This is one of the most challenging instructions Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount. Taken with no other context, Jesus seems to be saying we earn God’s forgiveness after we forgive the sins of others against us, and we lose forgiveness when we refuse to forgive others.
For the Christian, there is no sin that hasn’t been forgiven through the cross of Jesus Christ. All our past, present, and future sins were taken care of at the cross when we first believed in Christ Jesus. “I am writing to you, little children, your sins have been forgiven because of Jesus’ name” (1 John 2:12). If God has dropped all charges against us, then why do we have to ask for forgiveness again? Does our salvation depend on our forgiving others? Do we lose our salvation unless we forgive those who did wrong to us?
This verse comes in the context of the Lord’s prayer. This is a believer’s prayer; They already belong to God. Unbelievers don’t begin prayer with, ‘Our Father’, because God has not given them the right to call Him ‘Father’. Unbelievers are of a different ‘father’ (John 8:44). Here, Jesus is speaking to God’s children (“Your Father”).
First of all, this does not mean that heaven is at stake for the believer. That is a wrong interpretation in the context. It does not teach that our eternal destiny is based on our forgiving of other people. It also does not destroy other doctrines elsewhere in the Bible. The Bible is clear that God pardons sin by His grace based on Christ’s work on the cross alone (2 Corinthians 5:21), not on man’s actions (Titus 3:5). No one will be able to stand before God demanding that his sins be forgotten simply because he has forgiven others. Forgiveness is not a work by which we earn God’s forgiveness. Here, Jesus is not referring to God’s initial act of forgiveness (justification) that we experienced when we first believed the Gospel.
There are two main Greek words for forgiveness —Charizomai (G5483) and aphiémi (G863)— both of which refer to a different kind of forgiveness. One deals with our position before God forever; the other deals with the joy of our fellowship with God day by day. One deals with restoring our relationship with the Father; the other deals with restoring our relationship with others. One is free; the other is conditional.
judicial forgiveness (Positional Purging)
This happens in the justification; On the basis of Christ’s death. He bore our punishment; He took our guilt; He paid for our sin; the price is accomplished; God declares us to be forgiven. That is a judicial act –Full, complete, free. And by that act of judicial forgiveness, all my sins: past, present, future, committed, being committed, and uncommitted are totally, completely, and forever forgiven, and I am justified from all things forever. I cannot lose my salvation. God does not retrieve this judgment. It is a done deal! All our Debts and Transgressions are dealt with at the justification (Colossians 2:13-14).
Believers have experienced once-for-all God’s judicial forgiveness, which they received the moment Christ was trusted as Savior. We are no longer condemned, no longer under judgment, no longer destined for hell (Rom. 8:1). The eternal Judge has declared us pardoned, justified, righteous. No one, human or satanic, can condemn or bring any charge against God’s elect. “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died (Rom 8:33-34). So, judicial judgment is never at a stake! It is a settled matter!
Parental forgiveness (Practical Purging)
Sin is a reality in the life of a Christian. When we become Christians, we don’t all of a sudden stop sinning. Because we still fall into sin, we frequently require God’s gracious forgiveness, His forgiveness not now as Judge but as Father. As the debtor in the creditor’s hand, so is the sinner in the hands of God. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” John warns believers. But, he goes on to assure us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
During the Last Supper, Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet as a demonstration of humility. At first, Peter refused, but when Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” Peter went to the other extreme, wanting to be bathed all over. Jesus replied, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean.” (John 13:5–11). Jesus’ act of foot washing was, therefore, more than an example of humility; it was also a picture of the forgiveness God gives in His repeated cleansing of those who are already saved. Dirt on the feet symbolizes the daily surface contamination from sin that we experience as we walk through life. It does not, and cannot, make us entirely dirty, because we have been permanently cleansed from that.
Heaven is not at stake for the believer
The ‘forgiveness’ in this verse is not related to judicial forgiveness but refers to parental forgiveness . Sin destroys the intimacy with God. We do not lose our relationship with God (Rom 8:31-39). We have become children of God. Now we are not dealing with God as a righteous judge, we are dealing here with God as a loving father. When we go to Him and say, “Daddy, I am sorry”, then my intimacy is restored.
The best illustration we find in the scripture is David’s prayer in Psalm 51, pleading for the restoration of the Joy of God’s salvation. When David was confronted with his gruesome sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah by the prophet Nathan, he realized his terrible condition. When he confessed, he didn’t ask God to restore salvation. He wanted the joy back. David understood that he didn’t lose his salvation. He knew that the divine miracle that happened to him above without his participation and his righteousness is not reversible. He lost all the joy of salvation, because of his sin. Sin shatters the heart of the father, it ruined the relationship, yet God did not cease to be David’s Father. Now, he was asking God to restore the joy of that loving relationship (Psalm 51:12).
It’s a pre-request for receiving sanctification
The positional purging of sin that occurs at regeneration needs no repetition, but the practical purging is needed every day because every day we fall short of God’s perfect holiness. As Judge, God is eager to forgive sinners, and as Father, He is even more eager to keep on forgiving His children. Feet that are not presented to Christ cannot be washed by Him. The sin that is not confessed cannot be forgiven. God’s promise of forgiveness is not a license to sin. It is a means of spiritual growth and sanctification.
What Matthew 6:12 presents is a pre-request for receiving sanctification in the believers’ life.
Forgiving our wrongdoers is the character of righteousness. It is the mark of a truly regenerate heart. And, it is a mark of a Christ-follower (Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”; 1 John 2:6 – “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did”). It interferes with peace of mind, happiness, satisfaction, and even the proper functioning of our own bodies. It brings God’s forgiveness to the believer.
In summary, judicial forgiveness puts us into fellowship with God, and parental forgiveness makes us know the fullness of the joy of being in that fellowship. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and it is permanent (Romans 3:20; John 10:28). However, there are “indicators” one would expect to see in a person who is truly born again (James 2:14–17; John 14:15; 1 John 4:19–21).
Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. John MacArthur (various teaching)
Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible