Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts,” but we often overlook the condition he attached to that petition—“as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). To drive the point home, he added, “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” (verses 14–15).
When we forgive others, we close the circle that began when God forgave us.
Is God’s forgiveness really conditional on our forgiveness? Yes—if words have any meaning. But look at the issue from another angle. Rather than viewing our forgiving others as the condition of God forgiving us, perhaps we should see God’s forgiveness as the motivation of us forgiving others. That seems to be the point of the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21–35).
The occasion of this parable is a question Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or, more familiarly, “seventy times seven”). Obviously, Jesus’ statement is hyperbole. He did not mean that we forgive a person seventy-seven times and then clobber him when he hurts us the seventh-eighth time. No, Jesus was trying to instill in us a bias for forgiveness.
The parable itself consists of interactions between three characters: a king and two servants—Servant A and Servant B. The king calls Servant A into his throne room and demands that he repay the 10,000 talents he owes him. (This is roughly equivalent to millions of dollars.) Servant A cannot repay the debt but begs for more time. Full of mercy, the king decides simply to forgive the loan.
Servant A then goes outside and accosts Servant B, who owes him some money. When Servant B begs for more time, Servant A refuses and throws him into debtor’s prison. The king hears about Servant A’s unmerciful behavior, calls him into his presence, and royally chews him out: “You wicked servant, I canceled all the debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Reflecting on this parable, Jesus concluded: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Because they know what it means to be forgiven, forgiven people should be quick to forgive others.
When they do so, they exhibit God’s merciful character. As F. F. Bruce writes: “The gospel is a message of forgiveness. It could not be otherwise, because it is the gospel of God, and God is a forgiving God…. It is to be expected, then, that those who receive the forgiveness that God holds out in the gospel…will display something of his character and show a forgiving attitude to others.”
So, seek God’s forgiveness, but send it along to others, too!