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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Prayer requires a forgiving spirit
Text:Mark 11:25-26 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 148
Psalm 25:4
Hymn 72
Psalm 112:1,2
Hymn 75

Reading:  Matthew 18:21-35
Text:  Mark 11:25-26  (NOTE:  verse 26 in the ESV is found in a footnote at the bottom of the page.  The ESV says "some manuscripts" include this verse.  The truth is that most manuscripts of the Greek New Testament have this verse as part of the biblical text.  I regard it as part of the inspired Word of God also.)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Africa is in the news again because of the civil war going on in Ethiopia, in the Tigray region.  Africa has seen so much suffering in the past few decades.  Think of the Sudanese civil war between 1983 and 2005 – an estimated 2 million people died.  There was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.  An estimated 800,000 people were brutally killed.  Around the same time there was a civil war raging in the west African country of Liberia. 

In that conflict too, there was horrific violence and brutality.  In my first congregation, we had a family who’d come from Liberia, fleeing the civil war.  They had seen and experienced unspeakable acts of barbarism.  Over 200,000 people lost their lives. 

One of those responsible was Joshua Milton Blahyi.  He claims to be directly responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 people.  He was a Liberian warlord.  He led a brigade made up largely of child soldiers.  They’d terrorize communities and randomly butcher people.  Blahyi had a nickname derived from his practice of doing these things without any clothing.  He was feared.

But something happened to Joshua Milton Blahyi.  He says he became a Christian.  Now he spends his time travelling across Liberia and seeking out people he’d victimized so he can apologize to them and seek their forgiveness.  This raises all sorts of questions.  Some are willing to accept his apology and they do forgive Blahyi.  They try to let go of the hurt and try to move on, despite the pain and grief they still feel.  Others are not so inclined.  They believe that Blahyi is a criminal and that justice must be served.  He should be either tried in Liberia or in the Hague for crimes against humanity.  His repentance and remorse are irrelevant, they argue.  Some of those who argue for justice are personally inclined to forgive Blahyi, but yet they still feel he has to receive justice for his crimes.  Where would you stand?  If you were a Liberian who had experienced the terror of Blahyi and his brigade, would you forgive?  What would that look like?           

Of course, I don’t think any of us have ever experienced that degree of brutality.  But yet questions of forgiveness come up in our lives too.  When someone hurts us, and they’re repentant and seek our forgiveness, should we forgive?  If so, how and what does that look like?  Does that mean there are no further consequences?  These can be difficult questions and we need to wrestle with them.

Our text for this morning helps us with some of those questions.  Here in Mark our Lord Jesus is near the city of Jerusalem.  His date with death is near.  He cursed the fig tree and then used that as a picture of the unbelief of God’s people.  He also seized the opportunity to teach his disciples again about prayer.  Here he goes a step further and teaches them and us that there’s an intimate connection between prayer and forgiveness.  We’ll see how prayer requires a forgiving spirit.  We’ll consider:

  1. Why our Father forgives us
  2. Why we forgive others
  3. Why the two are connected

The answer to why God forgives us may seem obvious at first glance.  But our text makes us reconsider.  After all, Christ makes it sound as if we forgive first, and then God forgives us.  If that’s the case, it could well be that God’s forgiveness of us is on the condition that we forgive others.  In other words, our forgiveness is the basis for his.  And if we won’t forgive, then God doesn’t forgive us either.  Therefore, it’s good that we think about this carefully. 

There are a few things that factor in here.  First off, we need to be clear on the definition of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a promise from one person to another.  It’s a promise that an offense that has been committed won’t be used against the person who committed the offense.  Forgiveness is a promise that the offense is out of the way and no longer represents an obstacle in the relationship. 

