This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Or Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
The past couple of studies have dealt with the subject of hypocrisy, with giving and with prayer. Now we study the verses that form one of the most familiar texts of the New Testament, yet also one where the real meanings seem to just pass people by.
I think it is that old and well-known effect of familiarity bringing contempt. While there may not be actual contempt of the scripture, yet I have seen contempt poured on those who live according to the true meanings that are here. Much as I would like to be brief and move through the Sermon quickly, there is just so much in these verses that I think it may take 2 or 3 studies to do them justice.
You know, I can see 5 studies that can be made from these verses. And that is just right now… All of you who are familiar with how it goes with the scriptures also know that in a few months or years there will be something new that jumps out at you – and a familiar scripture can suddenly speak to you in a new way.
Right now the subject that is shouting out the loudest at me is that of forgiveness.
I am 60 years old, and I have come to recognise that, the older people become, the more likely that there is someone in their life, or some event from the past in their life, that makes the thought of forgiveness very difficult indeed. The person may be a Christian and know the teaching of these verses, yet hardens their heart and just simply ignores it – because to deal with it would be either difficult or emotionally painful.
I would almost go as far as to say, who among us has never had a problem to forgive someone else? This is not something for that ‘difficult person’ that everyone knows about and sits quietly in the corner of the congregation. This is something for you and for me. And it is something that very directly affects the relationship between us as children of the Father, and the Father Himself.
Does it affect how He loves us? In no way! Our Father is a real Father, and His love is more true and stronger than that of any earthly Father. But He wishes that His kids will reflect the fact that they are His kids, and not reflect the fallen standard that is in the world.
In the world people do not forgive easily. They demand apology. They hold grudges. They alter the behaviour towards those who they consider have ‘done them wrong.’ They tell others about the ‘bad deeds’ of the person they do not forgive. Or even they say the completely hypocritical statement along the lines of, ‘I’ve forgiven him/her, but I will never let him/her into my house again.’ It may not be about opening your door to that person again, but any number of other things you will never do again. This is still unforgiveness and completely negates the opening statement of ‘I’ve forgiven him/her.’ It is a hypocrisy summed up in one sentence.
And here is the outcome of that sample sentence, from my understanding of the scripture in front of us: that as long as you will not open the door to this person, the Father will not open the door to you. Yes – it really is this serious!!
The Christian gospel is, in a nutshell, a good news story about forgiveness. While we were yet covered in the mud of sin, and wallowing in more of it (and it was pretty stinky mud too…) that was the time when Jesus died for us and made it possible for us to receive forgiveness, redemption and sanctification.
But did we become perfect on that wonderful day of salvation?
Pause and think about that for a moment. It is a more complicated answer than we would like… On the one hand, the answer is yes. Because when the Father looks upon His children, he sees them not clothed in the filthy and smelly rags of their own ‘righteousness’ but rather in the perfect righteousness of His Son. The work of redemption and sanctification, in this sense, is completed.
And yet… there are long passages by the apostle Paul in Romans, in 2 Corinthians, in Philippians, and elsewhere, where Paul talks at length about the sin that is still locked within the mortal bodies that we inhabit now – not yet being clothed with our new bodies that are perfect and holy and immortal. Paul even makes the very revealing statement: who will rid me of this body of sin? He was not asking someone to kill him, but was rather giving voice to his frustration that there was still sin in his life and that he, like us, is a ‘work in progress’ in the remaining part of this lifetime.
This body is inherited from the fallen species we were born into – fallen mankind. And this body is full of natural desires and emotions and automatic responses that are not in line with the heavenly standards. In addition to that there are the inherited responses and qualities of character, and there are the learned responses and emotional responses and ways of behaving.
For instance, if a son was often beaten by his earthly father, he will be more likely to be violent towards his own children. He will also be a potential wife-beater. This link has been acknowledged through much research for a long time, and both sociologists and psychologists speak about the need to break this chain of violence so that it does not continue onward for generations in the future.
