What is meant by “forgiveness” in Matthew 6:12? Part 2

In the previous article (see Part 1) we saw that the forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others. What then are we to make of this condition laid down by our Lord in Matthew 6:12? How are we to understand it?

Calvin offers two instructive, key insights.

First, he notes that this condition is partly intended to comfort the weakness of our faith. Calvin writes,

“For he has added this sign to assure us he has granted forgiveness of sins to us just as surely as we are aware of having forgiven others…” (3.20.45). Similarly, in his commentary on the Gospels, he states that Christ gave this condition in order to “…give…the impression of his seal, to ratify the confidence in our own forgiveness.”

In other words, the sight of good works (i.e., the reflex act of faith) can in some measure serve to comfort and strengthen the believer’s faith. A disposition of forgiveness serves as a witness of God’s dwelling and ruling in the believer. The grace of faith can truly be seen by the forgiving disposition it produces toward others, especially fellow believers (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13; 1 John 3:14).

This first point calls for both a word of caution and a word of encouragement.

A word of caution

While good works can serve to strengthen faith and provide in some measure comfort, believers must always keep in mind that a law-driven mentality dies a slow death. Thus, in the reflex act of faith, the believer must guard against the ever-present tendency to turn back to the merit of works as that which aids in his sanctification.

If good works become the primary ground of assurance or the driving force for sanctification, a de facto justification by works will result.

Instead of a Gospel-Driven pursuit of holiness a law-driven pursuit will take over, which will result in either hypocrisy or despair (which was my case).

Good works can never be the cause of holiness or the primary ground of assurance. The Westminster Confession of Faith accurately explains why our good works (e.g., the petition for forgiveness of sins) cannot serve as the basis for forgiveness:

“We cannot, by our best works, merit pardon of sin, or eternal life, at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them, we can neither profit nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins; but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants; and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. (WCF 16.5)

Because the believer’s good works are “mixed with so much weakness and imperfection” this is why they can never serve as the primary ground of assurance. On a “good day” one may “feel” they are in a state of favor with God. Likewise, on a “bad day” one may “feel” they are in a state of “disfavor” with God. This is a most miserable way to live (I know!). It is also an exceedingly defective view of the Gospel.

Juxtaposed to such a view of the Christian life, the Gospel-Driven life argues that the primary ground of assurance does not lie within one’s self. Our righteousness, as the Reformers insisted, is extra nos, outside ourselves in Christ. Certainly good works may serve a secondary role as a confirmation of one’s faith or as an aid to one’s assurance (cf., 2 Peter 1:5-11). However, they must never be understood as the cause of our holiness or the ultimate ground of our assurance.

The Gospel-Driven life maintains that the believer’s primary ground for holiness and assurance is objective.

The Gospel, the free promise of justification, is the primary ground for both sanctification and assurance. Therefore, the believer must constantly and wholly rely upon the promise of the perfect righteousness of Christ, which is freely given in the Gospel.

Calvin provides this valuable and important explanation,

“…under God’s judgment we must not put any trust in works, or glory in any esteem of them…the saints, when it is a question of the founding and establishing of their own salvation, without regard for works turn their eyes solely to God’s goodness. Not only do they betake themselves to it before all things as to the beginning of blessedness but they repose in it as in the fulfillment of this. A conscience so founded, erected, and established is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us…Therefore, when we rule out reliance upon works, we mean only this: that the Christian mind may not be turned back to the merit of works as to a help toward salvation but should rely wholly on the free promise of righteousness. But we do not forbid him from undergirding and strengthening this faith by signs of the divine benevolence toward him. For if, when all the gifts of God has bestowed upon us are called to mind, they are like rays of the divine countenance by which we are illumined to contemplate that supreme light of goodness; much more is this true of the grace of good works, which shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us [Rom. 8:15],” (3.14.18).

Walter Marshall, in his great work, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, like Calvin, also recognizes that the reflex act of faith (i.e., the observing of one’s sanctification) has a role to play in assurance. But, Marshall rightly insists that the primary grounds for assurance lies in the direct act of faith. Marshall writes,

“Therefore, I conclude, that we must necessarily have some assurance of our salvation in the direct act of faith, by which we are justified, sanctified, and saved, before we can, upon any good ground, assure ourselves, that we are already in a state of grace, by that which we call the reflex act…The contrary doctrine, which excludes assurance out of the nature of saving faith, brings forth many evil fruits. It tends to bereave souls of all assurance of our salvation, and solid comfort, which is the life of religion, by placing them after sincere universal obedience…You do but increase their terror and anguish, if you tell them, they must first get faith and obedience; and, when they find they have done that, they may persuade themselves, that God will receive them into His grace and favor…and if they get some assurance by the reflex act of faith, they often soon lose it again by sins and temptations. The way to avoid these evils, is to get your assurance, and to maintain it, and renew it upon all occasions by the direct act of faith, by trusting assuredly on the name of the Lord, and staying yourself on your God, when you walk in darkness, and see not light in any of your own qualifications (Isa. 1:10). I doubt not but the experience of choice Christians will bear witness to this truth.”

Amen! This is the joy of living a Gospel-Driven life! Like Calvin and Marshall, the Gospel-Driven life maintains that the believer’s primary ground for assurance and holiness is objective. To repeat (one can never repeat this enough!):

“The Gospel, the free promise of justification, is the primary ground for both sanctification and assurance.”

Therefore, the believer must repeatedly, day after day, moment by moment look outside of himself and look to Christ alone, wherein lies his acceptance before a holy and just God. This acceptance is the perfect righteousness of Christ, which is freely given in the Gospel! Believers must, as Jerry Bridges has stated, preach the Gospel to themselves every day.

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Luke 17:10

To be continued…


One Response to What is meant by “forgiveness” in Matthew 6:12? Part 2

  1. Joe Jon says:

    Insightful post, John. When thinking of works it gives me comfort to think on some of the points that Erik Raymond extracted recently from listening to a sermon by Byron Yawn of Community Bible church in Nashville, TN:

    *If Grace is true then you are no better than the worst person imaginable

    *God is not impressed with your good deeds (in fact you should repent from the good deeds you cling to for merit)

    *Legalism is just as offensive as licentiousness

    *There is nothing you can do to effect your standing before God

    *Grace is supplied through Sanctification

    *If Grace is not true then God made a horrible miscalculation

    It’s a good listen and you can read about it here:


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