“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6.12). Although we frequently utter this in prayer, most Christians forget an important aspect to it: God requires something from us or he will not forgive our sins. In the same way, Christians need not automatically forgive people who have wronged them, but can require something from the wrongdoer, or we are free to hold their sin against them.
Two verses after the line quoted above, Jesus elaborated on what we must do to merit pardon: “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6.14-15). The parable of the Unmerciful Servant predicts punishment for Christians who do not forgive, and warns: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18.35).
God’s price for His pardon is repeated in Luke 6.37, Ephesians 4.32 and Colossians 3.13: Christians must forgive people who sinned against them as a condition for being forgiven themselves. Mark 11.25 in the New Revised Standard Version is the same, while some ancient Bibles contained a verse 26: “if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
Another of God’s conditions is that we repent, as in the case of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8.22: “Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” The Apostle Paul commended Christians who punished a wayward believer so that he would repent and be forgiven (2 Corinthians 2.6-7). As we shall see, an injured Christian may insist on repentance as a condition for pardoning someone who sinned against him/her.
This is not merely one interpretation of the Bible among many, but was the meaning shared by saints who knew the apostles personally and ministered with them. Around A.D. 110, Polycarp, whom Revelation 2.8 calls “the angel of the church in Smyrna,” wrote to Christians in the town of Philippi: “forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy” (2.3). The identical thought was expressed in the First Epistle of Clement 13.2, a letter from the church in the City of Rome to sinning Christians in Corinth. It dates from the second half of the first century, when some apostles were still alive, and may have been composed by the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4.3. More dramatically, it urges: “let us fall down before the Lord, and beseech Him with tears, that He would mercifully be reconciled to us” (1 Clement 48.1). This epistle was so highly esteemed and authoritative in the early centuries that it was included in some versions of the New Testament.
Another epistle found in some early Bibles is that ascribed to Paul’s co-worker Barnabas, although it did not appear in its present wording until sometime between A.D. 70 and 132. If its author(s) did not live in apostolic times, he/they overlapped with the lifetime of Polycarp and perhaps Clement. This epistle pressed the need for repentance: “by thy hands thou shalt labour for the redemption of thy sins” (Epistle of Barnabas 19.10).
Christian writings from the time of Jesus, and for a hundred years thereafter, thus exhibit a harmony among their authors that God’s pardon is not without conditions, but requires that we at least repent and forgive others, or we ourselves will remain unforgiven.
Must a wronged Christian forgive unconditionally and automatically, or can we insist on an apology or other amends from a wrongdoer? Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant is often misquoted, in isolation, to support this proposition: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18.21-22).
In keeping with looking at the whole of Christian literature in its first century, instead of at isolated verses out of context, we should consult the parallel passage in Luke: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17.3-4). Note that this fuller exposition involves repentance and a specific request for pardon for wrongdoers against human beings as well as God, or at least gives the right to withhold forgiveness without them. We should also consider the Gospel of the Nazaraeans, an alleged record of Christ’s teachings preserved among Christians who remained closer to Christianity’s Jewish roots than the main body of the church. It comes from early in the second century: “Jesus said: ‘If thy brother has sinned with a word and has made thee reparation, receive him seven times in a day.’ Simon his disciple said to him: ‘Seven times in a day?’ The Lord answered and said to him: ‘Yea, I say unto thee, until seventy times seven times.’” Note the requirement of repairing the wrong and specifically asking for forgiveness.
Even the all-loving and all-merciful Almighty stipulates conditions that must be fulfilled before He forgives. The Apostle Paul often acknowledged that, by nature, Christians and other humans are more cold-hearted than God. Can God demand that we be more tender-hearted than he Himself?
DAVID W. T. BRATTSTON is a retired lawyer residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, whose articles on early and contemporary Christianity have been published by a wide variety of denominations in the English-speaking world.