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Getting Forgiveness Right

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | June 12, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

Learning to forgive may be one of the hardest lessons we must learn. But by hanging on to bitterness and resentment, we become servants to the person who wronged us.

In this message, Pastor Lutzer takes the parable of the unforgiving debtor and not only defines what true forgiveness is, but he explains how it can lead us out of our personal prison into a place of hope and peace. 

I am going to ask that we bow our heads in prayer one more time because I want you to talk to God and tell him in advance that you will do whatever he shows you today that you should do. Would you do that? Let’s pray together.

Father, we are weak. We come to a service like this with defense mechanisms. We have our excuses, and we pray, Father, that you might come under our radar, so to speak, and that you might be able to get past all of that and just speak to us from your heart to ours about the matter of bitterness, and taking care of it with your strength and help. Do that, Lord, and for those who perhaps are skeptical or who intend to keep their hearts closed, gently open them. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

I don’t need to tell you (do I?) that we live in a very, very hurting world. And many of those hurts come from within our own families. I think, for example, of a father who is explaining to his children that he and their mother are being divorced. And the children cry out, “Mom and Dad, can’t you work it out?” But Mom and Dad aren’t going to work it out because Dad is tired of his wife and he has found someone else who is going to give him happiness. Think of the hurt that those children take into their marriages and their experiences.

Of course, that doesn’t even account for the abuse that goes on in some people’s homes. But it’s not just the family. It is relationships within that family. It is marriages. Couples forgive one another. They bury the hatchet but they bury it in a very shallow grave that is well marked and oftentimes the path that leads to that grave is well used.

It’s not just the family. It is also the family of God. Aren’t you sometimes shocked at what Christians do to one another? Is there any reason to believe, or to not believe that we are a world full of hurts? Well, with God’s help what we’d like to do is to take care of a lot of that bitterness today with the help of the Holy Spirit of God, and that’s why I want your heart to be open to what God shows us.

The passage is Matthew 18, and what I’d like to do today is to give you five statements about true forgiveness that hopefully are going to be used to help us move from bitterness to forgiveness to restoration to hope to peace. Now I need to emphasize that we often talk to those who are hurting, like today I am speaking to those of you who have been wronged. But remember that for every person who has been wronged there is someone who does the wronging. For every hurt there is a hurter, and so I am speaking to both groups.

Some of you have hurt others and your negative impact in their lives has been unacknowledged by you. You won’t admit it because of the defense system, and because of denial and because of your rationalizations, but would you be open today also to your part in the hurt that you have created for others?

Five statements! The first statement is that true forgiveness always seeks reconciliation. Sometimes it doesn’t achieve it but it seeks it. That is really the goal and Jesus here, in Matthew 18:15, gives some instructions about how to go about being reconciled. He says, “If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” In other words if it’s a matter that the two of you can work out alone, go and work it out alone. But oftentimes reconciliation doesn’t happen that easily and so if the person will not acknowledge what he has done, or if there is a difficulty, bring someone else with you (maybe one person or maybe two persons) and they can be there as witnesses and they can hopefully help in the process.

And then Jesus said that if that doesn’t happen and if there is still no reconciliation you should tell it to the church leadership and the leadership will begin to step in and the person who is unrepentant in this context will then be declared by the church to be an unbeliever, and their name will be taken from the roll of fellowship. That doesn’t mean that we as Christians know who the true believers are. It just means that as far as we are concerned this person is acting as if he isn’t a believer at all and we just simply turn him over and let God judge him. That’s the responsibility of the leaders of a church when you have a matter where there seems to be no possibility of reconciliation. And there are many times when reconciliation is impossible, first of all because a person won’t admit to it, secondly because he has an entirely different point of view, and thirdly because he believes that he is one-hundred percent in the right and the other person is one-hundred percent wrong. And you and I have all met toxic people who have no interest in reconciliation. Their only interest is to control you and to try to even use reconciliation to be able to make sure that they are in charge. Human life is very difficult but true forgiveness strives toward reconciliation. It seeks reconciliation even though sometimes it does not achieve it.

