The Fifth Petition: Forgive Us Our Debts

 

1 Kings 8:46-53; Matthew 6:12 & 18:21-35 (texts); Heidelberg Catechism LD 51

Rev. Nollie Malabuyo • April 7, 2013 • Download PDF Sermon

When we read in the newspapers figures about debts of governments all over the world, we cannot fathom the massive numbers. The United States government debt is $16.8T, which is equivalent to each American owing $53,000! Greece is one of the most bankrupt countries in the world, with a debt of $480B, which is equivalent to each Greek citizen owing $43,000. The Philippines is in a much better shape: only $132B total, $1,300 (P54,000) per capita.

"The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant" by Pieter Coecke Van Aelst, 1502-50 (click to enlarge)

"The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant" by Pieter Coecke Van Aelst, 1502-50 (click to enlarge)

The parable of the unforgiving servant, at first glance, mentions numbers that are not as staggering as the above. The first servant owed only 10,000 talents, while the second servant owed only 100 denarii. But later, we will put these numbers in their time and culture contexts, which also staggers our imagination.

This parable is about forgiveness of debt, which in the New Testament, figuratively, is sin. Today, we come to the fifth petition, or second to the last, of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 126 say that when we ask our Father in heaven to forgive us of our sins, we are also asking that he will not count our sins against us. The basis for this prayer is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to atone for our sins. And because we have received forgiveness from God, we are also commanded to forgive the sins done to us by others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Included in the forgiveness of sins are many spiritual blessings bestowed on us. But if we do not forgive others, God will withhold these blessings, and even send us into eternal judgment.

So our theme this Lord’s Day is: Forgive Us Our Debts. We will meditate on this theme under four headings: (1) The Meaning of Forgiveness; (2) The Basis of Forgiveness; (3) The Blessings of Forgiveness; and (4) The Curses of Not Forgiving.

The Meaning of Forgiveness
This parable is of great importance to the church, because of its implications to the relationship between brothers and sisters in the church. Jesus told this parable to Peter after he asked the question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” ( v 21). Peter’s question, in turn, was a response to Jesus’ teaching about the exercise of church discipline against members who stray from Christian doctrine and life. If the offender repents of his sin, he is to be forgiven and restored to the church (v 15-20).

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants who owed him debts. One of them owed him 10,000 talents, a huge amount equivalent to a common laborer’s 20 years’ wages. Since the servant couldn’t pay this immense debt, the king ordered that he and his whole family and possessions be sold to slavery, a common practice in the ancient world. But the servant pleaded with him on his knees, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Though the king knew the servant would never be able to pay his debt, he had pity on him, releasing him and forgiving him his whole debt.

Afterwards, the servant met his fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii, or about 20 weeks of earnings. He demanded that his fellow servant pay him back all his debt, so the fellow servant made a similar plea, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But the first servant refused his plea, and sent the second servant to prison until he is able to pay his debt.

When the other servants saw what happened, they reported to the king, and the king condemned the forgiven servant, “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?” So the king sent the first servant to prison until he has paid his debt, which obviously, he will not be able to repay even if he labored for the rest of his life.

Notice that the king forgave the servant all his debt and released him from his bondage and obligation without any pre-condition. The Greek verb used here for “forgive” means “to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon.” 1 It is a complete cancellation and release from all his debts. It is a full payment of debt owed. While the debt of the servant is an “obligation in the financial sense,” it points to an “obligation in the moral sense”—which is sin. 2

After the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew uses a different object of forgiveness—trespasses: “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” (Matt 6:14-15). Jesus points out the relationship between our having been forgiven by God and then forgiving others.

But in Romans 3:25, Paul uses another word, a synonym, for forgiveness:

[Christ], whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

Paul assures the Roman believers that just because God “passes over” sins without punishment, it does not mean that the God who is just and holy also tolerates sins. Instead, God had a plan to “propitiate” his wrath by the sacrifice of Christ for sinners like us. Paul also uses the word “forgiveness” to mean to “justify, reconcile, and redeem,” which we will discuss later.

Forgiveness as being released from debt alludes to the Old Testament’s seventh-year sabbatical rest, “Every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed” (Deut 15:2; Lev 25-27). Can you imagine if there was a law like this today? Balances on credit cards, houses, cars, appliances, etc., will be forgiven. It is impossible to enact and enforce a law like this in this age.

This is a foreshadow of our complete release from sin through Christ’s sacrifice. The release of captives and slaves is a foreshadow of releasing us from slavery to sin. In Jesus’ first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth, he said the “sabbatical” year has arrived, and one of his mission goals is “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18; Isa 61:1).

Therefore, forgiveness means a complete cancellation or full payment for sins committed. God alone can forgive, but he requires all believers to forgive the sins of others.

The Basis of Forgiveness
But how can a holy God forgive sin? Does he just overlook it, passing it over, and ignoring it? No, forgiveness of our sins by God is based on the sacrifice of Christ for our sins, “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14). His work for the forgiveness of sins is the new covenant fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). And, “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me” (Jer 33:8).

Why are we required to forgive others who have wronged us? Because we ourselves have received God’s undeserved grace, mercy and forgiveness in Christ. Like the forgiven servant, we have no way of repaying the eternal debt of sin we have piled high unto heaven. But our gracious Master cancelled our immeasurable debt instead of sending us into an eternal prison-house. God did this only out of his great compassion, patience and kindness towards his wicked people.

And what does God require of us forgiven sinners? To forgive others again and again and again … ! Without limit, without keeping count, without saying, “You owe me, because I have forgiven you so many times.” Peter was hinting that he was being very generous if he forgave his neighbor seven times, when Jewish tradition says three times is enough (Job 33:29-30). But Jesus brought his pride down, telling him to forgive seventy-seven times!

So Jesus comments after teaching the model prayer that if we do not forgive others not once, not twice, but many times, his Father will not forgive us of our own sins. It is only by his grace that God forgives us, so he requires us to show Christian charity by forgiving others. This also shows our thankfulness to the Father for saving us from our own sins.

But in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus says we are to forgive others, we also see in Luke 17:3-4 this command:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

We often hear Christians insisting on “unconditional” forgiveness, just as God has “unconditionally” forgiven us in Christ. They cite as an example Jesus’ prayer on the cross to forgive those who were killing him, in spite of no visible sign of repentance from them. This is a sort of “What would Jesus do?” if a person wronged him.

But notice Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3-4. The first condition for forgiveness is: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” A sinner in the church has to be rebuked, admonished and corrected. Then the second condition is this: “If he repents, forgive him.” Here is where Jesus’ command differs from the “unconditional” forgiveness popularly taught today. When a sinner repents and asks forgiveness, we as individuals and as a church are obligated, commanded, and mandated by Christ to forgive the sinner!

And this is applicable to both offender and offended. If the sinner offends you, he is obligated to ask for forgiveness from you to be forgiven. And you are commanded to forgive. The same is true if you are the offender. In both ways, the one who does not repent and the one who does not forgive are judged with burning coals on their heads, as Paul says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” We are to do good, even to our enemies, because God is the one who will exact vengeance on them, not us (Rom 12:20).

This is the objective of church discipline. If a member sins and repents, the church is commanded to forgive and restore the sinner. But is the church obligated to forgive and forget all those who sin “unconditionally,” i.e., even those who do not repent of their sin? What kind of church discipline would this be? No, the church is to forgive and restore only those who repent. But as individuals, it is up to us to forgive “unconditionally,” but we are not commanded to do so.

In these verses, Jesus says that if a brother sins against you seven times in a single day, we are to forgive him all seven times. You might be thinking this is ridiculously generous, but this sinning person is better than us. Before God, in our mind alone, we sin much more than seven times in a day. But in the one sacrifice of Christ, our Father has forgiven us all our sins—past, future and present—“the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). In Christ, there is “now no condemnation” (Rom 8:1), and no matter how often we offend God in our lives, God does not anymore “count our trespasses against us” (2 Cor 5:19).

The Blessings of Forgiveness
The Lord’s Prayer and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant do not tell us positive results of having a forgiving spirit as the fruit of our having received forgiveness from our Father in heaven.

But in the parable, the king releases and forgives the servant all his debt. It is a dramatic illustration of the great salvation that God has given us undeservedly. For one, It is impossible for us to repay the massive debt of our sins against our holy and just God; we can work for our forgiveness for eternity and never repay our debt of sins. As well, God’s grace and mercy is beyond comprehension, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psa 103:8). Finally, God revealed his abounding love by sending his own beloved Son to an accursed death on the cross to pay our massive debt of sins.

How can we not be grateful to God for such a blessing of cancelled sin that deserves eternal punishment from a holy and just eternal God?

Paul also often expresses forgiveness of sins in other terms. Cancellation of debt is one: “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14). Our debt of sin is a legal document that was nailed together with Jesus on the cross, thereby repaying the debt.

Forgiveness of sin is also called propitiation, a big word that is unknown most Christians. It relates to the problem God’s wrath again sin; it turning away and appeasement of his wrath, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10; see also 1 John 2:2).

