A passage that often evokes discussion between Mormons and Christians is Matthew 18:35: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” Does this passage say that God conditions his forgiveness on our forgiveness? That he doesn’t forgive us until we are forgiving? That is what Mormonism teaches.
As is soon often the case, so also here – the order things happen is terribly important. What is the order here? God forgives us and then we forgive others? Or is it we forgive others and then God forgives us? The order in which you put these two things makes a huge difference.
The context of this passage clearly identifies that the order is that first God forgives us and that then enables us to forgive others. First Jesus spoke this to Peter, who had already experienced God’s forgiveness. He already was a disciple. He had asked how forgiving should he be – see v. 21. Basically Jesus told him to have limitless forgiveness.
Then, to make the point Jesus told a striking parable. In that parable the king unconditionally forgives the enormous debt of his servant. The servant hadn’t even asked for forgiveness – he just had asked for more time. But the king forgave him everything. That came first. The king didn’t wait to forgive him until the servant demonstrated forgiveness. The servant’s desire or ability to forgive are not even in the picture. It’s only after the servant was forgiven and then showed an unforgiving spirit that the king became angry.
The point is clear – and it agrees with the rest of the Bible. Believers are changed people. One thing that changes is that they now have a forgiving heart. Their forgiving others doesn’t merit God’s forgiveness – it is one of the outward evidences of the inward change. Therefore when the outward evidence is lacking, it indicates that the inward change hasn’t taken place.
God forgives us – without waiting to see if we will be forgiving. In fact, without first experiencing God’s forgiveness we don’t have the ability to be truly forgiving. It’s impossible. Therefore God forgives us just as the king forgave his servant. That forgiveness changes us – a fact that is seen in our being forgiving. If we aren’t forgiving it is signaling something else – namely, that we aren’t changed and thus haven’t been touched by God’s forgiveness. The true miracle of forgiveness is that God acts first.