The next thing to notice is the fact that Christ speaks here in Mark 11 about “your Father in heaven.”  That speaks of an existing relationship between these disciples and God.  God is their Father and they’re his children.  So, we need to account for the basis of that relationship in the first place.  How can anyone have God for their Father in heaven?  The answer to that was given by Christ in John 14:6.  He said the only way to the Father was through him.  By believing in Christ, all our sins past, present, and future are taken out of the way and God has a friendly relationship of fellowship with us.  The one who was our judge is now our Father.  That can only be on the ground of what Christ has done for us.  We must rest and trust in him alone, not in anything we’ve ever done. 

That speaks of what we call judicial forgiveness.  Before God as judge, we have been forgiven and we are right before him, righteous in his sight.  But there’s another sort of forgiveness with respect to God.  This is the forgiveness described in the Lord’s Prayer when Christ teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  Christ taught his disciples who already believed in him to pray this.  He taught those who could already address God as their Father to pray in this way.  That sort of forgiveness is called parental forgiveness.  So, there is judicial forgiveness and parental forgiveness.  The parental forgiveness means we recognize how we’ve offended and grieved the God who is already our Father through Christ.  We ask him to forgive us for having displeased him.  He hasn’t abandoned us or forsaken us when we sin and he still loves us, but yet our sins do affect our relationship with him.  Therefore, there’s still a need for Christians to pray to God for forgiveness on a regular basis. 

The ground for that parental forgiveness is exactly the same as that for God’s judicial forgiveness.  It’s only because of Christ.  We ask God to take our sins out of the way because Jesus is our Saviour and he lived perfectly in our place and died on the cross to pay for all our sins.             

So as we look at Mark 11:25-26, we need to keep this distinction in mind.  The fact that Christ made a point, not just once, but twice of speaking of “your Father who is in heaven,” that tells us that what he has in mind here is God’s parental forgiveness.  This isn’t about establishing a relationship of fellowship with God.  This is about the maintenance of that relationship, this is about living our Christian lives here on this earth before the face of our Father.  You could say that this is about life within the covenant of grace, life within that special relationship believers have with God.

You see, loved ones, the heart of the matter has to do with the gospel and our response to it.  Do we see how rich and blessed we are through Christ?  Thinking of that parable Jesus told in Matthew 18, do we have any idea of how much we have been forgiven?  Really, this comes down to two things. 

It comes down to a humble recognition of our great poverty.  Of ourselves we have nothing.  Luther’s last words before he died, “We are beggars.  That is true.”  Exactly.  Not only do we have nothing to offer God to atone for our sins, we’re still constantly adding insult to injury.  Recognizing our own sinfulness makes us into people with soft hearts toward others. 

The other thing that it comes down to is the recognition of the largeness of our Father’s heart.  He is abundantly gracious.  He lavishes mercy upon the undeserving, on me and you, on all of us.  He doesn’t give us what our sins deserve, but instead through Christ he treats us as his beloved children and promises us his inheritance.  Again, this is the good news and if we don’t get that, Mark 11:25-26 will be pointless.

So why do we forgive others?  Before we can answer that fully, let’s back up for a moment and look carefully at what verse 25 says.  Look at verse 25.  It says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone….”  Normally, forgiveness is a transaction.  It’s something that takes place between two parties.  So, for instance, Joshua Milton Blahyi sinned against all these people in Liberia.  He goes to each of them individually and he asks for forgiveness.  Sometimes he receives it.  When he does, a transaction has taken place.  There’s been a back-and-forth between the offender and the offended.  Normally, the offender has to go to the offended and seek forgiveness.  But here in Mark 11, we don’t read anything about that.  Here the onus falls on the offended. 

The one who was offended has something against someone.  Christ makes this very broad.  He doesn’t say how serious it is.  He doesn’t say what it involves.  It’s just “anything” and “anyone.”  He doesn’t say here that this forgiveness requires any personal contact whatsoever.  You have to notice that – it’s crucial here.  There’s no personal contact between the offender and the offended.  That’s for a good reason.  You see, this is what about takes place inside, not outside.  This is about what takes place in the heart.  This is about the attitude that goes along with forgiveness, rather than the actual transaction of forgiveness spoken about elsewhere in Scripture.  Mark 11:25-26 is about having the willingness to let go of wrongs committed against you.  It’s about moving on and having a heart of grace and charity towards the one who has offended you.  It’s being in the place where if the offender comes and seeks forgiveness, you’re eager to extend it.               

