The Central Truth of God’s Word and our Life
Twenty Second Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 23, 2005| Matthew 18:23-35
The Lord’s Prayer has seven petitions in it. In only one of those petitions do we promise to do something. We promise to forgive those who sin against us. Next Sunday we will be celebrating the Reformation of the church through God’s servant, Martin Luther. Luther discovered the central truth of the Holy Scriptures that had been neglected for so long in the church. This central truth is that a sinner is forgiven of all his sins freely by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ the Savior. We daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment, as we confess in the Catechism. This is why we forgive those who sin against us. We forgive them because we know that we Christians cannot live as Christians without giving and receiving the forgiveness of sins. We cannot live before God if He is standing in judgment against us. We cannot have any confidence before God if He refuses to forgive us. Since God forgives us of all our sins without requiring that we deserve His forgiveness, we will forgive those who sin against us without demanding that they deserve it. Since we live by mercy we will show mercy to others.
Today’s Gospel Lesson is from Matthew chapter eighteen. Earlier in this chapter Jesus teaches us how we are to deal with a Christian brother or sister who has done us wrong. We should not take him to court. We should not complain about his sin to others. We should not hate him in our heart or hold a grudge against him for what he did. Instead, we should go to the one who did us wrong and show him that he has done us wrong. Show him. That means there must be something to show. We should show him that he has done us wrong in order to be able to forgive him. The purpose is always forgiveness and reconciliation.
There is not a topic of Christian theology that is unrelated to forgiveness. Nothing God teaches us anywhere in the Bible makes any sense at all apart from knowing that we are fully and freely forgiven of all our sins for Christ’s sake when we believe that God, for Christ’s sake, is gracious to us and forgives us. Consider what we believe, teach, and confess about the Trinity. We believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, yet they are not three gods but one God. But how could God be our loving Father if He did not forgive us our sins? What benefit would Jesus be as our Redeemer if we were still enslaved by sin and guilt? How could the Holy Spirit make us holy if He charged our sins against us? We cannot truly confess the Holy Trinity unless we confess that we are justified freely by God’s grace through Christ’s redemption and that it is through faith alone that we receive the forgiveness of all our sins.
Doctrine and life go together. What God teaches and how we live cannot be separated. True enough, our lives will never be perfect as long as we live in this world, while God’s teaching is pure and true and perfect. But when God teaches us He does not do so that the teaching would be filed away somewhere and ignored. The teaching of God is life-changing. It not only captures our mind, but our heart as well. It penetrates into our soul and it transforms our lives. The divine doctrine is never dead letters or cold and lifeless formulations. It is always the almighty power of the Holy Spirit to convert us and in converting us to purify us from the hatred that would seek to claim us.
When the king in the parable forgave his servant a debt of ten thousand talents it was a debt that the servant could not have repaid in a dozen lifetimes. Jesus deliberately chose a debt of such a magnitude that it was impossible for the servant to pay it. It was millions and millions of dollars. The man was talking foolishness when he begged the king, “Be patient with me and I will pay you all.” Still, the king had compassion.
We confess our sins to God. We may make promises that we cannot deliver, but God graciously ignores our foolish promises. He is full of mercy. His mercy is sufficient not only to cover all our sins but also to cover our poor confession of sins. This is the nature of divine mercy. Divine mercy is not the denial of divine justice. The same king who had mercy had previously order that the servant and his family be sold in order that payment be made. What is implicit in this parable but not actually stated is that somebody had to pay the debt the servant could not pay. Debts must be paid. When debts are forgiven, this doesn’t mean that no one pays the debt. It simply means that the debtor doesn’t pay the debt. The one to whom the debt is owed must pay it.
