JESUS taught the disciples to pray, “Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” He did not intend it as a command, but He was simply stating a principle of grace. Yet, we often see it interpreted as law. For example, ‘If we expect God to forgive us, then we must first forgive others’.
To interpret it in this way we miss Jesus’ point, and turn grace into law. If this had been what Jesus meant it would be in direct contradiction to what Paul teaches in Rom. 5:8, “God demonstrated His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” According to Paul, God had already forgiven us without our doing anything to deserve it. In fact, there is no contradiction.
If we are to understand Jesus teaching correctly, we need to recognise the context which Matthew sets it in. In chapter four he summarises the message Jesus preached in Galilee. Firstly, He announced the Kingdom of God was at hand. Secondly, He called people to repent of their sins in preparation for entering the Kingdom. Thirdly, He invited people to believe, or to accept God’s gift of free grace which He was offering. This is the context of Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, and forgiving others who sin against us. Having announced God’s Grace, Jesus proceeded to teach what life can look like from the perspective of grace, rather than law. For example when we have come to know God’s forgiveness then forgiving others becomes a natural thing for us to do. It is not a law but a natural response to the love God has shown towards us.
I suspect our tendency to understand Jesus teaching in terms of law rather than grace is because we feel more comfortable with law. To accept grace means to receive something from another which is totally undeserved. For most of us that feels uncomfortable, it causes us to feel powerless, and dependant. While law requires that we do something to deserve what we get, and this allows us to retain a sense of control over our own life.
This is the point. It takes us back to Adams original sin. He desired the fruit from the tree of knowledge because it would give him the knowledge of right and wrong, then he could control his own life and become independent of God.
In religious language this is referred to as ‘self righteousness’. This is the route of all sin, for it is a denial of our rightful dependence on God.
This explains why grace is so difficult for us, it is a threat to our self pride, and our natural tendency is to resist it. But in actual fact this is where that fuller contentment we spend our life seeking can be found, by denying self. It appears to be a contradiction, as Jesus said, by losing our life for His sake we find it.
Jesus has done everything necessary, all we need to do is accept His grace, then, we become free to love our enemies, and forgiving others becomes the most natural thing for us to do.
Rev. Stewart McDonald - Kyabram Uniting Church