Sunday, September 02, 2018

Conditional Forgiveness in Matthew

Can we be saved if we refuse to forgive someone? Rose says:

“No, we cannot. The Bible tells us that unless we forgive, including ourselves, we cannot be forgiven in the Kingdom of Heaven, through Our Heavenly Father.

Forgiving is not to condone someone who has wronged us, but for our own salvation, so that we may be forgiven, saved.”

Now, this is certainly a response we might expect to hear from a young Christian (the “including ourselves” is a bit of a giveaway; our alleged moral obligation to forgive ourselves is a relatively recent fiction), but it’s not really the sort of answer you’d expect to find in an evangelical Bible commentary.

The Pains of Hell

So it surprised me to come across this paragraph in The Benson Commentary’s section on Matthew 6:12-15:
“When we ask God, in prayer, to forgive our debts we beg that he would be mercifully pleased to remit the punishment of our sins, particularly the pains of hell; and that, laying aside his displeasure, he would graciously receive us into favour, and bless us with eternal life.”
It surprised me even more to learn that Joseph Benson was a Methodist. I had him pegged for ... well, you can probably guess that easily enough.

But really: forgiving others as a requirement for eternal salvation? Is that what the Lord Jesus was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount?

An Incredibly Common Mistake

A caveat: it may well turn out to be true that a persistent unwillingness to forgive another is a dead-accurate, 100% reliable indication of a spirit that has never truly repented and is bound for hell. I cannot say that. Only God can say that.

What is clear to me, however, is that this is NOT the meaning of the Lord’s words in Matthew 6: “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.”

One incredibly common mistake we make in reading the Bible is that we ask what something means to us before we stop to consider what it might have meant to the original readers and, in the case of things taught publicly, to those who heard them first. So what would the Lord’s Jewish audience have heard him say? How would they have understood it?

In the Ears of the Original Hearers

Well, they would have heard the words “your heavenly Father will also forgive you” not in the light of the later teaching of the epistles about salvation by faith in Christ alone, as we do, but rather in the context of the teaching of the Old Testament with which they were familiar, where the word “forgiveness” had a very specific scope and application that had nothing whatsoever to do with eternal judgment.

The Lord’s audience that day knew nothing of the distinctions we evangelicals make between “judicial forgiveness” and “parental forgiveness”. They simply knew that to be forgiven was not to get clobbered, and to be unforgiven was to be forever looking over your shoulder in case the promised consequences of sin spelled out so graphically in the Law of Moses were about to finally overtake you.

In the Old Testament, seeking forgiveness effectively means appealing to God to wipe out the earthly consequences of sin. The word is used dozens of times from Exodus on, but never once with respect to a final, post-life judgment of any sort.

In Case You Missed It the First Time ...

I’ll say it again: the sort of “forgiveness” people asked for and received in the Old Testament was NOT some general wiping of the slate with respect to eternity, but rather relief in this life from a specific judgment of God that they perceived themselves to be under.
  • Pharaoh begged Moses “forgive my sin”, which simply meant “Please get rid of these locusts!” He was not in the least concerned about the state of his soul when his country was being devoured.
  • Joshua warned the people of Israel, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” Here it is evident Joshua is speaking of “harm” and “consuming” in this life when forgiveness is not sought or obtained (they stand in contrast to “after having done you good”).
  • Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple is most explicit in this regard. He repeatedly asks God to “hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel”. In that prayer, “forgiveness” in every case involves bringing a richly deserved earthly judgment to an end. When Israel has been defeated by its enemies because of its sin, the request is to “bring them again to the land.” When the people are under the judgment of drought, “forgiveness” means rain. When under famine, pestilence, blight or mildew or locust or caterpillar, “forgiveness” means healthy crops and food on the table.
  • Even in the Psalms, when David pleads, “forgive all my sins,” the context makes it clear he is deeply emotionally troubled. In this case, forgiveness involves bringing him out of his distresses. Through confession, he is seeking emotional relief. And, as with most Psalms, David is putting the universal into words so that the spiritually inarticulate in Israel can express their own need for forgiveness and comfort to God.
If all that sounds a bit like I’m conflating filling a prescription with the moment the medication actually starts to take effect, bear in mind that for Israelites in the Old Testament there was effectively no real difference. Any putative “forgiveness” that didn’t make the pain stop wouldn’t be recognizable to the sufferer as forgiveness at all.

Attempting to Take It to the Next Level

I could go on ad infinitum with OT examples of forgiveness represented by an end to punishment or a return to former blessing, but hopefully these make the point. All references in the first 39 books of the Bible to “forgive”, “forgiven” and “forgiveness” are of this sort. They deal with specific earthly transgressions and specific earthly relief of the consequences that fall upon men as a result of committing them. “Forgiveness” in the OT is a matter for this life, not for eternity. When Moses tries to make it more than that, God refuses his request:
“ ‘But now, if you will forgive their sin — but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.’ But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.’ ”
Thus when we come to the New Testament, it is impossible that the Lord’s original audiences would have heard his statements the way some of us hear them today. The question of eternal salvation is not even on the table.

Your Heavenly Father Will Also Forgive You

The true child of God — anyone who has a Father in heaven by virtue of trusting the Lord Jesus for his or her salvation — can be certain of this: whether or not he or she is able to muster up good feelings toward a person who has done them wrong has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation or lack thereof.

Conditional forgiveness is indeed the teaching of Matthew 6, but what it means is this: that the Father still has some serious work to do in the heart of his child in order to bring him or her into conformity with his character, and however painful that may be for the child in this life, God is determined that each and every one of his children learn that lesson.

The people of Israel were taught their own need for forgiveness — in hope that they would learn from it the value of extending forgiveness to others — generation after generation, through the withdrawal of God’s blessings and through the rod of God’s loving discipline.

Since it seems we are all to be taught the same lesson, we might be wise to do it the easy way — by learning from their example.

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