Forgive Us Our DebtsRev. Philip Miller | May 15, 2022
Selected highlights from this sermon
It’s not hard to see that our world needs to be a more forgiving place. Our families need to be more forgiving places. Our churches need to be more forgiving places. Of course, it’s easy to spot unforgiveness in others. It’s much harder when it’s our turn to forgive.
What if forgiveness can turn the world upside-down? What if forgiveness is at the very heart of the life of the kingdom of heaven? What if forgiveness is a defining mark of those who follow Jesus?
In this message, Pastor Miller looks at the gravity, symmetry, and trajectory of forgiveness. He reminds us that at its core, forgiveness is the decision to pay the debt yourself and be done with it. And that’s what Jesus did for us. When we owed a debt we could never pay, Jesus paid a debt He never owed.
“Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.” (chuckles) – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
It’s not hard to see that our world needs to be a more forgiving place, is it? There’s way too much tribalism, way too much hatred, way too much violence. It’s not hard to see that our families need to be more forgiving places. There’s way too much fighting and way too much bitterness, way too much estrangement. It’s not hard to see that our churches need to be more forgiving places. There’s way too much gossip, way too much judgmentalism, way too much division. And of course, it’s easy to spot unforgiveness in other people, isn’t it? It’s much harder when it’s our turn to forgive.
But the reality is we need to be more forgiving people. Right?
We have too much anger in our hearts. We have too many wounds that we are nursing. We have too many grudges that we are holding inside. Unforgiveness always rises from hurt, a place of hurt. Someone hurts us or hurts our people sometimes deeply, irretrievably, and then that pain naturally starts to turn into anger. And anger generates a kind of energy of its own. Pain inflicts more pain. Anger fuels more anger. Hate breeds more hate. Violence begets more violence, because hurt people hurt people. Hurt people hurt people. And then those hurt people who hurt more people, who then in turn hurt still more people, and the hurt goes on and on until the world looks like our front page news. But what if there’s another way? What if forgiveness can turn the world upside down? What if forgiveness is actually at the very heart of the life of the kingdom of heaven? What if forgiveness is the way of Jesus. It might just change the whole world.
Grab your Bibles. We’re going to be in Matthew 6:9–15 this morning. You’ll find this reading on page 811 in your pew Bible. This is the Lord’s Prayer, famous verses that many of us know by heart. Let’s read them together. We’re going to look at another two verses beyond the prayer today which I’ll read. Let’s say the prayer together.
Jesus introduces it, Matthew 6:9 saying, “Pray then like this.” Let’s pray together:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
[For yours is the kingdom and the power
and the glory, forever. Amen.]”
And then Jesus adds these words, “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.”
Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.
This morning I want to show you three attributes of forgiveness, three attributes of forgiveness.
We’re going to see The Gravity of Forgiveness, The Symmetry of Forgiveness, and The Trajectory of Forgiveness. Gravity, symmetry, trajectory of forgiveness.
Before we turn to God’s Word now, would you bow your heads. Let’s ask the Lord to be our teacher.
Father, there’s probably no more invasive idea than forgiveness. It runs down deep to the very core of who we are, to some of the most difficult things we’ve ever faced in our lives. It brings back pain and agony and injustice, and we need to know what to do with our hearts. Father, would you set us free? Liberate us on the inside. Teach us the way of Jesus and how to forgive. We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen. Amen.
First, The Gravity of Forgiveness, the gravity of forgiveness.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? Debts? It’s financial language. It’s evocative of the bankruptcy court. It’s like we’ve racked up all this debt and we can’t possibly repay it, and our only hope is for our debt to be forgiven, right? This prayer assumes that you and I have racked up enormous debts with God. That’s the implication, “Forgive us our debts,” and that other people have racked up enormous debts with us: “as we have also forgiven our debtors.”
So what’s with this debt? I think we all intuitively grasp that this is not ultimately about monetary debt. It’s about sin debt, right? But why this imagery? Why does Jesus use the imagery of indebtedness?
