Sep 22, 2016

by Philip Lawton

There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which we often look over. (If I am honest there are quite a few!) It comes right after the Lord’s Prayer, right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage Jesus tells us that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. Yes, you heard me right. Most people when they hear this ask one simple question: Does this mean that you can lose your salvation? That is indeed a good question.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. There Phil goes again. Talking about controversial topics. There he is telling us that Christians are going to Hell again. To that I would say a couple of things:

First, I am not the one who says these things. Jesus said them. I am merely pointing them out. If you are convicted because of what I say, then you need to talk to Jesus. Seriously. If after you read this you feel uncomfortable, take it to God. The point of this is not to make you uncomfortable. Well, not entirely. Which leads to…

Second, as Christians we are called to admonish one another. We are called to love the bride awake. And sometimes the most loving thing to do is make someone uncomfortable. Many times the church, the bride of Christ, lies dormant because she has not been shown the truth. The whole point of this is to try and live a life like Jesus. Sometimes that means being uncomfortable.

Finally, I want to say up front that some people have suffered horrible things. Some of you have been physically or sexually abused. Some of you have lived in thosesituations for years. If that is your situation, I want you to know that I understand that forgiveness can take time. But do not hear me say that you never have to forgive.

Volf’s Story

In 1984, the Yugoslavian government impressed into military service a man by the name of Miroslav Volf. Volf was the son of a pastor living in a socialist country. This meant that Volf understood harassment. When he went into the military, the type of harassment changed. At first, he thought that people were actually interested in Christianity. He had a Greek New Testament that people would regularly ask him about. What Volf came to find out is that these men were trying to get Volf to say something that would classify as sedition.

The day soon came when Volf understood. A man referred to in Volf’s book only as “Captain G” was reading a letter his wife had sent him. Volf had married an American woman. This only added to the suspicion against Volf. Captain G soon made it clear that Volf was under suspicion of treason. This lead to several months of interrogations. Though Volf was never physically abused, he was assaulted psychologically. Volf’s ultimate fear was to be put in prison. He knew if he went to trial the military tribunal would find him guilty and he would die in jail.

Almost as abruptly as they started, the “conversations” stopped. Volf was never given an explanation. When he left the military he was actually asked to join the security forces — the very same group that had tortured him. He declined, but he was left with years of anguish. It took Volf nearly 20 years to come to terms with what had happened to him — to forgive Captain G.

A Definition

I want to step in here and talk about how we define forgiveness. I think we sometimes think that forgiveness means that what the person did was good. This just simply isn’t the case. You don’t forgive someone for helping you. You thank him. Because what he did was a good thing.

When you forgive someone you are declaring that what he did is wrong. You are saying that he has hurt you. You are saying that the relationship has changed. Often this means that you need to rebuild trust. What it doesn’t mean is that the person is innocent. But it also doesn’t mean that you hold what he did against him.

The Unforgiven Servant

I want to talk about another story. This comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive. Jesus responds with a story about two servants. The first is brought before the master and told to pay up what he owes. It is a very large sum of money. The servant could never hope to repay that debt so he falls on his knees and begs for his debt to be forgiven. The master has compassion and the servant is set free.

Immediately after (the passage almost reads like the first servant has just walked outside) the first servant is approached by another servant who owes money to the first. This is a far smaller sum. The second servant cannot pay the first. He too gets down on his knees and begs to have his debt forgiven. However, the first servant does not have compassion on the second and throws him in debtor’s prison from which he will likely never leave.

When the master hears of this he calls the first servant before him. The master is in shock. How could this man not forgive the other a small debt when he had been forgiven such a large one? Because the servant was so unforgiving, he would be thrown into debtor’s prison like he had done to the second servant. There he would be tortured.

The Lie of Justice

Most of us would say that the first servant got what he deserved. We are probably as shocked as the master. After all, that is justice. But here is what we forget. The second servant got what he deserved as well. He owed money that he could not repay. The just thing to do is to make him repay or go to prison.

When people hurt us, it becomes very easy to forget that we are not perfect. We look at what they did to us and we only see how we have been slighted. The problem with this way of thinking is that we have slighted others. We forget that we deserve punishment as much as they do. Volf talks about this in his book:

To Triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life.

Volf goes on to tell us essentially what Jesus did in his parable: that he, like us, had been redeemed by God. He, like us, deserved death. But God, through the sacrifice of Jesus, had reconciled us to Him. Thus, our goal should be to walk in the footsteps of “the enemy-loving God.”

You Can’t Give What You Don’t Have

We return now to the question at the beginning. Is Jesus telling us that we can lose our salvation? The simply answer to that is “No.” Jesus is not telling us that we can lose our salvation. But if we leave it there we miss the point.

Jesus is telling us, if we truly understand the grace and sacrifice of God, we would always forgive. He is telling us that if you don’t forgive then you don’t understand the grace that you have been given. He is telling us that you can’t give what you don’t have. God will not forgive your sins because you haven’t accepted that forgiveness. If you had, you would understand the need for grace toward others.

“Unforgiveness declares that God is either a liar or a fool.”

There is very little room for a middle ground here, people. Jesus makes it pretty clear. Either you understand the grace that God gave you, and thus forgive others, or you don’t. Revenge and bitterness are the enemy of God. When we don’t forgive others we stand in the place of God passing judgment on someone. We in essence say, “Look God, I know that you have forgiven them, but I know better than you do.” Unforgiveness declares that God is either a liar or a fool.

Forgiveness Takes Time

It is at this point that I want to highlight something. Forgiveness doesn’t always happen all at once. I said at the beginning that sometimes people are hurt deep. Sometimes the relationship can never go back to the way it was. Sometimes it is dangerous to continue to have those relationships. These are realities of the sinful world that we live in. But none of that changes the fact that we need to forgive.

When I went though my divorce, it was hard for me to forgive. I was filled with anger and bitterness. But I knew that I needed to forgive. I knew that God had shown me grace and so I should show it to her. So I prayed that God would help me forgive. I prayed that God would give me eyes to see her the way He did.

I know that sometimes it can be hard to forgive. But what Jesus tells us is that we should understand the need to forgive. We should understand that we are no better. Yes, there are hurts. Yes, we have been wronged. But none of that changes the fact that God has forgiven them. None of that changes the fact that God forgave us. If you can’t forgive that is okay, but you need to talk to God about it. You need to pray that God gives you the strength to forgive.

May you learn that forgiveness is from God. May you remember that God has forgiven you much. May you take your bitterness and anger to God. May you pray to God for help. And may God give you the strength to forgive.


Phil Lawton is the Assistant Pastor at the SDB Church of Shiloh, NJ. He recently married and is currently taking classes at North Park Theological Seminary.

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