"The Sin of the Forgiven"
(Delivered Sunday, October 28, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We have been studying these past few weeks from a theological “lecture” by the Lord Jesus Christ. It's an unusual lecture, though; because it's one that He gave while holding a little child in His arms.
In this remarkable discourse, our Lord was teaching His disciples about true greatness in His kingdom; and He held up that child as an example of the kind humble faith that achieves true greatness. And among the many things He wanted to express to His disciples, He wished to impact them with how precious and valuable to Himself each one of those little ones who believe on Him truly are to Him.
As He held this small child in His arms, He taught them that whenever one of those precious ones who believes in Him wanders off into sin, it is the duty of His devoted followers to pursue after them and win them back. He taught that if a good shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, he will leave the ninety-nine, go up into the mountains, and seek the one who is lost (Matthew 18:10-14).
And again, with this child in His arms, He explained how they were pursue a brother or sister who is wandering into sin. In the passage we looked at last week, Jesus said,
This “lecture” must have made a powerful impression on the disciples. And this morning, we come to yet another way Jesus puts practical application on how valuable each of His wandering followers are to Him. This particular application doesn't so much concern that one wandering sheep as it does the ninety-nine who must welcome it back into the fold. It has to do with what happens in us when that wandering follower returns to us, and asks our forgiveness.
This morning's instruction from our Lord can be divided up into three parts: (1) a principle, (2) a parable, and (3) a promise—all three having to do with this whole matter of welcoming back and forgiving a fallen brother. And together, they teach us one vital lesson: that because of the forgiveness we have received from the Father, it would be a great sin for us to refuse to receive that repentant brother or sister that comes to us for forgiveness.
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Let's look first at . . .
1. THE PRINCIPLE (vv. 21-22).
Our passage begins with Peter coming to the Lord and asking a question about forgiveness. Apparently, the Lord had set the little child down and allowed him to run away to play. And apparently, this had allowed the apostle Peter some time to think about what he had heard.
I suspect that the things the Lord had said about pursuing a fallen brother or sister had raised some concerns in Peter's mind. I suspect he thought about how, with some people, you'd need to keep on going after them to bring them back, and then keep on restoring them after they had wandered. I suspect he wondered how long he'd have to keep doing that. One of the things that I have grown to love about Peter is that he dared to asked the Lord the questions that the rest of us only wished we had the courage to ask. And so, we read: "Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" (v. 21).
Now think of what Peter's question implies—that it exceeds the bounds of graciousness to forgive someone seven times! For years, I have thought—and even taught—that Peter was really not being as magnanimous as he was imagining. I thought, "Oh come on, Peter! 'Seven times'? Is that really the best you can do? Do you really think that's being generous? Only seven?" I used to think that . . . until I stopped and counted the number of times I personally have granted forgiveness 'seven times' to anyone who has sinned against me. And suddenly, I realized that, humanly speaking, Peter truly is being outstandingly generous!
Stop and think of what happens in your own experience. Someone comes to you, confesses that they did something horrible to you, and asks your forgiveness; and then, you graciously forgive them. You're a good Christian, after all. But then, they commit the same offense against you, and come again to ask for your forgiveness. You grant them forgiveness—because, after all, you are a good Christian. But you would probably do it with a little less enthusiasm than you did the first time. And then, they commit the same offense against you again, and come to you once again for forgiveness. This time, you might be inclined to say, "Now look! This is the third time! Get your act together already!"
Well; If they come to you a fourth time, your human-nature—already beginning to show itself—really kicks into gear. You don't feel like being a 'good Christian' anymore; and you tell them, "Not this time, buddy! Save your 'apology'! I've had enough already! You used all my 'forgiveness' up the last three times!"
And incidentally, if you did that just that much, you would be doing nothing less than what the Judaistic teachers in Jesus' day had taught. The rabbis had given the people a a written tradition that said, "If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven."1 (I chuckle a little when I read that; because I wonder what good it was to have a written tradition of religious law to do what I would have done in my humanness anyway!)
So you see; Peter really was being generous. He was exceeding even the traditions of the teachers of his own people. He was being far more gracious that we ordinarily would be! After all, when was the last time you granted forgiveness for the same offense seven times? Or even three?
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Peter was asking the proper number of times he should be expected to forgive a repeat-offender before it was time to quit. You might say that Peter had been “quantifying” forgiveness. But that's when Jesus takes the matter to a completely different level by “qualifying” it. "Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven'" (v. 22).
Jesus was not saying to Peter that he could quit forgiving a repeat-offender after he reached the four-hundred-and-ninety-first offense. Rather, His point to Peter was that he shouldn't even bother to count. He was teaching the principle that there is to be no limit to the number of times we forgive our brother or sister in Christ. He was teaching him that he was to be ready to grant forgiveness to a repentant brother or sister in Christ each and every time they come back and ask forgiveness.
