June 2016

June 2016

Should Forgiveness Be Conditional?

We in the Lutheran Church delight in the free forgiveness of sins. You might even say that our emphasis on the free forgiveness of sins is what, more than anything else, actually makes us Lutherans. In fact, the chief reason that we continually gather as a congregation, week after week, is to hear and receive that forgiveness, which, because it eternally unites us with our God in Christ, is more precious to us than life itself.

But whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that God expects us, too, to forgive as He has forgiven us: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does this mean that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness? Could we rightly say, “If we forgive others, then God will forgive us”? Surely not. God’s forgiveness does not come to us as a consequence of our forgiveness toward others. Jesus makes this clear in His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23–35): the king forgave the servant’s debt first, before the servant could do anything good or bad to his fellow servants. So also God starts by forgiving us who are unworthy of forgiveness. In the parable, it was only after the forgiven servant imprisoned his fellow servant for failure to pay off a much smaller debt that the king rescinded his forgiveness. The lesson for us, as the parable concludes, is, “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Rather than say that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness, we should rather say that God’s withdrawal of forgiveness is conditional upon our withdrawal of forgiveness from others. God forgives freely, without any merit or worthiness in us, but He holds our sins against us if we afterwards reject His mercy and impenitently treat others with cruelty as a result of our unbelief.

There is something else at play here, too: repentance. When the king in the parable first summons the servant to settle accounts, he doesn’t start by forgiving the debt. He starts by threatening the servant with slavery. Only after the threat of punishment does the servant prostrate himself before the king in repentance, and only after the servant repents does the king freely forgive him. So also God does not forgive those who do not repent, and His forgiveness comes only to those who, having been terror-struck by the punishments threatened in the law, beg God for forgiveness and throw themselves upon His mercy in Christ. Repentance is not a good work by which we merit God’s forgiveness. It is rather the means, the tool, by which we receive the forgiveness that Christ has won for the entire world—and it is a tool that must be wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, since no one can repent of his own power.

When others sin against us, we ought to do good to them, as God does good to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, rewarding good for evil, and we ought to be ready in our hearts to forgive them, as God is ready to forgive the entire world. But we need not worry that we are failing in our Christian duty when we withhold forgiveness from those who will not repent for the wrong they have done us. We do not hold grudges, and we do not allow anger and bitterness to consume us, but neither do we act as if no sin has been committed, no wrong perpetrated. The erasure of wrongs comes only when forgiveness has been granted through repentance.

This becomes especially clear when we consider the duty of pastors to forgive sins in Jesus’ name. Jesus did not simply command His disciples to forgive sins indiscriminately. Rather He said, “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:23). As Luther explains in the Catechism, pastors are to “retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent,” and “exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation.”

That is why Missouri Synod pastors used to add the following words to the absolution at the beginning of the Sunday service: “I … announce the grace of God unto all of you who do heartily repent of your sins, believe in Jesus Christ, and sincerely and earnestly intend by the help of God the Holy Ghost henceforth to amend your sinful lives, and in the stead…” These words were translated from the German services inherited from the earliest Lutherans. They have since been omitted so as to reinforce the truth that God’s forgiveness is unconditional, but in an age when the only sin is “judging” others (i.e., acknowledging that sinful behavior is, well, sinful), it might be well to add them again. Forgiveness does not come to those who will not repent, since impenitence is simply a manifestation of unbelief. Nor do I as your pastor have the authority to forgive your sins if you intend to continue in a sinful life.

So in an ethical sense, God’s forgiveness truly is unconditional: He does not require good works as a condition of forgiveness. In an instrumental sense, however, God’s forgiveness comes to us through means, viz., through faith in His Son, which always expresses itself through repentance and through works of love toward the neighbor. God grant us repentance and faith by His Spirit, that we may forever rejoice in the free gift of forgiveness for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ!


Pastor Neuendorf