Where Does Forgiveness Come From? And Why Does it Matter?


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)

14 Comments on Where Does Forgiveness Come From? And Why Does it Matter?

  1. It amazing how people think that it is a good idea to remind God of their sins when He clearly says He remembers them no more. Why did He strike them from His memory? So that you would not have to suffer the punishment for them. So why would you want to remind Him of it? Do you want to suffer? Jesus is standing as our advocate before God saying, “No Father, I paid for that already” but so many Christians are shouting out, “It was not enough! We somehow managed to out-sin Your sacrifice, we need forgiveness again.” That is the biggest slap in the face a Christian can give Christ. Stop asking, start believing!

    Awesome word Paul!


  2. Caleb Gibson // November 2, 2010 at 3:56 pm // Reply

    WOW!! That is sooo amazing… What a revelation!!! You my friend have heard from God!.. I was trying to show a friend that i knew about this, but i never thought about the story of the debtors!! Thank you soo Much!!
    -Keep It up!

  3. That was brilliant. I must remember that parable explained that way. Thank you. 🙂

  4. Forgiveness

    Its awesome

  5. Brian Midmore // September 17, 2013 at 8:51 pm // Reply

    Having read this post I sense that I am more in agreement with than disagreement. Clearly all that we have comes from God and starts from God. Forgiveness starts from him and ends with Him. If we fail to forgive we are spurning God’s forgiveness. Often there is unforgiveness hidden in our hearts (a root of bitterness) which causes trouble for us. This is God sending us to the torturers. So in principle it all works out neatly (God forgives me, I out of gratitude forgive others) but in practice it is often messy. Because we are his children he will discipline us by the torturers so that we seek freedom from bitterness so that we might forgive others from the heart. We must pay the very last penny. The torture is evidence of grace not law. Because God loves us he sends us to torture.

  6. So, how does the Lord’s Prayer fit into all of this? In other words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? I’ve had several people ask me about this and I’m still trying to sort it all out.

  7. It’s a beautiful story that illustrates the supply of grace. We forgive because we have been forgiven. Law said forgive so you can be forgiven. Grace supplies and instructs us to forgive because we are already forgiven!

  8. Hi Paul
    It seems like the parable of the unforgiving servant was spoken to believers and certainly when Jesus warns to forgive or expect wrath he was addressing brothers.
    I know I am guilty at times of unforgiveness though nnonetheless certain that God will not punish me for it. Do you think it is our genuine gratitude ie that we HAVE (at some stage) appreciated His grace that is significant? Why did Jesus not say you can experience forgiveness anytime you understand the forgiveness I have already shown you?
    Why do you think He said what He did to BROTHERS about forgiveness being conditional?
    Thanks for your help.

  9. In this parable there is one thing conspicuously absent. A saviour! The story reveals the kings mercy and justice. But in the end justice must prevail. The servant faced justice alone with no one to pay off the debt for him. Jesus, whose preaching brought the law back up to its pristine standard, was showing the character of the king dealing with his people under the old covenant of law. Under the new covenant of grace where sin abounds grace super abounds, even if we have unforgiving hearts towards our brothers.

    His goodness will lead us to repentance

  10. Still sounds like forgive because you’ve been forgiven. The servant was forgiven all and when the servant didn’t forgive his debt was returned. Sounds to be like forgive or lose salvation. It sounds bad but I mean I don’t know how else to spin it, precross, postcross seems to mean the same things.

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