At the Living Church Institute’s December 13 Faith Talks in Dallas, New Testament scholar Wesley Hill examined the inner workings of confession and forgiveness. Why does the Anglican tradition include regular corporate confession? Are we sure everyone has sinned between confessions? And what did it mean for Jesus to ask for forgiveness in the prayer he taught us? The audience and a panel (featuring a layperson, a scholar, and a priest) discussed these and other aspects of forgiveness.
Hill’s presentation draws from his book on the Lord’s Prayer (forthcoming from Lexham Press). It focuses on one question: What does our forgiving others have to do with God’s forgiving us? Must we somehow win God’s forgiveness by extending grace to others?
By Wesley Hill
One of the troubling things about the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is the way it seems to make God’s forgiving us contingent on our forgiving others. That’s at least how many Christians have interpreted the relationship between the two halves of the petition. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” means, in many minds, “Forgive us our sins because we forgive those who sin against us.”
The Protestant Reformers, especially, worried about the kind of spirituality that this interpretation engenders. In their experience, people who came to God with their supposedly virtuous actions and tried to use them as bartering chips to get God to dispense mercy were often secretly living in terror of him. If you approach God asking for forgiveness and supplying your own efforts at forgiving others as the basis for why God should grant your request, chances are you are a deeply fearful believer, expecting God to turn his back on you if you do not have a worthy enough track record.
Martin Luther was fond (perhaps overly fond) of pointing out that if you think that your generosity toward others is somehow going to get you off the divine hook, then it is not really generosity, and you have not really understood how full and complete God’s mercy really is. Only actions that are motivated by unconstrained love, rather than self-preservation, can be truly generous, and God has no desire to hang you on any hooks. If your need to bolster your righteousness is your motivation for forgiving other people, then your forgiving is more about you than it is about reconciliation.
But is there another way to read the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer? Another Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, suggests that there is. In the lovely exposition of the Lord’s Prayer that he provides in the third book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin points out the problem we’ve been discussing. He was too gripped by the Pauline insight that God’s forgiveness is never conditioned by our actions to write otherwise. On the contrary, according to Paul, we are made capable of forgiving others through God’s having first forgiven us. The order is crucial. “[B]e kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,” says the letter to the Ephesians, “as God in Christ has [already] forgiven you” (4:32).
So we must look for another way to understand the Lord’s Prayer, and this is the one Calvin proposes:
[B]y this word [i.e., “as we forgive those who sin against us”] the Lord intended partly to comfort the weakness of our faith. For he has added this as a sign to assure us he has granted forgiveness of sins to us just as surely as we are aware of having forgiven others, provided our hearts have been emptied and purged of all hatred, envy, and vengeance.
In other words, Calvin says, Jesus is not offering a condition for our receiving God’s forgiveness so much as an illustration of what God’s disposition toward us is really like. Think about the times when you have extended forgiveness toward someone who hurt you. Remember the stirring in your gut when your spouse or your sibling brokenheartedly acknowledged being in the wrong, neglecting you, humiliating you, or stabbing you in the back. Recall the surge of compassion that you experienced when you said out loud, “I forgive you. I don’t hold this against you, and it is not going to keep me from loving you.” That, says Calvin, is what Jesus wants you to hold in your mind as you pray to God to forgive you because God’s forgiveness is that wonderful, only more so.
Response by Amber Noel
When Jesus says, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15), he is not stuttering. And when he tells the terrifying story of the servant forgiven much who then refuses to forgive little (Matt. 18:23-35), the seriousness of the message seems pretty clear: Unless we forgive “from [the] heart,” we do not receive forgiveness.
So what’s going on? The forgiveness of God takes the act of human forgiveness seriously enough — gives it dignity, efficacy, and agency — so that it can block or allow God’s forgiveness (see Matt. 18:18). It places no conditions upon the willingness of the giver, but upon the receiving. It may even be that forgiveness operates along a spectrum: however much I am willing, able, or desire to forgive another, God’s forgiveness is released to me. Forgiving and being forgiven are at heart revealed as part of the same internal gesture. If that is so, then being forgiven is not just receiving. It is a bottomless reciprocity, a fountain of healing, a participation in the eternal self-giving and receiving of the Blessed Trinity.
In one sense, then, the forgiveness of God is conditional. Does this mean grace is not free, or that God is withholding? Let us examine two senses of the word conditional. There is the sense that implies withholding, and there is the sense of “conditions which must be met.” If my landscaper plants a bed of valuable flowers but they only receive shade and never water or fertilizer, is the gardener, or are the flowers, intentionally withholding? Of course not. The blossoming is conditional, but not because I earn the flowers or because the earth is a miser. It is because certain vital conditions must be met. My receiving of the gifts of spring are conditional.
For the springtime of God’s forgiveness to thrive within me, I must forgive. Jesus cites a reality that simply exists, and we must obey. It is embedded in the fearful and wonderful gift of being creatures made in the image of God. As in other operations concerning humans, God in his sovereign and gift-giving nature deigns to function within the realm of this-then-that, so that, among other unmerited graces, there is also the ability to interact with God as spiritual adults, so that our actions might pose real conditions upon what God will or will not do, and we might fully, freely participate in his kingdom come.