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Matthew 6:12

"and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors". ESV

  1. Person'A' sins against person 'B'. B knows what they have done but A does not ask for forgivenness.

  2. 'A' sins against 'B'. B does not know what A has done and A does not ask for forgiveness.

  3. 'A' sins against 'B'. A asks for forgiveness but B has proof of their insincerity.

  4. 'A' sins against 'B'. But A dies before B realises what has happened.

How might any of these circumstances relate to the meaning of "we also have forgiven our debtors" as per Matthew 6:12?

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  • If God forgives us as we forgive one another, why would we want to set limits on his mercy? If we “have anything against anyone,” would we not want to forgive them without condition so that we may likewise be forgiven (Mk 11:25)? Admittedly, in certain circumstances, forgiveness may be impossible without the help of God’s grace.
    – Nhi
    Jan 22 at 15:53
  • @Nhi So far answers have not mentioned Mk 11:25. Your comment sounds like the basis of a strong answer.
    – C. Stroud
    Jan 22 at 16:24

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Developing one's character to be forgiving is one of the central themes of Christianity. It is also a major component of modern psychiatric treatment.

Whether someone is forgiven seldom matters to that person, the one who wronged people, made enemies, and then ignored it and moved on.

For the wronged person, bearing resentments and grudges only hurts themself and the people they live and work with. These negative feelings consume one's attention and energy. A single incident can cause years of suffering for the victim and others that care, while the perpetrator continues life not even thinking about it.

Even worse, the person that needs forgiving is sometimes oneself, and living a life of perpetual guilt is a wasted life.

Every Christian has sinned against God and is deserving of the resulting death penalty. Not only does Christ's sacrifice pay that penalty for us, God wants to forgive whatever we have done. Holy character does not perpetuate feelings of resentment or vindictiveness; it forgives.

So too should every Christian, whose duty it is to strive to develop a Godly character.

Those that are saved and become Jesus's spirit siblings will one day judge other people in the second resurrection, people that never had a chance at salvation during their first lives. This judgement must be made based on each person's repentance and character development, not on their past sins.

To get salvation in the first resurrection at Christ's return, God's elect will have developed forgiving characters so that they can help others learn the same thing during the Millennium, and so that they can make proper judgement.

Faced with people like Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, and Judas, if they eventually realize their sins, repent (turn from sin and change their character), and ask for forgiveness, Christians should be able to freely forgive them and judge them for what they have become, not for what they did.

But forgiveness also means forgiving those that haven't repented. (E.g."Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." — Luke 23:34.) Forgiving such people doesn't mean they are no longer responsible for the consequences of their actions, that they are not subject to the penalty of their sins, or that what they did should simply be forgotten, but it does mean that those that forgive will be free of hatred, resentment, and vindictiveness.

That is the attitude to those that sin against them that Christians have.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
— Matthew 5:43–48

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  • I warm towards your "forgiveness also means forgiving those that haven't repented". But can you give clearer reference to back it?
    – C. Stroud
    Jan 21 at 22:26
  • "For the wronged person, bearing resentments and grudges only hurts themself and the people they live and work with." This is different from biblical forgiveness. I 100% agree that we should never bear resentment or have bitter feelings against someone. But that is wholly separate from forgiving them AS God forgives us(Matthew 6:12). We must understand the distinction between (biblically) forgiving someone and letting go of resentment. In English vernacular, forgiveness can mean letting go of resentment. But that is not what it means in the Bible. Otherwise, great answer and +1.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 21 at 22:38
  • Biblical forgiveness is not holding a sin against someone in what you say or do. The forgiveness you are talking about is not holding a sin against someone in your heart and mind, i.e. not being resentful or bitter(which is something you feel, not something you do). As you rightly say, this sort of forgiveness is something all Christians should strive towards, whether or not the person who sins is repentant. But that is not the sort of forgiveness Jesus is talking about; he is talking about the first kind. That is something we should do only if the person repents(see Luke 17:3-4).
    – Rajesh
    Jan 21 at 22:50
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    I think true forgiveness can be measured by: "Wanting good for the person who wronged you." It speaks to the "heart state". A heart that wants good for the other is free of resentment. If you can sincerely pray for the person who did you wrong then it shows authentic forgiveness. I think that's the "heart" of Jesus message in Matthew 5:44
    – Marshall
    Jan 23 at 5:52
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    @Marshall, excellent. I've added the quotation. Thanks. Jan 23 at 15:22
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As if to underscore the point in Mt 6:12, Jesus explains what he means just a few verses later:

For if you forgive other people for their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses. – Mt 6:14-15

Jesus is silent with regard to person A of the OP’s question. He does not qualify the obligation to forgive in any way. Based upon the text as written, the forgiveness of person B depends solely on how he forgives others, regardless of whether those persons repent. Mark 11:25 lends support to this interpretation.

