Read: Matthew 6:12-14
When we confess our faith in the forgiveness of sins, we’re really claiming two things: that we need to be forgiven and that we need to be forgiving.
It’s hard to accept the idea of forgiveness. It goes against the grain of our nature, you might say. Maybe that’s why Christians have made it an article of our faith. “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we say in the last section of the Apostles’ Creed, “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.” I believe in the forgiveness of sins. We have to make that part of our creed just to remind ourselves again and again because it’s not easy to believe in the forgiveness of sins.
The Need for Forgiveness
In the first place, forgiveness is difficult to receive or accept, at least for most of us. Often we resent the very idea that we need to be forgiven. As human beings, we all have a natural reluctance to admit we are in the wrong, that we actually need forgiveness for something we have done. We find it much easier to see all the extenuating circumstances that made us do what we did, all the things that others don’t know about or just don’t understand. Our strongest instinct is to justify ourselves, or, if that proves too difficult, then to excuse ourselves. We may even be willing to acknowledge that we could have done better in such and such a situation. Or that we might have made a mistake there, or that we don’t feel good about what happened over here. But to say, “What I did was wrong. It was a sin. I’m sorry. Please forgive me”; well, that just seems too much for us to acknowledge. All too often those words stick in our throats.
The first thing I am saying when I confess my faith in the forgiveness of sins is that I believe that I need to be forgiven. Do you remember the parable of the Prodigal Son? He was the young man who took his inheritance, left his father’s house, went away to a far country and wasted it all. Then, as he sat there in misery and want, Jesus says that “he came to himself.” And he said, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (Luke 15:17, 19). “He came to himself.” That’s the kind of language we use when someone suddenly snaps out of a nightmarish delusion and begins to see reality again. And it’s just the kind of honesty and insight we need. We must “come to ourselves,” acknowledge our sinfulness, and apply to our heavenly Father for mercy and forgiveness.
But we may also have the opposite problem with forgiveness. Often, when confronted with repeated evidence of my own sinfulness, I am tempted almost to despair. I seem unable to break the same old patterns of bad behavior, I keep on committing the same old sins over and over, despite all my efforts to change. How can God forgive me when I go on stumbling and falling? Might there be a limit to God’s mercy? If I lose my temper, for example, 999 times, will the thousandth time be one too many for God to forgive? The answer is no. There is no limit to the gracious mercy of the Lord. I believe in the forgiveness of sins, all sins, no matter how many or how often I commit them. When I confess my faith in the forgiveness of sins, I am saying that no matter what I may have done, I believe I can be forgiven. I believe I am forgiven—for Jesus’ sake. Forgiveness flows to me from God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. It’s a benefit of Christ’s suffering and death for my sins, actions that are independent of my personal merit. I did nothing to earn God’s forgiveness in the first place, and as long as I am joined to Christ by faith I can do nothing to forfeit it.
But there is this one thing about forgiveness: we do have to ask for it. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his followers to pray for the forgiveness of their sins. The fifth petition of Jesus’ model prayer for his disciples goes like this: “Forgive us our debts [or trespasses], as we also have forgiven our debtors [those who trespass or offend us]” (Matt. 6:12). Here Jesus is telling us to ask for forgiveness every day.
Now think clearly about this. I don’t believe that means that we won’t be forgiven until we remember, name, and repent of every last sin we have committed, as if it were even possible to do that. Nor does it mean that God won’t forgive us unless we ask him to do so specifically. I believe that all my sins have been atoned for by Jesus on the cross, and that therefore they were forgiven before I even realized it, before I was even born! No, I think the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for forgiveness is not because this acting is a condition for being forgiven, let alone that it might earn the merit of forgiveness. Rather, I think he teaches us this because forgiveness is one of the dynamics of a personal relationship.
Forgiveness can only be realized and experienced “face to face,” so to speak. When I have said or done something that has hurt or offended my wife, it doesn’t destroy our relationship. We’re still married; we still love one another. But as long as I keep silent and act as though nothing is wrong, as though I hadn’t done anything, a barrier goes up between us. My sin hangs like a cloud, poisoning the atmosphere of our home. Our relationship is strained. It’s only when I swallow my sinful pride, humble myself, acknowledge my wrong-doing, name it, and then ask my wife to forgive me that the barrier will be removed. Then the cloud is lifted and the relationship restored to its fullness of joy and love. That’s how forgiveness works in any living relationship, and it’s no different in our relationship with God. If we need to be forgiven, we have to humble ourselves. We have to say what we’ve done, and ask the Lord to forgive us, in David’s wonderful words, “to restore to us the joy of our salvation” (Psalm 51:12).
The Need to Forgive
“Forgive us our debts,” that’s how we pray. And then Jesus adds this clincher, “as we forgive our debtors.” That’s the other big thing I am saying whenever I say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I’m confessing not only that I need to be forgiven, that I am forgiven in Christ, but also that I need to forgive others their sins against me just as God, in Christ, has forgiven me. Jesus connects our receiving forgiveness with our willingness and readiness to extend that same forgiveness to others. This is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that has a condition attached to it: “forgive us as we forgive others.” Hard as it can be sometimes to ask for forgiveness, that’s still a whole lot easier than to give it. And yet give it we must. “To be a Christian,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Jesus knew that you can never truly experience the mercy of God for yourself unless you are also willing to be merciful to others. An unforgiving heart can never itself be forgiven. Grace is a gift that has to be given in order to be received. If we ask God to forgive our sins, we must also offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. You can no more get forgiveness without giving it than you can breathe in without breathing out! So to confess our own need to be forgiven is at the same time to confess our equally great need to be forgiving.
We have to forgive as if our lives depended upon it, because our life does depend on it. Jesus added a small postscript to the Lord’s Prayer in which he brought this point out even more clearly:
For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15, nrsv)
He couldn’t have been plainer. Forgive, or you will not—perhaps I should say you cannot—be forgiven. I don’t think it’s a matter of our earning God’s forgiveness by performing the good work of forgiving others. It’s more a matter of our actions reflecting our experience. You see, if you don’t have the mercy to forgive sins, then it means you really haven’t experienced the mercy of sins forgiven. You can’t be one way toward God and another way toward people—crying out for mercy for yourself and ignoring the same cries that your neighbor directs to you. “Forgive us our sins” is a dangerous prayer to make. According to Jesus, we are not allowed to say that unless we also pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us“—pray it not only but mean it. If you aren’t willing, or able, to do that, then you had better not pray the Lord’s Prayer or repeat the Apostles’ Creed. And if you can’t do that, then you had better ask God to deal with your own heart.
Jesus said that those who have been forgiven much, love much (Luke 7:47). He also said that the measure with which we give will be the measure by which we will receive: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven”; he says in another place. “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:37-38). So if you feel you don’t really need any forgiveness yourself, I guess you don’t need to offer it to anyone else. But if, like me, you believe in the forgiveness of sins, and in your own personal need of much forgiveness, then be much forgiving, and you will receive a shower of mercy for yourself.