Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

SermonOnTheMountMatthew 6:12, 14-15, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The first petition asks God to provide our chief physical need, food. The second petition asks for our chief spiritual need, forgiveness of sin. As before, we can misread this request. Some think that “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” means that God will forgive us if and only if we forgive others. Those who hold this view also appeal to Matthew 6:14–15, where Jesus says, “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.” The best way to understand these verses is to take all three together.

First, the gospel itself forbids that we say God grants us mercy if and only if we grant mercy to others. That would make God’s mercy—and salvation itself—a reward for our prior act (our “work”) of showing mercy to others. That cannot be right, since God’s mercy is never a reward for our good deeds. If we call forgiveness a reward, we contradict the gospel, which says that God’s mercy is a gift. Forgiveness is essential to our salvation, and the entire Bible teaches that we do nothing to merit our salvation. Indeed, if forgiveness from God turned on our forgiveness of others, we should despair, for even the most tender and understanding Christians occasionally find it hard to forgive.

Jesus’ point is that God forgives the penitent. That is, if we understand how precious it is to be forgiven, if we know how much it cost God to forgive, then we will forgive others. The forgiven have motives to forgive. We thank God for His gift, we admire the beauty of His way, and we hope to do the same for others.

John Stott says, “Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offenses of others, it proves we have minimized our own.”

Sadly, we even let trivial offenses bother us. If someone neglects to thank us for a favor done, or makes a mess we have to clean up, or takes credit for work we performed, we can become agitated. Yet we commit the very sins we resent in others (Rom. 2:1–3). We sin and excuse ourselves, then hold a grudge against someone else who does the same thing. But when we forgive someone else, it shows that we understand what it cost God to forgive us. It shows that we savor God’s mercy.

Jesus commands us to pray for forgiveness every day. This is proper, for we know that we sin every day. But repentance is not as easy as it sounds. When we sin, we can respond in several ways, and not all of them involve repentance:

  • We can excuse our sin, especially by blaming others. If we get angry, someone provoked us. If we fail, someone tempted us. We even blame God for our sins: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:13–14).
  • We can deny our sin. We redefine our actions, so they sound better. The impenitent never argue, they have animated discussions. They never shout, they make their points emphatically. They don’t steal, they borrow indefinitely without telling the owner. If anyone points out the error, that person is judgmental.
  • We can succumb to shame and run away. We can collapse in guilt and self-recrimination. We can give up because we decide that we are unable to change.
  • We can resolve to try harder. We can stir ourselves to redouble our efforts until we collapse in failure and shame again.
  • Or we can ask the Lord for mercy. Some wonder if God will forgive us when we commit the same sins over and over. He will. Remember, “Forgive us” is part of Jesus’ model prayer. We pray this way daily. If we can ask for bread daily, we can ask for forgiveness daily.

The question “Will God forgive again?” is sensible, but it underestimates the gospel. God’s grace is greater than our sin. The gospel goes to sinners, to the poor in spirit. We rest in God’s love, not our performance. The Lord is pleased when we obey, yet He loves and forgives, whether we obey or not.

Every believer must seek to manifest the forgiving spirit of Joseph (Genesis 50:19-21) and of Stephen (Acts 7:60) as often as needed (Luke 17:3-4). To receive pardon from the perfectly holy God and then to refuse to pardon others when we are sinful men is the epitome of abuse of mercy. And “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

There are petitions for the believer to ask from God, but there are also conditions for answers to be received. Even more, our prayers are to be primarily concerned with the exaltation of the name, Kingdom, and will of our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer is primarily worship which inspires thanks and personal purity.