If You Do Not Forgive Others Their Trespasses and the Message of Grace

I was at church recently for a sermon on forgiveness and Matthew 6:15Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV)
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
was used as a warning for the consequences of not forgiving others of their sins against us. In essence, it was stated we could go to hell if we had unforgiveness in our hearts. This started an after-church discussion between myself and someone who was troubled by the statement.

The (valid) point of my friend was that the statement was casting a heavy burden on those in the congregation who might be struggling with unforgiveness. All of a sudden, in addition to their struggles, their very salvation was being called into question. I have to agree with my friend here - the wording of the pastor could have unnecessarily burdened some people, especially as he did stress the point on a few occasions during the preaching. My friend commented that he saw the heaviness of the crowd after the statements by the pastor.

My friend's points were these:

  • In Matthew, Jesus wasn't speaking to Christians. This was pre-salvation as Jesus' sacrifice hadn't occurred yet, and therefor what he was saying didn't apply to the new covenant. My friend even commented that he "felt like he had one foot in one covenant and one foot in another."
  • No where in the new covenant (all New Testament books aside from the gospels) do we find such a statement. The need for forgiveness is regularly spoken, but it is never followed up by the opposing if suggesting that hell is the consequence of unforgiveness in our own heart. For this case, I checked carefully, and I believe he is correct. You can not find such a statement regarding personal unforgiveness in the rest of the New Testament.
  • The reason the opposing if isn't found elsewhere in the New Testament is because if you are truly saved, then all your sins are forgiven - even the sin of holding onto unforgiveness against someone who has wronged you (or continuing to struggle with unforgiveness even if you desire to let it go). We all will have sins when we die, and Jesus' sacrifice will have covered them all. Another good point!

My friend and I hark from slightly different pedagogical views regarding the grace of the New Covenant. He is very much a "Grace" man. While I am fully satisfied by the teachings of absolute grace, I also believe there are some areas of scripture that are somewhat glossed over because, well, "grace covers all, and if we realize the grace we have, we will no longer be the type of person we were before we realized such grace." (the quotes is my feeble attempt to put the ideology of many Grace preachers into one sentence). It's not that I'm saying their beliefs are wrong. It's that I am not convinced they are wholly right. While the gospel is very simple, we can fall into the trap of treating it simplistically.

As example, the idea that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are not part of the new covenant comes from common grace teaching. Whether the intention is there or not, the idea is common with modern day grace followers. The old seems too easily "done away with" and since Jesus hadn't been sacrificed, the gospels are part of the "old." Whether it was intended or not, this concept came out in my friend's points. Since Jesus wasn't speaking to saved people, it was as if we didn't need to consider his words as true for the New Covenant. I pointed out that if they are not true in the new, then they either have to be true in the old or a lie, and since heaven wasn't simply granted by having a forgiving heart, then Jesus' words of Matthew 6 can't just apply to the old testament.

So then if they are not the one (New Covenant), and they are not the other (Old Covenant), what are they? I believe Jesus was the living body of the perfection of the old (He followed the law perfectly), lived out so that he could then unjustly take on our imperfections pointed out by the old (when he drank the cup) so that we could then receive the grace of the new. Jesus was the fulfillment of the one and the bringer of the other. And in light of that, his words work.

As my friend pointed out, if one is saved, forgiveness will simply "happen." Just as a tree doesn't struggle to grow fruit (the fruit just appears), so too will we not struggle to forgive others. It will be our nature, because it is the nature of Jesus in us. That does sound good, but even as Christians, we are still human, and many well meaning sincere hearted people will have and have had a different experience. Some people will struggle, and in this case of grace teaching, they will be downcast because they know in their heart they hold animosity towards someone who wronged them, despite their prayers and the teaching that says their fruit, like that of a tree, should just "appear" without struggle. These people are in danger of becoming disheartened, and walking away from a gospel that doesn't deliver on its promises.

Just because we never see a tree with clenched fists straining to push out that pear doesn't mean that the growing of fruit isn't a laborious process. It is actually a lot of work to convert sunlight and water/soil into fruit. It also takes a long time (sometimes years before the first fruit is seen), and is much more productive with the assistance of a vinedresser. (See my post The Vine and the Viendresser).  Yet, with this truth, Jesus' words work. If we are in him, forgiveness will be a fruit, and if it is not, then we are not in the vine, and that fruit will not appear. The difference is the process. No fruit tree, planted as a seed, bears fruit that instant. There are many Christians in the growing process who are still working towards maturity, with the Vinedresser - and given time, they will see their fruit. Let us be careful not to condemn them on the way. God knows where people are at in the process. My prayer for the sermon would be that people who think they are a Christian, yet have never truly accepted Christ, will realize they are not right, that they are fine with their unforgiveness, will repent, and will begin their journey from seedling to fruit bearing giant.

