These two verses contain a reason of the fifth petition, concerning the forgiveness of our sins; which is propounded with a limitation and condition of our forgiving them that trespass against us; the reason here is: because in this behalf, we shall find such measure with God, as we meet out unto our brethren.
For the meaning of the words, three points must be discussed:
1. First, whom this reason doth concern, namely, private men for private trespasses. It reacheth not to magistrates and public persons in their function, who be the ministers of God to take vengeance on them that do evil (Rom. 13:4); for to such the Lord saith, Thine eye shall not spare the offender (Deut. 19:13,19); but according to the quality of the offence, must he execute judgment upon offenders, for the removing of evil. And so must parents and masters deal in their families, and ministers in their public dispensation of the Word; for else offences would so abound, that there could be no living for GodŐs people in the world.
2. How do these depend one upon another, our forgiving of men, and GodŐs forgiving us? Answer: We must not conceive that our forgiving men their trespasses, is a cause why God forgives us; for we are by nature dead in sin, and cannot do any good thing of ourselves till we be enabled thereunto of God. But our forgiving is a sign that God hath forgiven us, being indeed a fruit of our reconciliation with God; for it is a sign of true repentance, which is a fruit of faith, whereby we apprehend the mercy of God for the pardon of our sins in Christ.
3. How should our forgiveness go before GodŐs forgiving us? For so the words seem to import, If you forgiveÉ. Your heavenly Father will forgive you etc. Answer: The pardon of sin which God gives must be considered two ways: First, as it is given in heaven; secondly, as it is revealed and assured to the conscience of man. Now the pardon of sin in heaven always goes before our forgiving others; but our assurance of pardon with God, follows after our forgiving of men; for a manŐs sins may be forgiven with God, and yet he may long remain without the assurance thereof in his own conscience. This we may see in David; for when Nathan said, The Lord hath put away thy sin (2 Sam. 12:13), no doubt it was forgiven in heaven; but yet his earnest prayer (Psa. 51) for pardon afterward shews plainly that he did not upon NathanŐs speech receive the comfortable assurance of pardon in his own conscience. This then is ChristŐs meaning: That if we forgive men their trespasses, God will assure us in our consciences that he hath forgiven us; otherwise, if we will not forgive, God will deny us that assurance.
The use of this point is:
1. Firstly and chiefly this: We must learn to forgive and forget all private wrongs and injuries done unto us, whether great or small, without desire of revenge. The reasons to move us hereunto are these:
(1) First, it is GodŐs commandment here expressly enjoined, which must needs bind the conscience to obedience.
(2) Secondly, if we will not forgive men, God will not forgive us. This Christ enforceth by doubling the sentence. Now without GodŐs forgiveness there is no salvation, and therefore we must be ready to forgive, as we tender our own salvation.
(3) Thirdly, the frailty of our nature is such that we ourselves are subject to do wrong to others. This is intimated in the phrase: Except you forgive men their trespasses; so that every man is prone to trespass against others; and therefore as we would be forgiven when we trespass, so must we also forgive men their trespasses.
Now for the better performing of our duty herein, these rules must be observed:
(1) We shall perceive in sundry men many wants and frailties, which menŐs laws punish not; as in old men frowardness, in others hastiness; and in some ambition and desire of praise. Now these and such like we must in love pass by, without taking notice thereof (Prov. 19:11), It is the glory of a man to pass by an offence.
(2) If men give us some light occasions of offence, as upbraid us with our ignorance, unskillfulness, baseness, poverty, or such like, we must lightly pass them over, preferring the bond of peace before outward reputation.
(3) Though a man do unto us that which is indeed flat injury, yet if it do not manifestly hinder GodŐs glory, or too much prejudice our good estate; by hurting out good name, our goods, or life; we must cause our private grief and hurt to yield to public peace.
(4) If men do us such great wrongs as manifestly hinder GodŐs glory, and our good estate, in life, goods, or name; then we must use the help of the magistrate, and the lawful defence of laws provided for that end. Always remembering that in seeking to right ourselves, we lay aside all malice, hatred and desire of revenge, and with a single heart propound GodŐs glory in the reformation of the party that doth us wrong.
2. Secondly, in this reason to persuading to forgiveness we may see that pardon of sin before God, and reformation of life go together. For here by this one branch of a reformed life in brotherly forgiveness, is understood all of the same kind. But where is no reformation of life, there is no pardon of sin before God. Wouldest thou therefore be assured in thy conscience of GodŐs special favour towards thee in Christ? Then reform thy life by every law of God; for this will give thee assurance from God. But if thy life be unreformed, thy hope of pardon is a mere conceit of thine own brain; and therefore if thou want reformation, now begin, and if thou have begun, then hold on, and do it more and more, for thy more full assurance.