In yesterday’s post I made a pretty bold statement: believing that God’s forgiveness is dependent upon our forgiving others is a lie spread by Christians.
Here’s what the Bible teaches that shows this is the case:
Judgment Is an Old Covenant Consequence For Not Forgiving
When Jesus taught that to be forgiven one must forgive, who was he talking to?
The Bible shows us God relating to people in two different ways at two different times. The first way is called the Old Covenant.
If the people of ancient Israel obeyed God’s commands, they received God’s blessing and favor. If they disobeyed God’s commands, they didn’t.
That’s really oversimplifying it, but basically that’s how it worked.
When God sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross, that event initiated a new way for God to relate to us. No longer is the status of our relationship with God based on commands we obey, but upon God’s grace and mercy. This new arrangement is called the New Covenant, and it is the way God relates to us now.
Most Christians don’t realize that Jesus lived under and taught from the perspective of the Old Covenant.
Those who listened to him lived under the Old Covenant as well. All the Israelites from the time of Moses until Jesus’ death and resurrection lived under the arrangement of the Old Covenant and had to obey God’s commands to receive his blessings.
Most people assume, because the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are found in the New Testament section of the Bible, that Jesus’ teachings contained in the gospels were taught from the perspective of the New Covenant.
That’s not the case.
When Jesus said that in order to be forgiven one must forgive others, that’s exactly what that teaching meant to the people who lived under the Old Covenant arrangement. Their relationship with God was based on their obedience to the law.
How did Jesus respond when the rich young ruler approached him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). “You know the commands,” he said (v. 19), reminding the young man which Old Covenant commands he needed to obey to go to heaven.
Jesus replied as any person living under the Old Covenant would have.
I believe that the situation was the same for those who first heard Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness. Their relationship with God depended upon obedience to the commands of the Old Covenant.
Our Relationship With God Is Based On Grace, Not Works
For years I squirmed whenever I read or heard Matthew 25:41-43,
Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
I used to think, I’d better get out there and start visiting prisoners or inviting hitchhikers to spend the night, or God won’t let me into heaven.
I was always consumed with fear, thinking that there might be something I wasn’t doing that would keep me out of heaven. Like many Christians, I didn’t fully understand how my relationship with God works under the New Covenant.
Ephesians 2:8, 9 spells it out:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.
We can be confident in the status of our relationship with God because God’s continual acceptance of us is not based on our obedience to the Old Covenant law but upon our response to God’s grace.
With this in mind, what we have to do is go back to passages like the one in Matthew 25 and reinterpret them from our perspective as people living within the New Covenant of grace.
Feeding the poor and caring for prisoners are incredibly important activities for Christians, but we do them now because of our love for God and his love for hurting people, not because we’re afraid God will send us to hell.
It’s the same way with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.
The reason we forgive people now, under the New Covenant, is because of our desire to please God and because forgiving those who hurt us is the best way to live, not because we’re afraid we’ll go to hell if we don’t.
Simply put, even though we’ll be miserable if we choose to live with an unforgiving heart rather than forgive, we can still confidently know that we’re going to heaven.
Because our standing with God is not altered by our obedience to certain commands, including the one about forgiveness.
If you get only one thing out of these two posts, I hope it’s this: authentic forgiveness never occurs when we feel coerced to forgive.
Unless you want it to happen and are willing to do the hard work to make it happen, forgiveness will never take place. Forgiveness takes time. It is a process.
Bad Theology In Practice
Years ago as a pastor fresh out of seminary, I sat down with a man who had been sexually abused as a child. We talked at length about how he felt like a prisoner trapped inside his memories and how much he wanted to find the strength to forgive.
Part way into our conversation, he said that he just wasn’t ready to forgive yet, so I opened my Bible, turned to the passage we’ve been discussing (Matthew 6:14-15), and read it to him as lovingly as I could. Then I recited the traditional interpretation of what those verses mean (“forgive or you won’t be forgiven”) and how that applied to his situation.
I’ll never forget his blank stare and what he said next: “I don’t know much about the Bible, but it’s pretty clear that the person who wrote that had no idea what it’s like to be raped by his grandfather.”
Then he walked out, and I never saw him again.
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