Now to the question of why.  Here again we need to think about the gospel.  We need to reflect on how much grace we’ve been shown.  We ought to consider how often it is that not only do we sin, but also that we fail to seek our Father’s forgiveness for those sins.  Oh sure, we might pray in a general way for the forgiveness of all our sins.  We hope that “all our sins” covers every offense.  But if you think about it, that can sometimes be sort of glib and insincere.  Imagine if someone came to you and said, “I’m not sure what I did to offend you, but whatever it was, whatever I did, please forgive me.  Please forgive everything.”  And let’s say you have the perfect knowledge of everything this person did.  You might consider the person insincere and you might regard this plea for forgiveness as rather mechanical or contrived.  But isn’t that how we often approach our Father in heaven with our sins?  We often prefer general catch-all confessions to specific mentions of particular instances and sins.  Even our repentance, confessions, and seeking forgiveness – all of that is even stained with sin.  Now the remarkable thing is that because of Christ, God still does receive us and forgive us.  Because of Christ, he still extends his grace towards us.  How patient and merciful our Father is!  He’s patient and forbearing with us and our sins and weaknesses.  And he’s abounding in mercy.  Do you know what the opposite of mercy is?  It’s cruelty.  Our Father isn’t cruel, but kind, merciful, and abundantly so.    

Why should we have the attitude of forgiveness towards others?  Why should we forgive wherever and whenever we can?  Because in the gospel that’s exactly what God has done with us.  We’re given the Holy Spirit so we can more and more reflect the image of God as we were created to do.  The attitudes and actions of forgiveness were shown with Christ and how he related to his disciples and others.  We’re united to Christ through faith and therefore our lives are to reflect him.  Within days of our text he was hanging on the cross and praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  We love God and we want to please him and so we desire to extend grace and mercy wherever and however we can. 

Brothers and sisters, this kind of approach to the people around us is a powerful testimony to the gospel.  Jason Lang is a name that many people in southern part of the Canadian province of Alberta will never forget.  Jason was a 17 year old student at W. R. Meyers High School in Taber, Alberta.  On April 28, 1999 another student, Todd Smith, walked into the school with a gun and began shooting.  Jason Lang was shot dead at point blank range.  It was a terrible tragedy.  A vibrant young man’s life was violently cut short.  But something powerful and good came out of this.  You see, Jason’s dad was Rev. Dale Lang, the local Anglican minister.  Rev. Lang believed the gospel and he knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life.  Shortly after the shooting, he publicly forgave Todd Smith for shooting his son Jason.  Todd Smith hadn’t asked for forgiveness, but Rev. Lang showed the kind of spirit we find in our text.  Having been blessed so richly with the gospel, he had a heart that was willing and ready to forgive even this terrible sin.  He later said, “ someone who had been a follower of Jesus Christ for 22 years, forgiveness was the only response that I could give. I didn't think about it, my wife and I didn't sit down and talk about it, it was a response out of our faith. We did it because it was the way we understood who Jesus is. And we did that and it had a significant impact on people in the country.  I can't explain except to say that people just are not used to forgiveness.”  It was a powerful witness to the gospel.  It’s an example we should keep hidden in our memories.  Perhaps someday you’ll have a similar opportunity to witness to the power of the gospel in your life.

So given all of that, what’s the connection between prayer and forgiveness?  Why does Christ bring those two things together here?  This is about our relationship with our Father in heaven.  Forgiveness here has to do with the maintenance of that relationship.  Prayer has to do with communication in that relationship.  The two are intimately connected because if the relationship isn’t being maintained and kept relatively healthy, then communication isn’t going to function as it should.

