“For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins."
-Jesus, Matthew 6:14,15
So what did Jesus mean then? New questions often bring new insights. Try these.
1. Did Jesus speak these words before or after He died on the cross?
2. Did Jesus speak these words under the Old Covenant of law or the New Covenant of grace?
3. Who was Jesus' audience: Christians who have a relationship with God based on UNMERITED favor, or Jews who had a relationship with God based on law keeping and MERITED favor?
4. Did Jesus' audience see that they were helpless condemned sinners, or did they have confidence that their hard work at law keeping would gain them forgiveness and welcome with God?
5. Did Jesus preach perfect obedience to break the stubborn pride of His Jewish audience, to reveal that they were law breakers not law keepers, to reveal their need of unmerited favor, and to prepare them to take the gift of righteousness that would be revealed at Pentecost, or did He preach perfection to stir His Jewish audience to try harder and be more self-righteous?
6. Does thinking perfection (perfect love, perfect law, perfect obedience) remove all confidence in human obedience--of oneself and all others?
It is very easy to get distracted from the glory of unmerited favor.
The Surprise of reading the Bible Contextually
Did the first five questions surprise you? Last week I had a conversion with two very thoughtful women in their 30's who came in Oasis Books. I assumed that they were Mormons as nearly all non-Hispanics here are. They browsed the CS Lewis books and one made comment to the other about how easy reading Lewis was. Then for some reason one commented to her sister that if one didn't forgive fully then one would not be forgiven. I stepped into the conversation at this point and asked question number one above. The women pondered and replied with confidence that Jesus had spoken these words before the cross. Their answer piqued their own curiosity. I then asked if Jesus had spoken those words under law or under grace. They declared immediately that He had spoken them under law. Their interest grew. I asked about Jesus' audience. This matter was not as clear to them, but with a little discussion they realized that they already knew that the Jews were law focused and the leaders of Israel taught do your best and not perfect love. I suggested that perfect love was the key to life and gave my short explanation of it. They said that they had been discussing much the motivation of love and asked for more clarification and permission to record the conversation. They eventually left ecstatic about new thoughts on perfect love, including its all-encompassing application and transformative power, and a free book on grace. You can read here my short wedding sermon on perfect love in marriage.
How do you as a Christian read the words of Jesus? Do you see them as written directly to you and thus directly applicable to you? Or do you see them as spoken directly to Israel--a people under the Old Covenant of merit-based acceptance--who were not honest that the law required perfect love? If you see them in the latter way, then they have only indirect application to you. It should bring you great joy to read about perfection knowing that you are totally free from its requirements through the sin-bearing love of Christ at the cross. It should move you to thankfulness that you are free to forgive because you are already perfectly forgiven (Eph. 4:32; Col, 3:13), with no more pressure of obligation or threats for failure. It should move you to gladness toward the saints who hurt you, even while they are hurting you, since you know that they also are free from all pressure and condemnation of performance. Wow! The law is beautiful and good, but only Christ could honor it. We saints are alive in His righteousness not our own, are dead to the law, and have the motivation of perfect love. Think perfect love and you might be surprised at how much you really like your spouse and children at their worst, and the people who mistreat you while they are doing it.
The Blessing of Living in Mormon Culture
I have a huge advantage over many Christians as I live in a culture 1) with very few Christians and that is very religious, 2) that uses Christian words but with different meanings, and 3) that is merit-based-favor focused like Israel of Jesus' day. Both emphasize 1) a God of love, 2) joy in God giving a system of merit-based favor to the people or world, 3) a process of repentance (stopping sin) to overcome failure, 4) laziness as the real enemy of God, and 5) optimism in pleasing God by doing one's best. Both openly hate righteousness as a gift through the death of Christ.
Mormons really like the words of Jesus, but interpret them as if Jesus were exaggerating and not really expecting people to obey them perfectly. They see the New Covenant as an easier Old Covenant rather that a relationship of unmerited favor--total freedom from the pressure of performance. They are deeply trained to think that there are only two ways to think about God: be lazy and sin a lot, or strive to do one's best at loving everyone and keeping the commandments. It is a joy to help them discover that we all know intuitively the truth of perfect love. It is a real pleasure to introduce them to the understanding that God is truly generous, His favor is fully unmerited, and that He wants us to be in a relationship where we are free to love purely from His great love for us, with no mixing of obligations and threats. They talk much about personal righteousness, and so hearing about the gift of righteousness is a huge shock to them. But as they realize that perfection is required and that they thus are spiritual beggars, the gift of righteousness becomes a surprise beyond their wildest dreams.
Practice reading the words of Jesus in their Old Testament context and you will be ready for your next conversation with a Mormon.