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Matthew 6:14-15 "Jesus' Explanation of Prayer: Prayer Exemplifies Faith

For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. So, if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.

An initial reading of these verses provides several obvious observations. First, the repetition of the theme of forgiveness indicates a connection between these statements and the petition of v. 12. Not only is the verb “forgive” (ἀφίημι) repeated but Jesus seems to reiterate the same tension of forgiveness’ condition. Second, the fact that the prayer has concluded should be noted. No longer do we read requests in the aorist imperative directed toward the Father but two 3rd-class conditional statements directed at Jesus’ disciples. The post-positive γὰρ (for) presents these verses as an explanation (epexegetical γὰρ) to what has preceded. Third, Jesus uses the future indicative rather than the present to describe the Father’s forgiveness. The action of the disciples is not presented contemporaneously to the action of the Father. These observations lead us to ask at least three specific questions: (1) Is this an explanation of v. 12 only, or are there wider implications? (2) What is the nature of the 3rd-class conditional statements as opposed to the more common 1st-class conditional statements in the New Testament? (3) Is there a difference between being forgiven (past) to future forgiveness?

Answering Initial Questions

It is always a mistake to assume the answer to questions rather than proving them before entering the phase of interpretation. In a world that craves application and becomes bored with the labor of exegesis, this point must be repeated again and again. Interpretation and application is anchored in meaning. It is therefore necessary that we answer these questions which will establish meaning before moving on to any sort of interpretation.

(1) Does this explanation address only v. 12? This is the popular opinion of the majority of commentators, some of whom go so far as to lump their exposition of vv. 14-15 with their comments on v. 12. If this is the case, then it is extremely irregular. We should note that these verses are not exclusively commentary on v. 12 for the following reasons.

First, the logical flow of information argues against it. As already stated, the model of prayer concludes in v. 13, a prayer request of the Father’s supernatural protection and preservation against the schemes of the devil. Because the final doxology is not original, v. 13 is a rather short and poignant petition. If vv. 14-15 immediately circle back to address v. 12 exclusively, then the force of v. 13 is completely lost. Jesus has demonstrated a mastery of developing thought and presenting information up to this point. Why would He offer this explanation in such a way that draws all attention away from His climax? Not only this, but why offer further explanation on only the fifth of six petitions? The order in which Jesus offers a model of prayer and this explanation indicates that there is a wider focus than only v. 12.

Second, the vocabulary argues against it. With the return of the verb ἀφίημι (forgive) these verses prove to share a similar vocabulary with v. 12. But because v. 12 speaks of the forgiveness of debt (ὀφείλημα) while vv. 14-15 address the forgiveness of transgressions (παράπτωμα), we are forced to admit that the connection is not a one-for-one correspondence. The concept of debt is important to Jesus’ allusion to the sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee in v. 12. By dropping the concept of debt and referring to transgressions, Jesus clearly has (at least a slightly) different point to make. It is poor exegesis indeed that points out the similarity between two passages while ignoring the differences. While the language of v. 12 is similar to the terms chosen in vv. 14-15, they are not identical and thus argue for something wider than a direct and exclusive commentary on v. 12.

Third, the point of v. 12 differs from the force of vv. 14-15. This should be obvious from even a casual reading of these verses. In vv. 14-15 there is an emphasis on assurance combined with a warning. Neither of those two points is in view with v. 12, which prays for forgiveness in the same breath that faith in said forgiveness is demonstrated. Once again, the differences outweigh the similarities. The general thrust of v. 12 is not identical to that of vv. 14-15 and so these verses cannot be said to be an exclusive explanation of v. 12.

With all that being said, the fact that there is a connection to v. 12 remains undisputable. The proper question then becomes: what is the nature of that connection? The heart of man’s need is found in v. 12; namely, to be forgiven by the Father. This forgiveness is what transforms a rebel sinner into a redeemed saint. This prayer is uttered by those who call God “Father” and them alone. One cannot “pray thusly” (v. 9) unless he is a son of God (5:9, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 8, 9). The connection to v. 12 comes in the way of assurance that one has indeed been forgiven and is thus a child of God. “From the first ‘our’ to the last ‘us’ we pray as brethren.”[1] What makes disciples brethren is the fact that they have been forgiven. In this way, it is better to read these verses as an explanation on the prayer as a whole flowing from the reality of v. 12 rather than a commentary on v. 12 alone.

(2) What is the significance of the 3rd-class conditional statements? At first glance, these verses have the appearance of an “if/then” conditional statement (if the conditions are met, then the stated outcome is produced). Yet, this simplistic reading does not follow the Greek grammar. The statements in vv. 14&15 are not the more usual 1st-class conditional statements. This sort of logical reasoning assumes the “if” portion to be true to make the point contained in the “then” portion (e.g., Matt. 4:3, 6; 7:11; 8:31; 12:26).[2] Jesus instead uses the Greek 3rd-class conditional statement which introduces a hypothetical situation that does not necessarily bear any resemblance with reality (e.g., Matt. 4:9; 5:13, 20, 23, 46, 47).[3] The point then is not to assume the reality of the “if” statements (that we forgive others or that we do not forgive) but to simply present two hypothetical situations that if true would result in two different outcomes.

