As We Forgive Our Debtors

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.] For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Our Greatest Risk: Losing Heaven

The greatest risk we face as a church in these days is not that we may lose an organ, or that we may lose money, or that we may lose members, or that we may lose staff, or that we may lose reputation. The greatest risk is that we may lose heaven. Because one way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ.

The Lord's Prayer

Jesus said (in Matthew 6:9, 12), "Pray like this: 'Our Father who art in heaven . . . forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.'" Then in verses 14–15 he explains why he taught us to pray this way: "For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions."

If we hold fast to an unforgiving spirit, we will not be forgiven by God. If we continue on in that way, then we will not go to heaven, because heaven is the dwelling place of forgiven people.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Then in Matthew 18 Jesus told a parable to illustrate this point. Peter asks the question in verse 21, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" And Jesus answers, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven."

And then he tells the parable about the king who forgave his servant a million dollar debt. The servant went out from the king and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a relatively small amount, refused his desperate pleas for mercy, and had him thrown in prison. When the king heard about it, he called for the servant and said (in vv. 32–35),

"You wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?" And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.

The point of Matthew 6:15 and 18:35 is that if we hold fast to an unforgiving spirit, we will be handed over to the tormentors. We will lose heaven, and gain hell.

The reason is not because we can earn heaven or merit heaven by forgiving others, but because holding fast to an unforgiving spirit proves that we do not trust Christ. If we trust him, we will not spurn his way of life. If we trust him, we will not be able to take forgiveness from his hand for our million dollar debt and withhold it from our ten dollar debtor.

Paul's Teaching

Paul said in Ephesians 4:32, "Forgive each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." In other words God's forgiveness is underneath ours and creates it and supports it. So that if we don't give it to others—if we go on in an unforgiving spirit—what we show is that God is not there in our lives. We are not trusting him. And not trusting him will keep us out of heaven. And cause us to be handed over to the tormentors.

The Risk We Face and a Plan for the Coming Weeks

So the greatest risk we face as a church in these days is the risk of losing heaven. Because whichever way we look right now at Bethlehem, we are faced with the question of forgiveness. Is there forgiveness for Dean and Leah? Is there forgiveness for the staff and elders? Is there forgiveness for organ opponents and for organ supporters? Is there forgiveness for dozens of husbands and wives that have been more honest and vulnerable with each other these days than ever in their lives?

As I have thought about these things, what I have felt led to preach on for the next three Sundays is this: Today I want to try to answer the question what forgiveness looks like. How can you know when you are doing it? What does it include and what doesn't it?

Then next Sunday—Palm Sunday—as Jesus moves into Jerusalem toward the cross, I want to talk about where we get the power to forgive. What is it like to be forgiven by God through Christ? How does that release forgiveness in us?

And then on Easter Sunday I want to take that great resurrection teaching from 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, we are still in our sins; but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, and the great unshakable vindication of our forgiveness from God.

I ask you to pray for me and all who will participate in worship these Sundays.

What Is Forgiveness?

Today the question is: what is forgiveness? What does it look like? What isn't it? We have heard from Jesus that it is essential. It is not icing on the cake of Christianity. If we don't experience it and offer it to others, we will perish in our sin. So it is tremendously important to know what this is that is so essential to our eternal life.

Let me begin with a definition of forgiveness that we owe to each other. It comes from Thomas Watson about 300 years ago. He is commenting on the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts as we for give our debtors," and asks,

Question: When do we forgive others?

Answer: When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581)

I think this is a very biblical definition of forgiveness. Each of its parts comes from a passage of Scripture.

  1. Resist thoughts of revenge: Romans 12:19, "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord."
  2. Don't seek to do them mischief: 1 Thessalonians 5:15, "See that no one repays another with evil for evil.
  3. Wish well to them: Luke 6:28, "Bless those who curse you."
  4. Grieve at their calamities: Proverbs 24:17, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles."
  5. Pray for them: Matthew 5:44, "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
  6. Seek reconciliation with them: Romans 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men."
  7. Be always willing to come to their relief: Exodus 23:4, "If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him."

Here is forgiveness: when you feel that someone is your enemy or when you simply feel that you or someone you care about has been wronged, forgiveness means,

  1. resisting revenge,
  2. not returning evil for evil,
  3. wishing them well,
  4. grieving at their calamities,
  5. praying for their welfare,
  6. seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
  7. and coming to their aid in distress.

All these point to a forgiving heart. And the heart is all important Jesus said in Matthew 18:35—"unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

What Forgiveness Is Not

But now notice what is not there in this definition. Notice what forgiveness is not.