Well, one of the ways we can think about sin is that sin is a failure to give someone their due. Sin is a failure to give someone their due, so when it comes to God, God is our Creator. He’s our sustainer, He’s the giver of all good things. And therefore, you and I, we owe Him gratitude, respect, honor, love, devotion, trust, obedience, worship. We owe God a great deal of things that are rightfully due His name. And when we fail to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we fail to give God His due. In a sense, we are in His debt. Does that make sense?
The same thing happens in human relationships. People are made in the image of God. Yes? And therefore human beings have certain things that are due to them: honor, dignity, respect, value. And when we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, we fail to give God’s image bearers what they are due, and we are in their debt as well.
In a sense, whenever we sin, we fail to give God and other people what they are rightfully due, and so we are in their debt. And you and I live in a web of indebtedness. People owe us because they fail to give us our due in life, and we owe others because we fail to give them their proper due, and we, all of us, owe God a great deal, because every single one of us has failed to give Him His rightful due.
Now in the normal course of things what we do with a debt is you’ve got to make someone pay, right? So in this case, when it comes to human interactions and our interactions with God, we’ve got to make somebody pay. Someone has to pay the debt.
“You hurt me. I’m going to hurt you, make you pay.”
“You take from me; I’m going to take from you. I’m going to make you pay.”
“You break my heart. I’ll break yours. I’m going to make you pay.”
“You created this debt. Now pay up!”
Retaliation, retribution, revenge. It is the cycle of endless violence that ravages our world. Don’t you see? That’s the normal way of things. But remember, Jesus is introducing us to a whole different way, another way entirely, the way of the kingdom of heaven, the new heart of the Spirit, the way of Jesus where we don’t have to be angry, but we can be reconciled to our brothers where we can love our enemies and do good to those who harm us, and pray for those who persecute us. This is all unnatural behavior, supernatural behavior. It is an end to the cycle of endless violence and retaliation, retribution and revenge. Jesus is introducing us to an entirely upside down kingdom idea. He’s introducing us to forgiveness.
What if, instead of exacting payment, we chose instead to forgive the debt? What if, instead of exacting payment, we chose instead to forgive their debt? Instead of forcing them to pay up, what if we absorbed the debt ourselves and forgave. Well, if we could figure out how to do that it would stop the cycle of violence, wouldn’t it? Mercy would triumph over judgment. Forgiveness would turn the whole world on its head. And of course, friends, this is exactly what God did for us in Jesus Christ. While we were yet sinners, and enemies of God, Christ died for us. When we owed a debt we could never pay, Jesus paid a debt He never owed. Jesus died in our place and for our sake, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. And on the cross Jesus cries out: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Don’t you see, Jesus broke the cosmic cycle of violence on the cross? Instead of making us pay, He absorbed the debt in Himself and forgave.
In this prayer Jesus is inviting us to bring all of our debt-ridden sin to our Father.
“Father, forgive us our debts.”
“For if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
But notice that’s not where the prayer stops. It continues. “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” There is a connection between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend. Do you see that? There’s a connection between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend. Jesus puts an even finer point on it in verses 14 to 15: “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.”
Now the language has shifted here. We’ve gone from debts to trespasses. We’re still talking about sin, but the imagery is different. Trespassing is crossing the line. A debt is when I fail to give someone what is rightfully due to them. A trespass is when I cross a line and I do something I shouldn’t have done. Okay? So if I fail to love as I ought to, that’s a debt. But if I do harm instead, that’s a trespass. So if you are familiar with theology, you have sins of omission which create a debt (I omitted to do the thing I was supposed to do); and sins of commission: this is something where I...it’s a trespass...I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done. I crossed the line.
But once again, the core idea here is: What will we do with the sin? Whether it’s a debt or a trespass, the central issue is will we forgive? Will we forgive? And Jesus is saying [that] somehow my own forgiveness before God is connected with the forgiveness I extend to others in this life. You see that. “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.”
Now verses like this kind of mess with you, don’t they? Is this messing with you? Is it rattling? Is it disquieting? Is it unnerving? I think Jesus knows exactly what He’s doing. He wants us to wrestle with this. He wants it to like throw us off our balance so that we try to figure out what is going on here. What is the connection between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend? What’s the connection? Now, I’m not going to answer that right away. I want to take you to one other passage, Matthew 18. Because in Matthew 18 Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness that helps us understand how this connection works.
