Some one once said that if we ever realized just how much the Lord has forgiven is us, we wouldn’t hesitate a moment in forgiving others. I wonder. I think the Lord pretty much nailed us in His parable of the unmerciful servant. It’s in Matt 18:21-35. Peter began the dialogue by asking how many times we’re required to forgive a brother who sins against us, “up to seven times?”
“Not seven times but 70 times 7,” replied the Lord. I think that means, “As often as he asks.” Then He gave them and us the parable. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version.
The Unmerciful Servant
A servant owed his master a debt he could never hope to repay. When the day of reckoning came he appeared before the master, hat in hand. Asking only for more time to pay, he was completely forgiven, and the debt was canceled. Imagine his relief.
Upon leaving his master’s office he came upon a fellow servant who owed him a small sum. He demanded immediate payment but the fellow servant asked him for more time, just as he had asked the master. But he refused the request and had his debtor thrown into prison until he could pay in full.
Upon learning this, the master was enraged. “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?” He then had the servant turned over to the jailer to be tortured until he could repay all he owes. The Lord concluded with this admonition. “This is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Each subject and object in a parable is symbolic. The master represents the Lord, the servant is you and I, and the fellow servant is the one who sins against you. The debt is our sin, the prison is whatever emotion locks up our reason, and the jailer who tortures us is Satan.
Please understand that failure to forgive each other doesn’t suspend our salvation. Salvation is not behavior driven like this parable is. Salvation is belief driven. What’s being suspended until the debt is repaid is the relationship. The servant doesn’t stop being a servant. He no longer has access to the master, and the jailer now has access to him, but the implication is that once the debt is repaid he’ll be restored to the master’s good graces.
Union and Fellowship
It helps when you see that there are 2 levels of forgiveness; one that comes through belief and one that is the result of behavior. The first is the forgiveness that the Lord purchased with His life. You received it simply by believing that He died to pay the price for your sins. At that moment you were forgiven once and for all, and your salvation was assured. Like the servant, your debt was canceled. At that time you were given irrevocable union with the Father (Ephe 1:13-14) and became as righteous as He is (2Cor 5:21). This union is forever and carries eternal blessings for every believer.
If that’s the case, why did John in his letter to believers counsel us to confess and be restored every time we sin (1 John 1:9)? It’s because of the other level, what I call fellowship. Fellowship is temporal, carries earthly benefits, and is subject to interruption. God can’t relate to us while our hearts are full of anger, lust, envy, greed, or any other of the destructive human emotions that imprison us, because during those times we’re like the unmerciful servant, needing discipline. In the context of the parable, He’s still our Master and we’re still His servants, but we can’t enjoy the full benefits of the relationship. Something’s come between us that has to be resolved before we can go on. More often than not, it’s our failure to forgive someone who’s wronged us.
It’s Our Choice
Depending on the intensity of our emotions, and the determination with which we justify and cling to them, we may lose out on blessings, and experience other deprivations like the limited loss of protection from our enemy. Justified or not, these emotions are called sin in the Bible. They make us impure, and give the enemy access to us. The Lord permits this access (Job 1:12). Being unable to tolerate the presence of sin and unwilling to interfere with our choices, He can’t do otherwise. But as soon as we ask, we’re forgiven and the sin is forgotten, the price having been paid at the cross, and we’re back in fellowship. Then the Lord turns that which Satan had intended as torment into a blessing, showing that all is forgiven (Job 42:10-17).
It’s Not a Suggestion
The Lord often commanded forgiveness in His teaching. In Matt 5:23 He said to be reconciled to our brother before offering a gift to Him. In Matt 6:9-15where He taught the Lord’s Prayer, He warned we would not be forgiven unless we forgive each other. Once again, the Lord’s prayer is for believers who already have eternal union with God. The forgiveness it speaks of concerns our fellowship with Him in the here and now. And in Mark 11:22-25 we learn that forgiveness adds power to our prayers.