Another word used is atonement for sin. In the Old Testament, to “atone” for sin is to cover the guilt of sin with the blood of animal sacrifices on the altar (Lev. 4:20; 6:7). As the fulfillment of the sacrificial animals, Christ “offered himself” as a sin offering for his people on the altar of the cross (Heb. 9:14). Forgiveness is also a blotting out of sin, “Repent therefore, and turn back, thatyour sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19; Psa 51:1, 9).

Redemption is one of the most common words related to forgiveness. When we were unsaved sinners, we were in bondage and captivity as slaves of the law (Gal 3:13), sin (Tit 2:14), death (Heb. 2:14-15), and Satan (Col. 1:13-14). By his death and resurrection, Christ has purchased—redeemed—us back from captivity. His bloody sacrifice paid the ransom price (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1Tim 2:6), which is his precious blood (Acts 20:28; 1Pet 1:18-19).

Lastly, forgiveness is also reconciliation with God. This wordrelates to the problem of alienation and hostility between God and man. Forgiveness means restoration of the relationship between God and man. Since God is hostile towards sinners, Christ’s work of reconciliation is directed towards the Father (Rom 5:10, 11; 2Cor 5:18-21; Eph 2:16; Col. 1:19-22). Again, it is his bloody sacrificial death that effects reconciliation with God.

In short, forgiveness of our sins is also the blessing of salvation and justification by faith alone in Christ alone. It is one of the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places that Paul lists in Ephesians 1:3-14, “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph 1:7). Christ is God’s single, perfect gift to sinners: Savior, Atoning Sacrifice, Peace Offering, Redeemer, and Reconciler all rolled into one perfect Gift.

The fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for God’s forgiveness of our sins, and a prayer that as a result, we may be enabled by the Spirit to forgive others.

The Curses of Not Forgiving
But what happens if we do not forgive others?

The unforgiving servant, having been released and forgiven of an enormous, impossible debt, showed that he had not been transformed by the forgiveness that his master bestowed on him. The debt that the other servant owed to him was a pittance compared to the massive, impossible debt he owed his master.

If the forgiven servant had been transformed by the incalculable compassion shown to him by his master, he would have easily forgiven his fellow servant who owed him little. Instead, his unforgiving spirit showed his true colors.

He was exposed, first of all, to his fellow servants. They saw his wicked, unforgiving deed showing his ingratitude towards his master. Like this ungrateful servant, we also expose our sinful hearts with our corrupt works. We become bad witnesses to the salvation that we profess before the church, our families, and our friends. Christ’s name is blasphemed because of us. Some of our brethren even stumble because of our hypocrisy. Jesus warns his disciples, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2).

When his fellow servants reported his wickedness to their master, the master was wrathful against 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?” (Matt 18:32-33). The wrath of God falls upon all evildoers, including those who do not forgive brethren who repent of their sin. This is why the New Testament is full of injunctions to the church to forgive one another, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32).

Those who claim to have been forgiven by God of their sin, but do not have forgiving hearts must be careful. The Lord’s Prayer and the parable teach that their hearts have not been truly transformed. If this is true, they expose themselves as evildoers not only to others, but also to God. In the parable, the king delivers the unforgiving servant to the jailers, a picture of the eternal punishment that the wicked servant justly deserves. He will be there for eternity because he will never be able to repay his immense debt.

Jesus ends his parable with a frightful conclusion in verse 35. If we do not forgive when repentance and apology has been shown, then we expose ourselves to the same fate as the unforgiving servant: God’s eternal wrath. An unforgiving spirit really means that it has not been transformed by the Spirit’s regenerating work that softens the heart to forgive others. And the end of it is judgment.

When we pray the fifth petition, we are asking God not to account our sins to us, but to account it to Christ. We are trusting in God’s assurance that our sins are forgiven, and our spiritual debt completely cancelled because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross for us.

God’s gift of salvation is immeasurably great, “a great salvation,” secured by Christ’s body broken, and blood shed for us. No animal sacrifice or any other sacrifice is sufficient for the forgiveness of sins other than our Lord’s sacrifice, because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). And Christ offered his bloody sacrifice because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22).

As we partake of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, let us remember that it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. He has offered his sacrifice “once for all”—for the forgiveness of all our sins.

Let us then also remember that the Holy Communion is a a means of grace that unites us with one another in the bond of the Spirit, that “we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). In this feast, he strengthens the bond of communion between us, his children. In this unity, we are to forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven us of all our sins.
 


Notes:

  1. Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, William Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 156-7.
  2. Bauer, 743.
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