I received the following question on my facebook from a friend: “Okay Bill... I need help and I would love to hear your thoughts. This last week’s Bible Study was about unforgiveness. The verse Matthew 6:14-15 came up. What did Jesus mean by, ‘If you refuse to forgive others, your father will not forgive your sins.’ In the commentaries we looked at, it said it's not an issue of salvation, but of fellowship. But I don't know what they are basing that on.”
I gave a brief answer and then told her to check my blog in a few days, because I hoped to dig a little deeper. So here are my expanded thoughts.
There are two words in the New Testament that are sometimes translated forgive and one word translated forgiveness. The words also have other meanings, but it is pretty easy to determine their meanings from the context.
The most common verb is aphiemi, which has the basic meanings of send away, release, let go or give up and is commonly used in one of these senses; it is even one of the words for divorce. It is often used in the sense of cancel or remit when applied to a debt. It is the word most commonly attributed to Jesus in the Gospels and I believe that it always has the sense of the remission of a debt owed by someone, even when it is translated forgive. This can be seen in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
”…there was brought to him (a certain king) one who owed him 10,000 talents (a fantastically high amount) … And the lord of that slave had compassion and released him and forgave (aphiemi) him the debt” (verses 24, 27).
The noun form of this word is aphesis, which means a release or cancellation of a debt or obligation.
We need this understanding in mind to really grasp what forgiveness is. We owe God and we have nothing to repay Him. When God forgives us, our debt is cancelled. When we forgive others, we cancel out the debt they have toward us.
The second Greek work is charizomai, which is related to the words charis, grace and charisma, gift. It usually has the meaning give freely, or give graciously or grant.
“…how will He not freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
When translated forgive it usually has this sense of freely granting to someone what he owes. This is Paul’s usual word, although Jesus uses it twice in the parable of forgiveness in Luke 7:42, 43. Interestingly He also uses aphiemi three times in the same context (verses 47 and 48).
Now back to the question: There are at least 4 passages where God's forgiveness of us appears to be conditioned on our forgiveness of others. All of these are spoken by Jesus: Matthew 6:12-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25, 26 (verse 26 is not in many of the early manuscripts); Luke 11:4.
John seems to say that forgiveness is based on confession: 1 John 1:9.
Yet elsewhere, forgiveness is simply based on faith: “And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Cheer up child’ your sins are forgiven!’” (Matthew 9:2 = Mark 2:5 = Luke 5:20).
Especially see the story in Luke 7:36-50. In Jesus’ dialog with Simon the Pharisee, He uses the above mentioned parable to make the point that the one who is forgiven more will love Him more. He contrasts His host Simon with the “sinful woman” who has been anointing His feet and concludes, “’For this reason I say to you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, because she loved much; but the one who has been forgiven little loves little’ (verse 47). Then He said to her ‘Your sins have been forgiven’” (verse 47). Note that He does not say that her forgiveness is due to her love, but that her love is due to her forgiveness. The last verse makes clear the basis of her forgiveness. “And He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you! Go in peace!’” (verse 50).
Paul tells the Colossians, “And when you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13).
He tells us that God’s forgiveness of us is the basis for our forgiving others, not vice-versa: “Become kind to each other, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Having said all this, I believe a few more thoughts need to be added.
First, refusal to forgive is sin. The New Testament is full of commands to forgive. We have no right to nurse a grudge. Jesus told us to forgive over and over again (Matthew 18:21, 22).
Also, a refusal to forgive may be an indication that we do not understand what our own forgiveness is. An unforgiving heart may be an unforgiven heart.
Forgiveness is not just sluffing off a wrong. It is recognizing that we have been wronged and that the one who wronged us is indebted to us, and then refusing to collect, but rather canceling that debt.
I see forgiveness as described in the Bible as having two stages. First, is what we could call an attitude or even a prayer of forgiveness. Jesus did this from the cross when He prayed for His killers: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Stephen did the same for his murderers following his Master’s example: “Lord do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
The second step is to verbally forgive those who have wronged us; to look them in the face and tell them we forgive them. We cannot do this if we haven’t gone through the first stage.
And then we are never to bring the matter up again. If the debt has been forgiven, it’s the same as if it’s been paid.
Also, see VENGEANCE, WHOSE PREROGATIVE?