Something this important to God better be important to us. Forget justification. He would have been justified in condemning us all to Hell forever. Since He’s forgiven us everything, can’t we forgive each other these little things?
Repent and Be Saved.
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
The Greek word translated rebuke in this passage means to admonish or censure. We should advise fellow believers when we think the way they’ve treated us is contrary to God’s word (see also Matt 18:15-17). Repent means to change one’s mind or reconsider, and has to do with the way we perceive things. In each of the 34 times the word repent is used in the New Testament, people are being admonished to change their perception of themselves and admit they’re sinners in need of a Savior. Forgive means to lay aside or leave alone.
A Tragic Misunderstanding
Somehow we’ve come to believe that repent means to stop doing something, and if we don’t stop doing it, then we haven’t repented and therefore don’t qualify for forgiveness. If that’s true and the required salvation sequence is to repent and be saved, then none of us is saved, because none of us has stopped sinning. All of us are living in deliberate and open sin because in each human life there is observable behavior that violates God’s word, and is knowingly and willfully repeated. It’s not that we discover one sin in our behavior and root it out only to be made aware of another. We deliberately repeat the same sinful behavior over and over. If we could progressively root out and eliminate the sins in our lives we could eventually stop sinning and wouldn’t need a savior.
When John the Baptist warned the people of Israel to “repent for the Kingdom is near (Matt 3:2)”, he wasn’t telling them to be on their best behavior because the King was coming. He was telling them to reconsider their need for a savior while they could.
When Peter admonished the Jews at Pentecost to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins so they could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) he wasn’t saying, “Clean up your act.” He was telling them that as soon as they changed their perception about who Jesus was and what He had done for them they could be forgiven and receive eternal life.
When the evangelist tells his audience to “repent and be saved”, he’s not telling them to become good enough to someday be accepted by the Lord. He’s admonishing them to realize they can’t be good enough and to ask the Lord to take them right now just as they are.
So What Does That Mean?
The word repent means to change your mind, not your behavior. That’s why the Lord said, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” It’s also why in Matt 18:22 He corrected Peter “not 7 times, but 70 times 7.” Both passages cover repetitive commission of the same sins as well as sequential commission of different ones.
We’re not sinners because we sin, rather we sin because we’re sinners. It’s our nature. When we say the sinner’s prayer, we’re admitting that we can never meet God’s requirements and need someone to intercede for us. We ask the Lord Jesus to intercede and be our Savior. He agrees to do this, not because we promise never to sin again, but because we admit we can’t stop sinning.
When Will We Ever Learn?
In the Old Testament the emphasis was on obedience. The principle was behave or you won’t be rewarded. And even with the threat of eternal punishment people still couldn’t be good enough for God.
In the New Testament the emphasis is on faith. Now the principle is behave because you will be rewarded and people still can’t be good enough.
In the Millennium the emphasis will be on experience. The principle then will be behave because you are being rewarded. Satan will be bound, God will live among His people and rule the world, the curse will be removed, and a Utopian life will be at hand. All of man’s excuses for sinning will be gone. But at the end of that age, the people that God hasn’t supernaturally perfected will rebel against Him. The underlying message of the whole Bible is that there is no circumstance in which mankind can achieve the standard God requires. Living in sin is a state of being, not just a state of rebellion. That’s why we need a Savior.
Please Forgive Me
Just as repent doesn’t mean, “I’ll never do it again,” forgive doesn’t mean, “It’s OK to do it again.” Remember forgive means to lay aside or leave alone. Neither word is behavior driven. Both are perception driven. Jesus doesn’t condone sin, but if we’ve accepted His remedy for our sins and confess (1 John 1:9) He chooses to leave it alone. He’s done that for us because we asked Him, and now He asks us to do likewise for each other.
The Most Popular Verse in the Bible.
For as long as we can remember, the Bible’s most popular verse has been John 3:16, but lately another has come to the top of the list; quoted most often by unbelievers. I guess that’s an improvement because in the past the unbelievers’ most popular verse wasn’t even in the Bible. It was “the Lord helps those who help themselves.”