Now there’s a second lesson that I want us to learn today and this leads us to the heart of the story. It’s the parable that Jesus told. You remember Peter came to Jesus and said, “If my brother sins against me how often should I forgive him? Up to seven times?” And then Jesus said, “Peter, not seven times but seventy times seven.” Wow! I wonder if Peter was able to figure that one out. He got out his slide rule to figure out what that all meant, and/or his pocket calculator as the case may be.

Jesus is saying, in effect, that there is to be unlimited forgiveness if your brother sins against you. It’s a very tough statement. But now he tells the story that we are interested in, and this story indicates that indeed forgiveness is costly. It costs something.

Here’s the story. Let’s pick it up as Jesus told it in Matthew 18:23. “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. 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. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

Let’s try to reconstruct the scene. It’s the end of the fiscal year and it’s time for the accounts that the king has to be settled. A man comes to him who owes. They open the book. Ten thousand talents! Now, there are different explanations for how much this is. Actually in our money today it would be many, many millions of dollars. Let’s just say it’s ten million dollars. I don’t know how the man could have accumulated such a debt. Maybe this was a grand scheme of embezzlement, but that’s what he owed, and he knows that he can’t pay, so he falls down before the king in a gesture of despair and says something very, very foolish. He says, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” Really? Somebody figured out that he would have to work probably a thousand years to pay this off, but of course, in the parable we see ourselves, don’t we? In the parable the king represents God, and we are there before God and we think that we can pay for our sin. Point of fact, we cannot. As the old hymn writer once said, “Could my tears forever flow? Could my zeal no respite know? All for sin could not atone. Thou must save, and thou alone.”

If the man is to ever pay his debt the king is the one who is going to have to pay it, so the king says, “I absolve you of the debt.” And that’s the question I want to leave before you today, and the question is, very simply put, “Is forgiveness free or is it not?” It depends on the standpoint from which you answer that question. It is free to the forgiven servant. He was able to leave the presence of the king, released from his debt. It was free to him but very costly to the king because, you see, when the king began to settle his accounts, he had ten thousand talents that were missing that he had to absorb, and he had to realize that he was never going to be paid for them. And so it was very costly for him to forgive this servant.

Is it costly for God to forgive us? Absolutely! God gives his only begotten son for us. We are not redeemed with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, and so God says, “I will pay your payment and I will set you free. Your debt is paid by me, by my son.” It’s a debt that you or I could never pay.

What a wonderful picture of salvation. If we are to be saved it has to come to us from God. It’s not something that we ourselves are able to pay for. We can pay nothing. We receive it freely from God. Forgiveness, though, is very costly, and that’s true, too, when people wrong you.

You know, if there is unfaithfulness in the marriage it is the partner who has been wronged who has to in some sense absorb the shame, absorb the hurt, and say, “I set you free.” Somebody gossips about you, tells stories that aren’t true. They may come to you later and even confess that they’ve done wrong, but the damage has been done, and you say, “I absorb in myself the pain and the hurt that you caused me, but I will set you free.” Forgiveness is always costly to the person who is doing the forgiving, but free to the person who receives it.

There is a third statement now about true forgiveness that we must remember. True forgiveness leads, or should lead, to a forgiving spirit. Now we get to the heart of the story. Jesus says in verse 28, “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.” Again, there are different opinions as to how much it was, but it probably was somewhere near a hundred dollars, tens of thousands less than what he himself had owed the king. So “he found someone who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him (I mean we even have some violence in this story), he began to choke him saying, ‘Pay me what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ (This fellow servant said the very same thing that the servant had said. He said the very same words.) He refused and went and put him into prison until he should pay the debt.”

You must understand that in those days there was such a thing as debtor’s prison. You were put into prison and in prison you were assigned work to do, and all the money that you earned went to the person to whom you owed money. So you could be put in prison, yes to pay a debt, because you would try to work it off there. There was a scheme that was put in place. It was not very effective, but that’s what was done in those days.