Just as the pastor didn't seem conscious of those in the process (this is my perception, not a statement), I also fear regarding those who simply want to dismiss large sections of the scripture because it is "old." The reality is, everything fits together, and everything has a purpose in our current lives. Jesus wasn't simply speaking words that would become irrelevant once the New Covenant was put into place. His words were often the bridge, and his words were often a demonstration of the expectation we should have regarding our lives. We should expect to be forgiving, and if we are not in the process of being such a person, we should not expect that we are right with God (even if we know we have unforgiveness, we should know it is not right and we should know if we are in the process of dealing with that). Jesus was given to say "You have heard..." in reference to an old testament law or Jewish belief. But he followed those with the expectations he wanted people to have - and then with his sacrifice, made possible for them to have. But even in these cases, both the traditionalist and those who follow the teachings of grace need to be aware of the process. No one new to Christianity suddenly can follow the law, nor can they immediately correctly follow the ways of the New Covenant, but if truly saved, they will be aware of their progression in the transition from the one to the other.

Paul was aware of this transition. As he aged, his revelation of his self went from being a "sinner" to "chief of all sinners." His revelation of God's grace through Christ covered every inch of his failures... but he was still aware of the failures. Modern day grace teaching sometimes seems to forget this, and people can become condemned as they don't see what they are taught being played out in their lives, or they become nonchalant about sin, because it's "covered." These two foibles have always been with us.

For the first, Romans 7:15-20 shows Paul's struggles with the process of Grace and the annoyance of being forced to remain in our flesh after salvation.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Grace teaching often preaches that we simply will not sin because we are in Christ and are no longer sinners. We will not sin because we will not want to sin, because we are aware of the grace bestowed upon is. This is not true, as Paul frustratingly points out in the verses quoted above. Well meaning people who hear the grace message may find that Paul's words are playing out in their lives rather than the words of the grace preacher, and not understanding how that could be, they become disheartened.

For the second, Paul addressed it in Romans 6.

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!

It is clear that sin did occur in the new testament church as recorded in scripture. Paul had to address the quarrels among God's followers. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul speaks of those who sin because they take their freedom for granted (in eating food sacrificed to idols) without considering their weaker brothers - and thus wound their conscious, and sin against Christ (see 1 Corinthians 8:121 Corinthians 8:11-13 (ESV)
And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
). These passages do not go well with the ideology that we won't sin because of grace, or that our fruit will simply be there because of Jesus in us.

For the preaching of Grace, I wholeheartedly agree - no matter what we do or how often we seem to really, really mess up, we are covered by his grace. It is grace that makes us free - not our works.

But we are still told to work. If we don't, we are still forgiven, but, we will be less than we could be in Christ.

For example, Romans 6:12-13 warns us about what we allow to become our habits. We are warned:

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

God's grace covers us either way, but we still must make a choice, and from Paul's words in Romans 7, we know that the choice isn't simply a matter of "we won't sin because of grace."

Colossians 3Colossians 3:1-6 (ESV)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
states that we are to "put to death" whatever belongs to our earthly nature. This is something we must choose to do. The scripture does not happily state, "Christ will put to death for you so that you don't have to worry about your earthly nature." Grace does indeed cover all, but each one of us must still "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (see Philippians 2:12-13Philippians 2:12-13 (ESV)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
). It is a joint effort between God's complete grace that fully redeems us in and of itself, regardless of our works, and our diligent efforts to give ourselves to the Grace of God and grow into the Christian we are supposed to be. We are indeed given free will, but it is still we who must choose, and we are given specific choices we are supposed to make.

So, in all, no, we will not go to hell simply because we have unforgiveness in our hearts. Jesus' words in Matthew are valid, because if we are truly saved, we will be on that path towards forgiveness, even if we don't realize it (but God does know the path He has us on, and He knows the order in which He will have us deal with our various sin habits). What we often forget, and often can't even see until it is over, is the process, and not being mindful of that process leads us to claim "truths" that others may not see in their lives, which can be discouraging to them - whether that be saying "they will go to hell for having unforgiveness" or saying "grace covers all and knowing Jesus' grace, you won't even sin anymore."

The Danger of Emptiness/Doing Nothing Have we Been Called to Maximize Our Strengths?