Mark 11:26 has always bothered me:

But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions NASB

As far as I can tell, the overall locus of the gospel message is that forgiveness is not about works, but about faith in Jesus. This verse in isolation seems to say something quite different, namely that a person must earn forgiveness from God by forgiving others. Does it mean that?


1 Answer 1


According to Bruce M. Metzger, in his able Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutschebibelgesellschaft, 2012), the academy places their highest certitude "{A}" that the verse of Mark 11:26 was not part of the original autograph. On Page 93 of his commentary, Metzger says that

...although it might be thought that the sentence was accidentally omitted because of homeoteleuton, its absence from early witnesses that represent all text-types makes it highly probable that the words were inserted by copyists in imitation of Mt 6:14.

Now, having said that, the wording is indeed part of Matthew 6:14-15, which in the context of the gospel of Matthew, reads as follows:

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

Now here is the crux: what is, and what is not forgiveness?

The gospels depict forgiveness in terms of owing money as part of business transactions. Money is used in the parables about forgiveness. So forgiveness is depicted in terms of "writing off" bad debt, and therefore inflicting no punishment on the offender. The following verses illustrate.

Matthew 18:21-24 (NASB)
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus *said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 14 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him....

Luke 7:40-43 (NASB)
40 And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he [ad]replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred aedenarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.”

We all know the gist of these stories. People are "forgiven of their debt," and therefore are not punished or thrown into prison -- and so we see the idea of forgiveness is about cancelling any and all punishment or retribution that the offender(s) deserve. But because money and lending are the crux of these parables in the gospels, the meaning also includes not just the forgiveness of debt (which is unconditional and gracious), but also the loss of credibility of the offender(s) concerned, which is sometimes NOT restored. In today's day and age, you can default on your mortgage (and be forgiven for your bad loan), but your FICO score will still take a hit. You will not go to jail, but you will have a hard time trying to buy a house again. You are not punished for your debt, but at the same time you are not allowed the opportunity to commit the same loan default again in the immediate future, because your FICO score has now taken a hit.

In other words, forgiveness of the money owed cancels the debt, but does not mean that the same people are still entitled to the same level of credit-worthy lending. While the debtors escape punishment, their credibility is not unaffected. In some cases, when the value involved is not considered significant in the eyes of the lender, the credit worthiness of the offender can suffer but little, or even be unaffected. But in other cases, the debt which is forgiven is so grave, that the offender (who is forgiven) will never be trusted again, unless he or she can demonstrate credit worthiness in the meantime. That lack of trust is not a lack of forgiveness. Again, the idea of forgiveness is about CANCELLING any and all punishment or retribution of the debt owed.

We see this dichotomy of forgiveness/trust in the New Testament regarding believers in positions of responsibility. They are FIRST to be tested with regard to "greed and dishonest gain" BEFORE they are to be trusted (2 Cor 8:22 and 1 Tim 3:10), which means that if they fail the test(s), they are of course to be forgiven unconditionally "seventy times seven," but they are not to be trusted.

To be it another way, while we see that forgiveness is UNCONDITIONAL (the offender has nothing to offer, but is the recipient of grace), the restoration of credit (or credibility to be trusted again) however is something else. Remember that the context of the New Testament passages cited here have concerned money as the "coin of the realm" in the context of forgiveness and/or trust (or lack thereof).

So to come full circle to the original question of this post, the Word of God is clear that unforgiveness gives the devil a toehold of exploitation.

2 Corinthians 2:10-11 (NASB)
10 But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, 11 so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.

When we fail to forgive people, not only does the devil have a stranglehold on us, but we are implying that the sin of the offender is greater than the sins that we have committed against God, which takes us back to Matthew 6:14-15.

In other words, how can we repent and come to God, when we believe that the sins of others against us are greater than our sins against God? To put it another way, how can we accept forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ, if we are more righteous than our fellow humans who sin against us? The sins that others commit against us can in no way be compared to the sins that we (and they) commit against God. If we fail to see that, then we remain self-righteous before God, because what they did to us is worse than what we have done against God. We cannot receive the righteousness of God through faith if we maintain and hold to our own self-righteousness before the eyes of God.

That is why Jesus indicates that we must forgive others in order to be forgiven by God. HE IS NOT MAKING A RULE FOR BEING SAVED. What he is saying is that we cannot have self-righteousness before God and at the same time repent of our sins. One must let go of self-righteousness, and that is the meaning here. One must come before God without self-righteousness, in order to receive the righteousness of God through faith. Whether or not we see ourselves as more righteous before God (than the sinners who have sinned against us) is a reflection of whether or not we are embracing self-righteousness before the eyes of God. Again, forgiving someone does NOT necessarily mean that the offending parties are somehow still trustworthy people. It just means that we let go of our self-righteousness, and that we let go of giving the devil a way of strangling and exploiting us. What keeps a sinner from the arms of Jesus is not ones own sinfulness and brokenness, but ones own self-righteousness.

  • ^ Joseph Please take a look at Matthew 18:23-35 fully. You said that these stories (according to your quotes of scripture) that people were not thrown into prison but it clearly shows that the unmerciful servant is jailed and punished by end of the chapter for his lack of forgiveness. I would like to know what you think of this. Thank you.
    – user6802
    Jan 27, 2015 at 15:21
  • @Anonymous - I qualified my statements to meet your concern - Very Respectfully,
    – Joseph
    Jan 27, 2015 at 19:25