I recently heard you state that God's forgiveness is conditional—which made me feel uncomfortable. Is this a widespread idea? I don't think I've ever heard that before. It would help me if you would elaborate. Thanks.

In the Lord's prayer, we ask for God to forgive us as we forgive others (Luke 11:4; Matthew 6:12). His forgiving us is connected with our forgiving others. The two are clearly linked—but how? Is Jesus only saying that forgiveness is a good thing, or does the disposition of our hearts determine whether we will be saved?

The question is easily answered when we read the passage immediately following the Lord's Prayer, in Matthew's version: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt 6:14-15).

Despite the common (Protestant) conviction that God's unconditional love entails unconditional forgiveness, such a doctrine is alien to the spirit of the New Testament. While God's love may be boundless, his patience is not boundless, nor his grace infinite.

There are scores of scriptures validating such a perspective. For simplicity's sake, let's consider one familiar passage. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant divine forgiveness is compared to the cancellation of a fantastically large debt. Notice the final verses:

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt 18:32-35).

The master had graciously canceled the servant's entire debt—impossibly high! So when the servant deliberately treats a fellow servant gracelessly and unmercifully, the master uncancels the debt. It simply isn't true that we are "once saved, always saved." When we fail to respond to divine forgiveness with grace and mercy, divine forgiveness may be forfeited.

This is in no way to suggest that we merit salvation by good deeds, or that God does not truly forgive, or that his children are precariously balanced on the knife-edge of perfection. After all, "The Lord is compassionate and gracious... He does not treat us as our sins deserve" (Psalm 103:8,10). 

God's forgiveness is as unfathomable as it is unmerited. Yet it is also conditional. As Jesus also said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Matt 5:7). His brother James affirmed the same: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:12-13).

There are numerous practical implications. Such sins as hatred, bitterness, revenge, gossip, rage, slander, and refusal to forgive are serious indeed. How will the world know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35) if we emulate the Unmerciful Servant?

Yes, forgiveness can be a process as much as a decision, especially where there has been deep hurt and fresh temptations to be bitter may bubble up. In the Lord's Prayer we pray to daily forgive others. When we are tempted not to show grace, we need to deal with the bitter root with urgency (Heb 12:15), since bitterness erodes holiness—without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).