Does an unforgiving spirit jeopardize salvation? (Matt 6:14–15)
If someone gives their life to Jesus [i.e., is saved] … and they die before they were able to forgive someone, does that mean they lose their salvation? Because God won’t forgive you if you don’t forgive?
This question gives us an opportunity to encourage the consistent reading of Scripture. Apparent conflicts arise if we don’t keep things in their proper place. We need to read Scripture regularly and mostly in order. Isaiah (Isa. 28:10–13), Peter (2 Pet. 1.20), and Paul (1 Tim. 2:15) warn us that we need to be aware of the context and relationships in Scripture. Many favor plans which guide them through reading the whole Bible in a year. For the moment let’s just consider the New Testament.
Reading through Matthew’s gospel we find a number of verses that seem to imply that our relationship to God is conditional. The verses referred to in the question are an example of this. Others might be Matthew 22:13 where the wedding guest is cast out or Matthew 25:30 where the servant is cast out or Matthew 24:13 where we are told: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” These are all passages that have been used by some to teach that we have a conditional or insecure salvation.
As we continue reading through the gospels we come to John’s gospel where we get a very different impression of our relationship to God. Right at the beginning in chapter 1:13, we are told if we believe we are “born of God.” This certainly seems permanent. And, indeed, as we continue through John’s gospel this theme is persistent. In John 5:24 we read: “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” And, in John 10:28 we read: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” So, there is a difference between Matthew’s message and John’s message. Why is that?
John’s gospel presents the truth of new birth. (See Jn. 1:11–13; Jn. 3:16, etc.; Jn. 10:29, etc.) John’s ministry is Eternal Life. The Lord Jesus is The Eternal Life (Jn. 1:4) and He communicates eternal life to us through new birth. This is an immutable and inviolable possession of the believer because He as the Source and Sustainer of eternal life is Himself eternal. Eternal life is a present possession of the believer (Jn. 5:24). By possessing eternal life we have fellowship with God (Jn. 17:3).
So then, what is Matthew talking about? He must be presenting our relationship to Christ in a perspective that includes conditions. Being governmental in nature, the Kingdom of Heaven has a conditional character. The sad fact is that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” (Matt. 7:21) has truly trusted Christ as savior. Consequently, it presents governmental aspects of our relationship to God. Failing servants can be cast out.
Now, with this perspective, the verses in Matthew 6:14–15 become more clear. They are not giving an eternal perspective but a governmental perspective. If we hold bitter feelings against someone who has wronged us, that has a negative effect on ourselves. Even secular psychology has recognized that. This does not mean we just pass off offenses. Other Scriptures like Matthew 18:15–17 and Galatians 6:1–5 give guidance regarding how we should approach offenses. The point here is that “carrying a grudge” is not helpful to either party. We need grace from God and wisdom to know how to deal with each situation. But, the overruling principle is love first to God and also to others. Love does not seek its own advantage, but always the good of others (1 Cor. 13:4–7).