Matthew 18:21-35.
Forgiveness is Grace in Action

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2016, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Jesus proclaimed to His disciples, “I have come that you might have life, and live it to the full.”[1]  What does it mean to live such an abundant life?  Where some would teach that Jesus was promising financial reward for obedience, the context of Jesus' statement is quite to the contrary.  The context is the receipt of those benefits one receives when one is placed under the care of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  When securely in the fold, one begins to realize, just as the sheep in the fold is safe, one no longer needs worry about their security with God.  No longer at enmity with God, one can find peace and comfort.  Filled with God's love, one can experience that love and share it with others.  Those who are safely in the fold have been forgiven for their sin.  Sin no longer has the power to condemn those who have put their faith and trust in God.[2]  The abundant Christian life is one that is filled with peace, love, and joy.  These are all experiences that no amount of money can buy.

However, many of us do not experience the abundant life that Jesus came to give us.  Though we may have come to trust in God, we hold tenaciously to some of the sins of our pagan and secular existence.  The baggage of sins that we carry weighs us down and keeps us from realizing much of the benefit of God's grace.  Much of that benefit is lost when we cease to remember the significance that God's grace has had in our lives and we fail to exercise God's grace towards others in our own lives.  Would people say that you are a graceful person?  That is, do you exhibit God's graceful nature in your life?  We will find it difficult to experience God's grace when we fail to express it in our own lives, and the expression of God's grace is found in one word: unconditional forgiveness.[3] 

Matthew 18:23-27.  Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.  24And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.  25But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.  26The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.  27Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. 

This passage of scripture is often referred to as the “Parable of the Wicked Servant,” and the story is probably familiar to many of us.  In ancient Jewish culture it was written in the Mosaic Law that all slaves were to be set free to return home, and all debts were to be either paid off or cancelled at the beginning of every fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee.[4]  Consequently, it was common for those who had lent money and lands to demand repayment before the Jubilee arrived.  We might think of the certain king as being cruel to call in the loan, but this practice was commonplace in their culture and such repayment was expected.  When the king called in the loan, the debtor simply could not pay the debt.  Jesus describes the value of this debt as 10,000 talents, an extremely large number.  A single talent is a measure of weight that a worker can carry on his back, equal to approximately 34 kilograms, or 75 pounds, making his debt equal to about 750,000 pounds of gold.  On February 21, 2016, the price of gold was about $1200 per ounce.  This made the person’s debt equal in today's value equal to about 15 billion dollars. 

The point that Jesus is making is that this is a literally impossible debt.  This debt was so large that the debtor could do absolutely nothing towards making any kind of appropriate payment.  Yet, the king demanded payment because the debt is real and substantive.  All the debtor can do is to beg for mercy.  Acting upon the apparent sincerity of the debtor, the king chose to forgive the debt entirely and set the debtor free.

We do not have to employ much imagination to identify the illustration that Jesus was making with this parable.  Jesus had been teaching on the subject of salvation, and the parallel we see in this parable is to God's application of grace in the lives of everyone who turns their faith and trust to Him.  All have sinned and are therefore unrighteous.[5]  All are separated from God by that sin that condemns us to an eternity separated from God.  As much as we might try, there is nothing we can do to pay the penalty for that sin-debt, since the penalty for sin is death: separation from God for eternity.[6]  Just like the servant's debt to the king, this is a debt that we simply cannot pay.  We are left entirely to the mercy of God.  And, like the king in the parable, God hears the sincere decision to place one's faith and trust in Him, and God's response to that commitment is to forgive the debt.  When Jesus died on the cross He paid the sin debt for all those who place their faith and trust in God.  This is the very good news of the gospel, that whosoever would place their faith and trust in Christ would be saved.

When we consider what the servant had just received, we would expect that he would be jumping for joy and worshiping his lord with unrestrained adoration as his hopelessness was quickly changed into freedom.  One would expect that he would be sharing the news of the generosity of his lord with anyone who would listen.

When we consider what God has done for us, we should be jumping with joy, and worshipping God with unrestrained adoration and praise for what He has done for us.  Also, recognizing that there is a plan of salvation that is available to all people, we should be unrestrained in our sharing of this great news with all who do not know of it.  However, the story did not end there.

