Sermon 09-20-2020: “Is There a Limit to God’s Forgiveness?”

September 21, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

Years ago, at the church I was pastoring, we had an I.T. contractor who would come in occasionally and fix problems with our computers and our church wifi system. He wasn’t a member of our church—and I had only spoken to him in passing. But one time when he was at our church, he urgently wanted to speak to me. So we talked. 

This man was a Christian, and years earlier, he had kicked an addictive and sinful habit. He had been “clean” for years. But recently, he had “fallen off the wagon.” He was racked with guilt. He had prayed for forgiveness, but he wasn’t at all confident that God could forgive him… Not anymore. After all, he asked, “How many times can God forgive me when I keep doing the same old thing?”

So I didn’t know a better scripture to share with him than Jesus’ words in verse 22, after Peter asked how many times he must forgive his brother. “Should I forgive seven times?” And Jesus says, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

Or maybe “seven times seventy times.” Scholars don’t agree. But it doesn’t matter, because Jesus’ point is, “There should be no limit to the number of times that you forgive others… because there’s no limit to the number of times that God forgives you.” 

This is the clear teaching of verses 21 and 22. I am certain of that.

But

Now we have to deal with one of the most difficult parables that Jesus tells. What I mean is, Jesus has just clearly said that, for Christians, there’s no limit to God’s forgiveness… But now it seems like maybe there is one limit to God’s forgiveness. And the limit is this: God will continue to forgive our sins only so long as we forgive other people their sins.

Do you see the challenge of Jesus’ teaching here?

Consider verse 35: “So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you”—that is, our heavenly Father will treat us the way he treated this first servant in the parable, who failed to forgive one of his fellow servants. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.”

Will God forgive us if we fail to forgive others? 

It’s an important question, so let’s make sure we know the answer and why…

First, let’s be clear we know what’s going on in the parable. The first servant owes the king ten thousand talents. A talent equals about 20 years’ wages for a laborer. So today, let’s say that a typical laborer makes $30,000 a year. So 20 times 30,000 times 10,000… That would amount to $6 billion. And that may be underestimating. It’s hard to calculate, but it’s at least billions. Bible scholars speculate that, given the sum of money, this “servant” wasn’t working on the kitchen staff; he was likely ruling over one of the king’s provinces—and that the money he squandered was tax money

Regardless, as one scholar said, the amount may as well have been “zillions.” It was an astronomical sum that the disciples couldn’t wrap their heads around. But what is meant was, there was no way this servant could ever hope to repay it.

And yet, the king has pity on him… he forgives him his debt. Then this newly forgiven servant goes to one of his fellow servants and demands repayment for a much smaller debt: a hundred denarii. That was no more than a few hundred bucks at most. And even though the second servant falls on the ground and asks for patience and promises to repay, just as the first servant did with the king, the first servant won’t hear of it… So he rounds up the police and has the man thrown into debtors’ prison.

Some other servants see this take place, and they report to the king—and that’s when the king revokes the first servant’s forgiveness, saying, in verse 33, “And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

Yes, he should have… but why didn’t he? And this gets to the heart of the parable.

The reason is hinted at in verse 26, when the first servant begged the king for mercy: “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’”

I will pay you… everything? Really? Everything?

See, it would have been helpful at this point if, before forgiving the servant’s debt, the king had said something like this: “You don’t get it: You can’t begin to ‘pay for everything.’ You have so badly and irreversibly mismanaged and squandered my money—through sheer incompetence, not to mention graft and corruption—that there is no way you can ever repay your debt. Do you understand what you’ve done to me? Do you see how much harm you’ve caused? Do you see how utterly hopeless your situation is? The fact that you’re telling me that you can’t repay indicates that you don’t understand exactly how much you owe!”

This parable ends up making a similar point to the one that Jesus makes in real life in Luke chapter 7. There, a prominent, well-respected Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to a dinner party. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but back then, when you had a dinner party, you didn’t close the doors of your house… So people from outside were free to come inside. And a woman came in, who was known to be a prostitute. She began kissing Jesus’ feet and anointing them with ointment and her own tears. And Simon is indignant that Jesus is letting this happen. “If he were really a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is, and wouldn’t let her do this!”