Now; on a human level, that seems unreasonable—to be ready to forgive someone, without limit, each and every time they come back and ask for our forgiveness! And yet, it isn't unreasonable at all when we remember that that's exactly how the heavenly Father forgives us in Christ. Haven't there been times without number that we've each had to come to our heavenly Father and humbly ask forgiveness? And isn't it often for the same sins over and over? And yet, has the Father ever placed a limit on the number of times we may come to Him in repentance?
There has never been a limit to how many times we may come to the Father and ask forgiveness—and what's more, there never will be! The Bible promises us that, “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more . . ." (Romans 5:20). Each time we come to Him in sincere repentance, He gladly welcomes us, freely forgives us, and completely washes us clean of our sin.
The Father never counts the number of times we ask forgiveness. He is ready to offer forgiveness to us without limit. And now, our having tasted of His unlimited forgiveness for our every sin in His Son Jesus Christ, He now calls upon us to do the same toward our repentant brother or sister.
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So then; there's the great 'principle' the Lord teaches us in this passage. There is to be no limit placed on the number of times we are to forgive our repentant brother or sister in Christ; because God our Father places no limit on the number of times He forgives us.
And now, to illustrate what a great sin it would be if we were to withhold forgiveness from our repentant brother or sister—especially after we ourselves have been forgiven so much—the Lord goes on to tell Peter . . .
2. THE PARABLE (vv. 23-34).
"Therefore," Jesus says, "the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants" (v. 23).
Like most monarchs, this king had a great number of servants under him. And like most monarchs, he wished to receive an accounting of how his empire had been managed by them. "And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents" (v. 24). How it is that this particular servant had managed to be in debt to the king isn't told us. It could be that he greatly mismanaged the king's affairs. Or it could be that he had embezzled the money over time. But however it happened, the man was found out, and was now accountable to the king for an astronomical sum! No wonder he had to be “brought” to the king! He was probably afraid to go!
A "talent" was a unit of weight used to measure gold or silver; and each talent was roughly worth approximately 6,000 times a normal working man's daily wage. This man owed the king ten-thousand talents! Some Bible scholars estimate the value of his debt to be in the tens of millions of dollars; and others estimate it to be much more than that! But whatever the amount would be in terms of our valuation today, the point is that it was an debt that the servant could not, in any way, ever come close to paying back.
And before we go any further, I suggest to you that this 'servant' serves as an accurate picture of our condition before God as sinners. We were born utterly, unspeakably bankrupt before God. We inherited a debt of sin before Him from our first parents—Adam and Eve—that is exceedingly beyond our ability to ever hope to pay. And what's more, every day we have lived, we have added the guilt of our own sins to this already impossible debt. There is absolutely no way we could ever pay off the debt of guilt before God for our sins; for, as the Bible tells us, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
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Now; Jesus goes on to show how the king acted justly with respect to this servant. He said, "But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made" (v. 25).
This was a typical practice in those days. A man would be sold into slavery to work off his debt. Sometimes, a man's whole family would also be sold into slavery along with him; because his family was considered a part of all that he owned. And so, the king gave the order that the man, his family, and everything he owned, be sold off until the debt was paid. But what a hopeless situation even this presented! Suppose that everything that he owned had been sold several times over, and that he and everyone in his family worked as slaves for every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of their lives on earth! Even still, scarcely a fraction of this man's enormous debt would have been paid off.
What else could the servant do but make a pathetic offer? Jesus says, "The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all'" (v. 26). And again, isn't this like so many of us? We think that, if God would just be patient with us, we could work off our debt of sin. We think that we can reform our lives, and devote ourselves to doing enough good deeds to outweigh our sins. We think that we can 'earn' God's favor and forgiveness. But how can we work off our debt of sin when the wages of sin is death?
And so, this man's only hope was in the mercy of the king. Jesus tells us, “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). And again, isn't that our story? As the Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
In forgiving the man his debt, the king didn't simply ignore it. Rather, he bore the loss himself. And that's what God the Father has done toward us. He doesn't just ignore our sins. He administers the full punishment due our sin—once and for all—on His Son on the cross. As it says in Ephesians 1:7, "In Him [that is, in Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace." And all that is required for the full forgiveness of our sins is that we confess them to God in complete faith in the sacrifice of His Son. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
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Now; so far, this servant's story is very much like our own. But then, his story takes a dark turn. Jesus goes on to say, “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!'” (v. 28).
Notice a few things. First, notice his timing. We see that Jesus says that the man “went out” and found this other servant—suggesting that his actions followed immediately the remarkable grace he had been shown by the king. When it comes to dealing with those who have sinned against us, isn't it tragic how easily—and how quickly—we forget the grace that was shown to us for our sins?