(3) Why does Jesus speak of future forgiveness? The fact that Jesus uses the future ἀφήσει (He will forgive) in both verses is telling. In v. 12 disciples are exhorted to pray for the Father’s forgiveness in a wholistic fashion. The aorist imperative (ἀφες) of v. 12 is gnomic, making no comment on the timing of the forgiveness, but the context indicates that the prayer is anchored in the present. Here, both statements either promise (v. 14) or deny (v. 15) the Father’s future forgiveness. This is an allusion to the final eschatological pronouncement of forgiveness in the final judgment.[4] While it is true that present forgiveness includes and assumes final forgiveness, the emphasis is upon the final declaration by God that one is forgiven. Once again, we see a mingling of the present with the eschatological.

Moving from Observation to Interpretation

With these questions answered there is one final observation to be made: context. These verses are still within the greater context of Jesus’ exposition of performing righteousness (i.e., worship 6:1-18), specifically within the context of prayer (vv. 5-15). In fact, these verses form the conclusion of Jesus’ exhortation on prayer. We have been told how not to pray through the negative examples of both the self-righteous hypocrites (vv. 5-6) and the unbelieving and supposititious pagans (vv. 7-8). Conversely, we have also been told how to pray as a disciple and child of God (vv. 9-13). The only question that remains is this: how do we know that we are in fact a child of God and not an unbelieving pagan or self-righteous hypocrite? In other words, to pray thusly (v. 9) requires more than just the right words (liturgy) or even a right understanding of implications (template). To pray thusly is first and foremost to pray as a child of God. These verses provide assurance that one is in fact a born-again son of our Father who is in heaven. Jesus states this assurance first positively (v. 14) and then negatively (v. 15) to cause His audience (and Matthew his readers) to stop and consider themselves. Do they stand before God as self-righteous and unbelieving sinners? Or do they stand before the Father as His forgiven and adopted sons?

Positive Affirmation (v. 14): “For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” – As already stated, this is presented in a hypothetical scenario rather than a simplistic syllogism. Divine forgiveness is neither earned nor paid for by human forgiveness. The New Testament always describes forgiveness and salvation as a gift (Rom. 3:24; 5:15-17; 6:23; Eph. 2:8) and the exclusive work of God (Jn. 6:29; Col. 2:13; Tit. 3:5). Yet sinners are always called to believe/trust/place faith in God’s provision of salvation; namely, the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Jn. 3:15-16; 19:35; 20:30-31; Acts 2:21; 16:31; Eph. 1:7). But faith is always active and is never passive. In other words, faith assumes and requires action. That action takes the form of repentance and obedience (Acts 2:37-38). By first presenting the hypothetical scenario of disciples forgiving the transgressions of others, Jesus describes those who have been given New Covenant hearts to believe (Jer. 31:31 ff.; Ezek. 36:26) which provides the ability to live at peace with each other as they walk in obedience (Ezek. 36:27) and confirms that their sins have been washed white as snow (Is. 1:18; Ezek. 36:25). The forgiveness that disciples extend toward others is simply an extension of the forgiveness that the Father has bestowed upon them (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).

The term transgression (παράπτωμα) describes a false step whereby one slips or loses their footing. Almost exclusively used in a moral sense, the term carries the idea of a moral slip, an offense, or a wrongdoing. It matters little whether this false step is a thoughtless blunder, or a calculated action taken against another. A transgression remains a transgression. Because disciples are called to be lights that shine brightly in a dark world (5:16) and thereby conform to the perfect standard of the Father (5:48), they are those who readily forgive those who cause offense by wronging them. After all, is this not the same thing that the Father does for His children? Those who forgive men for transgressing them do not earn the Father’s forgiveness, but demonstrate that the Father has transformed them and thus can be assured that on the last day they too will be pronounced “forgiven”.

Negative Confirmation (v. 15): “So, if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” – The post-positive δὲ is not so much contrastive as it adds the other side of the coin. If forgiving others indicates a New Covenant heart, then the lack of forgiveness is also indicative of one’s heart condition. One who refuses to forgive demonstrates heart of stone (Jer. 17:1), not a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).

At this point there may be a needed discussion on the responsibility of the guilty party to repent. Does the transgressor not have a responsibility to repent and seek forgiveness? Of course he does! Forgiveness is a transaction that cannot be forgiven without confession and repentance. The Father does not forgive all transgressors, but only those who trust in Christ by confession and repentance. But this does not remove the weight of forgiveness from the offended party.[5] The emphasis here is on the one who refuses forgiveness. The implication is that forgiveness is an option. In other words, the transgressor has confessed and seeks to be forgiven. The one who refuses such forgiveness shares nothing in common with the Father who readily forgives all who call upon Him. Such self-righteous bitterness and hardened unbelief is more in line with the hypocrites and pagans. Such men have no assurance of eschatological forgiveness and therefore first need to confess and repent themselves. To pray thusly (v. 9) first requires one to repent and be born again as a child of the Father who is in heaven.

[1] Lenski, p. 272.

[2] Wallace, p. 690-4.

[3] Ibid, p. 396-9.

[4] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 211.

[5] Hendriksen, p. 340.


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