Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"If You Don't Forgive Others, God Won't Forgive You" -- REALLY?

(I occasionally post something excellent from another blog. While I have written about forgiveness and separation from God as well, Steve McVey posted this at his blog (http://www.gracewalkministries.blogspot.com/) and I think it's both vital and outstanding. It's an excerpt from his new book: 52 Lies Heard In Church Every Sunday (And Why The Truth Is So Much Better). If you're interested, look for the link at the bottom of this post.)

There are times in each of our lives where we might be holding unforgiveness towards someone else. If you take that statement at face value — “If you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you” — it would mean there are unforgiven sins in your life. If there are unforgiven sins in your life, and you were to die without them being forgiven, then I suppose you would be separated from God forever, wouldn’t you? At the very least, we would be in big trouble even in this life if God looks at us and sees unforgiven sins.

Not surprisingly, this teaching creates a lot of anxiety among Christians. Others might preach at us and tell us we ought to forgive. They make it sound so easy. But it’s not easy. All of us have been hurt by others; some of us severely. We do people a disservice by heartlessly pounding on them to forgive those that have injured them, and it can be even more heartless when we use Bible verses to pound them with. How much greater is the damage when our teaching causes people to feel that God rejects them because they have been unable to forgive others for inexcusable actions.

However, we still need to make good sense of the Bible’s teaching on forgiveness, because the difficult verses in question come from Jesus Himself. Jesus says at the end of His model prayer (that we’ve called “The Lord’s Prayer”),

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive you your transgressions. Matthew 6:14-15

If we read those words alone, then it seems like game, set, and match. How could we come to any other conclusion than to believe that our forgiveness totally depends on our forgiveness of others? However, we must never forget that verses must never be interpreted on their own out of context, but must always be interpreted in light of the whole Word of God.

Jesus did say those words, but let me remind you again of the need to consider when Jesus was speaking, to whom He was speaking, and what he was doing. Those are things you have to remember whenever you interpret the Scriptures. Not everything Jesus said is to be applied to you personally, because everything changed at the cross.


When Christ died, the Old Covenant was made obsolete, and the New Covenant was brought into existence. The night before He died, Jesus took the cup and passed it, saying,

This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. Luke 22:20

Covenants in the ancient world were almost always inaugurated by the blood sacrifice of an animal. That practice was similar to a contract today being put in force through signing on the dotted line. Jesus was indicating beforehand that His death would bring into reality the long-promised New Covenant. This New Covenant is both different and superior to the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses:

But now He [Christ] has obtained a more excellent ministry, by a much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. Hebrews 8:6-7

This means that Jesus’ death not only inaugurated the New Covenant, but it also simultaneously brought the law, the Old Covenant, to an end:

When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. Hebrews 8:13

I can’t overemphasize the importance of getting this: When Jesus taught, He was speaking according to the law to people living under the law. Whenever you read the words of Jesus recorded in the gospels, you must keep this in mind. When Jesus taught, “You must forgive in order to be forgiven,” He was magnifying the demands of the law in order to provoke people to understand their need for Him as Savior. But when He died, was buried, and rose again, the New Covenant was inaugurated by His death, and things changed.

That’s why you read in later New Testament writings a different order of reasoning. First, the New Testament teaches us that we are forgiven already:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace. Ephesians 1:7

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions. Colossians 2:13

Then, on the basis of the forgiveness we have already received, the New Testament urges us to forgive others — but notice the change in order:

Be kind to one other, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:32

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Colossians 3:12-13

Do you see the distinction there? Before the cross, the Bible says you forgive to be forgiven. But after the cross, the Scripture teaches that we forgive because we have been forgiven.


The idea that if you don’t forgive others God won’t forgive you is an Old Covenant teaching, even though we hear it from the lips of Jesus. It was prior to the cross, which is where the law ended. Why did the Lord teach it? Because He often held up the law to raise the awareness of sin in the people’s hearts, so that it would pave the way for them to recognize their need for a Savior. By His death, burial and resurrection, He accomplished the work, and the good news is now preached in His name.

Today, to tell someone that if you don’t forgive others God won’t forgive you is to tell a lie. That’s not applicable in the New Covenant. The truth is, we forgive others because we have been forgiven. As I acknowledged in the beginning of this challenge, forgiveness is often difficult, if not impossible for us on our own. We need supernatural power to find forgiveness in our hearts. The best source of that power is a heart that has been changed by first receiving the amazing grace and forgiveness of Christ.

(This blog is one of the chapters in my new book, 52 Lies Heard In Church Every Sunday (And Why The Truth Is So Much Better) You can order a copy by going to this link:


  1. Lori Carroll9:01 AM

    Well. Nervously disagreeing, here. Although I DO see your point and your line of logic.

  2. Dave Geisler9:01 AM

    Spot on...thanks for the share Ralph Harris, I'm going to put it on my blog too.

  3. Rich Buonocore9:01 AM

    Now there's a paradyme shift!! Nice.

