“But if You Do Not Forgive Others Their Trespasses, Neither Will….” Is God’s Love Really Unconditional?

"One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?....  he who is forgiven little, loves little.” -- Luke 7
“One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?…. he who is forgiven little, loves little.” — Luke 7


As Thanksgiving is upon us are there persons that you need to forgive?  Consider this post an attempt at doing “the third use of the law”, the topic of my last several posts…

I am currently teaching a beginning Christianity course to university students. On the discussion boards last night, one asked this challenging question:

  • “If the person you hated most in the world, who you personally knew and could not stand, were the one to welcome you into heaven, would you be able to forgive them enough to go in?”

What a great question. The student was unsure where he had heard it (maybe C.S. Lewis, he thought). He followed it up with this question:

  • “….also makes me wonder who I would be welcoming into heaven under this scenario.  But, we are called to forgive.”

Must the Christian forgive? To ask this question is to ask “are good works necessary” and every Lutheran who knows their Lutheran Confessions knows the answer to that question (they are, even as we do not say “they are necessary for salvation”)! To waver on this question is to allow our old Adam to flirt with antinomianism – and yes, I have heard prominent confessional Lutherans waver, publicly, on this very question.

Yes, it is necessary. It is all tied up with the truly radical nature of the Gospel.  There is no radical Gospel without those willing to proclaim it.

What follows is one of the lengthier response I created for some of my students a couple months back. I shared this after a) sharing Martin Luther’s explanation of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism* and b) after much conversation had ensued about whether Christians really needed to forgive their neighbor.

I’ve changed the names.  The bold was in the original:

Joe, Katie, Rosylyn, others,

….  You all had great comments that really made me think.  Please realize that I do not claim for this to be the last word, nor to I think any of this would be easy to apply in a concrete situation.  I do invite your feedback and further reflection...

It is good that you have noticed this about the Lord’s Prayer.  Even stronger are the words in Matthew 6 immediately following the Lord’s Prayer: “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (v. 15

So yes – on the face of it, it would seem that the phrase “unconditional love” can be a bit misleading.

We are told that God hates the wicked – and should a protective father not harbor anger – bolstered by just action – against those who would oppress and wage war against His dear children?  That said, again, He loves His whole creation.  He loves His enemies.  He died for the whole world.  He desires all to be saved.  To come to repentance.  That all bound by disobedience might be had mercy on.  For He is love.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.

To those who flee to this merciful God, they will be saved indeed – to the uttermost.  And it is never too late.  The blood of Christ covers it all.

… God truly does love His whole creation in a sense that is unconditional.  Otherwise, passages like those above would not make any sense….. if a person rejects God’s unconditional love and forgiveness – not desiring it for this or that reason – how has God’s love somehow become conditional?  The Scriptures say that the Christian *has been forgiven already* (and given new life in Christ), and this is given as precisely the reason why they are to forgive: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32).  In other words, we treat others as God has already treated us.  Properly speaking, we do not forgive in order to be forgiven – we forgive because we have been forgiven.

Now, if we refuse to forgive someone for their sins – when God has commanded us to do so – what are we basically saying to God?  Whether we realize it or not, we are in fact saying to Him: “I don’t need your forgiveness for my lack of forgiveness because I am in the right here.  My refusal to forgive is reasonable”.  Correct me if I am wrong – what else might we be saying?

Now, one might object here: but this person really does want that forgiveness (and with this, life and salvation).  But is this true?  Does this person rather not merely want the removal of the threat of punishment?  But of course, forgiveness is something far more personal than that.

It seems to me that while this person may indeed want to go to some kind of heaven when they die.  But the point is this: in their sin, they are not seeking the real heaven with the real presence of the God who forgives all through the blood of Christ.

That God actually offends them.

So we can say this: God will not forgive them their sins because they do not see this as something that needs to be forgiven!

Now, again, this is a very difficult matter, to be sure.  And yet, I am simply trying to be faithful to what the biblical text insists here: this matter is deathly serious for our souls!  If we are not at least struggling with this issue and wrestling with it before God, it would seem to me that great danger is upon us.

