How do we know that we’re saved? The test, according to Jesus, isn’t whether or not we prayed a “sinner’s prayer” when we were young, or made a profession of faith, or went through confirmation class. The test is this: Are we becoming more forgiving people? Are our lives increasingly characterized by grace and mercy toward others? Are we willing to forgive others when they sin against us?
This may be a sobering thought for many of us. If we struggle to forgive, what’s wrong with us, and how can we change? This sermon explores these questions.
Sermon Text: Luke 17:3-10
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Last week, I saw a depressingly funny headline in the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news website—which is like the Onion except it deals with church- and Christian-related themes. The headline read: “Unrepentant Hedonist Really Banking On Sinner’s Prayer He Recited At Age 7.”
The article begins:
As he continues to live out a vigorous and shameless pursuit of anything and everything that gives him any degree of temporary pleasure, sources confirmed Friday that local unrepentant hedonist Justin Bergman, 29, is really banking on the sinner’s prayer he recited as a small child.
After a sleepless three-day binge of drugs, alcohol, and sex, Bergman was approached by a friend who expressed concern over the man’s eternal soul, to which he is said to have replied, “Don’t worry about me, man—I asked Jesus into my heart a long time ago. Me and God are good.”
You and I both know that there are plenty of Justin Bergmans out there—people who live their lives as they please, with hardly a thought about Jesus Christ and what he demands of his disciples; whose Christian faith, such as it is, has hardly made a dent in their behavior. Yet when it comes to their salvation, these same people are banking on a prayer they prayed when they were young; or maybe they’re banking on their baptism; or their confirmation; or their name on a church roll somewhere. They’re counting on these mere tokens of faith to save them, rather than their faith in the atoning work if Jesus Christ on the cross.
Matthew chapter 18 parallels Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in verses 3 and 4 of today’s scripture. But it includes a parable about a servant who owed the king millions of dollars—an amount he couldn’t begin to pay back. The king was going to have him and his family sold into slavery, but the man pleads for mercy, and the king has mercy and forgives his debt. So what does this newly forgiven man do next? He finds a fellow servant who owes him a small amount of money, and demands that he pay him every last red cent. The debtor pleads for mercy, but the recently forgiven servant starts choking him, saying, “Pay me what you owe.” When the king finds out, he’s furious: the king tells the man: “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.”
And here’s the frightening moral of the story: Jesus says: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
My point is, Jesus makes an uncomfortable connection between God forgiving us our sins and our willingness to forgive other people theirs.
I mean, Jesus makes this same connection right there in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that we say every week in church: “Forgive us our trespasses”—our sins—“as we forgive those who trespass”—or sin—“against us.” And then, just so there’s no mistaking this connection, Jesus says, “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.”
Neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Sobering words.
See, unlike what Justin Bergman thinks, the test of whether or not we’re saved isn’t “Did I pray this sinner’s prayer when I was young; or did I walk down the aisle at the end of a church service and profess my faith; or did I go to confirmation class for three months when I was twelve.” The test is, “Am I willing to forgive others who hurt me?” “Am I becoming a more forgiving person?” “Is my life characterized more and more by grace, compassion, and patience toward others?” Or do I continue to harbor resentment toward those who hurt me? Do I continue to nurse feelings of anger toward them? And even though I can muster a smile to their face, do I gossip about them, all the while secretly holding a grudge and rooting for their downfall?
It’s a little scary, isn’t it?
This is why the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”
Think about this: Paul is speaking to people in Corinth who are already in the church—people who are already active church members, people he knows and loves from the time he spent in Corinth, people who are his friends, people who by all outward appearances are Christians and who believe in their hearts that they are going to heaven. And he’s saying even to these people, “You may not be Christian. You may not be going to heaven. I can’t judge that. I can’t look in your heart and know for sure whether or not your faith is genuine—even if you’re my friend; even if you’ve prayed a sinner’s prayer; even if you’ve been baptized or confirmed; even if you’ve chaired this particular committee in church; even if you were ordained by the United Methodist Church. Those things are no measure of whether or not you’re saved, so all I can ask you to do is test yourself to be sure.”
Do you know what the biggest threat facing Hampton United Methodist Church is? It’s not that our church won’t have the money we need to pay our apportionments… Or that we’ll lose members who give generously to our church’s general fund, so we won’t be able to pay the bills… Or that the roof will come crashing down if we don’t spend money to maintain these beautiful facilities… As much as I don’t want any of those things to happen, I am telling you by the authority of God’s word that these are not the biggest threats facing our church. Not even close!
The biggest threat facing our church is that we won’t have the faith we need in order to obtain eternal life; that we’ll lose our souls and miss out on the opportunity to go to heaven; that our lives will come crashing down at final judgment when we discover too late that we have built them on the wrong foundation!
And one important test that Jesus himself gives us is this: Are you willing and able to forgive others even when they have genuinely hurt you—even when they have sinned against you; even when they have done evil to you? Can you forgive them?
If not, brothers and sisters, the Bible’s clear warning to you and me is that we may not be forgiven ourselves! We may not be saved! We may be lost!
So we test ourselves.
It’s no wonder that when the disciples hear Jesus say these challenging words about forgiveness in today’s scripture, their first response is, “Increase our faith!” They know just how difficult and demanding Jesus’ words are—and they’re worried that they don’t measure up.