Well, we have to back off and ask ourselves this question now. This forgiven servant - was he wrong in demanding that his fellow servant pay what he owed? Strictly speaking, not. This was a matter of justice. “You owe me a hundred dollars. You ought to pay a hundred dollars. You don’t have a hundred dollars to pay? I’m going to sue you or I’m going to put you into jail until you pay it because I am interested in justice.” Justice was on his side. But here is the reason why he was so wrong. Though perhaps justice was on his side, he had a moral obligation to forgive. It was wrong for him to say that when it comes to God and when it comes to the king I am willing to receive mercy, but when it comes to others, I am going to demand my pound of flesh. I am going to demand that justice be done because, after all, I’m into justice.

Well, I’m glad that you are into justice, but you have received so much mercy. Think of what God has forgiven you for and now you’re going to insist in your relationship with someone else that you are going to demand justice? Notice what happens. It says, “When the fellow servants (verse 31) 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! (Notice this isn’t just a fault.) 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 (or to the torturers as some translations have it) 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.’” There is a kind of forgiveness that is only verbal, but you forgive from your heart.

Now, we need to think about this very carefully because do you see the problem? Are you telling me that God is going to revoke forgiveness that was once given? That’s the way this parable is frequently interpreted. You see the servant who owed ten thousand talents, who couldn’t pay, and now refuses to forgive his fellow servant; he is put into the prison until he should pay the debt, namely the ten thousand talents. That would mean that the king actually revoked forgiveness and said, “I forgive you,” but then went back on his word because the fellow servant wasn’t faithful in following through with mercy. That’s not what God is like. I’m glad that when God forgives us his forgiveness is irrevocable. The gifts and the calling of God last. When God says, “I forgive you,” that is forgiven. He does not insist that we pay it later, no matter what kind of people we have become in terms of our anger and bitterness.

Let’s look at this verse again and interpret it differently. All right? Verse 34 says, “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailer until he should pay all his debt.” Well obviously he can’t pay the debt of ten million dollars. We’ve already granted that. I think that the debt that is being referred to is the debt of extending forgiveness to the fellow servant, and so what’s really going on here in the text is not that the king now expects him to pay the ten thousand talents, but the king says, “I am putting you into prison until the debt, which is forgiveness to the person who owed you a hundred denarii, is paid. And having been forgiven much you will be in prison until you stop insisting on justice and begin to insist on mercy and forgive.”

Also, keep in mind that we’re talking here in human relationships. We’re not necessarily talking about eternity, and it is always a little dangerous to take a parable and then to use it in such a way that it contradicts other passages of Scripture. So that’s why I think this interpretation fits much better to the context.
What he is saying is that if you do not forgive, you will be put into a torture chamber until you are willing to forgive.

One time I was listening to WLS Radio in the morning - Don Wade and Roma (apologies to Moody Bible Institute station). And Roma read this, which she wrote. I was so impressed with it that my assistant contacted the station and I actually got it. This is what she said. “Do you harbor resentment? Then you are poisoning your own meal at life’s banquet table. Imagine your mind as a little shop of horrors, a kind of museum filled with relics of all the injustices and the harm you have ever endured. Each exhibit depicts your memory of what someone did or didn’t do that hurt you. Brightly illuminated by your resentment every exhibit has a sound track echoing with loud, angry and accusing voices. The walls are covered with horrible instruments of punishment and the long list of penalties to be inflicted on your wrong doers. And coating everything is a thick clinging residue of self-pity that keeps you from moving along to the new future wing of your museum where exhibits are filled with pleasure and joy and new possibilities. Can you imagine what it would be like to be locked permanently inside such a chamber of horror and hate and resentment? If you are unable to forgive others’ real or imagined wrongs against you, then that horror chamber exists within you. That chamber of ill will is in your own mind and soul, and what a price you pay for maintaining such a museum of resentment. The negative reliving of your past strokes of anger, resentment and seething hostility also turns your mind against itself. It is like poison to your soul. The simple profound truth is that the entire horror shop crumbles if you are willing to forgive. By forgiving others you forgive yourself. You gain a new sense of self-esteem and free your own spirit to soar to new heights. There is no time to waste. Now is the time to stop the pain of the past from poisoning the joys of your present and your future. Decide to forgive.”