1. Not the Absence of Anger at Sin

Forgiveness is not the absence of anger at sin. It is not feeling good about what was bad.

I was on the phone yesterday with a pastor from out of state who told me about a woman in his church who, he noticed after he came to the church, never came to communion. He probed and found that 15 years earlier she had been separated from her husband because he repeatedly beat her and sexually abused their children. She said that every time she came to communion she would remember what he had done and feel so angry at what it cost her children that she felt unworthy to take communion. This was over a decade later.

My friend said to her, You are not expected to feel good about what happened. Anger against sin and its horrible consequences is fitting up to a point. But you don't need to hold on to that in a vindictive way that desires harm for your husband. You can hand it over to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23) again and again, and pray for the transformation of your husband. Forgiveness is not feeling good about horrible things. And he encouraged her to forgive him in this way, if she hadn't, and to take communion as she handed her anger over to God and prayed for her husband. 

2. Not the Absence of Serious Consequences for Sin

Forgiveness is not the absence of serious consequences for sin.

In other words, sending a person to jail does not mean you are unforgiving to him. My pastor friend has been part of putting two of his members in prison for sexual misconduct. Can you imagine the stresses on that congregation as they come to terms with what forgiveness is!

More Help from Watson

Thomas Watson was helpful to me again on this point. He asks,

Question: Is God angry with his pardoned ones?

Answer: Though a child of God, after pardon, may incur his fatherly displeasure, yet his judicial wrath is removed. Though he may lay on the rod, yet he has taken away the curse. Correction may befall the saints, but not destruction. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 556)

This gives us a pointer to how we may at times have to discipline a child in the home, or a leader in the church, or a criminal in society. We may prescribe painful consequences in each case, and not have an unforgiving spirit.

The biblical evidence for this is found in numerous places.


One example, in the book of Hebrews. On the one hand the book teaches that all Christians are forgiven for their sins; but on the other hand it teaches that our heavenly Father disciplines us, sometimes severely. In Hebrews 8:12 it says, "I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." Then in Hebrews 12:6, 10 it says,

Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives . . . [Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.

So our sins are forgiven and forgotten in the sense that they no longer bring down the wrath of a judge, but not in the sense that they no longer bring down the painful spanking of a Father.


Another example is found in the life of king David, the man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). He committed adultery and killed Uriah. Nathan the prophet came with stinging words to him in 2 Samuel 12:9,

Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.

David is broken by this indictment and says (in verse 13), "I have sinned against the Lord." To which Nathan responds on behalf of God, "The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die." But even though God had forgiven him—his sin is taken away—Nathan says (in verse 14), "However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die." In fact Nathan says that the consequences of the sin will be even greater. Verses 10–13:

Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife . . . Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your companion, and he shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.

Numbers 14

A third example is found in Numbers 14 where Joshua and Caleb tell the people of Israel that they can indeed go up and possess the promised land. The people are angry and want to stone them and go back to Egypt. God intervenes and says to Moses that he is about to wipe out the people and make him a nation greater and mightier than they (v. 12). But Moses pleads with God (in v. 19) for their forgiveness. "Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, just as Thou also hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now."

So the Lord responds (in v. 20), "I have pardoned them according to your word." But this does not mean that there are no painful consequences for their disobedience. In verse 21–23 God says,

As I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers.

They were forgiven but the consequence of their sin was that they would not see the promised land.

Psalm 99:8

Psalm 99:8 takes all these examples and sums them up like this: "O Lord our God, Thou didst answer them; Thou wast a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds."

So forgiveness is not the absence of serious consequences for sin.

3. Forgiveness of an Unrepentant Person?

One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn't look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person.

In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3–4, "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." So there's a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.

But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matthew 18:17), we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.

Thomas Watson said something very jolting:

We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him. (Body of Divinity, p. 581)

You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don't trust you. That is what the woman whose husband abused her children had to say.

But O how crucial is the heart here. What would make that an unforgiving thing to say is if you were thinking this: What's more, I don't care about ever trusting you again; and I won't accept any of your efforts to try to establish trust again; in fact, I hope nobody ever trusts you again, and I don't care if your life is totally ruined. That is not a forgiving spirit. And our souls would be in danger.

The risk is high at Bethlehem right now. We all have people we need to forgive. We need very much to see Jesus and feel what it means to be forgiven our ten million dollar debt. I pray that the Lord will reveal that to us this week, and especially next Sunday.