There are two statements in the Bible that seem to contradict each other:
1. If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Mt 6:14)
2. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col 3:13)
Did you spot the difference? The first statement says forgiveness starts with us. The second statement says forgiveness begins with God.
So which is it?
I have written elsewhere how these statements are reconciled in Jesus Christ, that he himself satisfied the condition for forgiveness when he went to the cross. But a better explanation came from Jesus himself when he told the story of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:23ff).
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One servant had a huge debt he could not pay. To satisfy the debt the king planned to sell the servant, his family and all his possessions. The servant begged for mercy, the king took pity and cancelled the debt.
Now pause here for a moment and put yourself in the place of that servant.
You are on the verge of being sold into slavery. Your wife is going to be sold as well. She is about to become the property of another man. Your kids will be pulled from school and also sold into slavery. You will likely never see them again. There is not a thing you can do to avoid this. You have no legal recourse. You have been measured in the scales of justice and found wanting.
And then, at a command from the king, your debt is instantly canceled and everything you hold dear is restored to you.
Wouldn’t you go from that place singing the praises of your king? Wouldn’t you shout from the rooftops that the king is good? Wouldn’t you go home and hug your wife, enjoy your kids, knowing that, because of the mercy of the king, you now have a future together?
Of course you would.
But this is not what man in the story did. No, he walked out of the king’s presence unchanged. In the very next verse he found someone who owed him a small amount of money and he demanded payment. When that man couldn’t pay, the unmerciful servant had him thrown into prison. Later, when the king heard about this, he reversed his merciful judgment and delivered the “wicked servant” to the tormenters.
Most people think that the story of the ungrateful servant is a morality tale. But Jesus said it’s a description of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a picture of how heaven invades earth. Jesus makes it plain that forgiveness begins with the Lord. Each of us had a debt we could not pay and God, in his mercy, paid the debt on our behalf. The debtor’s law that stood opposed to us was fully satisfied.
There are only two possible responses to God’s generosity. One response is to say, thank you Jesus! What amazing grace! I will be forever grateful and I will tell others what you have done so they may ask for mercy too.
The other response is that of the servant in the story. It is to remain unrepentant and unchanged by the goodness of God. It is to shrug one’s shoulders and say, I’ve got to take care of things myself. This is the dangerous course for Jesus makes plain that a day of reckoning will come. To ignore the mercy and goodness of the king now, is to risk the king’s wrath later.
So where does forgiveness come from and why does it matter?
If you think that forgiveness starts with you, that you must show it to get it, you will forgive others out of a sense of insecurity and religious obligation. If you succeed at forgiving, it will feed your pride giving you a false sense of entitlement. If you fail at forgiving, you will feel condemned. In either case, you will improve your standing before God not one bit.
But if you apprehend what Jesus did for you when he paid for your sins, it will radically change you. It will transform you from a selfish sinner into an ambassador of God’s goodness. You will show mercy to others not because you have to, but because you want to, because God has been so good to you. The Holy Spirit within you will lead you to pray for your enemies and bless those who curse you. Again, you will be moved to do this not because there is anything particularly saintly about you, but because of the life-changing example of forgiveness set by Christ.
So the next time someone wrongs you, don’t think, “I’d better forgive them if I want God to forgive me.” There’s no power in that. Instead, remember what Jesus has already done for you. Mull it over. Appreciate his gift of forgiveness.
Because of Christ the debt that was against you has been fully paid. Because of Christ the righteous law that condemned you was satisfied. Because of Christ you now have a hope and a future. Because of Christ you have been freed from the slave market and you need never fear the wrath of the king.
Happy are those whose wrongs are forgiven, whose sins are pardoned!
Happy is the person whose sins the Lord will not keep account of! (Rms 4:7-8, GNB)