So turn in your Bibles. We’re going to go to Matthew 18. I normally don’t make you turn, but let’s do that today. Matthew 18:21–35.
“Then Peter came up and said to him [Jesus], ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’” (chuckles) I love this. How often do I have to forgive people? Come on, like seven? Peter reaches for the biggest number he can think of, right, seven. Jesus says (verse 22), “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Then He tells the story. Verse 23: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”
Okay, pause for a second. We are not familiar with these economic numbers. Let me explain this. A talent was worth 20 years’ wages for a blue collar laborer, 20 years’ wages. So let’s say $40,000 a year times 20 years. $800,000, one talent. He owes 10,000 of these talents. So $800,000 times 10,000 is eight billion dollars. Okay? It would take him, at his current earning rate, 200,000 years to pay off this debt. Okay? So this is not Elon Musk where he could just buy Twitter over the weekend. Okay? He doesn’t have that kind of largess.
Verse 25: “And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” (Common practice in those days)
Verse 26: “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” Could he do that? No.
Verse 27: “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when the servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.”
A denarii was a daily coin paid to day laborers. It was a day’s wages. So let’s just use our annual salary of $40,000. That’s $150 per working day, okay, five days a week? So this is roughly a $15,000 debt. It’s a substantial amount, but nothing compared to the $8 billion he just got forgiven. Right? Okay.
“He found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay off the debt. When his fellow servant saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘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. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
So once again we see that there is a connection between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend. To put it succinctly, unforgiving people are unforgiven people. Unforgiving people are unforgiven people. That’s what Jesus is saying. It’s a heavy reality, isn’t it? There’s a gravity to forgiveness.
Secondly, there’s a symmetry of forgiveness. The Symmetry of Forgiveness.
In the Lord’s Prayer, in Jesus’ exposition in verses 14 and 15, and in this parable Jesus tells in Matthew 18, in all three of the passages there is a connection between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend, but the question is, “What is the connection?” I want to suggest to you that the connection is not one of causation, but one of coordination.
The relationship is not one of causation. It is one of coordination. What do I mean by that? Causation, we’re familiar with this, cause and effect. If the connection between the forgiveness we receive from God and the forgiveness we extend to other people is one of causation, what we would be saying then is that God forgives me because I forgive others, that His forgiveness depends on my forgiveness, and it is up to me to earn forgiveness from God by my forgiveness of other people. But is that the Gospel? No. I hope, say it really loud. Is that the Gospel? No! No! No, that’s salvation by works. That’s earning forgiveness by what I do. The Bible is abundantly clear. Ephesians 2:8 and 9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The connection between the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend cannot be one of causation because that would be a denial of the Gospel and a contradiction of the overwhelming clear teaching of the Scriptures.
So what is the connection? I’m going to suggest that it is one of coordination. Coordination: that when it comes to forgiveness, receiving and extending go together. When it comes to forgiveness, receiving and extending go together. In other words, there’s a symmetry to forgiveness, that those who have received forgiveness, naturally and necessarily, extend forgiveness to others. They’re coordinate actions. They go together.
It’s like inhaling and exhaling. (Breathes in and exhales.) Forgiveness received and extended. It is one act, one muscle group.
Or, to put it differently, it is like roots and fruits. Healthy roots lead to healthy fruits. Unhealthy roots lead to unhealthy fruits. If we are rooted in the forgiveness of God, the tree of our lives will bear the fruit of forgiveness toward one another. It is the natural and necessary outgrowth of where we’ve been planted. And conversely, if we are not rooted in the forgiveness of God, the tree of our lives will bear the fruit of unforgiveness toward others. Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruit.”
So the root of forgiveness naturally and necessarily bears the fruit of forgiveness. And the fruit of unforgiveness betrays a lack of forgiveness at the root, you see, because unforgiveness, friends, is ultimately rooted in pride. It’s ultimately rooted in pride. Think about it. To be unforgiving you have to feel superior. You’re standing in judgment over the other person that you’re mad at. You’re looking down at them. You feel morally superior. “I’m better than they are.” I’m self-righteous. “They’re the problem, not me.” But self-righteousness is not the posture of a soul that has received forgiveness from God.
Each of us, friends, has amassed an infinite debt before God. He’s given us life and breath and everything else. And instead of honoring Him and living for Him as He deserves, we have hijacked our lives and spent them on ourselves, and we find ourselves $8 billion in debt when it comes to God. Two hundred lifetimes can’t even pay it off and God forgives all of that debt in Jesus Christ. Jesus died in our place and for our sake, and bore our sin and shame on the cross, and rose again that we might be right with God forever.
Friends, everything changed. Our debt is paid. We stand in grace. We’re recipients of mercy here, pardoned and forgiven, and it humbles us to the ground. Forgiveness, by definition, slays pride in our hearts. There’s no room for superiority or self-righteousness, no room for looking down on other people. Friends, don’t you see that the unforgiveness in our lives reveals a prideful self-righteousness at the core of our being. It’s incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unforgiveness comes from self-righteous pride. And self-righteous pride can’t grow in a heart that’s overwhelmed by the grace of forgiveness. It just doesn’t belong there. Forgiveness works on us. It humbles us. It amazes us. It graces us. It changes us on the inside and it becomes the very thing that then allows us to forgive other people.
Friends, the same pride that keeps us from asking for forgiveness and receiving it is the same pride that keeps us from forgiving other people. And the same humility that comes from being forgiven is the same humility that enables us to then forgive others as well because forgiven people forgive people. Forgiven people forgive people. Isn’t that how the Gospel works on us, that we have received mercy so that we might extend mercy; we received grace that we might be conduits of grace; we receive forgiveness that we might pass on forgiveness? There’s a symmetry to forgiveness. You see it, you see it.
The Trajectory of Forgiveness now. The Trajectory of Forgiveness.
I hope that you sense that all of this is going somewhere, that forgiveness has its trajectory, that it moves in and through and beyond us. It sweeps us off our feet and rushes us onward to the unknown horizons. We are forgiven so that we might become forgiving. We are forgiven so that we might become forgiving.
Friends, when Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” in that moment He unleashed a cascade of forgiveness that would conspire to change the course of human history. He absorbed our debt. He forgave our sin, our $8 billion plus debt. He wiped it out forever. When the sweetness of that mercy falls on your soul and drips down into your heart and works on the brittleness of who you are, it starts to soften and change you on the inside out. It melts you, and we can’t hold back from forgiving people who owe us fifteen thousand dollars.
You see, when you’ve been forgiven so much, you can’t hold out on the smaller stuff. No, we’ve got to forgive one another as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven us. We’ve got to love our enemies for when we were enemies Christ died for us. We’ve got to overcome evil with good because that’s exactly what Jesus did when He laid down His life on the cross. We’ve got to forgive our debtors, for our debts have been forgiven. And all of a sudden do you see what’s happening to us? We’re being conformed to the image of God. We are growing in the likeness of God, as sons and daughters of Him. God is making us, you and me, this shocking, He’s making us His co-conspirators in the redemption of the universe. The forgiveness we have received becomes the substance of our inner life which then naturally and necessarily flows out toward those around us. We are forgiven so that we might become forgiving. God is making us like Himself, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love and rich in mercy.
So how does this work? The first thing we’ve got to do is receive God’s forgiveness. Receive God’s forgiveness. “Father, forgive us our debts.” Forgive us our debts.
In a room this size I know there are some of you here probably who struggle with the idea of being forgiven. You’ve done things you wish you had never done. You’ve seen things you wish you had never seen. You’ve been someone you wish you had never been. And I want you to hear the words of your Jesus on the cross. “It is finished!” It is finished! (applause) “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Your $8 billion plus debt before God of all your sin: It is paid in full! There is no sin beyond His mercy. There is no failure beyond His grace. There is no debt beyond His payment. There is no dirtiness beyond His cleansing. There is no guilt beyond His forgiveness. Amen? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Friends, would you dare to believe today that in Jesus Christ, you are finally, fully, forever forgiven? Would you dare to believe it? Let it all the way in and all the way down. It’ll change you, I promise.