If we disagree, are we not actually making ourselves the judge of men’s souls?  Without a doubt, without the clear word that Christ is our Life – who indeed forgives all our sins – we all are destined even to be prideful of any good wisdom we “possess” and put into practice (God says: “what do you have that you have not received?”).  To take at least some very real credit for what we consider our goodness and righteousness – and corresponding ability to pronounce.  At the very least, we are proud of being humble.  Or we are proud of realizing we are proud of being humble, etc. etc.  At bottom, we know ourselves to be good persons with good hearts.  Persons who don’t need forgiveness.  There are perhaps some truly bad persons, but we are not among them.

In short, if in our heart of hearts we believe that seventy-times-seven forgiveness should be for us but not for our neighbor – whether explicitly or implicitly or tacitly (if we care to make all these distinctions!) – we are really saying that it is not for us at all.  *In spite of the fact that we are all one in Adam*, we deny that we are our brother’s keeper.

Great danger!

All this said, do I see how I could forgive someone like Jeffrey Dahmer?  When I consider this question as if the Presence of God and His power could be left out of the question, my answer is: “certainly not”.  But that is not the proper way for us to consider the question, is it?

One more thing: there can be forgiveness of a person – where you release your hands from their throat, and sincerely hope that they will make it to heaven, even as that person justly faces earthly consequences – even death – for their actions.  God did give earthly governments the death penalty (Rom. 13:1), not to give us revenge, but to protect the weak from evil and injustice.  Further, just because we forgive someone on earth, it does not mean that our earthly relationship will always be – or even should always be – the way it was before.  If this were the case, Jesus would have never permitted divorce in some circumstances.  He does permit divorce in select circumstances, even as He did not permit us to harbor unforgiving hearts.


Matthew 25, which describes Christ’s separating the sheep and the goats, was the Gospel reading for many in Church this past Sunday. Who has not struggled with this passage? As regards faith and good works, this is ultimately the way I have arrived at squaring the circle (I have shared this several times on this blog)…. it ties in closely with all that has been said above:

Regarding the final judgment, Christians will judge the world as Jesus says and Paul echoes. That said, prior to the final judgment, Christians of course were to judge as God judges: showing mercy – both pity in the form of physical assistance and the forgiveness of God Himself through Christ – to all, first to the believer and then to the terrified unbeliever. Come the separating of the sheep and the goats, Christ and His Church will show mercy to those who have been merciful. In other words, to those who have shown themselves to be His children (after all, sons of God act like sons of God and it is right that they should be found with their father and brother). This means those who have forgiven much – echoing the forgiveness, or reconciliation of God Himself – will be forgiven. This means that those who opened up the Kingdom of Heaven to others will have the Kingdom of Heaven opened up to them. Like Christ, they eagerly gave the promise of paradise to those enemies of God dying to the left of them (and to the right, if they would only have it) who had nothing to give, and could pay nothing back. God’s people, like God Himself, are profligate with pity, mercy, and grace.

So we are people who are eager to be merciful, as our Lord is merciful.

But Lord, how many times?

Seventy-times seven, or, said differently, “without measure”.

There is no doubt about it this is tough stuff – stuff that forces us to wrestle with God. If you feel like you need some comfort in the midst of all of this, I offer you this post… you are not left without a lifeboat.




* Note in particular, these words from Luther: “if you forgive, you have this consolation and assurance, that you are forgiven in heaven, not on account of your forgiving, for God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace, because He has so promised, as the Gospel teaches, but in order that He may set this up for our confirmation and assurance for a sign alongside of the promise which accords with this prayer, Luke 6:37: Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Therefore Christ also repeats it soon after the Lord’s Prayer, and says, Matt. 6:14: For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, etc.”

This relates to what I said in my first post about the third use of the law here: “we are simply assuming that those who have true faith are concerned to demonstrate their faith by works – they realize faith and works go hand and hand and make their confession believable. Those who don’t have true faith don’t have this concern, even if they were at one point baptized”.

One reply on ““But if You Do Not Forgive Others Their Trespasses, Neither Will….” Is God’s Love Really Unconditional?”

  1. “Those who don’t have true faith don’t have this concern, even if they were at one point baptized”

    Yes. Quite right. A number of baptized Lutheran fall into the precise situation you describe.

    For a related post on Assurance of Salvation and Baptism by your fellow co-blogger, please see D.W. Snoke’s article: Can I know I have eternal life?.


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