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you for your offenses. 26 But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your offenses. – Mark 11:25

But there is another way to look at the text of Mt 6:12, and that is through the lens of repentance and mercy. The text is first divided into two parts:

v12a – And forgive us our debts

v12b – as we also have forgiven our debtors.

In the context of the prayer, it is natural to interpret 12a as simply a petition. However, considered from another angle, 12a can be seen as a statement of one’s repentance, and 12b as an expression of one’s mercy. Matthew 6:12 can be further explored from the perspective of these two concepts - repentance and mercy, and their relationship to each other.

While we debate the conditions under which a person should be forgiven, Jesus is speaking about something very different. We look at forgiveness as a decision that depends on another person’s repentance, whereas Jesus is saying that mercy is a "fruit" that is “consistent” with our own repentance (Lk 3:8). The impetus for mercy is based on our own repentance and experience of God’s mercy. Repentance and mercy thus go hand in hand, repentance first and with it mercy.

The process that brings us to repentance should help us to sympathize with the faults and weaknesses of others. Likewise, God’s mercy should inspire us to show mercy (Lk 6:36). Ultimately, we are judged according to how well we model his example of mercy.

Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you? – Mt 18:33

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. – James 2:13

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Matthew 6:12 "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

We pray that God forgives us of our debts(sins) AS we also forgive our debtors(those who sin against us). The "as" indicates in a similar manner. What is one thing that is necessary for God to forgive us of our sins? Genuine repentance. It's the same with those who sin against us. We'll see this made clear by what Jesus says at Matthew 18:21-34;

Matthew 18:21-34 “Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I still 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-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 And when he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his master commanded that he be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment be made. 26 So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the master of that slave felt compassion, and he released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling, and went and threw him in prison until he would pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their master all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his master, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he would repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.

What did Jesus mean when he said, for this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves? What's the reason Jesus is talking about? The necessity of forgiveness where there is repentance. This is made plain in the parable Jesus told. What led the master to have compassion and forgive the slave? The slave "fell to the ground and prostrated himself" before the master, and begged for the patience of his master. The king himself said in verse 32 that he forgave the slave of all his debt because he pleaded with him.

The master could discern that the slave was genuinely repentant by what he did, i.e. fall to the ground, prostrate himself, and beg for mercy. The genuine repentance on the part of the slave enabled the master to forgive the debt entirely; obviously, if the slave did not show any signs of repentance(i.e. prostrating, begging for patience), the master would have never forgiven him of his debts.

There are three essential points that Jesus is trying to make with this parable;

(1) In order for there to be forgiveness, there first has to be repentance. That is a stipulation. This applies to both the forgiveness of humans(remember, it was Peter who incited Jesus to tell this parable by his question of how many times he should forgive his brother) and the forgiveness of God(the king in the parable represents God, and the king forgave his slave because he pleaded with him. Thus, God forgives us because we plead with him for forgiveness, i.e. are repentant).

(2) Forgiveness on the part of God is necessitated when there is repentance on the part of the one who sins(i.e. for this reason the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves...).

(3) Because God always forgives us when we are genuinely repentant, we must forgive others when they are repentant, otherwise, God will stop forgiving us, just as the king stopped forgiving his slave(i.e. my heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother...).

Luke 17:3-4 makes point 1 unequivocal;

Luke 17:3-4 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.””

Notice Jesus does not say, "if your brother sins, just forgive him no matter what"; he says, if your brothers sins AND repents, you must forgive him. Thus, if our brother repents of his sin against us, we are required to forgive him. It's as unambiguous as that. We are not required to forgive everything everyone does to us; we are only required to forgive the genuinely repentant. If we forgive someone who is unrepentant, and, being unrepentant, continues to sin, are we not encouraging them to continue in their ways? If God chooses to just let go of everyone's sin no matter what, then there would be no need for atonement, i.e. no need for what Jesus did on the cross. Everyone would be saved! And we could do whatever we want, live whatever kind of life, and never have to worry about the wrath of God being on us. Remember, we forgive our debtors AS God forgives us, i.e. in the same manner. If God does not forgive unrepentant ones, neither should we. It's as simple as that.