The second thing we’ve got to do is, having received God’s forgiveness, is to extend God’s forgiveness. Extend it. Having received so much mercy and grace, the immeasurable forgiveness of our Lord, we have no choice now but to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.
I know this is hard. It helps me to remember that forgiveness is not a feeling. Nobody ever feels like forgiving. If you wait till you feel like it, you’ll never do it. Forgiveness is not forgetting either. Some pain is too great. The wounds are too deep. You’re never going to forget what happened. You don’t need to. You can’t. Forgiveness is not an excuse. It’s not excusing what happened. Forgiveness is not saying what they did is okay. It’s not saying you deserved it. It was inexcusable. It was sin. It was wrong what they did. It’s not okay. Forgiveness is not reckless trust. Forgiveness is a gift. Trust is earned. Forgiveness is a gift. Trust is earned. Just because you forgive doesn’t mean there’s no boundaries going forward. Forgiveness isn’t anti-justice either. You can forgive and still press charges. You can forgive and take steps to make sure that no one else has to face what you faced.
No, forgiveness is the decision to pay the debt yourself and be done with it. To pay the debt yourself and be done with it. Someone’s got to pay the debt. It’s a decision. It’s a choice. It’s an act of the will. Even though every feeling wants to make them pay, I choose instead to forgive, and I’m going to pay the debt myself. Sin always creates a debt. The forgiver always pays the debt, friends. Jesus paid the debt for us, didn’t He? He absorbed our debt. It didn’t go away. The debt was there. He absorbed it, He forgave it. Jesus paid the price, and likewise when we forgive others we pay the price for what happened. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s a merciful statement.
And then finally, be done with it. Be done with it! Put it behind you. Tell someone you’re doing it and move forward, no longer carrying the weight of anger and bitterness and vengeance and unforgiveness for the rest of your days.
Bottom line: We’re called to forgive one another as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven us. Forgive one another as God, in Christ, forgave you.
There are three promises we make when we forgive.
Number one: I won’t dwell on it. I won’t dwell on it. That’s the point of Peter’s question, “Seven times?” “No, 77 times!” Do you know how often you have to forgive? Your brain doesn’t let go of stuff. Every time it comes back, forgive. Every time it comes back, forgive until it becomes muscle memory.
Secondly: I won’t weaponize it. If I forgive someone I’m not going to weaponize it any more. I’m not going to bring it up and use it against them and throw it in their face.
Thirdly: I won’t gossip about it. I’m not going to hold this over them and talk about it with my friends and sabotage their reputation, and built my camp, you know.
Listen to these verses that Paul writes. Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Colossians 3:12 to 15: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”
Do you see the Gospel logic, see the Gospel logic of what has been received now becomes the ethical imperative of our lives that we must extend what we’ve received through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that changes our hearts and orients us differently in life? Do you see this?
So, two questions: Where do you need to receive your Father’s forgiveness today? And where do you need to extend your Father’s forgiveness today?
Father, forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Would you pray with me?
Father, this really hits home. Every single one of us in Jesus Christ have been forgiven more than we could ever imagine. And yet our pride makes it so hard to forgive others. Father, will you help the Gospel to come into our hearts and souls so deeply that it slays our pride to the ground, that it uproots the self-righteousness in our hearts, that it makes us people of forgiveness, so that the whole of our lives might be conformed to the image of who You are.
This is how you are. You are a God of great forgiveness, of great mercy and compassion. This is who you are. Through the power of the Gospel in Jesus Christ, the indwelling of your Holy Spirit, would you make us people who look like you, who act like you, and can become salt and light, scattered out into the world to change the cycle of endless violence, that has this world wrapped around the neck. Make us people of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness, co-conspirators with you in the redemption of this world. Use us, we pray, in Christ’s name, Amen. Amen.