And Jesus knows what Simon is thinking… He’s thinking, “This woman is a terrible sinner. I’m not like her. She doesn’t deserve to be with Jesus. But I do. Because, unlike her, I’m righteous.”

So Jesus tells Simon, in so many words, if you knew the kind of person you are, Simon, you would be treating me the same way this woman is! Because you would know that you, too, are a sinner—and you would be begging me to forgive your sins, as well.

Because it doesn’t matter who’s a “bigger” sinner here—Simon or the former prostitute. Maybe in terms of today’s parable, the prostitute owed 15,000 talents; maybe Simon “only” owed 10,000 talents. It wouldn’t matter. The point is, like the servant in the parable, each of them owed an unpayable debt to God because of their sin. The difference is, the former prostitute knew she owed this debt; Simon the Pharisee didn’t. And unless or until he figured this out—that he’s a sinner who owed an unpayable debt to God because of his sins—he would be unable to comprehend the gospel… unable to to love Jesus… and of course unable to forgive his fellow sinners. Because, after all, “They don’t deserve forgiveness!”

This is why, elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Because the Pharisees don’t understand why they need the gospel in the first place… “The gospel is for other people… not for me.”

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the first half of the gospel is understanding why you need it in the first place!

I shared this illustration at last Sunday night’s U-Nite service, but it bears repeating… Recently, I’ve been watching videos of an evangelist on the West Coast named Ray Comfort. He spends a lot of time doing street evangelism, and he films these interactions as a way of encouraging ordinary Christians do the same thing. And most people he talks to are like the first servant in today’s scripture—they simply don’t understand that, because of their sin, they owe an unpayable debt to God! 

So Comfort tries to convince them that they do! They do owe this debt!

Now, Comfort is from New Zealand, and I wish I could imitate his accent. But in a typical interview he asks the person, “Do you think you’re a good person?” Inevitably they say yes. “Have you ever told a lie?” They laugh and say, “Yes, of course. Many lies!” “What do you call a person who lies?” “A liar?” “Right! Have you ever stolen anything—even something very small in value?” “Yes.” “What do you call someone who steals?” “A thief?” “Yes! Have you ever taken the Lord’s name in vain?” “Yes! All the time,” they say. “That’s called blasphemy,” he says. Then he asks about lust and how Jesus said it was adultery of the heart. He asks whether they’ve looked at pornography or whether they’ve had sex before marriage. And the people he interviews will usually say yes.

Then Comfort says, “Now, I’m not judging you, but by your own admission, you’ve just told me that you’re a lying, thieving, blaspheming, fornicating adulterer in the heart. So when you stand before God in judgment, are you guilty or not guilty?” “Guilty.” “Will you go to heaven or hell?” And I’m surprised that people are usually honest enough to say, “Hell.” Then he asks, “Does that concern you?” And the people say, “Yes.” And that gives him an opportunity to talk about Jesus and what he did for us sinners through his atoning death on the cross.

Comfort says in one of his books—and I agree—that if we don’t first let sinners feel the condemnation of God’s Law—and instead only tell them how much God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives—then we’ll get a bunch of false converts: these may be people who pray the sinner’s prayer and get baptized, or people who stand up in church and get confirmed. The end result will be the same: They are people who say they believe in Jesus, people who think they’re in a right relationship with God… but as soon as they get a driver’s license, or as soon as they graduate high school, as soon as they move out of the house, they go off to college or career or the military… and they don’t come back to church… except maybe Christmas and Easter… or when they’re home visiting their parents. 

That’s the extent of their Christian faith. Are they saved?

In my 16 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve seen this cycle repeat so many times! I would be afraid to know, for example, what percentage of confirmands are still practicing the Christian faith… what percentage have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ!

Because, like the first servant, these false converts never knew—no one ever told them—just how unpayable their debt to God is… because of their sin. And apart from God’s grace alone, through the cross of his Son Jesus, they will be lost eternally. In hell.