Some of you are in that torture chamber. You have been handed over to the torturers until you forgive the person who has wronged you the most. And, you see, when we continue with resentment, when we continue to be committed to resentment, then what happens is very clear in our minds and hearts. We become a servant, basically, to the person who wronged us that true forgiveness leads us out of our personal prison of resentment and hatred.

Let me ask you something about the person who has wronged you, controlling your life now because of resentment. You cannot sleep, and remember that whatever you do not forgive you pass on to others. Your anger is evident to your children. It’s evident to those around you, and even though you deny it, it is very clear in all of your relationships. Do you realize that that person who has hurt you has hurt you enough? The only way to be free from that hurt is to choose to lay the bitterness down. You must do that or you are in a torture chamber of your own horrors.

There is a fifth statement that I’d like to make about true forgiveness, and that is that true forgiveness is really a choice. It is a choice. It may not be explained explicitly here in the text but it is there. The man who is in the torture chamber can choose to forgive. Here is something that I believe is so devastating to many people. Many people take the point of view that they will forgive when they feel like forgiving. And then they define “feeling like forgiving” as once the hurt begins to subside and the hurt begins to stop, then they are ready to forgive. The fact is the hurt never stops, especially if you keep it alive in your mind by resentment, which is really sweet poison.

You think to yourself of all the different ways that you would like to use to get even with that person, and these ways well up within you and you imagine them over and over and over again in your mind, and you are saying, “Someday I will forgive but not now” because vengeance is so strong in your soul and it poisons all of your relationships. That’s why the Bible is so clear that we must choose to forgive.

Now at this point I do need to make an explanation. There are some Bible teachers whom I greatly respect who think that you should never forgive anybody unless they ask for forgiveness, and I understand that because what they are really saying is that the goal of forgiveness is always restoration and you can’t be restored to somebody who doesn’t admit his or her faults and evil against you. You can’t be restored to a person like that, but what I’m talking about today is a kind of forgiveness that might not lead to reconciliation but it is a giving up of all the bitterness and laying it at the feet of Christ and saying, “Enough already! I choose to lay it down.” (applause)

Some of you need to do that with people who are dead. I remember telling you the story years ago about a woman who took a train from here in Chicago to Pennsylvania to go to the grave of her mother who was a prostitute, and there at the grave she suddenly spilled it all out – all of the anger, all the shame, and everything. You see, people who are dead can still control us because of our anger and because of our shame, and the Bible says that we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. And the message of this parable is very clear. God really has forgiven you much and has paid a tremendous price to do it – the gift of his son. (applause) And we are the ones who have been wronged, and somebody owes us a hundred denarii - maybe a hundred dollars in comparison. And we say, “Oh, yeah, when it comes to God I want mercy. Oh God, you know that I want mercy. You know that I need grace. It has to be from all of you to forgive all of my sins,” but in our relationships with others we want justice, and if we don’t get justice we’re going to hang onto the injustice like an idol and we say,
“I will not give this up, not even for God.” And there are some people who look to their past. It is their idol, it is their calling card, and it is their ability to be able to readdress those wrongs. Any healing that takes place is something like a scab on a scar. They peal off the scab just to see how things are going within the wound, and it’s over and over again like Velcro to their soul. They will not let it down. They will not give it up. And one of the reasons is because they want justice, and do you know something? It is not wrong to want justice.

I am going to explain to you a way by which you can give up your bitterness and maintain your sense and desire for justice at the same time but you are not the one who is going to be administering the justice. That’s the difference.

