The Unforgiving Servant
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This is an extract from chapter 8 of The Mysteries of the Kingdom, by Herman Hanko, pages 104-108, published by the RFPA. Hanko is expounding the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35.
The Unforgiving Servant
The great forgiveness of God must be manifested in our lives. This truth is sharply set forth in the parable in the confrontation of the forgiven debtor with a fellow servant who owed him money.
There are striking differences between the way in which he treated his fellow servant and the way his king had treated him. First, he was dealing with a fellow servant, a man equal to him. He was not superior in any way to his fellow servant and had no claim upon him because of superiority of position and authority. He was, however, a servant to his king. He owed his king obedience and honor; his fellow servant owed him no such things.
Second, although the servant owed his king an amount comparable to fifteen million dollars, his fellow servant was indebted to him in the amount of 100 pence, a total of about fifteen dollars. The Lord deliberately accentuates the vast difference in the size of the two debts.
Third, the king originally called simply for a reckoning, but the servant gave no opportunity to his fellow servant to make any explanation. He roughly grabbed his fellow servant by the neck and began to choke him.
Finally, although his fellow servant also asked for a little time to pay—and used almost the same words which he himself had used in talking to his lord—the unforgiving servant would have none of it. He demanded immediate payment or just punishment. His total lack of mercy is most astounding.
The whole matter was sorrowfully reported to the king. In anger, the king reminded the wretched servant of the mercy he had received, of his own obligation to show mercy, and of the punishment which was his due.
Our Forgiveness of Each Other
In this way the Lord describes an important aspect of the relations that ought to exist between those who belong to the kingdom and those who are members together of the church of Christ.
When we sin, this sin is committed not only against God; it is also often against our fellow saints. We offend our fellow saints, do harm to them, and put ourselves in debt to them by the sins we commit.
Yet there are important differences. When we sin against God, we sin against our Creator and Sustainer, who holds our life in his hands. We sin against the most high majesty of God, and we rob him of the glory which is his due. But when we sin against one another, we sin against our equals. We are together creatures, and together we are sinners. We stand on the same level before God.
The debt that is incurred at the hands of our fellow saints is accordingly not nearly as great. It is about fifteen dollars as over against fifteen million. The debt incurred by our sins against each other is insignificantly small in comparison with what we owe God.
Nevertheless, it is always true that in the church we stand in debt to one another. No saint is perfect as long as he lives in this world. All our sins, in one way or another, are sins that affect our relationships with our fellow saints. We must live in this consciousness that we continually put ourselves in debt to those with whom we live. Or to put it in the form in which the parable brings it to our attention, our fellow saints put themselves continually in debt to us by their sins.
Hence the point of the parable is clear. If we experience the forgiveness of God for the sins we commit against him, we will surely forgive our fellow saints also. This follows in the nature of the case. If we know our sins, we are overwhelmed with the consciousness of the staggering debt we owe to God. But when we experience the wonder that God has forgiven us, then this can only fill us with awe and thanksgiving. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.
This mercy is completely undeserving. God does not need to forgive us. He is under no obligation to forgive our debt. We have in no way made ourselves worthy of forgiveness. If God would refuse to cancel our debt, and if he would punish us forever in hell, we could raise not one word of complaint. We would receive what is justly our due. How can we ever be grateful enough for such a great wonder?
It stands to reason, then, that to forgive our brother is relatively easy. On the one hand, it is surely an obligation on our part; on the other hand, it is inevitable that we forgive. If we experience God’s forgiving mercy and understand even a little of the astonishing wonder of it, there is no problem at all in forgiving our brother. Then we do not forgive him three times, or being generous, seven times; there cannot possibly be any end to such forgiveness. God forgives us again and again. How can we do anything less? We confess our sins and yet commit the same sins over again. This happens not once or twice, but throughout our lifetime. Yet God is ever faithful and merciful to forgive. He never wearies of forgiving us.
Our Refusal to Forgive
The opposite is also true. We may perhaps refuse to forgive our fellow saints. If we do this, it is only evidence of the fact that we are not forgiven ourselves. After all, the king’s servant was not really forgiven. Jesus describes him in the parable as forgiven for the purpose of making the point. But the debtor went to hell.
There is, therefore, a kind of reciprocal relation of which the Lord speaks in this parable: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
It might be objected that we cannot truly forgive our brother unless he gives evidence of repentance for his sins. This is true. But there are two remarks which must be made in this connection. In the first place, if our brother sins against us, we must go to him and with a spirit of humility and love bring him to repentance. This is implied in the Lord’s teaching in verses 15–18 of this chapter. We may not sit back with a haughty spirit and wait for him to come. In the second place, we must already forgive our brother in our hearts before we go to him. God also deals thus with us. Our forgiveness is an objective fact in the cross of Christ and in the mind and heart of God. We experience that forgiveness in the way of confession of sin. So also must we reflect this when we go to our brother. We must forgive him in our hearts, for only then can we truly seek his repentance. And when the sin is removed, the relationships of love and communion are again restored.
But we often find it difficult to forgive our brother. We harbor thoughts of superiority and condescension and set up ourselves as the only standard of virtue. We may even forgive outwardly and verbally, but not from the heart. We may say, “I will forgive, but I will never forget.”
It would be a terrible thing if God would deal so with us. Living in the consciousness of his great forgiving mercy, we must forgive from the heart. We must forgive wholly, sincerely, forgettingly, thankfully. We must forgive our brother, knowing that we must go together to the foot of the cross and that we both stand daily in need of forgiveness from God. We can never send anyone by himself to Calvary; we must go with him to cry out together for the forgiveness our Savior earned for us in his death. In this way we forgive again and again, as God does to us. We forgive because we always look first at ourselves and the wonder of the cross of Christ. Then we can surely pray as the Lord teaches us: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The relation is reciprocal: if we fail to forgive our brother, it is only because we have not been forgiven by God. We have not known forgiveness for our sins. There is a subtle nuance here. We do not know forgiveness, because we do not confess our sins. We do not confess our sins, because we do not know them in our pride. It is precisely that pride which is the reason for a sense of superiority over against our brother and an unwillingness to forgive him.
Likewise, when we fail to forgive our brother, we do not experience forgiveness ourselves. We cannot hold grudges against our brother, refuse to forgive him, and then expect God to forgive us. This is making a hollow mockery of God and his mercy. God will cast us into the place of torment if from our hearts we do not forgive our brother his trespasses.
Therefore, only in the way of forgiving our brothers will we experience the blessed peace of forgiveness. Experiencing this forgiveness, we will sing, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile” (Ps. 32:1, 2). Forgiving one another, we will live in the rich blessedness of the communion of saints who together have salvation in the cross of Jesus Christ.
The importance of this calling to forgive our brother is evident from the fact that the one petition of the Lord’s Prayer which has to do with the forgiveness of sins is based on our willingness to forgive our brother. The Lord, out of all the petitions he gives his disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, singles out this one for special comment: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14, 15).
Let us, therefore, who are in such desperate need of forgiveness, be ready and willing to forgive our brothers who sin against us.
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