Then, notice his concern. He sought out this fellow servant—his equal—with respect to a debt of a hundred denarii. This would roughly equal one-hundred days of the average working man's wages. That's not a small sum, of course; but in time, it could be paid off. And it was nothing when compared to the impossible debt this man owed the king!
And then, notice his manner. We don't read of the king grabbing this man by the throat and throttling him; and yet he is utterly graceless with respect to the one indebted to him. Jesus goes on to say, “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all'” (v. 29). Those were almost the same exact words the first man had said to the king. You would think that hearing them would have reminded him of the grace he had just been shown. But Jesus says, “And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt” (v. 30).
It wasn't that he “could not” be patient with his fellow servant; but rather that he “would not”. And to throw his fellow servant into prison made it impossible for him to do anything to relieve the debt. His manner toward his equal was utterly out of keeping with the grace he had been shown by the king! This causes us to ask ourselves if our manner toward those who sin against us is anything like the manner shown to us by God.
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Jesus says, “So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved . . .” (v. 31a). People who know that we have claimed the cross of Jesus Christ as the payment for our sins, and that God has graciously granted us a full pardon, are watching us to see if we live in a way that is consistent with our profession of faith! When they see how we then treat others who sin against us, does it grieve those who watch?
Jesus says that this man's fellow servants were very grieved over what they saw; “and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him” (vv. 31b-34).
Two things stand out in this. The first thing is the verdict of the man's wicked character. The king didn't call him a “wicked servant” when he found out about his great debt. But he was declared “wicked” after grace had been shown to him—that is, after he had been forgiven of his great debt by the king, but after he then refused to show forgiveness to his equal. It is a profoundly wicked thing for us to receive God's gracious forgiveness for our great sins; and then to turn around and withhold forgiveness from those who sin against us.
And the second thing to notice is the nature of the man's wickedness. The king said that he had forgiven the servant of all his debt “because you begged me”. That is the only condition God asks of us in order to pardon our sin. He Himself already assumed the cost of our sins upon the cross of His own beloved Son; and He gives us the promise in His word that, when we confess our sin, He is just and faithful to forgive our sin and cleans us of all unrighteousness. And yet, when another servant begged him with the exact same words, this man refused to have compassion on him.
All that we have a right to expect of anyone who sins against us is that they confess their sin to us and ask our forgiveness. And when they do so, how wicked an act it is for us to demand more of someone else than God asks of us! When we do that, we're claiming to be more worthy of justice than God Himself!
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The principle that the Lord teaches in this passage is that there is to be no limit to our readiness to forgive someone who sins against us. And the parable He told shows us that it is a very wicked sin for us to withhold forgiveness from someone else after we ourselves have been forgiven so much by God.
This leads us, finally, to . . .
3. THE PROMISE (v. 35).
The king took that wicked servant and delivered him to the torturers “until he should pay all that was due to him”. In other words, after seeing how the man treated his fellow servant, the king 'took back' his forgiveness. And it's then that Jesus goes on to say, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (v. 35).
Those words may come as a shock. But consider that Jesus has said this before. Do you remember what He said in His Sermon on The Mount? Do you remember how He taught us—among other things—to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12)? And do you remember how He followed that up with an explanation just a few verses later? “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (vv. 14-15).
Or do you remember how He taught the same thing on another occasion? He said, “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark. 11:25-26).
In a strictly “legal” sense before God, all of our sins are paid for on the cross. There is nothing left for us to do before God to be declared righteous in His sight than to confess our sins and trust in the cross. But in what we might call a “relational” sense, our Father will withhold His forgiveness from us—even if we have placed our trust in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—if we don't respond faithfully to His grace toward us by receiving our repentant brothers and sisters, and forgiving them of their sins.
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The great lesson of this passage is that it is a great sin to be one of Jesus' forgiven followers; and yet to be unforgiving toward one another! And this means, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that there are some of us here today who have placed our trust in the cross of Jesus, and have made a profession of faith in Him; but who have, in actual fact, lived for years with God's hand of judgment heavy upon us because we are harboring unforgiveness in our heart toward a repentant brother or sister.
Let's allow the Holy Spirit to search our hearts concerning the sin of unforgiveness. And when He shows us that we are harboring bitterness toward someone that has asked for our forgiveness, let's first run immediately to the Father and confess that we are “wicked servants”—as wicked as that man in the parable. Let's seek His forgiveness without delay. And then, let's confess our sin to that one whom we have refused to forgive—and forgive them as we have been forgiven.
Let's obey our Lord's instruction:
1Yoma 86b; cited in Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), p. 471.
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