“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
In our culture, we often hear about God’s “unconditional love” for humanity, but the notion of God’s unconditional love is frequently misunderstood. The Lord does love sinners unconditionally in that nothing in ourselves moves Him to love us. We do not meet a condition that makes us lovable; in fact, He loves us when we are most unlovable. That is Paul’s point in Romans 5:6–8: God loved us to such an extent that Christ died for us when we were set against Him in our sin and had nothing to commend us to Him. Still, God’s saving love is not wholly unconditional. It is conditional in one important respect: God cannot show love and mercy to sinners at the expense of His holy justice. Our Creator’s extension of His saving love that results in our redemption is conditioned on atonement. No atonement, no salvation (3:21–26; Heb. 9:1–10:18).
Forgiveness, similarly, is unconditional from one perspective and conditional from another. It is unconditional in that we do nothing to merit the Lord’s pardon. We cannot earn forgiveness by our good works or righteous deeds, for as sinners we cannot obey sufficiently enough to deserve God’s love. Moreover, we have incurred infinite wrath by sinning against an infinite being—God Himself—so only an infinite person—God the Son, who took on human flesh—can purchase our forgiveness. Because we cannot earn divine pardon, forgiveness is unconditional—receiving God’s forgiveness involves our recognizing that we have sinned, that we cannot merit absolution, and that we can appeal only to the Lord’s mercy (Luke 18:9–14).
Yet, that we must confess our sin and ask for mercy shows that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon our repentance. We must ask for forgiveness even though we do not earn our pardon by repenting. As Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Mark, “God does not forgive us unilaterally; He requires repentance.” We must recognize that we owe God everything and yet cannot pay. We must see that He owes us nothing but wrath, that our only hope is in His mercy. Those who approach the Lord in such a way, receiving His forgiveness, recognize that if God, the perfectly holy One, shows mercy to the unworthy, we who are imperfect and unholy must do the same. If we do not forgive those who ask for our forgiveness, we show that we have not really seen our own need of God’s forgiveness. And if we have not really seen our own need of God’s forgiveness, we have not truly asked the Lord to show us mercy.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
In a sermon on the parallel to today’s passage in Matthew 6, Augustine of Hippo warns us lest we forgive only with our mouths and not with our hearts. When others ask for our forgiveness, we must not hold a grudge even though we may say we have forgiven them. As always, God is most concerned with our hearts, and our forgiving hearts indicate that we have seen our sin and have truly cast ourselves on the Lord’s mercy.