Forgiven and Forgiving – Pt. 2

Posted: January 27, 2014 in Bible Study, Discipleship, God's Law and the Christian
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This is the second of four in this series on forgiveness, shared at the Flinders ES Summer Series over January and February this year. Part one is here

2. The Debt

As we have seen, being forgiven by God and being a forgiving person go hand in hand. Very often we see the proclamation of God’s forgiveness coupled with a call to reflect this forgiveness in our love for our neighbour. Some passages appear to present God’s forgiveness of us as conditional upon our forgiveness of our neighbour:

‘…if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15)

‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’ (Mark 11:25)

While others present our action of forgiveness as a response to knowing God’s forgiveness as well as a reflection of the nature of His forgiveness:

‘…if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13)

‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)

So, is forgiveness conditional (dependant on something we do) or unconditional (given regardless of what we do)? Does God forgive us only if we are willing to forgive? If so, how does that shape the way we forgive others? And does this ‘conditionality’ undermine grace?

This dilemma is fleshed out in Matthew 18:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. ’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe. ’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. ’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to 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. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Notice that Peter’s question is in response to Jesus’ teaching in 15-20. Jesus anticipates the time when His disciples will be living in community, and outlines the appropriate way to deal with conflict between Christians. The process is aimed a personal and communal reconciliation, with the final step not being ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance.

Peter’ query is about how many times we should allow this cycle to happen before we say, ‘Enough is enough. You have done this too many times, and I can no longer forgive.’ Possibly he was thinking himself gracious and patient in suggesting 7 times. I suspect that even seven times would be enough to stretch the patience of most people.

Jesus’ response calls us back again to God’s sky-high standard for forgiveness. Seventy seven (or seventy times seven) essentially means ‘an unlimited number of times’ – never say that they have sinned once too often, or even that their repentance cannot be genuine because they have done this so many times before. If love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5) then each offence should be treated as if it were the first offense. Jesus then sets this high call into perspective by telling the parable.

The debt owed by the servant is of a ridiculously unimaginable size – equivalent to 200 000 years of wages, or around $14 billion (based on the average Australian wage), yet he inability of the servant to even make a small dent in this figure does not absolve him of his accountability. The King’s cancelling of the debt is remarkable on two counts: firstly that he had compassion upon a servant who must have been incredibly unscrupulous or irresponsible in order to incur such a debt; and secondly that this king would have suffered great loss himself – this is an amount that was even significant for a king (possibly equivalent to around 10 years of income for King Herod).

By contrast, the debt owed to the servant was equivalent to 100 days wages, or $20 000. Not minuscule, yet still payable. Contrasted with the king’s compassion, is this servant’s unwillingness to even consider a repayment plan. Obviously the enormity of the cancellation of his own debt had not struck home, otherwise he would have reflected the king’s mercy in his own dealings.

Jesus’ conclusion to this story shows us that in this parable the king represents God. Full of compassion, the Father has forgiven us of our huge, unpayable debt of sin. While we may wonder how our petty sins could rack up such a massive debt, and require a punishment of the magnitude of Hell itself, we must remember that sin is not essentially a list of ‘naughty’ things, but divine treason against God Himself. The seriousness of the offence is measured by the value of the one  whom we have offended, and this makes our debt against God one that is unpayable by us except by eternal exclusion from God’s favour.

By cancelling our debt, God has necessarily taken onto himself the loss that the debt demands; this He did in the sending and sacrifice of His beloved Son who, as the Son, paid out of his infinite resources (‘emptied himself’) to make payment for our sin.

Full knowledge of the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, and the fact that our debt was so immense that it required such an immense payment, should transform our heart and mind and set us free to reflect the extreme generosity of our Father to all others that we encounter. This was clearly the expectation of the king as he sent the servant out still a servant in his employ, and therefore still to be entrusted with the king’s resources. God’s forgiveness not only cancels our debt, but reinstates us to our privileged position as stewards in the Kingdom.