Now, knowing everything we know, let's analyze each of the situations given in the OP's question, and see how they fit within the framework already laid out.

  • Person A sins against person B. B knows what they have done but A does not ask for forgiveness.

If person A does not ask for forgiveness, it is because he does not want it. If he did, all he'd have to do is ask; but he didn't, therefore he doesn't want it. What does this imply? That person A is unrepentant. Remember, you cannot forgive if there is no repentance. You cannot give someone something that they do not want, i.e. one cannot genuinely accept what they do not want. In order for person A to accept forgiveness, he'd have to want it, and it's clear that he doesn't, given the fact that he never requested it. Thus, in this circumstance, person B cannot forgive person A.

  • A sins against B. B does not know what A has done and A does not ask for forgiveness.

If person B is not aware of the sin of person A, how is person B supposed to forgive person A of his sin? You can't forgive someone for something if you are completely unaware of what that something is! Thus, in this circumstance, person B cannot forgive person A.

  • A sins against B. A asks for forgiveness but B has proof of their insincerity.

Well, then person B has to juggle between a type 1 and type 2 error. What's that? A type 1 error, also called a false positive, occurs when one rejects the null hypothesis when it is true, e.g. the null hypothesis of the given situation is [person A is repentant]; if the hypothesis is true, but person B rejects it and chooses to not forgive person A, he has made a type 1 error. A type 2 error, also called a false negative, occurs when one fails to reject(i.e. accepts) the null hypothesis when it is false, e.g. the null hypothesis of the given situation is [person A is repentant]; if the hypothesis is false, but person B accepts it and chooses to forgive person A, he has made a type 2 error.

In the given situation, there is no way to know with absolute certainty whether the hypothesis[person A is repentant] is true or not... but then again, there is never any way to know with absolute certainty whether someone is repentant or not. Human beings do not have the ability to search the hearts or examine the minds of men; only God does.

Jeremiah 17:10 "I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve."

Remember, repentance isn't just saying your sorry; it's a genuine change in the condition of a person's heart. This will be made manifest in the things someone says and does. But it's not like it's impossible for a person to act in a way that contradicts what they know or believe(that is called cognitive dissonance); nor is it impossible for one to say they feel a certain way, when in actuality they do not(that is called a lie). The bottom line is, you have to infer to the best of your abilities whether or not someone is genuinely repentant. You will never be able to know with absolute certainty what one genuinely thinks or believes; only God can do so. Thus, all we can do is try our best, using all the information available to us, to ascertain the true condition of one's heart, all the while hoping to avoid making either a type 1 or type 2 error, always keeping in mind that we are imperfect and highly limited and thus prone to error, never forgetting that our Heavenly Father understands our imperfections and limitations and does not hold them against us... Indeed, life is NOT simple, not by any means.

Now, if there really is proof that person A is unrepentant, then (depending on how incriminating the proof is) it's most probable that the null hypothesis[person A is repentant] is false, and should thus be rejected. Once again, there's no way to know with 100% certainty, and that's alright; we must embrace the fact that we are imperfect, highly limited beings. But if the evidence highly substantiates the claim that person A is unrepentant, it would be inadvisable to reject it. Thus, in this circumstance, person B should not forgive person A.

  • A sins against B. But A dies before B realizes what has happened.

If A dies before B realizes what has happened, there's really no way at all for person B to even guess if person A was repentant. Certainly, person A cannot repent while dead(or perhaps he can, depending on whether or not you believe the dead are conscious. But even if he does repent while dead, person B would never know). The only way person B can make a judgment on whether or not person A was repentant is by using what he knows about what person A did while still alive, i.e. whether or not he was ever remorseful for his actions, or ever pleaded for forgiveness. But as per what is given, none of that happened while person A was alive, as person B was unaware of person A's actions while he was still alive(if person A had shown remorse or asked for forgiveness, surely person B would have known about the sin person A committed against him; but he doesn't, thus person A could not have shown any remorse or have asked for forgiveness). Thus, in this circumstance, person B is incapable of forgiving person A.

Hope this helps! Have a great day. :)

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  • I round your answer really helpful but I am not clear how it relates to Mark 11:25 "whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone" Here forgiving is something not between people but between the sinned against and God. Any further comment?
    – C. Stroud
    Jan 23 at 19:30

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