  4. Jeremy White9:02 AM

    ‎52 Lies is a great book! Thanks for posting this portion...

  5. Win Jackson Houwen9:02 AM

    I have an issue with his point that Jesus was teaching a pre-New Covenant idea. You don't see Him doing that anywhere else in His teaching. It sounds like this guy goes too far to prove his point. I'll post more about this but need to check a couple of things before I do.

  6. Win, you don’t think Jesus spoke or taught in a “pre-New Covenant” manner? I think He did.

    Jesus was born under the law (pre-New Covenant) that He might redeem those under the law (Gal 4:4-5). He spoke to those born under law so that they would not miss how exacting the law was. The Former Covenant did not end until Jesus’ death on the cross, neither did the New Covenant arrive until Jesus’ death (Heb 9:16-17). Throughout the four Gospels, God’s new way had not yet come. Much of what Jesus spoke clarified the exacting requirements of the Law (pre-New Covenant) so that they wouldn’t miss what was soon to come—the free gift of righteousness and life. Call it “pre-New Covenant” teaching if you like, because that’s what He did.

    Matthew 5:20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

    Matthew 5: 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

    Matt 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

    Matt 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

    Matt 5:30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

    Think what these verses mean: unless your personal righteousness is better than the best perfectionist you know, you’re toast. Have you gotten angry with someone? You’re not making it. Have you ever called a politician a “fool”? Hell is calling you. Ever had a lustful thought? You’re an adulterer, and we know what happens to them. Have you ever looked at something or someone covetously, enviously, jealously, or longingly? If you want to make sure of heaven, rip your eye out. Have you ever used your hand in theft or to hurt someone or to convey a hypocritical stance (“Hey, man! I love you!”)? Better cut it off.

    Jesus’ hearers were not to take the Law lightly, and neither should we. While most of us are not Jewish, meaning that the law does not apply to us (See Rom 2:14 and Eph 2:11-13), still the Law must be upheld in that it is perfect (Rom 3:31). Anyone who watered (or now waters) it down was certain to miss the gift of God that was soon to be offered. Even today when people pay scant attention to the perfect and exact requirements of the Law, they fail to perceive the severity of the former covenant and often then miss the grandeur of the New Covenant gift. Jesus’ ministry was to make clear that the law could never be obeyed. The apostle Paul understood (see Rom 7). Some of them (and some of us) sadly continue on in a burdensome personal crusade of, “I’m trying hard to please God! I’m doing the best I can!” According to Jesus, that will never be enough. And it wasn’t supposed to be.

    Jesus raised the standard as high as it should actually be, making their attempt (and ours) to keep the law ridiculous. Jesus then kept it and fulfilled it perfectly, and gave us all of the benefits. The gospel (which follows the Gospels) makes it clear that He now offers us His perfect righteousness as a gift in the place of what we might otherwise earn—filthy rags.

    I hope this helps.

  7. And always the consequence of violating the laws He spoke of in Matt 5 was judgment and hell. Isn’t that interesting? What was it that was given entirely over to Jesus? Wasn’t it judgment? It was! (John 5:22) And didn’t He make sons and rescue from hell those who receive Him? He did! (John 1:12-13; Rom 5:9-11) But He hadn’t until He died. And that’s why what follows the Gospels is so important.

  8. George Lisa Miller9:05 AM

    Praise the Lord we are in unity of the spirit..man do we need this right now...Hallelujah

  9. Brent Harris9:05 AM

    I'll simply state that I do not believe that Jesus taught in a "pre-New Covenant" manner. I have too often seen this teaching used to dismiss much of the invaluable words of Jesus.

  10. Well, I respect that. But if you are at all implying that I am dismissing the "invaluable words of Jesus", I disagree. I am putting them in their proper context so that we can better see His purpose. Failure to do that has allowed undue fear and anxious striving to burden people for too long.

  11. Brent Harris9:06 AM

    Well I would, of course, disagree & say that I believe that you are taking the Lord's words OUT of context & misinterpreting them & therefore misrepresenting Him. But, because this is fb & you're my brother (!), I'll go away now.

  12. Michael Zenker9:06 AM

    Thanks for posting the article Ralph! I've come to understand that there is a difference between the old and new covenant. All Scripture is written FOR us, but not all is written TO us....what a revelation that was! Great Post, thanks!!

  13. I think some of us do not see Jesus’ death on the cross as history’s dividing line of change concerning man’s relationship with God. Prior to His death, everything I have mentioned was required—and much more. Sell all your possessions and give them to the poor, forgive others really, really well because we will only receive from God the measure of forgiveness we give others. Still true? How are we doing with that? Why don’t we see a good number of people with gouged-out eyes in our congregations, who are being faithful to Jesus’ commands? Why aren’t there more people missing their right hands attending our churches? I think it’s because we’ve watered-down Jesus’ words. But I’m not doing that.