An unwillingness to forgive demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the Father’s generosity. More than this, it is tantamount to saying, ‘The debt you owe me is more significant than the debt I owed to God; I could be forgiven, but you cannot be forgiven.’ Essentially, it is setting ourselves up above God, and implying a moral superiority in ourselves that makes debts against us too big to be forgiven. In short, it indicates an unrepentant attitude; evidence that we are actually rejecting the  grace of God, or at the very least, flippantly seeing it as ‘cheap grace’.

So Jesus’ warning to his disciples is a solemn one. Do not ‘receive the grace of God in vain.’ (2 Corinthians 6:1), ie. in a way that sees it as empty (the literal meaning of kenos, translated here as ‘vain’). True receiving of God’s forgiveness will be evidenced in a transformed life; and on the day of judgement our works will be called upon as witnesses to the genuineness of our confession of faith (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Unconditional forgiveness?

There still remains though the sense of conditionality in God’s forgiveness, which this reasoning does not entirely remove:

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:12-15)

There are a number of ways this petition could be phrased differently if it were simply communicating the idea that we desire to forgive because we know He first forgave us. It seems that Jesus deliberately phrases it this way, and then gives a very clear application that the Father will withhold forgiveness from those who do not forgive – ie. our forgiveness must come first! What are we to make of this?

The solution is to understand both the context of this teaching and other teachings like it. When teaching this prayer, at a later date, to his disciples (Luke 11:2-4ff) his application is that they should have confidence in their Father answering their prayer. Here in Matthew, the context is not a private discipleship session with his disciples, but a public exposition of the Law to the crowds. As we have seen, Jesus is restoring the bar of the law back to its proper place – where the standard is complete perfection comparable to that of the Father Himself. To anyone who was thinking that they could attain righteousness by observing the law, it is as if he is saying, ‘Sure, go ahead if you think you can, but make sure you realise what the law actually requires, and the implications for those who fail to keep every single word.”:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus’ demands in this sermon are that we must not only be faultless in our keeping of the law, but completely free of hypocrisy in doing so, such that our prayers must be open and transparent and our pledge to God from a clear conscience that we have not sinned. In this sense Jesus’ teaching is what theologians call the ‘first use of the Law’:

First use: Judicial. The Law reveals the holiness of God, and by so doing exposes our sin, condemns us to judgement, and drives us to cry out for mercy.

Second use: Civil. The Law provides a restraint on evil – as the legal framework for OT Israel, and as a standard that all other governments are to be held to if they are to rule justly.

Third use: Instructive. For those reconciled to God, the Law reveals the will of God, and is something that they find joy and pleasure in seeking to obey as an expression of their love for God.

The Law’s condition for being forgiven by God is to have a righteousness exceeding the Pharisees, comparable to the Father, as demonstrated in freely forgiving those who sin against us. This is bad news for one who presumes to have a level of righteousness that is acceptable to God, as it is a standard we are unable to rach. To compound it, we are trapped, because under this legal framework we cannot even ask for forgiveness for our failure to forgive! And so the Law has backed us into a corner by exposing the hypocrisy of our own hearts and confirming us as children of wrath. Our only response to this can ever be,

‘What a wretched man/woman I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24).

This use of the Law paves the way for the Gospel – the good news that Jesus Christ, in himself, has met and fulfilled all of the conditions of the law which we have failed to meet – including coming under the righteous sentence of death that the Law demands for anyone who breaks it. The Gospels shows us Jesus ministry being launched by his exposition of the Law which includes the  demands of faultlessness in the area of forgiveness, and reaching the climax of the crucifixion, during which Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34) and then following the resurrection – which shows that the Father accepted the life and death of Jesus as perfectly fulfilling the righteous demands of the Law – the commission to go and proclaim the forgiveness of sins:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)

The King – our Father – has cancelled our debt, not by sweeping our sin under the carpet, or making it out to be less serious than it actually is, but by ensuring that the condition of our right standing before Him – spotless righteousness – has been met in Jesus, and He now gives this righteousness freely as a gift. Knowing this should lead us to seek to follow the Law in the third sense – as forgiven, freed children who love the Father and delight to do his will.

 

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