Does God forgive us because we are forgiving or are we forgiving because God forgives us? In Matthew 18:21-35 Jesus tells a parable that seems to indicate that God’s forgiveness is based on our forgiveness. Here is the parable:
“21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. 28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? 34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
At first glance it does look like Jesus saying that we have to earn God’s forgiveness especially when he underscores the lesson of the parable in verse 35. Over the years many LDS members have referred to this passage to make that point to me.
But a closer look at the parable shows that this is not its message. Before anything else, the king forgives the unmerciful servant. Also note how wonderfully he does that. The servant doesn’t even ask him for forgiveness. All he asks for is a time extension. Instead of granting him that wish, however, the king immediately and fully forgives his massive debt. (10,000 talents of gold was an unbelievable debt seeing that a talent was about 100 pounds. We are talking about 50 tons of gold.)
The king’s incredible forgiveness of this massive debt comes totally out of the blue. Nothing the servant did merited this forgiveness. At this point in the parable all we know of the servant is his failure to pay the debt. It is obvious that God did not forgive him because he was so forgiving. God’s forgiveness came first. Our forgiveness of others flows from God’s forgiveness of us, and not vice versa. God’s forgiveness gives us the motivation and the impetus to be forgiving ourselves.
This parable then becomes another illustration of how works, in this case our being forgiving, are an effect of being forgiven and not a cause of our being forgiven. It brings in the added element that when the Holy Ghost creates faith in people, they are naturally changed. They were spiritually dead. Now they are spiritually alive. And if that change is not evident – in this case by not being forgiving – then it is an indication that the person does not truly believe.
What an awesome God we have. To him be all praise, glory, and honor.