    Either Jesus meant what He said—the literal view—or He didn’t. Perhaps He was exaggerating to make a point. But that would make us wonder when He was being literal and when he was using hyperbole to make a point. Was He then serious about heaven and hell and sin and judgment, or was He exaggerating to induce us to obey? I can’t go with Him exaggerating, especially when so much is on the line for us. “Ha! Only kidding about that stuff, my children!”

    If we take Him at His word—and I do—then He meant what He said.

    This brings us to the cross. Pre-cross, and Jesus spoke tough truth to those in the covenant with God—to the Jews. The Gentiles (that’s most of us) were not in the covenant. To the Gentiles, Jesus spoke post-cross truth, or of a covenant that was yet to come. Jesus was not going to include them in the first covenant; He would complete and finish that one (John 19:30). He was going to make an entirely new covenant in which two, chosen Jew and excluded Gentile (who, pre-cross, were “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Eph 2:12) would be made one in Christ, who is the author and keeper of the New Covenant—post-cross. In Christ, Jew and Gentile (that includes everyone) would receive all things: every good gift, perfect righteousness, holiness and redemption (His! 1 Cor 1:30), eternal forgiveness (“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Heb 8:12; Heb 10:17; and Heb 10:14 “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”), a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19
”I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”), the Holy Spirit Himself (John 16:7), and be seated with Him in the heavenly realms—secure citizens already (Eph 2:6). In fact, He has made us His very home (John 14:23).

    In this New Covenant of the born again, we have been justified (Rom 4:25), we have peace with God right now (Rom 5:1), we are in union with Him (Rom 6:5; Phil 2:1), we share in His nature (2 Peter 1:4), and enjoy a blood-bought closeness that the Jews of the former covenant could only imagine (Heb 7:18-19). Not only are we able to enter the Holy of Holies, something the Jews of the pre-cross wouldn’t have dared, we have become the New Covenant Holy of Holies—the perfect dwelling place of God (Col 1:27)—and are encouraged to approach the throne of grace with perfect confidence in Him (Heb 4:16), post-cross.

    It is, I believe, vital that we pay attention to whom Jesus was speaking, Jew or Gentile, and to what event had or had not yet taken place—the cross. To one, Jesus spoke pre-cross and first covenant, and to the other, Jesus spoke post-cross and new covenant. I’m in the latter group, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

    If we don’t make that distinction, we will misunderstand who we are, and, in confusion, we’ll attempt to apply the former covenant (with all its rules and regulations inducing us to failure and sin, 1 Cor 15:56) to ourselves—when God isn’t and never did. That’s living by shadow, while the reality is true and better—by far.

  14. Jacqueline Belfiore Favre4:52 PM

    Is this Calvinism?

  15. Elaine Fitzpatrick Sneed4:52 PM

    thanks for sharing! Good reminder.

  16. Jacque, are you referring to my comments or to Steve's article? And it would be helpful to know what you think Calvinism is, because I don't know why you would ask the question. To my knowledge, neither Steve nor I are Calvinist Christians. But what do you think?

  17. Andy Nelson8:47 PM

    Jesus has made believers perfect by one offering: Himself (Hebrews 10:14). It is a hard truth to swallow, but we are truly saved by grace through faith. For this to be true, EVERYTHING had to be accomplished by Jesus, and applied to us at the moment of faith. This includes our once for all forgiveness, and "perfection". Interpreting the Matthew 6 passage out of context breeds a "grace through faith and..." mentality which is not the gospel, no matter which way we bend it. Really love this post Ralph! I am going to re-post it on my page...

  18. Lion Heart8:47 PM

    you said < Not everything Jesus said is to be applied to you personally, because everything changed at the cross> In a nutshell, this covers a whole lot of the 'confusion' over what Jesus meant when he said a lot of things.
    What infuritates me is that this lie (of you must forgive to be forgiven) is perpetuated by those who are paid to know better! >:-(

  19. Jacqueline Belfiore Favre8:48 PM

    I don't know, I just looked it up and wondered because of the dividing point made. :) Just seeing, hey, I know you believe in Jesus and that's all that matters

  20. Melita Magpie Mickan8:48 PM

    Ralph, this is the truth the world and the majority of churches need to hear! I am SO glad I live in the advent of the age of true Grace. It breaks my heart that the Adversary has blinded so many to the truth. Yet, it is the nature of sin that causes us to believe that obeying the law is achievable.
    The only time Jesus ever preached the New Covenant Gospel is when He said things like "I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly." and "No-one come to the Father except through me.". Everything else must be interpreted in light of the New Covenant through Paul's teachings. Him being the apostle and minister of grace to the Gentiles. The law of sin and death will always struggle against this. But the change is here and we are entering a move of His Grace unlike anything that has been before and the gates of Hell will not be able to hold it back! I'M SO EXCITED!!!

  21. Andy--Well said! And thank you.
    Lion Heart--It is difficult to hear Former Covenant teaching in and at the church, which I love so much. Thank you.
    Jacque--I'm not sure what you mean, but maybe that's what you want. I hope you will consider what I have written.
    Melita--Man! Good stuff, woman! I'm encouraged.