The Complexities of Forgiveness
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 18:31 (Holman) When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.
The fellow slaves, horrified, felt obligated to tell the king. They knew he would want to know how terribly his mercy had been desecrated. We should let the hurts of others prompt us to talk to the King. When John the Baptist died, his brokenhearted disciples did what was best. They went and told Jesus.
The slaves refused to be silent about injustice. We must speak to wrongs done to the weak and disenfranchised: widows, orphans, immigrants, poor, handicapped, etc. We must champion them on behalf of their great Champion.
As we age, we have to resist a tendency to lose sensitivity over the plight of others. Compassion overload is a threat. It’s hard to hurt for others for many years without hardening, but we must. People’s suffering must always grieve us. Believers should be proactively relieving people’s pain with deeds of mercy.
Matt. 18:32-33 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
The king knew how his slaves were treating each other. His knowledge of their interactions mattered to him. Be wise; treat others well; God watches.
It’s hard to know which character in the parable to feel sorriest for: the king, the heading-to-destruction first slave, or the maligned second slave? I vote for the king. He endured a triple sadness: seeing the cruelty of one slave, watching pain in another, and enduring the violation of His own kindness. Sin and suffering always hurt God. He has suffered enough. Don’t add to His pain.
The king felt the forgiven slave should have known he was obligated to forgive. To the slave it should have been obvious, a foregone conclusion.
How could a heart this unforgiving beat in the chest of one who had been forgiven so much? I fear many of us need to ask ourselves the same question.
This callused ingratitude is what magnified the servant’s sin. Be sure to note, the king did not call him “wicked” when he owed 10,000 talents, but did use the description when the slave walked unworthy of forgiveness he received.
The towering height of the king’s mercy was what made the slave’s sin enormous. He was punished not for a 10,000-talents debt, but for his meanness.
The king forgave the slave’s debt, but did not discharge him from the duties of a slave. We are saved to do good works, to walk worthy of our calling. Lutherans say, “We are justified by faith alone, but not a faith which is alone.” Faith will produce works. Forgiveness for sin increases our obligation to obey. Salvation will prove itself by Godliness. Holiness matters most.
Matt. 18:34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed.
The slave will never be able to repay the 10,000 talents. His punishment will be long and severe. The sin of unforgiveness is never a minor matter.
The slave was done to as he had done. God’s ways are remarkably fair. Jacob, masquerading as his brother, deceived their father; Jacob’s sons, selling Joseph into slavery, deceived their father (GN 27:18-24; 37:31-35). David killed Uriah (2 SM 11); the sword never departed from David’s family (2 SM 12:9-10). Peter dishonored Gentiles; Paul dishonored Peter (GL 2:11-14).
The king made sure the wicked slave’s punishment perfectly suited the crime. His own spirit probably said “Amen” as the prison door clanged shut.
The sword of unforgiveness appropriately recoils to sheathe itself in the unforgiving heart. Beware the precipice always nearby. Don’t slip here. When we least want to forgive, we are approaching the worst danger. Forgive quickly. “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).
Matt. 18:35a So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother . . .
Let’s unravel some complexities of God’s forgiveness. Jesus died to pay the sin debt for all humanity. He forgave it all. As a result, the ultimate issue in salvation is not sin, but Jesus. People don’t go to Heaven because they’re good; they don’t go to Hell because they are bad. Jesus’ death dealt with the sin debt.
The issue now is judicial forgiveness (justification). All who appropriate Christ’s legal forgiveness will go to Heaven when they die; those who don’t won’t. Thus, the ultimate question we all need to ask ourselves is, “How can I be sure I have received judicial forgiveness?” Hold that question a moment.
Day by day, in our ongoing interactions with God, we need His relational forgiveness, the opportunity to have unbroken fellowship with Him. Judicial forgiveness legally and forever takes care of the condemnation our sins deserve. Relational forgiveness lets us enjoy God and glorify Him to the fullest each day.
Now put the two together. How can we know we have received judicial forgiveness, and are receiving relational forgiveness? One huge positive litmus test is if we regularly offer forgiveness to others. The wicked servant proved he had not received the full benefit and intent of forgiveness when he refused to show forgiveness. Forgiveness is fully received only if we pass it on to others.
Had the wicked slave truly embraced the king’s mindset and ways, had he truly connected with the fountain of forgiveness, it would have flowed to others needing the same. His ability to forgive was dry because his supply was empty.
Unforgiveness exposes unrepentance. Forgiveness does not save us; it is not meritorious, but the best way to know we’re forgiven is by forgiving others.
We prove we received forgiveness if we refuse to clutch it to ourselves. Any who don’t forgive the trespasses of others never truly repented of their own. It is thus possible to indict ourselves every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.
Matt. 18:35b . . . from his heart.
God cannot forgive an unforgiving heart. As forgiveness incarnate, He cannot enter where unforgiveness dominates. A hard heart is an anti-God heart.
The wicked servant accepted release of his debt, but not a debt-releasing heart. When we are offered judicial and relational forgiveness, they include not only debt remitting forgiveness, but also a forgiving heart.
When facing conviction, and having to decide yea or nay about salvation, we must take all or none of the gift. The entire gift is more than forgiveness. It includes a forgiving heart. No malice can be harbored in the heart.
The same holds true after conversion. Forgiveness comes as a package deal, not piecemeal. It’s amazing how well we compartmentalize our lives. We long feel frustrated in prayer, can tell something is wrong, but do not connect it with our lack of forgiving someone else. Many are under God’s disciplinary correction their whole lives because there is someone they won’t forgive.