We know that forgiveness is at the heart of God’s gracious love. It’s the practical outworking of God’s plan to redeem and restore mankind.

“What? I thought forgiveness was a gift! God may not forgive me after all? God’s Word doesn’t teach that!”

But it’s there, in the Bible, a statement by Jesus Himself: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV)

We know that forgiveness is at the heart of God’s gracious love. It’s the practical outworking of God’s plan to redeem and restore mankind.

We catch a glimpse of God’s forgiving heart from the beginning. In Genesis 3:21, God sacrificed animals in place of Adam and Eve, then clothed Adam and Eve with the animal skins to “cover” the shame of their sin.

Yet forgiveness has become something we almost expect from God. We sin; we confess; God forgives. We sin; we confess; God forgives. We take for granted that the cycle will continue.

And perhaps it will. First John 1:9 expresses the principle: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

But here in Matthew 6, Jesus seems to suggest that forgiveness is conditional. Should this verse shake my faith? Or is there more to Jesus’ exhortation?

The key to understanding verses 14-15 is found in the context of the preceding paragraphs, with some insight into the audience Jesus was addressing. Walk through the passage with me this way:

The context, cultural and scriptural (vv. 5-8), addresses the problem of an unforgiving heart, a religious hypocrisy that does not comprehend God’s plan of salvation for all mankind.

The prayer (vv. 9-13) gives the godly answer to this faulty heart condition, this Pharisaical “me-first” spirituality; it sends the focus of life heavenward—toward God’s will, God’s provision, and God’s forgiving, loving heart.

The challenge, then (vv. 14-15), shows the right practical response from a thankful, forgiven heart: forgiveness toward others! People who miss this must have missed everything.

The religious leaders of the day were concerned with rituals and showmanship, not the love of God. The Greek term hypocrite refers to an “actor on the stage” who, in ancient custom, would hold up various masks to depict his character roles.

In like manner, the spiritual hypocrites of Jesus’ day “acted the part” when they prayed in public. They didn’t know God personally, and they had harsh, judgmental hearts toward those they were attempting to impress.

They misused God’s name; maintained an unforgiving, self-serving faith; left people in their sin; and, despite their showy spirituality, remained personally guilty before God. Jesus sought to unmask their pretense, asserting that only those with thankful, forgiving hearts can expect to be heard or forgiven by God.

Jesus presents a pattern for prayer that deals with the problem of spiritual hypocrisy and misusing (or bringing shame on) God’s name. On closer examination, the prayer reveals the nature of a forgiven, forgiving heart. I see the five parts of this prayer as describing precisely the characteristics of those truly forgiven by God:

  • They love God and bring honor to His name. The forgiven are overwhelmed by God’s love and power; they praise Him and declare His glory everywhere.
  • They yearn for God’s kingdom on earth. Self-centered desires are replaced by an overwhelming passion to see God’s plans and kingdom become a reality. Any among the forgiven would readily admit that “life is not about me.”
  • They accept God’s daily provision with gratitude. Thanksgiving overflows from a forgiven heart, in stark contrast to the inner bitterness and pretense of a selfserving hypocrite.
  • They forgive as God has forgiven them. Unless one realizes the hopeless plight of his slavery to sin, he will never appreciate the freedom that forgiveness brings. And unless one experiences the freedom of forgiveness, he will never be able to offer this freedom to others. Those who are honest about their own condition are not only more appreciative of what God has done, but they extend far more grace to others. In fact, they seek the ability to forgive others, in the same way and to the same extent that God has forgiven and freed them.
  • They resist the temptations of the evil one. The devil deceives us with empty promises, leading us into temptation, just as he led Adam and Eve. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Paul warns that Satan can easily outwit those who harbor unforgiveness, and he encourages the Corinthian church to extend grace to a brother in need. One of Satan’s most successful schemes is to tempt us with the power of judgment—inviting us to destroy our offender, the unity of our church, and ultimately our own lives.

Having given the solution to hypocrisy (the prayer), Jesus drives the truth home with a litmus test to reveal whether or not one is among the forgiven: If you do not forgive those who sin against you, you are a hypocrite.

You may have the rituals, customs, and prayers down pat, and everyone around you may think you have a great relationship with God—but in reality you aren’t close to Him at all. You haven’t accepted or understood God’s rich forgiveness.

You’ve fallen prey to Satan’s schemes, you misuse the name of God, and you remain in your sin—guilty. Yet the act goes on. The heavenly Father will not forgive your sins unless your heart is transformed by a real encounter with His grace.

Jesus calls us to embrace His love and accept responsibility for extending His gracious forgiveness to others. He wants us to apply the forgiveness we’ve received vertically (from God) to our horizontal relationships (with others). In so doing, we become partners with God in extending forgiveness to lost, sinful, rebellious people.

We show the world the reality of our faith by our shockingly gracious response to those who sin against us. The light of Christ shines ever so brightly as we obey the command of Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

For further study: Matthew 18:12-35; 23:1-36;Luke 7:36-50.