Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Having More Assurance by Forgiving Others
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. 1 John 3:14NKJV
This morning we continue to study Westminster Larger Catechism Question 194, which asks, “What do we pray for in the fifth petition?” Let us look at the sixth and final part of the answer, which is the italicized portion of the following: “In the fifth petition (which is, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,)… we pray for ourselves and others that God of his free grace would, through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, apprehended and applied by faith, acquit us both from the guilt and punishment of sin, accept us in his Beloved; continue his favour and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness; which we are the rather emboldened to ask, and encouraged to expect, when we have this testimony in ourselves, that we from the heart forgive others their offences.” Last time we saw how it is our duty to continue to ask God to accept us in Christ. Today we consider how our forgiving others their offenses towards us should embolden us to ask for and even to expect greater assurance that we ourselves are forgiven by God.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Clearly a comparison is being made by this statement. We are saying, “God, do ‘A’ to us as we do this same ‘A’ to others.” Since “A” in this equation is standing for “forgive,” what do we mean by this comparison? In what way are we asking God to forgive us as we forgive others? From the English translation it is certainly possible to understand the petition as asking God to forgive me according to my works. It is grammatically possible to understand this sentence as saying to God “Give me forgiveness according to the sincerity and degree with which I give forgiveness to others.” It is grammatically possible to understand the sentence this way, but it is not theologically possible! Since many passages of Scripture confirm that none of my works can form the meritorious basis upon which I should expect saving grace from God, we must rule out this possible grammatical meaning.
Last time we saw that part of this request is that God would increase our own assurance of forgiveness. In today’s portion the Catechism explains that we are emboldened to ask for this increased assurance and even encouraged to expect it when we have a certain testimony or witness in our own selves. What is that witness? The Catechism does not leave us in doubt: “that we from the heart forgive others their offences.” In other words, the testimony or witness that emboldens us to ask for an increased assurance that God forgives us of our sins against Him; the testimony or witness that encourages us to expect that God will increase our assurance that He forgives us our sins against Him is the same thing. It is when we see that we are from the heart forgiving other people of their offenses against us. As the Scripture at the head of this article confirms: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.” Certain knowledge, which is to say assurance, that I have eternal life is given to me as I see that I love my fellow Christians, for only a saved person can truly love others. In the same way the Catechism is affirming that a growing assurance of being forgiven comes from when I see that I am forgiving others.
Thus when we pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we are not saying, “God do this for me just like I do it for others – a one for one trade that I earn,” but on the contrary we are saying, “God grant forgiveness to me since I see the grace of forgiveness in me going out to others.” The fact is that if I can at all forgive others from my heart, it can only be because Jesus Christ is in me. If Jesus Christ is in me, then it can only mean that I have been converted and that therefore I am trusting in Him alone for my justification before God. And if I am trusting in Christ for salvation then most assuredly when I ask God to forgive me of my sins I know that He will, because all who trust in Jesus Christ will not be disappointed. Therefore, this petition is not a petition of merit, but a petition of faith: “Lord forgive me, even as I see that I also am about the business of forgiving others.” My forgiveness of others should not be the test but the evidence I have that I will be forgiven whenever I ask to be. May God grant that this petition would embolden us to seek God’s forgiveness in the full assurance of faith!