“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31–32, NKJV)
Forgiveness of sins through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ serves as both motivation and model for His Church. We are to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32). Christ cancelled our debt of sin (Col. 2:14) and so calls us who are forgiven to forgive others in our debt (Col. 3:12-14).
Our Lord Jesus makes this principle of reciprocity vivid in a parable recorded in Matthew 18:23-34. He told of a king owed “ten thousand talents”—a huge amount of money—by one of his servants. The servant had no way to pay such a massive debt, but the king responded to the desperate pleas of the servant and forgave the burden. But that only sets up the story. That forgiven servant goes out and runs across a fellow servant who owes him money. His peer likewise pleads for mercy and patience, but the first servant will have nothing to do with it. He responds with greed rather than grace and throws the man into debtor’s prison. The rest of his fellow servants are shocked and appalled and report the first servant’s actions to the king, who calls the servant before him and says: “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?” (Matt. 18.32-33)
There it is—the principle of reciprocity. Those forgiven should be ready, eager, and willing to forgive those who sin against them. In fact, Jesus paints the picture in such a way that it is absurd to even think about not forgiving. Using the denarius as the standard for a day’s wage, the debt owed by the first servant amounted to 160,000 years’ wages. Jesus is speaking in exaggerated terms to make His point. Certainly, the three months’ wages owed by the second servant to the first is substantial, but it is a puddle to the Pacific by comparison.
There are echoes of the gospel in this parable, including the incalculable debt of sin that we owe to God and are unable to pay. But the story is about forgiveness, not the gospel per se. The parable features no substitute to redeem, no mediator to pay the debt. The topic is introduced by Peter’s question to Jesus, which prompted the parable: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). Jesus relates the parable to show that forgiving a brother seven times does not come close to equaling the accounting of the first debt forgiven, just as 100 denarii (3 months’ wages) does not come close to 10,000 talents (160,000 years’ wages).
As if that were not shocking enough, Jesus goes on to make a stunning statement following the story: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). Is Jesus saying that the forgiveness of those forgiven is rescindable if they do not reciprocate in kind? Will God reinstate our debt as the king did to the unforgiving servant? For that matter, what if we do not forgive from the heart? How many times have we forgiven begrudgingly or half-heartedly?
Jesus often tells stories to startle. He wants to grab our attention, to make sure we get the point and the point gets us. In saying that God will not forgive our sins against Him if we do not forgive others’ sins against us, Jesus is introducing the prospect of God treating us like we treat others. It’s like we tell our kids: “Would you like it if I did that to you?” Jesus’ concluding words prompt us to think, What if God were to treat me like I am treating my brother? I remember what it was like when I was weighed down by my debt of sin, helpless and hopeless. I remember the horror of the wrath of God due me and the sentence of condemnation over my head. Jesus’ statement evokes dread at being in the debt of a holy God with no means to pay that debt. This awareness should serve as a defibrillator to the hardened heart. It reminds us of the glory of God’s forgiveness and that point of reference for our forgiving others.
We are to forgive as we have been forgiven. The question, though, is how do we go about it? We move next to an understanding of what it means to forgive and what is involved in forgiving.
- Why does Jesus make the contrast in such extremes – 10,000 talents versus 100 denarii?
- Is Jesus motivating us by guilt? If not, on what basis is He urging us to forgive those who sin against us?
Gracious and merciful Father in heaven, overwhelm me with the wonder of Your forgiveness in Christ. Like looking out over the vast ocean with its rhythmic and steady waves crashing on the shoreline obscuring even mountains below its surface, may I see the vastness of your love that covers all my sin, and may I see the sin of those who offend me as the puddles on the shoreline.
For more on forgiveness as a basic doctrine of the Christian faith, see The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. For more on the perspective and practice of forgiveness see Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.