Unforgiving but Forgiven

Beth Hyduke

Matthew 18:21-35 is the parable of the unforgiving servant. He had been forgiven a great debt by the king, but refused to forgive the small debt owed him by another servant. In response, the king reinstated his debt and threw him in prison. Jesus concludes the parable, "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).

This teaching is not only found in the Matthew 18 parable of the unforgiving servant. Again and again, Jesus emphasizes this same point (using slightly different wording). In Matthew 5:7 Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy" which makes showing mercy to others a prerequisite of receiving mercy for ourselves. In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus says, "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." We see this concept again in James 2:13 which says, "There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you" (NLT). Addressing Christian believers in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul writes that categories of wrongdoers include "revilers will not inherit the kingdom of God..." A reviler is someone who bears an attitude of dissension, who badmouths other people, who is angry and abusive and spiteful and bitter towards others. So Paul is echoing what Jesus taught repeatedly — that being unmerciful, unloving, and unforgiving disqualifies a person from receiving God's mercy, love, and forgiveness.

In Matthew 7:16-19, Jesus says, "By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." But it's crucial here to take notice of the order He purposefully establishes. Bearing fruit doesn't cause you to be a good tree; being a good tree results in your ability to bear good fruit. This is important because if it were the other way around, salvation and damnation would both be conditional on what we do or fail to do. But instead Jesus says, "A good tree bears good fruit." In other words, our external actions stem from our internal character. So, if you bear good fruit, it is an indication that you are good tree while if you bear bad fruit it indicates that you are a bad tree because we yield externally what we are internally. We do what's in our nature to do.

Keeping that correlation in mind, we can apply it to our question about willingness and unwillingness to forgive others. If the forgiveness we ourselves have received through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is so non-existent or ineffectual in our hearts that in our day-to-day lives we stubbornly refuse to surrender our bitter hatred and personal grudges against others, this is bad fruit and bad fruit is indicative of a bad tree, which Jesus says receives the fire of His judgment.

If we are truly hard-hearted and unforgiving, it is an indication that we are unregenerate. But what if we're trying to forgive others but our efforts are feeble, pathetic, and seemingly less-than-successful? Does God condemn those who want to follow Christ's example of love and forgiveness but who struggle with doing so consistently and completely and perfectly? In other words, does God only save people who have a track record of perfect obedience? Thankfully, graciously, His answer is absolutely not. Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a doctor, only those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (Luke 5:31-32). David (1 Samuel 25), Jonah (Jonah 3 & 4), and Peter (Matthew 18:21-22) all struggled with forgiving, and you can add my name to that list too. This is because, while we remain in the flesh, believers remain imperfect beings. Even the good deeds we try to do on our best day are done imperfectly, and this includes our attempts at loving and forgiving and showing mercy and kindness to one another. When we put our faith in Jesus, He promises to cover our sins and imperfections with His own blood. But if we claim that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, accepting the outrageous debt-forgiveness He extends to us while coldly refusing to extend our forgiveness towards others who owe us a debt much smaller in comparison, then, like the unforgiving servant, we are deluding ourselves, and we need a wake-up call as to where our unforgiving, unloving hearts really lie in relation to the forgiving, loving God we say we follow.

Alexander MacLaren once wrote, "It is not the running that makes a man safe, it is the arms into which he runs." Salvation does not lie in our self-effort to improve our performance in forgiving or loving others. Salvation lies in Jesus (John 14:6) who is both willing and able to cover our sins and personal flaws and to remake us into brand new spiritual creatures capable of following His example of actively loving and compassionately forgiving those — like us — who don't deserve it.

Image Credit: Tama66; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Jesus-Christ  | Sin-Evil

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Published 1-31-17