Friends, I am not taking for granted that just because you’re in church this morning listening to me preach that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you don’t, hear the warning of this parable. Don’t be like the first servant! Your sin has racked up a debt before God that only God’s Son Jesus can pay—and he did pay it… on the cross. Look to him alone for your salvation and be saved… while there’s still time! And time is running out!

But for the rest of us… who are Christians… Let’s get back to the question I asked near the beginning: Will God still forgive us if we fail to forgive others?

Let’s notice Jesus begins his parable with these words in verse 23: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…” He doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is exactly like a king.” That’s not how parables work. This human king that Jesus describes couldn’t look into his servant’s heart and see that he failed to grasp the enormity of his misdeeds. If the king could do that… he would never have forgiven the man in the first place! So this human king made a mistake in forgiving this man his debt. 

To say the least, God our king is not like any human king! When he forgives us, he knows exactly what’s in our hearts. Therefore God does not forgive us “by mistake”—only to discover later that we never understood the gospel in the first place! And then God revokes the forgiveness that he gave us earlier. 

Heaven forbid… 

My point is, I don’t want you to worry needlessly about your salvation because you’re struggling to forgive someone who has genuinely hurt you. We can all easily imagine extreme cases where forgiveness is very difficult. You may have experienced one of those extreme cases. But I’m not sugar-coating it: Jesus says that if you’re struggling to forgive, your failure to forgive is a deadly serious sin. So confess that sin to God! And do so believing, as scripture says, that God is faithful and just to “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If  you recognize you have a problem, after all, you’re already not like the unforgiving servant. 

But as you pray, pray that by the power of the Spirit within you, God will give you the desire to forgive. Start there… One preacher said, “You may not want to forgive someone, but you should at least want to want to forgive.”

Because make no mistake: there are consequences for us Christians when we fail to forgive. 

I shared this with April earlier this week… But God showed me something recently, which I don’t mind sharing with you, even though it makes me look bad—it doesn’t make me look very pastoral… But here goes: There are people on Twitter whose accounts I check regularly because I want to see how well or how poorly they’re doing. These people are my enemies. We all have them. The Bible says so. So let’s call a spade a spade. I have enemies. And I would be embarrassed if these enemies knew how often I checked their Twitter accounts! 

But I check their accounts because I hope that they’re doing poorly. I hope that they’re having a bad day… It makes me feel good when something is going wrong in their lives. Why? Because they hurt me! And I want them to hurt too! Because I enjoy their pain.

Because I… haven’t… forgiven… them! And that’s a deadly serious sin!

So I asked April advice: “Do I need to get off Twitter?” And she said, “Not necessarily. But do this: every time you go to their accounts, say a prayer for them. Because you can’t pray for an enemy for very long before you start wanting to forgive them.”

Pray for your enemies… I think Jesus said something about that!

Brothers and sisters, there’s hope for all of us! Don’t let yourself be discouraged in this journey of forgiveness! Pray that God would give you a change of heart toward your enemies, and pray for your enemies… until you find it within yourself to forgive!

There is hope… not because of who you are, but who God is… He has placed within your heart the very Spirit of the One who cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Don’t tell me you don’t have the power to forgive! Because you have the power of the Spirit within you!

So there’s hope! 

There may even be hope in this parable for the unforgiving servant… Even as he’s handed over to the “torturers” in verse 34, there’s a small glimmer of hope for him. Pastor John MacArthur thinks so. He interprets this verse not as “final condemnation” but as “discipline.” He writes, “The original debt was unpayable and the man was still without resources. So it seems unlikely that the [servant] was saddled once again with the same debt he had already been forgiven. Rather, what he now owed his master would be exacted in chastening by his master until he was willing to forgive others.”

Until he was willing to forgive… 

God may be disciplining you right now—by which I mean he’s allowing you to experience the continual pain of your past hurts… your past wounds… your past injuries… which continue to hurt you because you’re holding on to a lack of forgiveness… And he’s letting you feel that pain because he’s trying to get your attention… And what he is saying to you is, “I want to heal you of of this pain. And the healing starts with forgiveness. Ask me for the power you need to do that.”

Amen?

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