Do you remember that verse of Scripture in First Peter? I have used it in counseling so often and forgive me if you’ve heard me say this before. “When Jesus was reviled he reviled not again but committed himself unto him who judges justly.” Wow! What Jesus said is, “I don’t need justice in this life. I’m willing to take injustice (why?) because I commit my case to the Supreme Court of the Universe and I believe that the Father is going to eventually bring justice to this situation. In the day of resurrection he is going to set the record straight, and I have so much faith in him that I can forgive and I can live with injustice without bitterness because I’ve got a Father who is going to take care of the justice issue for me.” And that’s what God says to you and to me today. (applause) He says, “I’ll take care of the justice issue. You have to be freed.”

Now, I do also want to emphasize that forgiveness is both an event and a process. In other words, just because you really lay it all down doesn’t mean that it may not eventually come back, but you know, you really don’t have to let the bitterness come back, at least with the force that you may be experiencing now – resentment and anger. You don’t need to let it come back. Oh, it will, and sometimes it does, and that isn’t wrong, but what you do is you keep committing yourself unto him who judges righteously and tell the Father, “I’m not going back there again. I’m not going to rehearse all this, and take all of the wrongs that have been done to me. I’m going to actually lay it down so that I can walk away, and when it comes back I affirm again that it has been committed to the Father. I have chosen to forgive and I am not going to be defined by my bitterness, by my abuse, by my hurt anymore. That’s no longer who I am,” and then by God’s grace you walk away.

I’ve said it in a different context. You take all of the bitterness, the anger, and the resentment. Some of you have that between yourself and your spouse today – family members, fathers against children, children against their fathers. Oh, the list is endless, and Satan uses all of these offenses to let people be stuck so they can’t move on to wholeness and healing because they hang on, and say, “Unless there is justice, unless there is this or that, I will not let go.”

The king certainly did not take kindly to the servant who said, “I’ll get mercy from the king but I’ll make sure that I get justice from the people who owe me.” God says, “You wicked slave. You’ve been forgiven so much. Can’t you forgive the wrongs that have been done against you and walk away free?”

I believe that if there was the forgiveness of bitterness and restoration within our families that we would see a spiritual movement in our church, and our city and throughout all of America. What keeps us from it are the walls of bitterness, and we say, “I will sit here,” and you die there, and you never move on.

So, are you willing to lay it all down today and get rid of it? Here’s what we’re going to do. You can’t do this just in a church service. If I were in a counseling room now and had twenty or thirty minutes with you I would walk you through and just give you time to pour your heart out to God. That’s a little difficult to do here, but I want you to promise me today that you will do that – maybe this afternoon. You know, cut out an hour. Take whatever time it needs and say, “God, this hour is for you and me,” and I am really going to finally forgive from the heart as Jesus said here.” No longer are you going to say, “Yeah, I forgive him but boy am I ever angry.” No, no, no, you’re going to forgive from the heart with God’s help. And what you are going to do is to spend enough time there to deal with it that you can get up off of your knees and say, “God, I sense a release. This bitterness is no longer going to be what I constantly focus on.” And then ask forgiveness of the person, wherever it is necessary and wherever it is feasible, so that there can be not only forgiveness but in many instances reconciliation. It can’t always be, as I’ve explained, but in many instances it can. And if you make that promise while we sing the closing song today (I’m actually going to be at the floor right here, right in front of where Donita is sitting), why don’t you come and shake my hand? Shaking my hand gives you no special blessing. There’s nothing connected to it. I’ll tell you why I’m doing it. It’s because I want you to make a visible promise. “I will do what God showed me I must do, and I am going to do it in the next day or two.” You are making that promise. Would you do that? And it will help you to nail it down and be done with it so that you can move on.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we come with many questions. There are those who say, “Well, how do I live with someone when there is a constant need of forgiveness?” There are questions that we have not entirely answered, but we’ve learned enough from this parable that we can’t treat our fellow servants with injustice and then expect mercy from you. You do give us mercy and you expect us to exercise it. Make us a forgiving people, and for those whose hurts run so deep, oh by your Holy Spirit, do what we can’t. Set people free. May they release others so that they themselves can be released. And as your Holy Spirit has worked, give them the courage to say, “Yes, today, I’m going to follow through with what the Lord has shown me.” In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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