And so it becomes clear to see that emotional responses, and behaviours either good or bad, can sometimes feel out of control. And when something happens in a relationship, there is an emotional reaction that hardens the heart and changes your behaviour to each other.
The number one principle of life for each and every Christian is nothing at all to do with how well we follow the commands of God, or how we display righteousness, or how often we pray or read the bible, or how much we attend church. No – the number one principle is love. There are even 3 commandments of love that Jesus teaches, two of which are actually quotations from the Old Testament, and the 3rd being the ‘new commandment.’ First, to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Second, to love your neighbour as yourself. Third, to love each other as He loved us.
I think the third is the most significant in this instance. If there was any unforgiveness in the heart of Jesus, he would not have let himself face that dreadful and torturous death on the cross for you and for me. Yet, despite even the worst sin that occurred in our lives, or that will occur in future, he laid down His life out of love for you and for me.
We are meant to identify with the death of the cross, there crucifying the old self with its sins, and so to become clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ. In this righteousness, there is no room for unforgiveness. And if we hold on to unforgiveness, we are not living as sons and daughters of the Father in heaven.
When looked on in this way, you can begin to see the great significance. To love one another as He has loved us. Well… He died for us! At our worst! So the next time you think of the person you never want to open the door to again, or to answer the phone to again, just think of how Jesus loved you. If He had the same attitude to you that you have to the person you are not forgiving, then the cross of Jesus is of no effect to you.
I am serious here! This is VERY serious stuff! It sounds like you place your own salvation in peril.
There is a school of thought in evangelical Christianity that once you can sign your name in agreement with a list of doctrines then you are saved and you will always remain saved. There will even be scriptural ‘proofs’ to explain how that certainty is true. Oh how I wish it was that simple… But the more I have experience of the Lord and of the scriptures themselves, the more I have to question this ‘once saved, always saved’ idea. It did not exist before the Protestant revolution, and it was not a part of that revolution either – because no Lutheran church would teach such a thing. This idea first appeared during the Victorian years, and well after the death of the famous Wesleys who also never preached such an idea.
I can think of quotes from both Paul and Peter, speaking of how the righteous enter heaven by the ‘skin of their teeth.’ And there are other scriptures that should shake you a bit. How about Jesus puking you out of His mouth? Not a pretty picture! And does anyone want to eat again something that came out of them in this way? OK, then check this early in Revelation… And then there is this scripture of today. It should make you uncomfortable!!! It should make you think that you do not want to lose the place of forgiveness before the Father. Because if He will not forgive you, do you really think the gates of heaven remain open to you? If you do think the gates will remain open, then it seems to be different to what Jesus is saying here.
I could also point you to the parable of the unforgiving servant – where the same message is said in an even more powerful way.
A fundamentalist evangelic Christian, wishing to hang on to the ‘once saved, always saved’ idea, suggested that if there truly is unforgiveness in your heart towards another person, it is evidence that you were never saved in the first place.
So… whichever way you take this doctrine, your place in eternity is directly affected by it!! I cannot overemphasise the depth of seriousness here.
At the same time I can’t accept any form of legalism either. It is not a matter of gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to be the one to attempt to break the ice by saying, with the help of a stiff brandy and gritted teeth and fear for your soul, that you are sorry for the past things… That is not the way forward either.
As with nearly all the studies in this series so far, the way forward is the way of the cross. Unforgiveness is just yet another sin to be pinned to the cross with Jesus as you identify with Him in His death. See this unforgiveness as the very thing that caused the nail to pierce His hand, or the sword to pierce His side. Feel the suffering that this sin of unforgiveness caused Him. And feel it die with Christ on the cross. Recognise that you are able, from that moment, to move forward clothed with the love and forgiving nature of the Lord. That you have become a child of the Father. That you belong to Him who, in the same way, laid down His life for the person you need to forgive. Feel the love that sent Him to the cross. And let this love do its work of breaking down the barriers of hardness in your heart.
Your ability to forgive is nearer than you think. It is already in your heart if you love Jesus and have felt the agony of His suffering for you.
I apologise if this study is longer than usual. But the subject is so very important, and something close to my heart.