The above words are taken from the hymn which paraphrases the Lord’s Prayer. There is a salient lesson here for the followers of the Son of God. In Matthew’s account the words are, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (6:12). In the prayer we are caused to recognize that our sins will be forgiven according to our willingness to forgive those who trespass against us. This potentially raises a sticking-point: what if we are reluctant or unwilling to forgive those who trespass against us? The answer is plain, our sins will not be forgiven by the Father. So our attitude to our fellows can condition God’s willingness to forgive us! This is a serious matter for disciples. We need to have our sins forgiven because they can destroy our most important relationship, fellowship with our Maker: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa 59:2).

To emphasize how crucial a matter this is, Jesus returns to it at the end of his model prayer. No other issues are made the subject of special comment except this: “For if ye forgive man their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (v14, 15). It is not only significant that Jesus should return to this matter, but the words he uses make it plain that it is a serious issue. First he reassures us that our sins confessed will be forgiven by our gracious Father in heaven, if we forgive, but just in case we are not aware of the corollary of these words, he spells it out plainly too, that if we will not forgive neither will we be forgiven.

On a later occasion the Lord speaks of the need for disciples to believe and not doubt that God is able to give them “what things soever they desire”, and they will receive them. But having made that point he adds another rider, another critical condition that must be met: “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses”; and as in the case of the Lord’s prayer, he adds the negative, “But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father …” (Mark 11:22–26).

What relevance has this teaching for us? The answer is, a great deal. It relates to our attitudes towards our brethren and sisters and we are warned that if we do not forgive our fellow servants today, there will be the direst consequences in the day when we stand before the Lord, the Divinely appointed judge. We have the opportunity today to put right what is wrong with our attitudes and our relationships with each other. These are matters requiring urgent attention. Are there any among our fellow servants that we will not forgive? Do we nurse wrath and maintain a harsh and unforgiving spirit towards any? We need to be willing and anxious to forgive if such is the case, because if we do not seek reconciliation it will affect our eternal salvation. We need to face up to the issue while there is time and opportunity. What Jesus tells us is that an unforgiving spirit shuts up the flood gates of God’s mercy. We all know that in the day of account we shall be dependent on the Father’s mercy. How exposed and vulnerable we will be on that day of account if that mercy is not available to us: “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy” (Jas 2:13).

Sometimes we lose sight of how good our heavenly Father has been to us. We forget all His kindnesses and His abundant mercy He has shown and does show to us. It is only by His grace that our sins have been washed away in the blood of His Son. This is the foundation fact of our salvation. We have standing and the hope of life only because our sins are covered. Just how important is this to us? It is of the utmost importance, more so than any other thing in our lives. The logical thought that follows is that we must show the same grace to others as we have received. And not only that, we have fellow servants, brethren and sisters in our ecclesia, who likewise have received mercy. How can we withhold mercy and forgiveness from them if we ourselves have received so much? In a very real way our understanding of the atonement, what God has done for us in Christ, can be gauged by our disposition, our attitude to our fellow servants. Do we really appreciate what it means to be in Christ, to be raised into the heavenlies in him? Well, that is answered by our interaction with our fellow servants.

In the course of these words reference has been made to our fellow servants. This is because Jesus spoke a parable to highlight what we have been considering. We know it as the parable of the Unforgiving Creditor (Matt 18:23–35). It is a potent story with great moral compulsion. But it deals with fellow servants, and with one in particular who did not appreciate the grace his Lord had shown to him in his dealings with his fellow servants. The essence of the parable is found in the last verse where every word is telling and significant: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses” (v35). This is the teaching of the Son of Man whom God has appointed as our judge.

It has been well said that we cannot give like God, but we can learn to forgive like Him. How could we ever claim to “love our neighbour as ourself”, if we withhold our forgiveness? We have no option, no room to move in the matter if we are to hear the wondrous words, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”. Indeed, “Forgive, as we forgive”.