If we have a beef with someone and harbour bitterness and resentment, that’s going to affect our relationship with our Father in heaven.  Why?  Because such an attitude is a sin.  When you’re being ungracious and even keeping just the slightest hint of a grudge, do you think that pleases your Father in heaven?  No.  It’s a sin and it offends and grieves him.  He wants his children to show they understand the depth of what Christ has done for them and then go and do likewise because they love their Saviour and their Father in heaven.

So this isn’t about a sort of works-righteousness or works-forgiveness.  No, this is about living in relationship with God, living in the covenant of grace.  If we want our relationship with him to be healthy and growing stronger, we need to be serious about forsaking all sin in our lives.  We have to be intent on reflecting his gracious character in how we relate to others, especially to those who hurt us. 

Loved ones, if we persist in our sinfulness, there will be consequences.  It starts with the continuing deterioration of our relationship with our Father.  He will continue to be grieved at our hardheartedness and our lack of grace.  That’s what it means that he will not forgive.  That sin is still an obstacle, still a sticking point.  That will hinder our prayers too.  Think of a similar passage in 1 Peter 3.  Peter says that husbands should be considerate as they live with their wives and treat them with respect.  Why?  “...So that nothing will hinder your prayers.”  When you go on in sin and don’t turn from it, whether it’s in marriage or in other relationships, it’ll affect your prayers.  Your prayers will be hindered.  They’ll hit the ceiling.  They won’t be heard by God.  You can forget then about the perfecting work of the Holy Spirit and you can forget about the mediation of Christ in heaven on your behalf.  Harbouring an unforgiving spirit will result in more and more distance from your Father in heaven.  After all, prayer is one of the key ways you can draw near to him.  If your prayers are being hindered, then you’re not drawing near, but falling more and more away.

And there may come a time when the whole relationship with our Father comes into question.  If someone unrepentantly persists in any sin, then they should wonder whether they’ve truly believed in Christ.  If there’s no sorrow, remorse or frustration with sin, then the question may be asked whether there’s even been judicial forgiveness.  If someone refuses to be soft-hearted towards an offender, if someone holds on to a hurt and absolutely refuses to be even willing to let it go, what does that say about their union with Christ?  It could well be that this person has a relationship with God, but it is not a relationship of fellowship, but rather of enmity.  God is their judge and adversary, not their Father through Christ.

Brothers and sisters, this isn’t an easy passage to understand.  It’s even less easy to put into practice.  Forgiveness is an unnatural act for sinful human beings.  The attitude and spirit of forgiveness don’t come naturally to us.  These things are possible only by the power and strength of our God.  You may hear the message of our text and start to wonder and despair.  That should drive you to your knees in humility and prayer.  Our Father will never turn away the humble who cry out to him recognizing their lack.  He gives his gifts to those who ask, including the gift of a gracious heart that’s willing to forgive.  Ask him for this gift of a heart like his.  He will more and more work it in you.  In his grace, our Father will make you more gracious so that you can always be confident you are his child through Christ.  AMEN.


Gracious loving Father,

How many times have we taken your love for granted?  How many times have we come before you with trite confessions and glib requests for forgiveness?  Often times we’ve kept hard feelings against people who’ve hurt us.  We’re so often dull and hard-hearted.  We’re so often ungracious, unkind, and lacking in love.  It’s so amazing that despite all of that, you still treat us with grace.  You still love us through Christ.  Father, we continue to cling to his perfect work for us.  We know that our relationship with you is based 100% on what Jesus did for us.  We are unworthy sinners and he is the Lamb that is worthy.  Please help us to continue growing in our relationship with you.  Please soften these hard hearts more and more with your Spirit.  Please give us hearts of love and grace for those around us.  Make us more kind and compassionate.  Make us to look like Jesus.  We pray it for the glory of your Name and because we want to see the gospel go forward.  We want to see our neighbours won for you.   



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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