Matthew 18:28-35.  But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.  29And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.  30And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.  31So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.  32Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?  34And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.  35So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

Now we can see why this is called the Parable of the Wicked Servant.  After having experienced what he thought was the complete forgiveness of his un-payable debt, he turned to a fellow-servant, one who is also under the authority of the king, demanding the immediate payment of a debt of 100 pence, the equivalent of 100 days or about three months of laborer wages, about $4,000 in today’s pay scale.  Though he had himself experienced unconditional forgiveness, he did not understand its concept.  Though he had testified to a form of integrity with the king, he had actually despised Him and rejected his example.  The servant's service to the king was a sham, simply a show that he employed in order to get what he thought he wanted from the king.  Consequently, when the king heard of the servant's wickedness, he re-instated the debt, placing the servant in the hands of the tormenters for eternity. 

Why did the servant not forgive the debt of his fellow worker?  The evidence of his heart exposed his true rejection of the nature of the king, and the only possible destiny for the servant is eternal separation from the king.  Likewise, when we reject the nature of God, we face the eternal separation from Him that we entered this world with.  The rejection of God is characterized by one of the Ten Commandments:  You shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain.[7]

It is reasonable that one who has rejected the grace of God would not exhibit the grace of God towards others in his life.  One would expect the unrepentant to have an unforgiving spirit, for that is the nature of their world view.  However, when one does truly turn their heart to the LORD, Jesus teaches that there is a clear expectation that we would appropriate for ourselves God's nature of unconditional love and grace towards one another. 

Paul describes this expectation clearly in his letter to the Colossians:

Colossians 3:13.  Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. 

Forgiving one another is not an option, nor is it a literal command.  Forgiveness is the natural expression of grace that resides in the heart of a committed believer.  It is an unquenchable fruit of the Holy Spirit that informs our thoughts and decisions.  We have somehow come to embrace a secular concept of forgiveness that states that forgiveness is circumstantial.  That is, we forgive others on a circumstance-by-circumstance basis.  That is the way that the world forgives.  Jewish tradition held that one forgave another seven times.  Taken literally, we might think that the Mosaic Law is encouraging us to count.  However, the ancient Jewish culture employed Gematria, the assignment of numbers to meanings, in their literature.  The number seven referred to perfect completion.  Creation was completed in seven days.  The Sabbath year was set for every seven years, and every seventh Sabbath year was followed with the year of Jubilee.  There are no less than three hundred examples of the use of “seven” as Gematria in the Old Testament. Consider the dialogue between Peter and Jesus as recorded in Matthew 18:21 ff.  This is the dialogue that preceded the Parable of the Wicked Servant.



Matthew 18:21-22.  Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  till seven times?  22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

What was the point that Jesus was making?  Under the traditional law, one could count transgressions against another and was obligated to forgive seven times.  Though the original teaching utilized Jewish Gematria, by this time the spirit of the Law was long-lost in the hearts and minds of the religious leaders and teachers.  They now tended to take the words of the law literally, and taught of the seven-count forgiveness.  However, Jesus squared that number and multiplied it by 10, making the practice of counting no longer relevant.  The principle is simple:  When one counts to “two”, one has not yet forgiven transgression number “one”.  Forgiveness is not consequential.  We are not to forgive one another based upon the circumstances of an incident or sequence of incidences, but rather we are to be unconditionally forgiving of all transgressions.  God forgave the faithful of their sin, period.  Sin no longer condemns the one who trusts in God.  This is the nature of grace.  Likewise, we are to forgive one another based upon unconditional love and grace.  We forgive others because God forgave us.  We forgive others because we love them with the same love that God has for us.

Forgiveness is a deliberate act of grace.

Forgiveness involves letting go of some specific aspects of our inherently evil nature.  Grace gives up our demand for retaliation.  When someone hurts or offends you, what is your first reaction?  Do you react in a flurry of uncontrolled temper?  Do you react to what you consider the violation of your own rights or your own space with a heart that desires for or even plans for retaliation or retribution?  One might blame such bursts of personal ungodly behavior on the transgression of the other, on a bad temper, or simply on one's defense of their personal rights.  All of these are self-centered rationalizations that would cover up our own disobedience when we allow ourselves to be filled with a spirit of vengeance or retribution, surrendering our call to express agape love to our sinful nature, rather than to a spirit of grace and love.  When we come to the LORD, we give up our right to seek retaliation.  When we come to the LORD our only response to such situations is to work to restore the relationship because of the true, unconditional love, that is our new nature. 

Forgiveness is difficult in application.

There is no question that forgiveness can be difficult, particularly when offered to those who have not brought their own spirit under the control of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit of God may be whispering, “Cool it”, while your pride and ego is drowning Him out with screams of self-righteousness.  Forgiveness is completely contrary to human nature.  When we are hurt, we want to retaliate.  “If you punch me, I'll punch you harder.”  “I'll show you!”  We want the other person punished for their transgression towards us.

