In Matthew 18, Jesus directs His disciples to follow a protocol when someone sins against them.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Implicitly, this protocol requires that the sinning one repents in response to the appeal of the sinned against one AND that the sinned against one forgives the sinning one. These actions—repenting and forgiving—are not humanly possible. They must be distinguished from complaint and apology, which can be offered by anyone in a half-hearted or insincere fashion. True repentance and forgiveness require the active ministry of the Holy Spirit, which produces in us the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, etc., which are the foundation of repentance and forgiveness.
Unfortunately, we are faced with others sinning against us so regularly and/or we fear approaching others when they have sinned that we fail to follow this protocol. In my own life, I usually tend toward avoiding conflict and placating others. As a result, I pretend that I am “overlooking” an offense even as I hold onto it and indulge in resentment and grudge-holding.
This is NOT forgiveness.
Jesus teaches us about forgiveness in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18). Calculating the relative amount of the debt owed by the first servant and the second servant will help us understand the point Jesus is making. Using a wage of $10 an hour, the second servant owed a debt of 100 denarii, which makes the 100 denarii debt $1,000 (a denarius was a single day’s wage for a day laborer.) By contrast, given that a day laborer would have worked a 6-day work week and that a talent is roughly the equivalent of 20 years of a day laborer’s wages, 10,000 talents would work out to be roughly $624,000,000. This is the debt the first servant owed the king. The debt the first servant owed was 624,000 times greater than what he was owed.
These earthly calculations only approximate the relative values of our sin against God and our sin against other sinners. The Bible clearly teaches that the wages of our sin against God is the death penalty(Rom. 3:23.) While earthly kingdoms do impose the death penalty on a relatively small number of crimes, the overwhelming number of our sins against each other are not in this category. Another factor often forgotten is that each sin I commit against another sinner is simultaneously a sin against God.
The king forgave the first servant his unbelievable debt. How was it that this servant, having experienced so great a forgiveness could not, or would not, forgive his fellow servant the pittance that he was owed?
One of my doctoral professors, rephrasing John Owen, has said where sin is not terrible, grace is not amazing. This is the central feature of the first servant’s unforgiveness. He didn’t recognize or regret the size of the debt he owed the king. In our day, we use the term “denial” to describe a number of attitudes and behaviors that help us deny or ignore the realities of our lives. We minimize the size of a problem so that we don’t have to address it—a choice we often make in estimating our sin against someone else. On the other hand, we can “catastrophize” someone else’s sin (overestimating its size), justifying our choices of resentment and unforgiveness.
The king forgave the first servant, which is astounding since he had no ability to pay such a debt. You may wonder what kind of king would allow a servant to pile up such a debt. Humanly speaking, that kind of debt load would cripple most kingdoms. However, the King of heaven possesses limitless resources, and this is demonstrated in the Prince paying the debt. As a result, He is able to cover every debt we owe.
Having experienced so great a forgiveness, we are enabled to cover the debts we are owed.