Lenten Gospel Reflections, Day 21: Forgiveness Begets Forgiveness

During this season of Lent, I will be working through Bishop Robert Barron’s Lenten Gospel Reflections (available through Word on Fire). Each day, I will share the readings and the reflection question, followed by my own thoughts.

March 22, 2022

Peter came to Jesus and said,
21b “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; 25 and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me; 33 and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The Holy Bible (Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition, Mt 18:21–35). (2006). Ignatius Press.

Is there anyone you need to forgive? Reflect on God’s mercy toward you as you plan a way to rebuild that relationship.

“Is there anyone I need to forgive?” I guess the real answer is “anyone who has wronged me.” As if the epilogue to this quoted parable wasn’t already explicit enough, we hear Christ give us this admonition following the Lord’s Prayer: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). This is a hard teaching, and certainly one that we as Christians prefer to ignore or explain away.

These two passages – the epilogue to the parable and the admonition following the Our Father – are ones that I really wrestled with as a Protestant before my conversion to Catholicism. Christ quite explicitly says that God’s forgiveness is only given to us if we will forgive others. Protestant theology allows for no such reading of the text; after all, the Protestant dogma of “Sola Fide” says that Christians are saved by faith alone, and not by any of their works; any good works that they exhibit must needs be evidence of prior salvation, rather than being that on which our forgiveness depends (further reading).

There are several creative ways in which one might try to reinterpret Christ’s teachings on forgiveness. One example comes from the ESV Study Bible, a well-regarded Protestant study Bible containing study notes from the perspective of “classic evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation” (ESV Study Bible, p. 10). Their study note on this topic says the following:

Forgive us our debts (the fifth petition) does not mean that believers need to ask daily for justification, since believers are justified forever from the moment of initial saving faith (Rom. 5:1, 9; 8:1; 10:10). Rather, this is a prayer for the restoration of personal fellowship with God when fellowship has been hindered by sin (cf. Eph. 4:30). Those who have received such forgiveness are so moved with gratitude toward God that they also eagerly forgive those who are debtors to them.

The ESV Study Bible, p. 1832

Addressing Christ’s warning of God’s forgiveness withheld from those who do not forgive others, the notes reassure the reader thus:

As in v. 12, forgive your trespasses here refers to restoration of personal relationship with God, not to initial justification.

The ESV Study Bible, p. 1832

These notes raise several questions:

  • Christ quite clearly lays out a cause/effect sequence in Matthew 6:15, saying, “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you;” why does the ESV study note so freely swap this cause/effect sequence? The Bible says that our forgiveness precedes the Father’s forgiveness; turning this on its head, the ESV study notes say that the Father’s forgiveness precedes (or causes) our “eager” forgiveness. If giving forgiveness is simply a reflexive reaction to being forgiven, why must we be commanded so many times to do it?
  • The claim that believers do not need to ask for justification after their initial justification is seemingly proven by the assertion that “believers are justified forever from the moment of initial salvation” (p. 1832), a statement which was followed by four citations which one would infer validate the claim. For this claim to be true, we would need to see that at least one of the citations says something to the effect of believers only having the ability to be justified once, or of justification being permanent, or of initial salvation being one’s only salvation. Let’s investigate the verses.
    • Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
      • This verse doesn’t say that we can’t lose our salvation.
    • Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
      • Neither does this one.
    • Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
      • Not here either.
    • Romans 10:10: “For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.
      • 0/4. Not a single one of these verses says that “believers are justified forever from the moment of initial salvation.”
  • The second quote given begs the question, assuming that there is only one kind of justification: “initial justification.” But the doctrine of sola primum justificatio is man-made, just as are the doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura. Unrepentant venial sin does require repentance to attain “restoration of personal relationship with God,” as the ESV study notes say. And if we have withheld forgiveness from others, Christ tells us that God’s forgiveness – which is essential for the restoration of that relationship – will be withheld from us. However, where the ESV contributors go wrong is this: though they admit the possibility of fracturing our relationship with God, they assume that no sin can cut off that relationship entirely. But we know from Scripture that unrepentant mortal sin cuts us off from God’s grace (1 John 5:17, Hebrews 10:26, Revelation 21:8, Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10)*. Mortal sin means that our relationship with God is not merely damaged, needing restoration; it is broken and needs rebuilding. After we cut ourselves off from God by committing a mortal sin, we need to be justified again.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the sequence of justification thus:

The Council of Trent assigns the first and most important place to faith, which is styled “the beginning, foundation and root of all justification.” All the bishops present at the council fully realized how important it was to explain St. Paul’s saying that man is justified through faith. Comparing Bible and Tradition they could not experience any serious difficulty in showing that fiduciary faith was an absolutely new invention and that the faith of justification was identical with a firm belief in the truths and promises of Divine revelation. As its first effect this supernatural faith produces in the soul a fear of God‘s avenging justice, and then, through the consideration of God‘s mercy, it awakens the hope of forgiveness for Christ’s sake, which is soon followed by the first beginnings of charity. The next step is a genuine sorrow for all sin with the resolution to begin a new life by receiving holy baptism and by observing the commandments of God. The process of justification is then brought to a close by the baptism of water, as by the grace of this sacrament the catechumen is freed from sin (original and personal) and its punishments, and is made a child of God. The same process of justification is repeated in those who by mortal sin have lost their baptismal innocence; with this modification, however, that the Sacrament of Penance replaces baptism. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia: Justification

All this is to say that try as we might, we can’t explain away Christ’s very clear words in Scripture: If we withhold forgiveness, our sins will not be forgiven. Instead of trying to escape Jesus’ hard teachings, we must recognize that God’s Word is true, and must we ask Him for His grace so that our hearts might not reject that which is hard for us to hear; and we must pray that He would soften us and give us the grace of docility so that we may be taught by the Holy Spirit, and we must petition that He would shape us and conform us to His image and will so that we might delight in His commandments.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a marvelous insight into The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-34). As we saw in today’s reading, Christ commands that all believers should “forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). The Catechism states, “It is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart,’ that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC 2843). God knows our hearts. He created us. He knows that there is evil in this life. He knows that our hearts will be wounded. And when those wounds ache, we have a choice. We can dwell in the valley of darkness, enveloped in pain, fantasizing about revenge, letting hatred spread like a cancer in our soul – or we can (only through strength given by God) use the pain as a reminder to fix our gaze upon Christ on the Cross, Who uttered these words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And we can echo these words – at first quietly, painfully, in our hearts – and then, as God grants us the strength to do so, we can pray these words out loud, first as a whisper, then as a cry from our innermost beings.

Lord, grant us the strength to forgive others as You have forgiven us, especially when we don’t want to.

*Two can play at that game, ESV Study Bible.


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