However, God does not leave us undefended when we trust in Him.  Consider Paul's statement to the Romans concerning forgiveness:

Romans 12:19-21.  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.  20Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.  21Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.  It takes constant vigilance. 

God's command to forgive others is backed by God's promise to serve as the just judge who is trying our case in His court, relieving us of this stressful and inappropriate task.  When we are freed of the need to judge one another we can begin to embrace an attitude of continual, unconditional forgiveness.  When we continue to love those who have wronged us, we will continue to serve them and seek to meet their needs.  When we continue to love those who have wronged us we are freed of the angst, the anger, and the stresses of retaining a grudge.  When we continue to love those who have wronged us, we are in a position to tear down the walls that separate us from those with whom we are in conflict and build or rebuild an appropriate and blessed relationship with one another. 

A curious Hebrew idiom that is drawn from the book of Proverbs is used in this passage in Romans, that refers to the administration of grace upon the transgressor as “heaping coals of fire on his head.”[8]  This sounds like a painful form of retribution, a way to seek godly vengeance and some have interpreted this to be so.  We might be thinking that God will heap pain on their heads on our behalf.  However, this is not the meaning of the idiom at all.  The correct understanding is quite the opposite.

This Proverb refers to the unfortunate circumstance of a neighbor who, due to his own neglect, has failed to stoke his house fire before going to bed at night and finds his fire has burned out by morning.  There are no coals in the fire to re-stoke for the day’s cooking.  He (she, actually) is forced to go through the neighborhood to ask for some hot coals with which to restart their fire.  The proverb gives clear instruction on how to respond to this scenario:  rather than give this individual a small handful of coals, necessitating some labor to restore their home fire, this imperative refers to giving the person a large pile of coals.  The woman receiving the coals would typically put them in her bowl that she would then carry on her head.  This is a lavish gift that the individual does not deserve, and is not in a position to demand.  Likewise, ministering good deeds upon those whom we would otherwise distain, is lavishing them with a labor of agape love. 

Forgiving one another is also difficult when we think of transgressions by others as a sequence of circumstances to be forgiven, since once we forgive someone for a circumstantial transgression; we find that we do not forget it.  Our human nature has 20-20 hind-sight, causing us to relive experiences of our past, requiring us to revisit circumstantial forgiveness.  When we get angry over something that we thought we forgave, we realize that we did not forgive in the first place.  Circumstantial forgiveness simply cannot survive our good memories.  Even well-meaning Christians carry grudges, often against their own siblings over childhood circumstances, for their entire lives.  Some have said, “I will forgive, but I will not forget.”  This is not in any form the nature of the biblical model of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is difficult when we think of it only as circumstantial.  However, we are reminded that God has forgiven all of our sin simply because He chose to do so.  Again this is a fruit of God's grace.  All sin is forgiven, even before the sin is committed.

Likewise, Christians are to appropriate for themselves a God-like nature, and that nature includes unconditional grace.  As an art of grace, unconditional forgiveness, like any other art requires a skill that is obtained from continual and repeated practice until the skill is applied naturally.  Our self-centered human nature towards others must be replaced by a God-centered nature of grace and agape love.  When this takes place, forgiveness is no longer a response to circumstance, but simply a part of our character.  A Holy-Spirit filled life is one that is characterized by continual and uncompromising grace towards all others.

Roy L. Smith, in The Art of Forgiveness, offers some suggestions on how to embrace a character of grace.

·         Begin by assuring yourself that compared to Christ's suffering you haven't been seriously wronged at all.

·         Recall the many kind deeds that have been shown to you, perhaps even by the person who has harmed you.

·         List the benefits you have received from the Lord.

·         Thank Him for blessing you with His love and forgiveness each day.

·         Make an honest effort to pray for the one who has injured you.  Go even further by looking for an opportunity to help him.

·         Finally, before you fall asleep at night, repeat slowly and thoughtfully that phrase from the Lord's Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”[9]

Unforgiveness is disastrous in its impact on our spirit.

What happens when we hold unforgiveness in our heart?  We might refer to unforgiveness as a “grudge.”  The writer of Hebrews describes an unforgiving spirit as a bitter root that springs up and causes all manner of negative consequences.

Hebrews 12:15.  Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled

Anger and bitterness festers within our soul, quenching the peace, love, and joy that the abundant life in Christ offers.  It destroys relationships and denies the work of grace in the ministry of reconciliation.  When we stand firm in our grudge towards another, even our relationship with God is compromised. 

