Monthly Archives: May 2018

Must We First Forgive to Be Forgiven?

Peter Ditzel

Picture of lighthouse on cliff overlaid with the Scripture, For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don't forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15
We commonly see pictures with Bible verses like this one posted on social media as a form of encouragement. But is it really encouraging to be told that God won’t forgive us unless we first do a work? Jesus did say these words, but did He intend them for believers?

As part of what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, and in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Again, in Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus taught, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” These passages have caused theologians some consternation. They seem to pin our receiving God’s forgiveness upon a human work—the work of our first forgiving others. Will God not forgive us unless we forgive others first?

Jesus’ statements on this subject are very straightforward. In Matthew 18, after telling the parable of the unforgiving servant—which ends with the master delivering the servant to the tormentors because the servant had been unforgiving—Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds” (Matthew 18:35). And Mark 11:25-26 plainly says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father, who is in heaven, may also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your transgressions.”

If we must first forgive others before God will forgive us, wouldn’t that mean that we initiate our own forgiveness? And, as we all know, God’s forgiving us is an essential aspect of our salvation. Therefore, if it is true that we must first forgive, then by our work of forgiving others, we have initiated a part of our salvation.

On the other hand, what about 2 Timothy 1:9? This verse speaks of God “who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal.” What could be plainer? God purposed our salvation “before times eternal” and saved us “not according to our works.”

Here’s another very plain verse: “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Many other Scriptures agree that it is God who acts first in our salvation, and that He did not base our salvation on our works. These verses make the idea that we must first forgive others before God will forgive us an impossibility, at least for Christians. Why, then, did Jesus teach the idea that people had to first forgive others before God would forgive them?

Before the Cross

The Bible does not contradict itself. These passages seem to contradict each other only when we leave out an important part of the equation. Jesus spoke the words in the Gospel before His death on the Cross for our sins and the beginning of the New Covenant. Like so many of His statements at that time, He intended them to teach the Jews under the Old Covenant the utter futility of trying to obtain salvation by our works. To the Jews who thought they were obeying the outward letter, He explained that they were still not achieving God’s standard of righteousness. He told them they were not even to look upon a woman with lust or be angry without a cause. They were not to take any oath. They were not to resist evil people. They were to be quickly reconciled.

Humans are sinful by nature and cannot perfectly obey any commands, including those that tell us to forgive. Even if we could perfectly obey, we would only be doing what is expected and would be unprofitable servants: “Even so you also, when you have done all the things that are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants. We have done our duty'” (Luke 17:10). Unprofitable servants cannot earn anything, including salvation. As Paul said at the end of Galatians 2:16, “no flesh will be justified by the works of the law.”

James Tries to Explain to the Post-Crucifixion Jews

James begins chapter two by saying that we shouldn’t show partiality; for example, we shouldn’t treat a rich person any better than a poor person. Then, in verses 8-9, he teaches, “However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.” Is James saying that believers must perfectly keep the law and can be convicted by the law as sinners? No. That’s just the point. Let’s let James explain himself further.

In verse 10, James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” Those who teach that the New Covenant is merely a new administration of the Old Covenant and who say that Christians are still under the law use this verse out of context to try to prove their point. They say, “See. We need to keep the whole law or we will be guilty.”

They are wrong. Remember, James was an elder in Jerusalem, and, as he told Paul when that apostle visited Jerusalem, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are amongst the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). James was not pointing out their zealousness for the law as a good thing, but as a dilemma he faced when ministering to these people.

Writing to the Jews of the dispersion (James 1:1), James is trying to help the Jews to see the uselessness of trying to keep the law. James is not giving a truism for believers. He is teaching a general principle of the law: Those who are under the law are responsible to keep all of it. He elaborates in chapter 2, verse 11: “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” Rather than teaching that Christians should keep the law, he’s saying that trying to keep the law is hopeless. If you don’t offend in one point, you are sure to offend in another.

James wants his readers to use this information about the inescapability of breaking the law. Seeing that breaking the law is inescapable and that man’s only hope lies in God’s forgiveness through grace, they should also take pity on others and forgive them. “So speak, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom” (verse 12). In other words, because God will judge us by what James calls the law of freedom—which is really grace, love, and mercy—we should judge others by that same law of freedom: “For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (verse 13).