Today’s most often quoted verse is in Luke 6:37 “Do not judge and you will not be judged.” Even though it’s used primarily by unbelievers and in a way that’s judgmental toward believers (making its use self-contradictory) it’s a good one to use in concluding this article on forgiveness.
Union and Fellowship Again
Remember that there are 2 levels of forgiveness; one that involves belief and one that involves behavior. The first is the forgiveness that the Lord purchased with His life. This union is forever and carries eternal blessings for every believer. And the other is called fellowship. It carries temporal earthly benefits, and is subject to interruption due to unconfessed sin.
In Luke 6:37 the clear implication is that judging or condemning another person’s behavior constitutes sin, as does the failure to forgive. The parable of the unmerciful servant in Matt 18:23-35 demonstrated that pretty clearly and Luke 6:37 concurs, with positive admonitions. To receive the forgiveness that preserves fellowship for us, we must grant forgiveness to others as well as seeking forgiveness from the Lord.
Who’s Punishing Whom?
Complicated by human standards, it’s exquisitely simple by God’s. When wronged by a brother, you suffer. By staying angry and refusing to forgive, you wrong your brother and suffer again. But when you forgive him he is convicted and he suffers. In Rom 12:17-21, Paul says it’s like heaping burning coals on his head. Meanwhile, the Lord takes the anger from your heart, restores you to fellowship with Him, and gives you peace. When you punish someone by failing to forgive them, do you realize you’re the one who suffers most?
Expel the Immoral Brother
Much is made of admonitions in the Bible to avoid believers who are sexually immoral, or who regularly eat or drink to excess, practice idolatry or greed, are swindlers, foul mouthed, gossipers, or verbally abusive (1 Cor 5:11, Ephe 4:29). In this way we help them see that such behavior is sin. But once they admit it (repent) we are to forgive them, even if it happens 7 times in the same day. We are to forgive them as many as 70 X 7 times. Why? Because we all do these things too, and if we expect forgiveness we are to forgive.
Forgiveness is not the same as acceptance. In 1 Cor 5:1-5 Paul took the Corinthians to task for permitting an unnatural relationship between a man in the fellowship and his father’s wife. “Hand this man over to Satan,” Paul said, “so the sin nature can be destroyed and the spirit saved.” Apparently neither the man nor the congregation saw his behavior as sin. Both needed to repent (reconsider their opinion) so Paul required them to expel the man. In this way both the congregation and the man could recognize the sin, confess and be forgiven.
In 2 Cor.2:5-11 Paul spoke of the incident again. The plan had worked. The congregation was obedient and the man humbled. “Now forgive him and comfort him so he won’t be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow,” he said. “Reaffirm your love for him so that Satan doesn’t outwit us again.” The congregation’s first sin was in not seeing the sin, but the failure to forgive is also a sin, and could allow Satan to win after all.
Who Loves You?
There’s also the issue of love. It’s best explained in a parable from Luke 7:41-43. Two men owed money to a certain money lender. One owed 2 years pay and the other owed 2 months. Neither could pay so the money lender canceled both debts. Completing the story, the Lord asked, “Which one will love the money lender most?”
Simon the Pharisee answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” Good answer. He who has been forgiven much, loves much. Have we been forgiven much? “As I have loved you,” the Lord said, “You must love one another” (John 13:34, 15:12 and 9 other places). He could just as easily have said, “As I have forgiven you, you must forgive one another.
The forgiveness that brought your salvation is good forever. No one can ever change that, not even you (John 10:27-30). The forgiveness that maintains your intimacy with the Lord in the here and now has to be renewed whenever you sin. Like the forgiveness that saved you, it’s automatically granted to everyone who asks. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
We’ve all heard the Scottish Proverb, “Confession is good for the soul”. Now we know why it’s true. Forgive everyone who sins against you, confess early and often, and live a blessed life.