(This is the first entry of a series on forgiveness. A grace with which we all struggle.)
Debt is a subject about which Americans have a great deal of knowledge. Well at least we have a great amount of debt. We speak of debt when describing money borrowed and owed. Debt is also used to describe a criminal paying his debt to society by the time he serves in prison, by the punishment he is given. Both of these meanings of debt are used in Scripture to speak of sin.
Sin places a person in debt to God. A payment must be made. Justice must be satisfied. The debt must be paid by the punishment received. The debt must also be paid, if possible, by undoing as much of the harm as can be undone. This is true also in human relationships. When one person sins against another person, she is in debt to that person. She owes him payment for what she has done by her efforts to undo what was done and by her receiving punishment.
When someone sins against you, he is in debt to you. When we are wronged we immediately grab the sword of revenge and of justice. With this sword we are going to go after the debt we are owed. After all this is our just due! We have good arguments for doing so. As Christians, as we are pursuing him who wronged us, seeking payment of the debt he owes us, we stumble over our own debt, an enormous debt, the debt owed God. Looking behind us we see God pursuing us. He pursues, not with sword in hand. Taking our debt upon himself, Jesus Christ is nailed to the cross. “But Lord,” we want to cry out, “Lord, he owes me. It is my just due.” As we lay before the cross, the words will not come. How can we so cry out to God? How dare we?
The words are so familiar, Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Jesus taught us to ask God to forgive our sins, our debts owed to him. “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12). We hear his words with gratitude for God’s grace. If only he had stopped there, but he adds a qualifier that bites. This qualifier gives us all kinds of trouble. “As we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). “Lord, treat me how I treat others.” Do I really want to pray this prayer?
Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He explains it. He makes its meaning even clearer. Jesus removes all opportunity of misunderstanding him. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness is not an option. Forgiving those who sin against us is a command, a requirement. We are held accountable if we refuse to forgive.
William Barclay comments on Jesus’ teaching. “Jesus says in the plainest possible language that if we forgive others, God will forgive us; but if we refuse to forgive others, God will refuse to forgive us. It is, therefore, quite clear that, if we pray this petition with an unhealed breach, an unsettled quarrel in our lives, we are asking God not to forgive us…If we say, ‘I will never forgive so-and-so for what he or she has done to me,’…and then go and take this petition on our lips, we are quite deliberately asking God not to forgive us.”1
C. S. Lewis writes, “There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it.”2
Jesus told a parable of a servant who was forgiven a great debt by the king he served.3 The forgiven servant then refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a minuscule debt. The king’s compassion and forgiveness came out of the king’s own goodness within his heart. The servant who owed the king a great debt had nothing to bring to his credit other than begging for patience and for more time. The king gave more than was asked. The servant was given complete forgiveness.
When the king heard of the forgiven servant’s refusal to forgive he had the servant brought before him. “‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”4 Notice that “although the king’s graciousness does not initially depend on the servant’s action, the continuation of his graciousness does.”5
Jesus concludes, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”6 “Because the incongruity of sinners refusing to forgive sinners boggles God’s mind He cannot cope with it, there is no honest way to put up with it.”7
Weren’t we once horrified by the dreadfulness of our own sins that nailed Jesus Christ to the cross? Did we not tremble before God in the horrifying reality of our sins, our overwhelming debt to God? God graciously forgave our debt. How can we not forgive those who have sinned against us, who are indebted to us? Forgiven by the blood of Christ how can we arrogantly expect God to continue to forgive us as we refuse to forgive others?
Forgiveness, “every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”8 As you forgive so God forgives you! How we struggle with the teaching of Jesus. We struggle because we do not really know or believe or remember or understand the cost, the freely paid cost, the graciously paid cost, paid by God in forgiving us. We struggle with forgiveness because we do not really know or believe or remember or fully grasp that we were dead in our sins and like the rest of humankind we were by nature children of wrath.9
Read Luke’s account of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the home of a Pharisee, Luke 7:36-50. On this occasion Jesus taught that him who is forgiven much will love much the one who forgives him. Of the woman Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (v. 47).
Our willingness, desire, and courage to forgive will come from a heart grateful to God for the forgiveness received from Him and from others. Horrified by the dreadfulness of our sins that nailed Jesus Christ to the cross, knowing the price God, Christ, and the Spirit paid for our forgiveness, knowing how heavy were and are our sins, knowing the abundance of God’s love and grace in forgiving us, oh how our hearts should be filled with humble gratitude and thanksgiving.
The woman in Luke 7 set aside all thought of herself in showing her penitent heart and love to Christ. In accepting the true nature of our sinfulness and God’s forgiveness of us we will be humbled in our attitude toward others, toward those who sin against us. In gratitude to Christ for his forgiveness of us we will find the desire, the will, and the courage, to set aside our pride, to lay down the sword of vengeance and of getting our just due. With thankfulness and love for Christ, in response to his forgiveness of us, we will find the humility and love to forgive much.
Lord, give us the understanding of the seriousness of your instruction to us. Lord, give us the gratitude toward you for your forgiveness of us. Give us the faith, the trust in you, and the courage, to forgive as you have forgiven us.
1William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 (Chapters 1 to 10), Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 222. 2C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1996), 104-5. 3Matthew 18:21-35 4Matthew 18:32-34 5Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace, How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 98. 6Matthew 18:35 7Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive & Forget, Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperOne, 1984, 1996), 150. 8Lewis, 104. 9Ephesians 2:1-3