If we judge others without mercy, we are demonstrating that we are still under the law that is merciless. Those who are truly saved may temporarily slip into such thinking, but God will open their eyes to their fault before it is too late. When we are merciful, that mercy negates judgment. We don’t initiate God’s forgiveness, but we manifest it.

If we are judgmental toward others, we are exalting the law over grace. We are saying that we want the law. And if we want the law for others, then God will judge us by the law without mercy. Those who have falsely professed belief and who are excited by the ideas of religion, morality, law, and justice will be judged by the law with no mercy.

So, in the verses I quoted at the beginning of this article, Jesus was speaking from the point of view of those still under the Old Covenant and its law because that was the covenant still in force. But He was showing why the ending of the law and the coming of the New Covenant—under which there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1)—was needed. No one can meet God’s standard of righteousness, including His standard of forgiveness. God will not judge with forgiveness those who don’t show forgiveness toward others. Instead, He will judge them by their works because their works reveal their still hardened hearts (Revelation 20:13). Those who do show forgiveness toward others are bearing the fruit of the forgiveness God has already given them through Christ. Because He was both God and man, He was the only human who ever met God’s standard of righteousness. Through Christ, God always initiates every aspect of our salvation—including our forgiveness—and this is amply supported by Scripture (e.g. Colossians 2:13; 1 John 2:12).

Writing well after Christ’s death and the start of the New Covenant, Paul puts forgiveness in its correct order for believers: “Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do” (Colossians 3:12-13; see also Ephesians 4:32). Christ first forgives us, and then we forgive others.

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Q. Does God see choosing singleness to be equally as good as marriage?

A picture of a lone man with his head down. A Scripture reads, It is not good for the man to be alone. Genesis 2:18.
Various circumstances may cause some people to not marry and others to lose a spouse. All can live fulfilling, God-glorifying lives. Paul learned to be content in whatever state he was in (Philippians 4:11). So should we all. But are those who teach singlness as a choice that is equal to or even better than marriage going too far?

A. Years ago, if a Christian never married, his or her spiritual brethren might consider it mildly unfortunate, but they usually remained polite enough to stay out of the person’s personal life. Now, however, “celebrating singleness” has become so trendy that many Christian writers and preachers are advocating staying single. Whether someone marries or not is that person’s private business, but false teaching is potentially damaging and ought to be exposed.

Instructions that misrepresent the Bible regarding singleness can lead people—usually impressionable young believers—to make decisions they may later regret. No matter how preachers and Christian writers try to distort Scripture to sound as if singleness without compelling circumstances is a plan for your life that is on a par with marriage, the Word of God really says otherwise: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Period. Full stop. Right through the New Testament, except for very unusual circumstances most of us will never experience, the Bible never strays from that position. Yet, because singleness is so promoted as a fabulous lifestyle, many who hear the propaganda question the Bible’s stand.

1 Corinthians 7

But what about what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7? Didn’t he say, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman”? Yes and no. Actually, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:1, was quoting “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” from a letter the Corinthians had written to him. In the verses that follow, he addresses the subject they raised: “But, because of sexual immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection owed her, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2-3). If you think that doesn’t sound like singleness, you’re right. It’s marriage. Rather than not touching each other, men and women are supposed to marry.

Later, Paul gives his opinion, not commandment, that he believes that if they have the self-control, it is better for the unmarried to remain so. But he admits that, if they don’t have the self-control, they had better marry. And let’s admit it; most people don’t have that self-control. Later, in verses 25ff, Paul appears to explain his opinion as based on the “distress that is on us.” By this, he is speaking of severe persecution. Although he expressly allows marriage for those who want it, his opinion was that changing our state—marrying, separating, buying, even weeping and rejoicing—sets our minds on worldly things, which is an unnecessary distraction from the kingdom of God when the time is so short. Notice that Paul’s reason was so that those who were facing possible martyrdom could focus what remained of their lives on the kingdom of God. He had no other possible reason for singleness in mind. Those who use 1 Corinthians 7 to advocate singleness today, unless they are specifying an area of the world where there is great persecution, are taking Paul out of context.

Jesus

Jesus spoke of being a eunuch for the kingdom’s sake (Matthew 19:10-12). But being a eunuch for the kingdom was not the normal course that Jesus expected for someone’s life. Jesus clearly said it was not for everyone, but that being able to do this was a gift: “Not all men can receive this saying, but those to whom it is given” (verse 11). And it had one reason and one reason ONLY. That reason was to sanctify your life to the furtherance of the kingdom of God.