Mark 11:2.  And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses

Can God withhold circumstantial forgiveness?  Can we be held accountable for our transgressions when we refuse to forgive others of theirs against us?  Unforgiveness itself is an act of disobedience, and when we are in a state of unforgiveness, we are unrepentant of that disobedience.  Disobedience is a sin that separates us from the relationship with God that an abundant life engenders.  Christians will not be condemned for the sin in their lives, since sin has lost the power to condemn those who place their faith and trust in God.  However, sin still separates us from the relationship with God that He intended, and it is the expression of sin in the life of a Christian that steals away the peace, love, and joy that God would have us experience. 

Have you ever had an experience where it seemed that your prayers seem to go nowhere?  The root of bitterness that stems from unforgiveness can stand like a brick wall between us and the LORD, a wall that makes it very difficult to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us.  The Holy Spirit's call to repentance is drowned out by our judgmental, prideful, critical, and condemning nature.  We rationalize that the one who wronged us deserves to be treated ungracefully, and by so doing justify our own lack of grace, our own sin.

Forgiveness is a decision to love.

God establishes His relationship with us through the avenue of forgiveness.  We all deserve to be treated with unforgiveness by God, yet He chose to forgive those who place their faith and trust in Him, and though we continue to sin, God has chosen to continue to love us and continue to treat us with unconditional forgiveness.  God's choice to forgive the faithful is firm and final.

Psalm 103:12.  As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us

God did this, we did not.  And even though we will sin again tomorrow, God's promise of eternal salvation is true and unchanging.  We may have a different understanding of the distance between East and West than did the ancients.  If we travel west a distance of about 25,901 miles plus 968 yards around the equator of the earth, we will end up within a few steps of our point of origination.  However, the ancients had no concept of a spherical earth.  To them, east and west went on forever.  God’s forgiveness is complete.

Ephesians 5:1-2.  Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; 2And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.

Ephesians 5:1-2 reminds us to be imitators of God, and one of the ways we can appropriate a godlier character is to decide, once and for all, to treat others with the same attitude of graceful forgiveness that God has towards us.  This necessitates a determined choice to look past the issues and choose to look on the heart of another through the lens of sincere, unconditional, love.

Often it is difficult to love when we are so blinded by the issues.  However, a short inspection of another passage in Paul's letter to the Ephesians may be instructive.

Ephesians 6:12.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places

As Christians, the conflict we experience in life is not against one another.  Our conflict is not with flesh and blood.  The enemy is never another person.  The enemy is a complex array of evil that is propagated by satan and is expressed in our own lives as sin.  We all sin, so none of us stands above another in any scale of sinlessness.  It is that sin that creates the conflict.  We hurt one another when we express such sin.  However, when we damage relationships with a spirit of unforgiveness, we now sin, and only satan wins.  It is satan who is the true and unique enemy, it is not our Christian brother or sister.  Again, the enemy is never another person or group of persons.  God has given us the opportunity to defeat this area where satan can discourage us by simply refusing to fall into his snare. 

·         Are you ensnared by satan's spirit of unforgiveness? 

·         Are there one or more people towards whom you hold a grudge? 

·         Are you quick to lose your temper and attack a Christian brother or sister?   

·         Do you need to rekindle your love for someone whom you have turned away?

Just as God has forgiven you, He calls upon us to forgive on another.  We can make a deliberate decision to love one another as God loves us, a love that looks past our faults and looks to our tremendous value to Him as His created people.  We can do this by turning over to God our demand for justice, allowing Him to deal with the transgressions that people may commit against us and those we love.  We can do this today.  We can do this now.

If you are holding feelings of unforgiveness toward another, you can lay those feelings on the altar of God's grace.  Then, go to that individual to whom you held that grudge and ask for their forgiveness for the attitude that you have repented of.  God would have us enjoy relationships with one another that are filled with His love.  It is when we live a life of grace towards one another that we place ourselves in a position to experience yet more fully Jesus' promise that our lives would be filled with abundance, an abundance of peace, love, and joy.  It is all a matter of grace.

[1] John 10:10.

[2] Romans 8:1.

[3] Well, that’s two words, but it should be only one.

[4] Leviticus 25:8-13.  The number is derived as the year following the sequence of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years).

[5] Romans 3:23, 5:12.

[6] Ephesians 2:8-9.

[7] Exodus 20:7.

[8] Proverbs 25:25.

[9] Smith, Roy L.  The Art of Forgiveness.  Quoted in  Fontville Christian Church.