive the presence of God. God may make a  decision to withhold His blessing and favour from us in a form of unforgiveness, so that He can guide His children back into loving others. It is in a sense, like the concept of excommunication. This withholding is not a result of condemnation from the law, but an act of love to draw us back to Him; back into a relationship where we can call Him “Our Father in Heaven”.

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”

How beautiful is this relationship, that we may have a Father who have justified us by His grace, and poured out every spiritual blessing upon us! It is in Him that we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. It is no wonder that Christ calls us to remember his death and resurrection as often as we can. For when I look upon the cross, the grace and mercy extended to me through nothing I have done, how could I hold one thing against my brother or sister? As God first loved us, let us love one anther.

(Upon reflection, I must say that God may or may not withhold His presence from us when we are in sin. I believe that God knows the times and seasons for every individual, and He will do what He wants. But I know that whatever He does is good and loving towards us. The concept to grasp here is that sin strains the relationship between God and us.)

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