God’s grace has a cost. Jesus paid the debt we could not pay. When we cried out, “Be patient with me and I will pay you everything,” God in mercy forgave us, but did not require us to pay anything. He required that of His dear Son. Jesus offered His obedience in the place of our disobedience. He suffered in innocent silence for our disobedience. Forgiveness is freely given but not freely gained. It cost the obedience and suffering of Jesus. When God freely forgives us it is because Jesus has fully paid the price. For us to lay claim to any merit of our own is to deny Jesus. For us to claim to deserve forgiveness is to deny Jesus. For us to think that we should be forgiven while the one who has done us wrong should not be forgiven is to deny Jesus. Since God in Christ is full of forgiveness, the confession of Christ is always made by forgiving and forgiving and forgiving those who have done us wrong.
I preached on this text a long time ago when I was a young pastor just under thirty years old. After church a lady about forty five years old told me that she had to talk to me. She was upset and I agreed to see her right away. My sermon had agitated her. She said that she knew she had to forgive but that she could not forgive and then she proceeded to tell me her story. She had just moved to our community after leaving the town and the congregation to which she had belonged most of her life. She had been married to a man for twenty-five years when he decided that he didn’t want to be married to her any more. He left her and married a woman twenty years younger who belonged to the same congregation. To top it off, her pastor performed the wedding ceremony. How could she forgive her husband? How could she forgive her pastor? Neither one of them even believed he had done wrong. How could she forgive them?
During our Tuesday evening Bible classes on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans we have been reviewing what the Bible teaches about objective and subjective justification. Objective justification is the biblical doctrine that God for Christ’s sake has already forgiven the entire world of sinners whether or not any individual sinner believes it. Subjective justification is the biblical doctrine that only those who trust in this gospel actually receive the forgiveness of sins. God forgives but that forgiveness cannot be received except through faith. Faith is born in repentance.
And so it is with our forgiveness. We can forgive those who are not sorry for having sinned against us. We can forgive those who refuse to repent. They won’t receive the forgiveness and they won’t be reconciled to us unless they do repent of their sin, but that need not prevent us from forgiving them.
Forgiveness comes before reconciliation. It’s what brings it about. A negotiated forgiveness goes nowhere because it isn’t sincere. A conditional forgiveness isn’t heartfelt. If forgiveness is to be true and sincere it must be given without any strings attached. That’s how the king forgave the servant. He attached no strings. He didn’t require him to do anything. He didn’t require any payment at all. He didn’t reduce the debt. He forgave it.
But note well what happened to that servant. The debt that was forgiven was laid back upon him. Why? He rejected the forgiveness offered to him. There is only one way to receive forgiveness and that is by faith. When we receive God’s forgiveness in faith we acknowledge that we don’t deserve it. Faith doesn’t lay claim to deserving. It lays claim only to mercy. When the servant refused to forgive his fellow servant, what was he saying? He was saying that forgiveness had to be earned. He was thereby denying the king’s right to forgive him. He was rejecting the free forgiveness of sins. He was consigning himself to the impossible duty of paying back a debt that could not be paid.
Forgiving those who don’t deserve to be forgiven does not entail condoning sin. If it weren’t sin it wouldn’t need forgiveness. No, forgiving those who don’t deserve to be forgiven is the greatest worship we can offer to God. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We praise God, we extol Him, and we honor Him when we do as He does. God sees us trapped in our sins. We are victims of ourselves. We did it. We find ourselves stuck with what we did. We lashed out in anger. We gave in to sinful desires. We repeated lies. We dishonored those in authority over us. We stood in cruel judgment. We ignored the one in need. This is the sin that God forgives and He doesn’t just dismiss it, He lays it upon Christ who bears it. “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” The Lamb of God took it away. That’s what forgiveness cost God and that’s the forgiveness He freely gives to us whenever we call on him. We have never come to Divine Service on a Sunday morning when God refused to serve us with His grace, covering our sin, and clothing us with the righteousness of His Son.
There can be no greater or purer or beneficial expression of our faith in this central truth of our Christian Creed than to forgive those who sin against us every day, not seven times, but seventy times seven times, as many times as they sin against us. For when we forgive those who don’t deserve our forgiveness, we glorify God for His boundless grace to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.