So, if you want to solemnly dedicate your life to the preaching of the Gospel, living a self-sacrificing life of peril and poverty as did Jesus and Paul, entirely focused on the one goal of getting the Gospel to the lost, and you believe that God has given you this gift so that you will have no desire for or temptation to have sexual intimacy, then you go right ahead and plan on being single. If, on the other hand, you want to remain single with any other goal in mind, then, sorry, the Bible does not support your choice.

If you are planning your future as the breezy life of a single person—this is how I will be self-fulfiled, this is how I can find myself, this is how I can live the life I want, this is how I can reach my career goals, this is how I can have the stuff I want—you have your head on cross-threaded. I advise you to take it off, align the threads with God’s will, and try again.

But, you might ask, if it’s okay to plan to stay single for the Gospel’s sake, why not for other reasons? The answer is simple. The Bible doesn’t give other reasons for planning to be single.

But, argue some famous preachers who ought to know better, Jesus didn’t marry, and, thus, He set an example to follow. Excuse me, but Jesus’ life wasn’t typical in many ways, and, therefore, we cannot just live the way He lived. Jesus’ physical life met the rare criteria for singleness we just discussed. Jesus dedicated His life to His ministry, and His life was a road to the Cross. Marriage would have been a distraction from the Gospel-centered focus for which He came. And He knew He would die an early and violent death. Thus, Jesus’ singleness cannot be held up as an example for the average Christian.

“Choosing” Vs. “Circumstances beyond Your Control”

Notice that all through this article, I’ve used the words “plan” and “choice.” I’m not talking about circumstances beyond your control. The reality is that there are some guys whose marriage proposals will always get turned down, some gals who will never be asked, and some folks who have physical or psychological or developmental disorders that make marriage questionable and maybe even out of the question. Related to this, some have been scarred by very bad home lives as children. These are things that have happened to these people. Some of these may be overcome; some may not. But these things have nothing to do with the self-absorbed, planning-to-be-single-and-free attitude I’m talking about.

There are those who preach that singleness is not a trial to be endured but a gift to be celebrated. By placing the poles of the dichotomy as far apart as possible, they create a straw man. Singleness is not the equal of being starved, dressed in rags, and enslaved to hand pull barges up the river (cue “Song of the Volga Boatmen“). Yet, neither is it a gift (as we’ve seen, the gift is the rare ability to be single and dedicate your life fully to the kingdom of God). Neither is singleness something to be celebrated as if it were an academy award.

Singleness is not a superior or even an equal choice to marriage; it is not something to desire for any reason other than focused dedication to the Gospel. That’s because, rather than the joyful lifestyle choice presented in so many books, singleness is merely a circumstance. Unless you’ve chosen it because you have the gift to devote your life entirely to the Gospel, or unless you have some mitigating circumstance, if you have consciously chosen to be single, your choice is not biblically supported. Singleness is something that happens to you for reasons that maybe God only knows and which you can learn to live with and still have a fulfilling life. It is not something to desire.

God and Your Private Life

“But what right has God to interfere in my private life?” you ask. Every right: “Or don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Paul wrote the above verses in the context of talking about fleeing sexual immorality. Let’s face it, many who plan to stay celibate while single don’t succeed. Celibacy is not the way God made us. Remember again, it was our Creator who said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). He did not make men and women to be independent units putting their selfish desires first. Those who hype singleness are speaking contrary to the natural order that God has established. In the world, we can expect selfish fads to be popular. Such things ought not be promoted amongst believers.

God made humans to be teams of two close-knit people of the opposite sex working together through life and supplying each others’ physical and emotional needs. This includes sex, but goes far beyond it. It encompasses the hand that reaches out during a social engagement, the conversations that go late into the night as your minds become one, the times when you’re snuggling together and saying nothing, the nursing through sickness, the coaching through the birth of a child, the support through trial, the word of correction fitly spoken, the long walks hand-in-hand, and—after 35 years of marriage—I could go on and on.

Before closing, I want to be sure that you understand that I am not talking about condemnation for the choices you make. If you are a believer, you are not under the law and you are not under any condemnation. What I want to leave you with is an admonition not to be swayed into a trendy choice now that you may regret later. From the beginning, God made men and women to pair off in marriage. Don’t be so quick to give it up for a life of me, myself, and I.

Peter Ditzel

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