And maybe when we hear these words, we worry, too.
Please don’t misunderstand me: When we’re trying to interpret scripture, we never look at one verse or one passage, in isolation from all the rest. We look at a verse or a passage in light of everything else in scripture. We let scripture interpret scripture. And when we do that with these words about forgiveness, we understand that we do not forgive in order to be forgiven. God does not withhold his forgiveness until he sees whether or not we forgive others. Forgiveness is not a meritorious work that we have to perform in order for God to forgive us. No, we are saved by faith alone, not works. But if our faith is genuine, if we have truly been born again, if the Holy Spirit has begun to change our hearts through sanctification, these works, including the work of forgiveness, will naturally follow. That’s what James means when he says, “Faith without works is dead.”
Also, we remember that none of us has reached a state of sinless perfection—not even close. We are still sinners, and we will often struggle and fail to forgive—just like we fail to live up to the high standard of Christ-like love in other areas of our lives. It’s not that we won’t sometimes fall short when it comes to Christ’s command to forgive; it’s that, as with other sins, we must repent. Confess to God that you’ve sinned by not forgiving someone. Pray for the grace to change. Don’t be satisfied with your inability to forgive; recognize that it’s a serious problem. And as you do so, remember the words of the apostle John: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Another possible misunderstanding: forgiveness does not mean what this other person did to you was no big deal—or that, if you were more like Jesus, you wouldn’t have let this thing bother you—or you wouldn’t have been so sensitive or you wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Not at all. Notice the first thing Jesus says in verse 3 is, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them.” When someone sins against us, it’s a big deal. That’s why I don’t like the language that we often use when it comes to forgiveness: When someone apologizes, what do we often say? “It’s O.K.” No… it’s not O.K. Of course it’s not O.K. Forgiveness doesn’t mean minimizing the wrong that was done. We acknowledge the wrongness of it.
Finally, forgiveness is always costly. It’s never free.
You don’t believe me? Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: the man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “you get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. What’s it going to be?” Now I know that’s not going to happen in real life, but just work with me…
Suppose you chose to forgive the man. He doesn’t have to serve jail time. He doesn’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.
O.K., let me ask you: Is your forgiveness of this man free? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.
Who’s going to pay that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are. When you forgive someone, you always pay the price. Of course, when we need to forgive someone, it’s usually not a financial cost. It’s usually an emotional one. Instead of demanding that the person who hurt us experience the exact same pain that we’ve experienced—which would be perfectly fair and perfectly just—we instead say, “I’ll suffer the pain that you deserve to suffer. By forgiving you, I’m saving you from it.”
Does this remind you of anyone? Does this remind you of what Jesus did for us on the cross? He said, “I’ll pay the price you deserve to pay; I’ll suffer the pain you deserve to suffer. And I’ll do this because I want to forgive you, and forgiveness is always costly. I want to save you from getting what you deserve, even though it means sacrificing myself, laying down my life, to do so. You are worth that much to me.”
Maybe you’ve heard these words today and feel convicted. Maybe you have tested yourself; you see that your life is characterized by a lack of forgiveness. And you’re thinking, “I’m not even a Christian.” If so, you’ve come to the right place! I’m going to invite you, during the singing of this closing hymn, to walk down this aisle—maybe you’ve done it before but you were going through the motions. This time, however, it’s real; you’re ready to receive Christ as your Savior and follow him as Lord. You’re ready to be born again. You’re ready to confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord.” I want you to do that this morning. I want you to be saved this morning.
But if you’ve tested yourself this morning, and while you know you’re saved, you also know that you sin a lot when it comes to Jesus’ command to forgive. You know you need to be more forgiving and gracious toward others.
If so, take to heart the message in Jesus’ curious parable in verses 7 to 10. Jesus asks us to imagine that we have a bondservant who works for us. Bondservants were those people in the ancient world who owed such a large debt to someone so they effectively sold themselves into slavery to that person for a set period of time in order to pay off that debt. So imagine that this servant in the parable is deeply indebted to you. What does Jesus say?
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’
Jesus is saying that we have no room in our lives as Christians for pride. None whatsoever. And let’s face it, when someone hurts us, and we hold a grudge, and we gossip about them, and we’re overly sensitive, it’s often because of pride; it’s often because we’ve forgotten who we are.
Jesus says that we ourselves are “unworthy servants.” We ourselves have done nothing to deserve the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that we’ve received from our heavenly Father. We have not, through our righteousness, somehow paid off the debt that we owe God. Jesus paid the debt; and it’s only through his righteousness that we enjoy the privilege of being God’s beloved children.
So even if, in this one instance, we did nothing to deserve the hurt that someone caused us, do we not know—have we forgotten—all the ways that we’ve hurt others… the many ways that we’ve sinned against others… the evil for which we ourselves are responsible? Isn’t there plenty of wrongdoing for us to account for? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
If we’ve lost sight of that, have we not lost sight of the very gospel of Jesus Christ? No wonder the Bible warns that our inability to forgive is a sign of serious spiritual danger!
Besides, God has had to forgive infinitely more in you and me than we’ll ever have to forgive in someone else!
1. Matthew 18:32-35 ESV
2. Matthew 6:14-15
3. 2 Corinthians 13:5 NIV
4. 1 John 1:9